June 15, 2024

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The Sports Fanatics

At Counter-Strike Rio Major, Brazil’s fans take cheering to a new level


RIO DE JANEIRO — Drums, vuvuzelas, flags and stadium chants. The Jeunesse Arena in Rio de Janeiro — with 18,000 fans in attendance — roars and trembles as the best teams in the world compete on the biggest stage. But this isn’t a soccer game. It’s the IEM Rio Major, the Counter-Strike esports world championship being played in Brazil.

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

“You can hear the music, drums, dancing and it’s like, yeah, it just feels 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 over two decades. The game is a cultural phenomenon; many Brazilians under the age of 30 have played it at least once in their life.

Counter-Strike sees two majors — the esport’s marquee tournaments — every year, most of which are hosted in Europe. This year, when the Major came to Brazil for the first time (after a pandemic-related delay), tickets sold out in an hour. When the organizer changed the event layout to accommodate additional seating, the extra tickets sold out within the hour as well.

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Over the course of the tournament, which concludes Sunday, the fans morphed from just a part of the show to something closer to a main attraction. During the Challengers and Legends stages of the Major, played in front of a smaller audience in the event space Riocentro, the fans — who hooted, hollered, sang, stomped and banged the drums — garnered countless comments on social media for their passion.

The fans who brought the Rio Major to life are known as a “torcida organizada,” a group influenced by Brazil’s history of soccer torcidas (or hooligans, as they’re known in Britain). Equipped with drums and flags for boasting the logos of the home teams, these fans recontextualized traditional soccer 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 something of a hype man for the whole country. His community — the “Tribo,” as he calls them — is one of the main forces behind the huge Brazilian viewership numbers. During the previous Major in Antwerp, his personal stream reached a peak of over 700,000 viewers during Imperial’s match against Cloud9.

Because of the high demand for tickets, ESL partnered with Borba to host a fan fest outside the arena where the voice of Brazil interacts with fans from a stage and casts the games live in front of an audience.

“When I started broadcasting, I wanted to bring the same energy that came with me from soccer, because I’m a big fan of soccer,” said Borba, who, like many in Brazil, played soccer as a child. “I saw this generation and I was thinking most people who like and compete in esports weren’t able to have the same experience that I had in stadiums because it’s a different time.”

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

“I think that for the first time ever, we can prove that esports can be bigger than traditional sports,” Borba said. “I’ve gone to a lot of soccer matches and what I saw here, I’ve never seen in my life.”

The torcida started off as a fan group for Imperial, a Brazilian “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive” squad that spiked in popularity after signing two of the country’s stars: Gabriel “FalleN” Toledo and Fernando “fer” Alvarenga. But after Imperial flunked 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 was not just Imperial,” said Angelo Matheus, a 20-year-old student and a drummer in the torcida in Rio. “It was all of Brazil.”

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Players aren’t oblivious to the noise.

“People here are always supporting,” said Dzhami “Jame” Ali, the Russian captain of Outsiders. “I’m not talking every round, they support every second. From noon to dusk, it doesn’t stop. You’re going to have at least one fan screaming their heart out at any given time.”

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

The energy isn’t lost on the talent staffing the event either. During one broadcast, the fans completely drowned out the casters. One of them, Harry “JustHarry” Russell, yelled hoarsely, attempting to speak over the sound 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 U.K.,” said James Banks, host and presenter for the IEM Rio Major. “Huge stadiums with 70,000 people and it doesn’t even sound like this because you will only get half of the stadium cheering for 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 soccer hooligans in Brazil are often known for episodes of violence as much as their passion, those in the crowd at Jeunesse Arena aimed to do something different.

“We want to show the world we’re united as one,” said Matheus, the drummer. “Esports are more civilized. We don’t fight among ourselves like torcidas do in soccer.”

After Imperial’s fall, the torcida organizada found its new hope in Furia, a Brazilian team that advanced to the semifinal stage.

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

But Furia fell as well, losing to Heroic, a Danish team, on Saturday evening. It’s not clear, then, whom Brazilian fans will cheer for during the finals Sunday. But one thing is almost guaranteed: They’re going to be loud.

Lucas Benaim is a freelance journalist from Argentina covering esports in Latin America. You can follow him on Twitter @LucasBenaim.