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IEM Katowice is an esports event like no other

“It was amazing,” says Jonas "Lekr0" Olofsson, a professional Counter-Strike: Global Offensive player for Fnatic, just minutes after walking onto the massive Intel Extreme Masters Katowice stage for the first time.

“It was like a totally full arena, it was really nice, people were shouting stuff. I really liked it a lot. This event and [ESL One] Cologne are special for a lot of players.”

The opening ceremony for IEM Katowice 2018 was certainly impressive, and for the players it was a satisfying moment.

Despite IEM being a 16 team competition only the top six would get to play on the main stage, and walking out through the crowd onto the massive stage was the initial prize after a hard-fought group stage.

Players like Lekr0 have played on similar stages before, but few can compare to Katowice.

The Spodek Arena is a truly massive venue, and the stage is custom built each year for the event, with a rumoured cost that is upwards of seven figures. Other events may take place in more prestigious locations, but Katowice is quickly creating its own legacy.

IEM Katowice 2018 – Counter-Strike: Global Offensive

Get a behind the scenes look from IEM Katowice 2018ESL / Adela Sznajder

After starting up because the city council wanted to bring esports to the region, the event has quickly grown to be one of the biggest esports events in the world, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see it become officially the biggest when ESL release numbers from the 2018 event.

Allowing people into the event for free means that the arena is always full, whether that be for a quarterfinal with no local teams or the grand final that will decide who walks away with $250,000.

This year it got so full that people were sitting behind the stage, only being able to see screens that ESL put there just in case the event was that popular.

With thousands of people in the arena watching Katowice has an atmosphere like no other event, and it something that even the pro players love.

“I mean, that's why we're playing,” says Emil "Magisk" Reif, pro player for Astralis. “Playing these tournaments with such an awesome crowd is why we do it, we love it and it's very nice to have such excited crowd, and loud as well, and a lot of people.”

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The crowd is what really makes Katowice special. Obviously, a city the size of Katowice probably couldn’t fill the stadium with hardcore fans, so people from across the world travel to the event to experience it.

We alone met Americans, Brits, Australians, Canadians, Germans, Swedes, Argentinians, South Africans and many more.

It really is one of the most global esports events in the world, and yet it takes place in a small mining community in Poland.

The type of people it attracts will surely surprise many outside of the world of esports.

Many have visions of the stadium being full of young white males between the ages of 18 and 25, and while they do make up the largest portion of the audience, they certainly are not the only ones there.

Young kids run around in front of the stage, while their parents sit and watch the games.

A teenager sits with their father discussing the intricacies of how impactful the map veto process could end up being for the Fnatic vs FaZe Clan final, before running to the barrier to wave a Fnatic flag as the team takes to the stage.

There’s also a large portion of those significantly older than 25, and while senior citizens are a rare sight those pushing 50 are pretty common, especially behind the scenes in the business only areas where they easily outnumber the younger professionals.

All of this is a testament to how far IEM Katowice has come in recent years. It started out as one of the biggest gambles in esports, but now is one of the biggest events ever and is certainly the event in Europe that brings in the most fans in person.

“Not in my wildest dreams did I expect it to be this big,” says Michal “CARMAC” Blicharz, Vice President of Pro Gaming for ESL.

“When I started in this job in 2009, we had our global viewership. That was before Twitch, before live streaming. We had to pay for bandwidth, pay for traffic and things like that. Our global record was about ten thousand people watching or whatever. And then five years later we had ten thousand people in the seats in the arena.”

That will most likely be IEM Katowice’s lasting legacy. When all of the epic finals and championship winners are forgotten and resigned to the history books, the one thing that will really be remembers was that this was one of the first esports events to really make the transition to massive arenas and stadiums work.

No longer are esports events tied to conventions, or small concert halls with 500 seats.

They can now sell out stadiums that some of the biggest musical acts on the planet struggle to fill. And as we have started to see even more recently they can sell out sports stadiums, and even ones designed for the Olympics.

This certainly isn't the only reason for esports’ rapid growth in recent years, but being able to show people that these events can sell out massive arenas helps give it credibility.

It also increases its exposure to the mainstream audience and definitely is a big factor in bringing in more fans.

Without IEM Katowice the esports world would surely be in a worse place. It would have probably taken longer to bring events of this scale to the world, games such as StarCraft would have fewer large events and thousands of locals may never have heard of esports.

But now we can look back on another successful year for the competition and conclude that while esports still certainly has more than a few issues to overcome as an industry, events like IEM Katowice are what make it all worth it for everyone involved.

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