The Calm Before the Storm

[I wrote this after attending the tournament The Big House 8 in a response to a writing prompt from my friend asking for 500 words “on the relative peace and serenity that precedes a turbulent maelstrom of activity.”]

When people think about “the calm before the storm” in a traditional sense, it brings to mind hunkering down in a clapboard house with boarded up windows and flashlights and canned food, waiting for the nor’easter or hurricane to wreak havoc on power lines and traffic signs. The storm is an external elemental force, unknowable and unpredictable, an uncaring outburst from the whims of mother nature, which must be handled with caution and stern fortitude on the part of human beings. In esports, there is no external chaos, because the storm comes from within.

Sitting in the audience at The Big House 8, watching Top 8 for Super Smash Bros Melee, it’s easy to see the components that can gather and ignite into a human maelstrom. There’s a lot of young, energetic people yelling and cheering loudly, focused on a single point of exciting action, in various states of sobriety. The collective emotion crashes and recedes in waves – regularly if not entirely predictably, given the pace of the action of the game. It’s a solid good time. Then Mang0 and Leffen took the stage.

The interesting thing about the calm before the storm is that it’s often only clear in hindsight. It’s a phenomenon defined not in and of itself, but by its temporal proximity to something else that’s very different. While there was a noticeable uptick in noise and activity when the players were announced and sat at their stations, it still took me by surprise when the storm came, partly because it wasn’t even an elimination match or the final fight for the first-place medal.

I am not sure when the switch flipped, but suddenly the match was no longer just two very skilled people facing each other in digital combat. It was, all at once, a grand battle of international – even interdimensional proportions. Here was The Kid, The Natural, The GOAT, the symbol of America’s greatest ideals and pitfalls, taking on the ascendant Godslayer from Sweden in the ultimate essential clash of fire and water, instinct and calculation, art and science. The crowd was on its feet. The crowd was chanting. The hunger for vicarious resolution, to satisfy the most primal desire of triumph against all odds, was undeniable. In that moment, you forget where you end and the mass begins. The storm has taken you, unexpectedly but willingly, and you are something different, and you are at once more and less than your individual self. Are you in front of the stage holding a sign or on the stage holding a controller? Are you a human or a monstrously fast Nintendo character in a brightly colored world with a cloud named Randall? Are you the one posting selfies and memeing about Bowsette on social media, or are you just a drop of seawater in an inexorable tsunami? In an extended, glorious moment, the answer doesn’t matter.

The match ended – the win and loss were recorded – and we became separate once more. Later, you look back in the wake of the storm and wonder at yourself and the complete usurpation that happened over the course of a few minutes on an unremarkable day in October. From the calm, when you were you, to the uprising, when you glimpsed the sublime. And you realize that the chaos is always inside of you, waiting to come out and play.

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