Intel Extreme Masters (IEM) is one of the most recognizable esports tournaments in the world. Originally started by ESL in conjunction with Intel, IEM has been around for 10 years, making this its 11th season of competition. IEM brings teams and individuals from around the globe together to compete in games like StarCraft II, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, League of Legends, and more, attracting huge numbers of fans to its major stadium events.
Thanks to Intel, this year I had the pleasure of attending IEM Gyeonggi in South Korea, the last stop in the 2016/2017 season of IEM before the big show in Katowice, Poland. This was the second time IEM had been hosted in Korea, the last being in 2008 for World of Warcraft, Counter-Strike 1.6, and Warcraft III tournaments. Intel and the ESL partnered with Goyang City, running IEM Gyeonggi 2016 at the Goyang Sports Complex, featuring League of Legends, StarCraft II and for the first time, Overwatch. The venue has full facilities for the production of spectacular large-scale events, and is capable of seating around 3000 in its stage configuration.
That is, if they decide to show up.
The most striking thing about IEM Gyeonggi 2016 was the distinct lack of attendees. It was startling at first. We were milling about, having just completed a behind-the-scenes media tour of the facility, when suddenly the lights went down, and a timer started on the big screens above the stage. As the timer approached zero, presenters stood on raised podiums, and began addressing the various crane and static cameras around the stadium, seemingly attempting to hype-up a crowd that simply wasn’t present. The event was open, and hardly anyone was there. Crane shots of the stage were carefully cut before they could pan across empty seats, and sizzle-reel footage from previous IEM events was intercut between announcements, showing teeming crowds waving thundersticks and shouting for their favorite teams in stark contrast to the empty stadium of IEM Gyeonggi.
Expo booth and security staff were often seen sitting, idly scrolling through their phones. Boxes upon boxes of LED-laden thundersticks sat mostly full at each spectator entrance to the arena. The stadium itself is situated in an area that was nearly devoid of foot traffic during business hours, making the entire surrounds feel still and quiet amidst the bitter cold of Korean winter.
On day two of the three-day event, I sat down with George Woo, esport and marketing manager for Intel Corporation to discuss how the event was going, from his perspective. “I’m happy,” he began, “it’s been eight years, and as Korea is the mecca of esports, bringing IEM–the longest running global PC gaming platform—here has been an honor.” Seemingly sensing the direction of questioning, Woo shifted across to discuss the obvious. “I think the model definitely is something we need to adapt to the Korean market, though.”
Woo was referencing the fact that typically, when tournaments occur in Korea, qualifiers and preliminary matches are held in a studio and broadcast online. Only finals are run as live events, usually over the course of a single four or five-hour period. In a country that is so familiar with esports, and spoiled for choice when it comes to live esports-related content, it makes sense for their high frequency to result in shorter individual events. Contrast this to IEM Gyeonggi, a 36-hour festival featuring three different games. Each game was represented with matches on each day, meaning that fans of any one esport or team were required to sit through content they may not care about, having braved a lengthy trip to Goyang City via public transport, or through the horrendous traffic jams that have become commonplace in Seoul during its ever-expanding peak hours.
Is the IEM format simply incompatible with South Korea? Was IEM Gyeonggi a failure?
It’s important to remember that esports, like many modern spectacles, exist as much online as off. More and more spectators choose to consume live sporting events online, massively increasing the total audience. More than 3.4 million viewers tuned into IEM Gyeonggi live broadcasts across Twitch, Hitbox, and Azubu. The event was also broadcast by the esports-dedicated TV channel OGN, according to an ESL press release. This means that despite the lack of a physical turnout, the event achieved what any good qualifying tournament needed to achieve: It was consumed by a large number of viewers, and still qualified teams for competition at the finals in Katowice. ESL vice president of pro gaming Michal Blicharz clarified that underselling seated tickets to an event doesn’t spell its end. “Let’s say we only half sell-out an event. The number of people we ‘lost,'” he said, making airquotes with his fingers during our interview, “is nothing compared to the viewership we might find globally. An event like this is watched by upwards of one million to 15m people, so the stadium audience is always a drop in the bucket. We prioritize for the online audience; this is still a broadcast product.”
Despite this, the spirits of the fans that did attend IEM Gyeonggi couldn’t be dampened. Queues formed for player autographs after major matches, screams could be heard during tense moments. The finals saw the floor area of the arena filled with nearly 500 spectators. A far cry from the capacity of 3000, or even the minimum target of 1500, but enough to show that passion was there. Will IEM return to South Korea in 2017? “Absolutely, and we’re going to be a lot smarter about it. This is a critical market for Intel and IEM, and not just us, but overall for esports,” said the effervescent and seemingly unflappable Woo. “Yes, we were a little bit ambitious for this year. But this is year one, and we want to have a lot of events that we’ll continually improve on.”
Intel and ESL believe in their format, and they should. The primary lesson learned from IEM Gyeonggi was that a format that works in one country won’t necessarily work in others. The fact that IEM Katowice has previously brought more than 115,000 people through its doors for a single event doesn’t mean that the same should automatically be expected of South Korea. Intel and ESL have learned this, and have committed–on the record–to returning to Goyang City in 2017, and ensuring that it will be planned according to the sensibilities of the local audience.