Scouting Grounds put the fun back in esports

The inaugural League of Legends Scouting Grounds came to a close with Team Ocean sweeping Team Cloud in the final. This was the first time any of the players had competed on a stage in front of a live audience. Ryan Garfat/ESPN

Video games are supposed to be fun.

Sometimes you forget that in the world of esports, especially when you're inside the industry. To the untrained eye, esports, or competitive video gaming in its purest definition, is a haven for unbridled laughter and joy. How could it not be? Teenagers and early 20-somethings get to play their favorite games for ludicrous prize money in front of arenas full of screaming fans.

I hate to break it to you, but esports isn't fun much of the time. It's a job that for some players means upwards of 12 to 14 hours a day of work, and if they're lucky, one or two days off a week to rest. The professionals have almost no job security unless they're at the very top of their preferred game. Even then, a top player's peak on average lasts only a year or two before that player is surpassed by the next generation.

At last week's Scouting Grounds, Riot's League of Legends combine for the NA LCS that wasn't really a combine at all, fun was the name of the game -- as well as learning and competition. That's why it was one of my favorite events of the year.

As I sat in the Immortals house early last week, I watched BmxSpecks, a 20-year-old aspiring jungler from Toronto, marvel at the fact that he was practicing in the same seat as former NA LCS MVP Reignover, whom Specks idolized the past two years. Specks laughed as he locked in Rek'sai for one of his first scrimmages as part of Team Mountain, the amateur team of five that was drafted by the Immortals organization to face off with the junior teams created by Team Liquid (Ocean), Counter Logic Gaming (Cloud) and Echo Fox (Infernal). Specks hoped his forthcoming Rek'sai play wouldn't sully Reignover's monitor. (Spoiler: He played well.)

"[Immortals] taught us a lot," the jungler said following the conclusion of the weeklong exhibition/experiment. If I were to take anything from Scouting Grounds, it would be that the players, on all four teams, were taught a lot. From media training to practicing in a real pro environment to playing onstage, the players were given a crash course in how the pros live. The short week was packed with practicing, learning from Riot, playing official games and practicing some more until the players had to leave the team houses and return to their hotels.

"It's a tournament you're supposed to showcase your skills, but I learned more in this tournament than I did in my two years of playing solo queue," said Tuesday, 18, from Quebec, Canada, and the top pick of Team Mountain. Of all the players on the team, Tuesday was the one expected to have the best chance of making a pro roster one day.

A talented individual player, Tuesday impressed in spurts but learned the difference between playing online and at an offline setting. He came in confident, expecting to be the top player at his position in the field, and he left a more developed player, learning from his mistakes and becoming a player he would have never realized without Scouting Grounds.

Team Mountain went 0-6 and lost all their matches. The team did well in scrims; however, in official matches, the team failed to scratch, continually doing well in the early-game before failing in the latter parts of the match. If the tournament were conducted online, the team probably would have swept the field and won the championship. That isn't what it takes to become a pro, though, and they learned it the hard way. The losses kept piling up, and with little time to breathe or practice, the five amateurs were overwhelmed, succumbing to the pressure.

After the final loss, the team sat silently in its designated green room, with a "Team Mountain" logo situated on the door, the players mumbling to themselves or going outside to get some air.

The one request all the players on the team made to Riot Games, if there is a Scouting Grounds 2, is more games. More opportunities to play. More chances to learn. And, if possible, a longer event. The players from Team Mountain, and assuredly for the rest of the groups, weren't ready to go home. They were learning, having the time of their lives, and the clock was striking midnight, ready to send them on their way home back to the North American solo queue, where bad habits die hard and the development they received might wash away with no coaches to keep them focused.

"I learned I can play more champions," said Bobjenkins, 17, the top laner from New Jersey who entered this tournament seen as a "one-trick Kennen" with not much else in the arsenal. To the surprise of no one, including himself, Kennen was banned in every game Bobjenkins played, which forced him onto the likes of Gnar and Yasuo.

"I'm not a one-trick anymore. I think I improved on reading the map better, being more vocal and calling out teleport flanks more," Bobjenkins said.

Even when the team was two matches down with four straight losses, the players attempted to calculate ways they could somehow make it into the final match with one game remaining. Just one more match. Just two more matches. Just more games was their thought process. When the dream of playing on the LCS stage was ultimately destroyed for good, there was no yelling between the players or pointing the finger. It was sadness, like the last day of summer, realizing that soon the world would return to monotone colors and daily life would begin once more.

"I want to be a pro even more so after getting a taste of what it's like," said Shynon, 21, the team's marksmen and shot-caller throughout the event. "Knowing that those world-class players practiced there [at the Immortals house] makes an even bigger fire [within me] to go pro."

The other four members mirrored in response. The losses, while stinging, were not the takeaway for the players or coaches involved. It was a training ground more so than a scouting ground, with the players focusing on self-improvement over standing out amongst their teammates. Riot awarded the players in NA solo queue who did well enough in the Ladder to get the wall, and only the players who passed the personality test were invited.

Whether or not we see Tuesday suit up for an NA LCS team in the future is not the barometer of success for Scouting Grounds. Making it as a pro is difficult, paved with countless people with the same amount of skill and devotion who fail to make the cut for one reason or another. If the players who leave Scouting Grounds return to solo queue with a positive mindset, and even are a little better than before, more informed, and able to create a healthy, optimistic environment for the future of North America's online and minor league scene, then Scouting Grounds is a success, and a sequel should be a when and not an if.

"I like everyone on their team. They're pretty cool," said Winter, the team's support, in giving his final thoughts on the entire journey. "I thought players on the other teams might be toxic, but actually not. They're all super cool."

It's the truth of the event. At the end of the final between Team Ocean and Team Cloud, where Ocean swept Cloud to win, Riot had an after-finals meet-and-greet with all the players, media and any staff from professional or minor league teams that came to watch the action. Although a few players were hurried along to talk to representatives from teams, the rest stayed on the LCS stage, looking around at the monitors and setup, talking with pros about their love of the game -- for some of them, it was their first time to do so.

Joshua "Dardoch" Hartnett, one of the coaches for Team Ocean and the former jungler for Team Liquid, stood at the peak of the stage, talking casually about the game as the group of amateurs, some of them older than him, hung on his every word and stared at the real-life example of somebody who went from nowhere a year ago to one of the brightest talents in the western region.

When asked if I saw any players I thought could be future NA LCS players, I honestly couldn't answer. Too little time and too little data to see how the players grew over days of practice.

When asked if I had a good time, if I had fun? The answer without hesitation is yes.

It was one of the most fun events of the year, and it wasn't even streamed.