Poland’s European Epicenter for Esports

IEM Katowice
by Roy Graham
Writer from Kill Screen

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, 10,000 gaming fans lined up outside the flying saucer-shaped Spodek Arena in Katowice, Poland to make history on Jan. 17, 2013. That day marked the first time Katowice hosted Intel Extreme Masters, 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 for its art scene, but in recent years the city has become a gathering hotspot for gaming and esports. It’s home to one of the world’s largest esports events, the Intel Extreme Masters World Championship Katowice (see details for the March 2-4, 2018 event).

With a population of about 300,000, Katowice is only the 10th 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.

Since then, Intel Extreme Masters has expanded beyond Blicharz’s wildest dreams. Returning in 2018 for its sixth 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.

The 2017 World Championship in Katowice drew 173,000 fans to the stadium event. It set the esports record for the biggest online audience, attracting 46 million unique viewers, according to a report by Business Insider. That’s 60,000 more event attendees and 35 percent more online viewers compared with the 2016 event in Katowice.

IEM Katowice crowd

Intel Extreme Masters Katowice happened through a combination of luck and cultural initiative, according to George Woo, Intel’s esports marketing manager.

“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 Intel Extreme Masters 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 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 toward 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, Intel Extreme Masters spans two weekends between Feb. 24 and March 4.

trophy on stage

The first part is devoted to PUBG with Vitality (aka aAa) trying to claim another victory in the wake of their decisive performance at Intel Extreme Masters Oakland. The second part focuses on top CS:GO teams like Virtus Pro and Astralis.

A special Star Craft II tournament takes place during the week, featuring Sasha “Scarlett” Hostyn, the 2018 Intel Extreme Masters PyeongChang champion who edged out one of the world’s best players, Kim “sOs” Yoo Jin, in an upset victory.

Fans also can attend the VR Challenger League, and the larger expo of games, tech and tournaments that accompany 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.

VR booth

Now in its 12th 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 Intel Extreme Masters.


Editor’s note: This article was updated on Feb. 26, 2018. Find the latest esports news and events at Intel Extreme Masters.

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