This is a story that takes place before 2014 and many thousands of miles from where the author now sits. At an American esports event, there was a League of Legends tournament and the fans had flocked there to spectate the matches, some of which were starring the legendary NA names of the Season 2. There were signs with messages of support and jokes scrawled upon them in permanent marker, accompanied by often poorly illustrated images of League champions or star players. This was no World Championship and yet the amount of people in my vicinity felt sizeable as I waited for a match to come to its conclusion. When the teams had finished their battle, packed up and began making their way out through the backstage area, some of the fans with more keen vision noticed their objects of desire and obsession beginning to emerge from behind the curtain.
In seemingly no time at all a queue had begun to form, one which would grow larger and larger as people realised what is was for and imagined that if they simply joined then they too would be assured autographs, photographs and a meeting with the player of their choice. As the players emerged and headed in the direction of the ever increasing stream of fans, I approached one and arranged an interview. “I have to sign first, though” the star informed me. This was hardly a new phenomenon for me, but back in the world of StarCraft2 that might have meant waiting a few minutes. With a line that could have been queued up for hotdogs during the break at an American sporting event now in place, I wondered how long the fan interactions would last.
The first fans came forwards, eyes wide and their expressions oscillating between shock, at the surreal experience of their idol being before them in the flesh, and nervous smiling. The star swished his signature with a motion that betrayed hundreds of hours of repetition and showed no novelty to the experience. With others he would pose for pictures, always the fan bursting with excitement and each time the star setting himself into position and then, with the uncanny timing of one who has found a routine of efficiency, shifting into his “photo smile” for a few seconds. As soon as the flash went off and the click was heard, the star’s expression would drop back into a neutral one. It’s easy to imagine the strain on the facial muscles alone from thousands of smiles in a short amount of time.
Each the first
Even as the line continued to be processed, each fan would greet the star as if they were the first to be meeting him and none had come before. Most would barely be able to properly spit out their greeting and request for whatever they had come for, an uneasy and often awkward uncertainness surrounding their request, as if the star might be about to say “that’s enough, folks” and move on. Yet he didn’t, and so on and on they came. Couples would step forwards and I’d amuse myself by attempting to guess what the story was there, if it would be the male stepping forward to have his obliging girlfriend take a photo of him with his favourite player, if it would be the girl who was the one desirous of the star’s attention or if they were mutually enthralled with this big name in the scene.
Despite the numbers of interactions already having exceeded 30 or 40, the line showed no signs of slowing or dissipating, as if any brief reduction in the number waiting just encouraged others to join up, thinking they weren’t so far from reaching the front and a chance to meet our man. Had only 10 people initially come up, he would have been done and on his way quickly enough, but the sheer amount of time needed to get through all those awaiting him would also play a factor in the number of people he would meet, as new observers would notice a line, clock what it must be for, decide they wanted in on the action and join the back. A fan centipede, with the star’s attention going in the front end and anticipation flowing out the rear.
Even if 20 had gone before them, each to step forward had a look on their faces and a manner as if they were not only the first but perhaps even the only to have interacted with the star today. Anyone imagining those in the queue would look how many were lining up and the amount of time and effort required to see to them all would make these eager onlookers go easy on our boy would be mistaken. Even as deep into the line as 40 or 50 there would be those making unusual demands. “Pose like this” they’d say, as if those five seconds of motion were an isolated incident in the star’s day. “Can you make it out to [X] and maybe also say [Y]” they would verbalise, as if looking at a pizza takeout menu and idly making their order.
“Can you lift me up in your arms?”. The questions marks seemed almost to disappear off the end of these questions and a tone of imperative assert itself. “You do love your fans, right?”, they might have been saying. Of course there was no malice in these requests, or even a sense of overt self-entitlement. Rather, each really did experience their interaction as a unique space-time event between themselves and the star, forgetting everything which had gone before them and not yet capable of imagining the post-star world they would live in. For this moment they were getting to meet the star and anything seemed on the table. Some of those in attendance might have never been this assertive in their entire lives, but today they were caught in a spell.
Fans of convenience
Of course not every body in the line truly contained a heart beating only for our star. While so many would include lines such as “I’m your biggest fan” or “You’re my favourite player” in their opening speech, some were wearing shirts of rival teams and had signs with other players’ names on them. Sometimes those two groups weren’t even mutually exclusive. When the line had reached its maximum size, there even became a curious decision-point where another player from the star’s team came out and some of the line immediately branched off towards him, either to become the first in that line or simply skip the waiting time to leave with a genuine interaction with a League pro. I found myself wondering how many of those saying to the second player that he was their favourite had experienced a fortunate piece of happenstance and how many would have issued the same utterance in the direction of my star.
When the star would put on his initial meeting smile and his photo smile, each subtley different and yet each reheared through rote, the receiptant would seem ecstatic and imagine the star was as into the interaction as they were, so caught up in their fantasy were they. In fact, I could almost see the cracks starting to appear, there was a forcedness to what would under normal circumstances have been a happy gesture. After the look had been displayed enough times, I could see the fine point at which the normal neutral visage transformed just barely into the smile, as if the minimum possible effort had been calculated which was necessary to give the fan the good feeling they desired and no more energy could be expended unduly.
The more I saw the smile the more forced it appeared and the more strange it seemed that everyone in the queue still felt the magic of their own unique experience with the star, never stopping to consider how similar their interaction might be to the now dozens and dozens he had just undertaken. Eventually, after the better part of an hour, the last signature was signed, the last photograph clicked and the final smile had been plastered. “Okay, we can go”, the star said to me, an exhaustion in his voice, but also a sense of relief at having fulfilled a duty.
As we walked out of the room I asked him if this was a one-off, perhaps if there had been some pre-arranged nature to what I had just witnessed. The star assured me it was just an ordinary end to the day’s matches at one of these sized tournaments, and even had a horror story of a big event from months prior which had seen magnitudes more fans to service and leave with their own special moments. I joked with him that he should set a limit to how many people he could see and for how long each day, mentioning that this was often the case in other esports games, where players simply would say “Sorry, but I have to go [eat/leave] now” and fans would be forced to begrudgingly accept that they would need to wait for another time, perhaps more vigilantly calculating when to ambush him the next time.
The star laughed, but it was a laugh as if to say “If only!” and he explained that League was now at the point where these interactions were as important as what happened inside the tournament server such was the fan interest, sponsor investment and increase in merchandising sales. I could see in his explanation the difference in scale between the StarCraft world I had come from and this booming League of Legends scene which had co-opted the top spot in Esports. Maintaining and growing your fanbase was a marathon endurance component of being a star in this world, simply playing well and winning games would not be enough to keep your name up there.
It never ends
15 minutes later and we began our interview, the star seemed to have put the torrent of fan interactions out of mind and now appeared engaged in answering my questions and articulating himself. I wondered if his smiles were prepared from the deluge of previous interviews he had done, perhaps he had intuitively calculated just how much energy had to be invested into the expression to make me feel as if he had understood and appreciated the question, delivering it with the requisite amount of eye contact to show he was interested. Once the interview was done, we spoke a little while longer as I packed my things and then got up to leave. As he began to follow me out of the room, another journalist, whose presence I had not seen or noticed until now, stepped forward to ask the star if he wouldn’t mind doing another interview right now. The star looked at me, sighed almost indiscernably and said “Sure”, a smile appearing on his face and his body turning around.
I saw a man eaten alive that day. His followers crafted their own personal fantasy of what their meeting with him might be like and then set about manifesting that reality for themselves with their objective of desire as the vehicle by which to experience it. He gave and he gave and when it was over he was spent. Perhaps his energy for these moments built up like a muscle, allowing him to push and give more each time, or perhaps he was simply run ragged to the ends of his supplies. Each fan came, hungry and ready to feast, and each fan left, full and satisfied. One man fed a hundred with a pen, some cameras and a few handshakes.