Revenge Of The Nerds: Inside The UK's Biggest Gaming Festival

The world of online gaming can be a strange, intimidating place, so what happens when you get thousands of these people out of their spare bedrooms and into one arena?
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There can be few reasons to spend a wet weekend in Telford. It is a dull, ugly place. Imagine if Belgium suddenly decided to annex Coventry and you might be getting close to understanding its lack of charm. Appropriately the manager of their local football team is the unspectacular Andy Sinton, the journeyman midfielder inexplicably favoured by the barking mad Graham Taylor. This, when even Swindon can attract Paolo Di Canio.

Yet, despite the persistent gloom and a “town centre” that is little more than an ASDA, the previous weekend saw thousands of people, mostly aged between 16 – 25, swarm Britain’s bleakest town carrying luggage and camping equipment. Typical scenes during the summer festival season but Telford boasts no such event. This was a different kind of pilgrimage for this young generation. They were all here to play computer games, many of them for prizes, in the UK’s largest gathering of competitive gamers known as the I-series.

Now in it’s 43rd instalment the I-series (the “I” standing for “Insomnia”) offers the chance for players who have been battling away on the internet the chance to come and play their games in person against other competitors, usually with a cash prize on the line. Here, in Telford, over 3,000 competitors made their way to the tournaments, each one carrying their home computer and an array of gaming peripherals. Some had even come from as far away as Brazil, all in the hope of having a chance of winning a share of the £75,000 being given away across a range of gaming titles.

Over 3,000 competitors made their way to the tournaments, each one carrying their home computer and an array of gaming peripherals. Some had even come from as far away as Brazil.

Competitive gaming, often afforded the somewhat loftier title of “e-sports”, has been making great strides towards legitimacy over the past few years. It has been televised on Sky One and Eurosports, been reported on by the BBC, had its first million dollar prize tournament and is set to become even bigger as games developers look to create new games that tap into this once niche market.

If ever an anecdote can be told that will bring home how big it is in some parts of the world it would be what happened before the South Korea versus Italy match in the 2002 World Cup. The Korean players, facing a tough game and the chance to make history for their nation, were given a special pep talk before taking to the pitch. However, it wasn’t some equivalent of Paul McKenna, or a quadruple amputee war hero that was wheeled in to inspire them. Instead it was the top Starcraft players from their nation, many of whom earn salaries that would eclipse the professional footballers. It evidently worked. South Korea won 2-1 with a golden goal.

Of course, the glitz and glamour is in short supply in the UK. Recently Panorama ran a documentary that spoke of the dangers of “gaming addiction” with the I-series heavily on display. It’s not difficult to understand why on the surface. The typical player in attendance will play their game of choice for an average of 30 hours a week. That time comes at the expense of other activities and it sees the average serious player behave as if they are somewhere in the middle of the autistic spectrum, leading to some strange behaviour and personality quirks.

Yet these days there is no single defining image of the typical nerd. Sure, there are the overweight, greasy virgins at one end and steroid junkies at the other. There are those who arrive dressed as their favourite in-game characters. There’s the tech-obsessed geek hoping to get a first look at a new graphics card and there’s the roaming casual, simply here to see what it’s all about and prop up the bar drinking overpriced beers in between sessions of FIFA. The professional players clog up the cheap hotels, the amateurs huddle in tents whatever the weather. When it all comes together it is a carnival of the awkward, the over-enthusiastic colliding with the thoroughly ashamed.

Where else could you expect to see a hall full of hundreds of people watching people playing games on a big screen, commentated on by expert pundits in that particular field. They spew out a stream of jargon that the crowd intuitively understand even if it’s nonsense to the outsiders who are there to blag some free T-shirts. They cheer and holla when things happen on screen, they hurl abuse at the players they dislike and they praise the gamers they admire with the universal phrase of approval “that was sick”.

When it all comes together it is a carnival of the awkward, the over-enthusiastic colliding with the thoroughly ashamed.

In between the matches, exhibitors vie for their attention by throwing keyrings, pocket torches, screwdriver kits, stress balls, flash drives and wristbands into the seated crowd. The assembled gamers will wrestle each other to the floor in a bid to get these items that they have no practical use for. The amount that one can take from an event such is this is a point of pride, a throwback to the primitive desire to horde objects that are pleasing to the eye and show them to others to induce envy. In the carpark gamers compare their swag as they hide it in their boots.

The “professional players” – most earning a monthly salary smaller than a part time job at McDonalds would yield –  wear football style shirts to denote their affiliations. They travel the world competing in mostly unglamorous locations, the very best occasionally getting as far as Vegas or EuroDisney and they reluctantly mingle with the fans. Some even sign autographs on mousemats or T-shirts even though it is clear they will be worth nothing on eBay. Adoring admirers ask for tips on how to improve their game hoping to desperately emulate their mousework.

The whole event plays out like a festival for the bungled and the botched but there is no doubt that the attention on it is growing. The event itself has grown in size from the first that hosted only fifty players. Over 80,000 people have attended in total over a fourteen year period, with the majority of that figure having come in the last five. A total of £410,000 in prize money has been given to the winners of competitions that spans games over a decade old, kept alive by a competitive community that don’t want to move onto something new, so much time invested in games that can be played on most modern mobile phones. And spectators don’t just apply to those who are present at the venue itself – 268,000 people tuned in to watch the event as it was streamed live across the world.

For those who have no interest in gaming at all there is plenty to dislike, to even fear. Yet, the numbers don’t lie… Clearly to an increasing amount of people events such as these are important, as important to them as a sporting event, a concert or a lad’s holiday abroad. They save up their money to be able to attend and the vast majority who enter the competitions (to do so costing between £70 – £105 per person) know they have no chance of getting even close to a financial return.

For those who have no interest in gaming at all there is plenty to dislike, to even fear.

Those who sneer will point to the contradiction of an event that is dubbed as “social” when ultimately all it involves is decamping from the bedroom-come-dungeon at home and rebuilding it in a large warehouse. Still, most people revel in the opportunity to meet the real humans behind their online avatars.

Competitive gaming is seen as niche but perhaps it shouldn’t be. Over 50% of British men aged 10-35 play games regularly, most of them in an online capacity. 38% of the population is a regular gamer. Women too are getting into the act, although the average female gamer is aged between 30-35, suggesting some awful MILF related mismatches going on when the game spills over into real life, usually ending in a World of Warcraft themed wedding.  It has to be said though that amongst the freaks and crazies the pocket of normality has grown and is quickly taking over. Those that cannot exude even the tiniest amount of cool are now generally marginalised, hated by the wider player for perpetrating a stereotype that has plagued the world of gaming for years. They simply do not want to be tarred with that brush any longer.

The world of gaming and e-sports can never be inherently cool. Yet, in truth, this event – held three times a year – is no more embarrassing than the average comic book convention, the average movie festival, the average music festival… You’ll see the fanatics and the cringe inducing characters at all of them. The celebrities will say that they love being there but the reality of having to rub shoulders with some of the general public will often prove too much to take. At least here the nerds have made themselves the kings of their own domain, those that can play the best of all basking in the warm monitor-fuelled glow of e-fame.

If this sounds like it could be your thing then you’ve only got 77 days to wait until the next one. Local residents will doubtlessly have their extra fingers and toes crossed. It’s not as if Telford has anything else going on.

The Non-Gamers Guide To Serious Gaming

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