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Why IEM might be the most important event on the esports calendar

How does a tournament last longer than the titles competing?

How clearly do you remember 2006?

Intel may be every sane enthusiast’s choice in 2016, but ten years ago, it was a very different landscape. AMD were the kings. The huge overclockability of the Athlon XP CPUs entranced gamers chasing VSync, and the X2 line of dual-core chips brought multicore to the desktop in an affordable way. Walking through any industry trade show, 70% of booths contained AMD. Intel was a non-starter.

It was bad. R&D worked tirelessly to come up with a new CPU design that would wipe the disastrous Core Duo from public memory, but who would buy it? Why would any gamer stray from the affordable, powerful chips they were used to?

The Core 2 Duo line of CPUs launched to critical acclaim in July of that year, but gamer habits are hard to break. Every ‘what should i buy’ thread on every forum said the same thing, and those opinions outlasted the products that formed them.

The smart money was on the Athlon

I want you to think about what you were doing in 2006. Had you even heard the word ‘esports’?

George Woo had. A low-level marketing manager at Intel at the time, George had been keenly observing the development of competitive gaming and believed it to be the future driving force behind high-end PC component sales. At the same time, Holly Kreie at Intel Germany was running small Friday Night Games events in local gymnasiums and theatres.

Gaming was not part of the marketing budget at Intel in 2006, and the biggest upgrade to desktop processing power in modern history had just been released. But how could they way show the world that the Core 2 was capable of delivering gaming power to PC users?

George called Holly to discuss what they could do, and made a few calls to a small company called Electronic Sports League, and together, pitched their plan.

“Let’s build the biggest gaming tournament the world has ever seen”.

It was a good plan.

Ten seasons and hundreds of events all around the world later, anyone who’s serious about gaming buys Intel, and IEM is the longest-running esports event in history. Spanning 10 years and 9 competitive software titles, the Intel Extreme Masters has become a staple of esports, thanks to George.

IEM Katowice opening ceremony

George is still at Intel. A humble, excitable enthusiast, his speech is deliberate and poignant without feeling rehearsed. When he speaks, you can hear a sense of pride about what the Intel Extreme Masters has become, but you’d never guess it’s because it was his baby.

Publisher-agnostic, IEM currently runs tournaments for League of Legends, CS:GO and Starcraft 2, but has cycled in and out Warcraft 3, DoTA, Hearthstone, WoW, and even Quake Live. This kind of independent, popularity-based title selection is vital to modern esports. A free market requires competition to run effectively, and providing such an alternative to Riot-run tournaments like MSI is something he takes very seriously.

“We have a responsibility to the gaming community to provide a reputable option to solely competing in regular-season events”, he says. “Moreover, this unique place in the market of being a top-tier tech company running a top-tier event allows us to do things that you would never see at a Riot event”, a wry smile forming at the edge of his lips. When pressed for more information, he declined to provide details, hovering a pregnant pause before adding, “We do what we do for the players, fans, the community, and for anyone who considers themselves a gamer. If you’ve even ever seen a game of League of Legends or CS:GO, IEM Oakland is going to be an incredible experience for you.”

With the announcement this week that SLIVER.tv, an esports virtual reality platform, will be providing the first-ever VR live-stream of Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and League of Legends, it becomes clear ESL is not content with phoning in the experience. The addition of augmented live stats integrated into the Virtual Reality stream of IEM Oakland is the first peek into a new world of tournament broadcasting.

But it is not any particular tournament, software title, event or pro team that gives IEM its value, rather the fact that it continues to exist, outlasting games themselves for the very concept of competitive gaming, that makes IEM so influential, so important.

It might just be the most important gaming event in the world, because at its core, it is not any one esport; it is esports incarnate.

On the surface, a CPU manufacturer so heavily supporting esports doesn’t make much sense. After all, esports titles haven’t been CPU-limited since .. well, 2006.

“It’s not enough to simply run the games well anymore, most of the popular titles aren’t processor dependent,” George continues. “These days to succeed in gaming, you need to be able to stream on Twitch, make gameplay videos for Youtube, and to get that immersive experience in VR, you need to get an i7, [to get] QuickSync to reduce stream encoding CPU load, and the power to render 4K videos without bringing the machine to its knees. All this multi-tasking of a machine takes performance. Any laptop off the shelf from Best Buy can play Starcraft 2, LoL, CS:GO, but if you want to share that experience with the world? That’s why you buy up to i7”.

And he’s right. My two-year-old i3 Surface Pro 3 will happily run League of Legends, but can I stream while doing so? Heck no. Can I apply particle effects in Premiere in real time when making Lee Sin highlight reels? Absolutely not. I turn to my desk to ponder the longevity and power of the humble black box in the corner.

My desktop PC is three years old. Purchased in a huff halfway through a breakup and in no mood to deal with my old machine’s quirks, I retailed away my problems with an i7 4770K on a Z87 chipset, backed by 32GB of RAM and a GTX780. Two iterations of Moore’s law (three years) later and an upgrade would still be useless; it runs everything I do flawlessly.

But it’s not the hero of this story.

The hero is the Intel Core 2 I bought in 2007, that still to this day, celebrating its 10th birthday, functions as my full time media center. That is power, that is longevity. The i7 may be the flagship, but the Core 2 was the vanguard.

And of course, George, who showed us all that it was worth buying.

Thanks George.

The Intel Extreme Masters hits Oakland November 18th and 19th at Oracle Arena - tickets and details at http://www.iemoakland.com/