At Counter-Strike Rio Major, Brazilian fans take cheering to a new level

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RIO DE JANEIRO — Drums, vuvuzelas, flags and stadium chants. Rio de Janeiro’s Jeunesse Arena – with 18,000 fans in attendance – roars and shakes as the world’s best teams battle it out on the biggest stage. But it’s not a football game. It’s the IEM Rio Major, the Counter-Strike esports world championship that is being played in Brazil.

“I think everyone had a feeling it was going to be pretty crazy,” said Anders Blume, a “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive” commentator who has worked on the scene for nearly a decade. “But nothing could have prepared us for what is really happening.”

“You can hear the music, the drums, the dancing and it’s like, yeah, it sounds like a festival to us,” said Christopher “dexter” Nong, the Australian captain of MOUZ, one of the teams at the event.

Counter-Strike, in which teams of five compete to attack and defend bomb sites, has a long history in Brazil, dating back more than two decades. Gambling is a cultural phenomenon; many Brazilians under 30 have played it at least once in their lives.

Counter-Strike organizes two major tournaments every year – the flagship tournaments of esports -, most of which are organized in Europe. This year, when the major first came to Brazil (after a pandemic-related delay), tickets sold out within an hour. When the organizer changed the layout of the event to accommodate additional seating, the extra tickets also sold out within the hour.

During the tournament, which ends on Sunday, fans have gone from just part of the show to something closer to a main attraction. During the Major’s Challengers and Legends stages, played in front of a smaller audience in the Riocentro event space, fans – who hooted, yelled, sang, stomped and drummed – garnered countless comments on social media for their passion.

The supporters who brought the Rio Major to life are known as the ‘torcida organizada’, a group influenced by Brazil’s history of torcidas (or hooligans, as they are known in Britain). Equipped with drums and flags to display the logos of local teams, these fans recontextualized the traditional football chants familiar to Brazilian fans with esports motifs – writing the Major’s anthems in the process.

Alexandre “Gaules” Borba, a Brazilian streamer, plays a big role in the proceedings, acting as a hype man for the whole country. His community – the “Tribo”, as he calls them – is one of the main forces behind the huge number of Brazilian viewers. At the previous Major in Antwerp, his personal stream peaked at over 700,000 viewers in Imperial’s game against Cloud9.

Due to high demand for tickets, ESL has partnered with Borba to organize a fan fest outside the arena where the voice of Brazil interacts with fans from a stage and broadcasts the matches live in front of an audience. .

“When I started broadcasting I wanted to bring the same energy as football, because I’m a huge football fan,” said Borba, who like many in Brazil played football as a child. “I saw this generation and I thought most people who love and participate in esports couldn’t have the same experience as me in stadiums because it’s a different era.”

Perhaps the most important chant, “La Tribonera”, can be heard when the torcida wants to pressure the opposing team and lift their own. The title mixes the word “Tribo” and La Bombonera, the stadium of the Argentinian football club Boca Juniors. It has become part of Brazilian football folklore to say “La Bombonera breathes” because the structure literally shakes when fans gather to watch the teams play there.

“I think for the very first time we can prove that esports can be more important than traditional sports,” Borba said. “I have been to many football matches and what I have seen here, I have never seen in my life.”

La Torcida began as a fan group for Imperial, a Brazilian “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive” team that gained popularity after signing two of the country’s stars: Gabriel “FalleN” Toledo and Fernando “Iron” Alvarenga. But after Imperial was knocked out of the tournament, the group became a stand-in for all Brazilian Counter-Strike fans.

“When they fell out of the tournament, we decided our team wasn’t just imperial,” said Angelo Matheus, a 20-year-old student and batsman for Rio’s torcida. “It was all of Brazil.”

Players are not oblivious to noise.

“People here are always supporting,” said Dzhami “Jame” Ali, Russia’s Outsiders captain. “I don’t talk every turn, they support every second. From noon to dusk, it does not stop. You’re going to have at least one fan screaming their heart out at all times.

“The crowd is very loud. Only 3,000 Brazilian fans can be louder than the 10,000 fans in Cologne,” Ali said, referring to the German city, which has a long history of hosting global esports events.

Nor is the energy wasted on the talent driving the event. During one show, fans completely drowned out the casters. One of them, Harry “JustHarry” Russell, shouted hoarsely: try to speak over the noise of the crowd: “I don’t even know if you can hear me right now!”

“I can’t compare it to anything other than Premier League football games in the UK,” said IEM Rio Major host and presenter James Banks. “Huge stadiums with 70,000 people and it doesn’t even look like that because you only get half the stadium to cheer on one team and the other half for the other.”

“The energy is electrifying,” Banks said. “I feed off the crowd and it’s like a caffeine shot without having to drink anything.”

While football hooligans in Brazil are often known for their bouts of violence as much as their passion, those in the Youth Arena crowd were aiming to do something different.

“We want to show the world that we are united,” said drummer Matheus. “E-sports are more civilized. We don’t fight each other like the torcidas do in football.

After the fall of Imperial, the torcida organizada found its new hope in Furia, a Brazilian team that qualified for the semi-finals.

“The Rio Major was a game-changing experience for most of us at Furia and Brazil,” said Jaime Padua, co-founder and co-CEO of Furia. “The Riocentro atmosphere made people cry. Our players have never felt such energy. The connection between fans and players is an important factor in this major. This sends a very clear message about esports: we are moving in the best direction possible.

But Furia also fell, losing to Heroic, a Danish team, on Saturday night. So it’s unclear who the Brazilian fans will be cheering for in Sunday’s final. But one thing is almost guaranteed: they’re going to be loud.

Lucas Benaim is an Argentinian freelance journalist who covers esports in Latin America. You can follow him on Twitter @LucasBenaim.

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