Despite untimely track works that made getting to Qudos Bank Arena a nightmare from, well, pretty much anywhere, Counter-Strike fans turned out in their thousands to watch the beloved first-person shooter played at the highest possible level.
The semi-finals took place on Saturday, but I went along on Sunday to check out the grand finals, and the mood was positively electric. Earlier last week, I was at Qudos Bank Arena watching Hans Zimmer live, but I reckon IEM easily pulled in a bigger crowd (sorry, Hans). Wherever you walked, there pockets of followers wearing the jerseys of their beloved teams. Fans dashed to grab food between matches, or spilled into the Qudos foyer to try their hand at a number of hands-on experiences including VR and, of course, a dedicated bank of Counter-Strike machines.
But no-one was there to casually play CS; they were there to see the pros.
In the arena during game time, there were flags, chants, and the occasional bit of humorous heckling between and during matches. The grand final showdown was between Brazilian team SK Gaming and US foes FaZe Clan. From the cheers, it was clear there was a bias towards SK Gaming, but FaZe managed to pull its fair share of oohs and aahs during some amazing plays.
Earlier in the week, from Wednesday onwards, the world’s best teams battled it out in qualifying rounds. In terms of the Aussie contenders, local eyes were on Chiefs eSports Club and Renegades: the latter team now based in Detroit.
Chiefs lost their first match-up against Danish team Astralis, in the single-map qualifying rounds. As would be expected, Renegades went down to destined-finalists FaZe. But the two Aussie teams went up against each other in the second round. Chiefs annihilated Renegades, in their only win of the qualifying rounds, but the expat team rallied for its sole victory against Astralis (fittingly, the team that beat Chiefs) in its final qualifying match.
Still, Astralis made it through to the semis and squared off against FaZe in a 2:1 defeat. US team OpTic Gaming didn’t fare so well in the semis, with a 2:0 thrashing from SK Gaming, after the US clan bested Chiefs in the final qualifying round. Maybe that’s why the IEM Sydney attendees were cheering a little louder for SK Gaming in the finals.
The ultimate 3:1 win to SK Gaming may not be indicative of the closeness of the matches, but the map breakdown tells a different story. FaZe came back from a 3-12 start as terrorists before switching to the defending counter-terrorist team on Train. SK Gaming took that map 16-12, and for a while it seemed that FaZe might steal a win after SK’s hot start.
Cache was a little more one sided, with a 16-7 win to SK. Inferno was an incredibly hard-fought win in favour of FaZe, who took the first six rounds, before a flurry of AWP kills from keen-eyed coldzera gave SK their first points. Ultimately, FaZe won Inferno 16:13 to offer a glimmer of hope for the US team.
Overpass would prove to be the deciding map, though, with a tense final map that went 16:11 in the favour of champs SK Gaming. You should definitely have a gander at the highlight videos I’ve peppered throughout this article to get a taste of the insane level of skill on show across all maps.
It’s awesome to see IEM supporting Australian eSports in such a big way. One of the biggest challenges for Australian competitive teams, across games, is being able to scrim (practice) against global sides: the time and latency differences don’t make for the best training scenarios. By bringing these kinds of big-spectacle events to Australian shores, Aussie teams get to test their mettle against the world’s best, which can only help promote and improve the scene locally.
Let’s hope that other global eSports events can take a look at the success of IEM Sydney and make the competitive scene in Australia a bigger and better thing.