The Intel Extreme Masters gaming competition in Katowice has put Poland in a leading role in the rise of esports across Europe and the world.
Unencumbered by the freezing winter weather, ten-thousand gaming fans lined up outside the flying saucer-shaped Spodek Arena in Katowice, Poland to make history on January 17, 2013. That day marked the first time Katowice hosted Intel Extreme Masters (IEM), and since then the city has been the European home to the biggest live esports tournament in the world.
Katowice is known for its industrial past and revered art scene, but for the past few years the city has become known as a gathering spot for esport athletes and gaming fans.
With a population of about 300,000, Katowice is only the tenth biggest city in Poland, making it an unlikely candidate for the esports hub of Europe. Nonetheless, the world’s best players and teams in the world gather in Katowice to compete before some of the biggest live esports audiences in the world. The event now attracts more than 100,000 spectators over a weekend, which is about a quarter of Katowice’s total visitors all year.
Back in 2013, no one — least of all the people organizing it — was sure they could pull this off.
“No one had done an esports event in a 10,000 seat stadium before,” said Michal Blicharz, ESL’s Vice President of Pro Gaming, recalling his first misgivings. “We were scared out of our minds that the place would look empty.”
Blicharz said that one hour before opening ceremonies his fears subsided as the Spodek Arena packed and thousands of people, and a queue still funneling in from outside.
Since then, IEM has expanded beyond Blicharz’s wildest dreams. Returning for its fifth season, the tournament is driving Katowice to play a key role in the global rise of esports and the city is embracing players and fans. This year’s attendees get a respite from the freezing Polish winter: hollow, heated shipping containers will sit outside the arena to warm up and entertain the thousands waiting to enter the sold-out stadium.
IEM Katowice happened through a combination of luck and cultural initiative, according to George Woo, event marketing manager who heads up the Intel Extreme Masters.
“The Katowice government has become a perfect partner,” said Woo “It has provided local resources needed to pull off a world class esport and gaming event.”
He said local leaders wanted to make Katowice a youth capital of the world.
“At that time we had no idea how popular it would become,” Woo said.
What makes IEM Katowice so special is the fired up crowd, said Blicharz.
“The audience is extremely passionate — they generate an atmosphere that is very difficult to copy,” he said.
That passion, like the world of esports, is international in scope.
“Other sporting events in Poland don’t see German or Russian athletes receiving applause from the home audience,” Blicharz said. But in Katowice, the audience cheers for Polish, German, Russian, Swedish and Korean players alike.
The IEM Katowice event holds a special place in Blicharz’s heart.
“My father was a coal miner in his late teens just a few miles from Katowice,” he said.
The area, including Katowice, has long been known as an industrial center, focused around steel and coal. Its turn towards digital entertainment fills Blicharz with pride, knowing he was able to play a part in shaping the city’s future.
“I was born some 2.5 hours east of [the city],” he said. “The event is special to me beyond words,” he said.
This year, IEM spans two weekends between Feb 25 and March 5. The first part is devoted to League of Legends, with the Unicorns of Love trying to claim another victory in the wake of their decisive performance at IEM Oakland. The second part focuses on top CS:GO teams like Virtus Pro and Astralis, along with the larger expo of games, tech and tournaments that usually accompanies the main event.
“This year, fans attending the Katowice event get to try out a variety of new VR experiences,” said Woo.
In addition to virtual reality games and experiences, Woo said attendees can see Intel Project Alloy headsets. These prototypes are designed for product makers to create new merged reality devices and experiences that digitize the real world and bring it into virtual reality.
Now in its 11th season, Intel Extreme Masters is the longest running event series in video game history.
Woo said that esports fans from over 180 countries regularly make Intel Extreme Masters events record-breakers in terms of attendance and viewership. He sees gaming growing not only as a competitive sport but as a spectator sport. TV networks that provide programming and live coverage of gaming tournaments, as well as online networks like Twitch, are making esports more accessible and interesting to a wider audience. Woo said this is translating to bigger audiences, higher expectations and rewards at competitions like IEM.