COMMENT:

Warning: The following statement may offend some sports fans.

No traditional sport can contend with the atmosphere, production, and sheer excitement that comes with watching Esports live – not even rugby.

Now, before you roll your eyes in disgust, click out of this story, and mumble on about how ridiculous it is to even award Esports the title of "sport" and call the players "athletes", bear with me.

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Because if you'd told me two weeks ago that I would genuinely enjoy watching a six-hour long Counter-Strike: Global Offense (CS:GO) grand final, I too would've rolled my eyes.

Up until earlier this month, I was still on the fence about whether I believed Esports was a sport.

Fans in the Qudos Bank Arena. Photo / Supplied
Fans in the Qudos Bank Arena. Photo / Supplied

I had reported on it, interviewed some of New Zealand's top up-coming gamers, and did my best to wrap my head around the idea that gaming could be placed on the same level as sports like rugby and basketball.

I'd heard about big-league Esports events and how exciting they could be, but I just couldn't see how watching people play a video game would be more exciting than experiencing a live All Blacks test, nor could I ever see myself fully accepting the players as athletes, being a sportsperson myself.

Intel Extreme Masters - Sydney 2019

I expected the hype to just be a bunch of 'big talk' to promote the sport.

But that was before I attended the grand slam of the Esports world – the Intel Extreme Masters.

I wasn't prepared for what I experienced over the three-day event at Sydney Olympic Park's Qudos Arena.

Greeted by virtual reality headset stations and reclining gaming massage chairs, the stadium was what can only be described as Candyland for gamers.

Intel virtual reality. Photo / Supplied
Intel virtual reality. Photo / Supplied

Fans could trial first-hand all the latest tech gimmicks in the industry, buy merchandise and partake in mini competitions to win top of the range gaming gear.

After having a go at virtual reality boxing as part of the Intel Showcase - where I managed to knock out my opponent in what was a scarily-realistic fight – and inspecting some of the latest computer gear with fascination, it was time to enter the doors of the arena.

The brief half-hour I spent watching the quarter-finals from the back of the stadium gave me a taste of what to expect in the coming days as we reached the sharp end of the competition.

The Intel Extreme Masters quarter-final between Mousesports and MiBR. Photo / Supplied
The Intel Extreme Masters quarter-final between Mousesports and MiBR. Photo / Supplied

And as day three rolled around, it was time for the two finalists, FNATIC and Team Liquid, to battle it out for a share of US$250,000 ($383,339).

I was warned of the rowdy nature gaming fans could possess and told to somewhat brace myself.

I found a seat among the sea of 7500 Esports fans – who were already buzzing with excitement - determined to immerse myself in the full experience.

Team jerseys, homemade signs, and thundersticks made me think I could have been at an NBA game, maybe even the Rugby World Cup.

But I was watching three giant jumbo screens and two teams of gamers walking up to the stage where they would soon sit behind a PC and virtually battle to the death while a group of commentators called the game play.

Team Mousesports take to the stage. Photo / Supplied
Team Mousesports take to the stage. Photo / Supplied

As the teams approached the stage to the sound of screaming fans to take their seats, all the parallels between Esports and traditional sports became clearer.

The players, neatly dressed in their team uniform, wore focused expressions as they took their seats to warm up.

Their coach paced behind them communicating through a headset while they settled in for what was going to be a gruelling test of mental stamina and strength.

A best of five CS:GO grand final can see up to 150 two-minute rounds played – add in breaks between maps and suddenly that's six hours of high-pressure play demanding lightning-fast reflexes in a format comparable to a game of golf or test cricket.

The game itself is fairly easy to understand too. Teams are tasked with completing contrasting objectives or eliminating the other.

Teams compete on the Intel Extreme Master's stage. Photo / Supplied
Teams compete on the Intel Extreme Master's stage. Photo / Supplied

Of course, there's a bit more to it than that but essentially it's the first team to take 16 rounds of a map that takes the set point.

Although there's nothing glaringly different to the format of an Esports game as opposed to watching the All Blacks battle to get a try or the Breakers setting up a play to score a basket, the thing that made the Intel Extreme Masters so exciting was all in the atmosphere.

Fans fist-pumped, booed, yelled "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, oi, oi, oi,", belted "Heeeey Baby Ooooh Aaaah!" and chanted "F*** you left side, F*** you" when the left side of the arena failed to send back the Mexican wave.

There were beach balls, an inflatable boxing kangaroo and wristbands that lit up in synchronisation with the stage lights.

Fans during the Intel Extreme Masters. Photo / Supplied
Fans during the Intel Extreme Masters. Photo / Supplied

And if a stadium of almost 8000 fans isn't an impressive enough number, just ask the 260,000 viewers online who tuned in what they would've given to be there.

After Team Liquid secured the win, much to the delight of their vocal fans, both the teams were ushered by their managers to the press room where they spoke with the many journalists from around the globe.

It was an atmosphere like no other and one I would pass up a rugby game any day to be a part of again.

I was riding the high of the IEM Grand Final for days after the event, so much so I could only imagine how long-time Esports fans would be feeling.

The event cemented my opinion that Esports is a serious sport and that it's only a matter of time before it's talked about as commonly as any other traditional sport.

So rubbish those pre-conceived ideas you have about gaming because if Esports is only going to get bigger, then rugby should keep an eye on its rear-view mirror.

Cheree Kinnear attended the Intel Extreme Masters in Sydney courtesy of Intel.