When in 2012 Michał “Carmac” Blicharz, the current vice president of Pro Gaming at ESL, was approached by authorities with a proposition to organize Intel Extreme Masters in the Polish city of Katowice, he had no idea how popular and successful the event would soon become.
Those that have been following the esports scene for many years may remember that the first Intel Extreme Masters were not held in Katowice. Starting in 2007, the first IEMs were organized during the CeBIT computer expo – the biggest of its kind – in Hanover, Germany. The first event in Katowice was held in 2013, the city dedicated its most iconic venue for the cause – the Spodek Arena, a saucer-like building famous throughout the country, and now also renowned worldwide. About 50,000 people participated in IEM 2013, and the city quickly noticed its great potential. Back in the day, Katowice – the center of the Silesian Region – was already established as an industrial powerhouse of Poland, but the city’s rapid development quickly made it one of the most important educational, cultural and tourist centers as well. IEM finals significantly contributed to the city’s recognition on the international stage, transforming the once heavy-industry focused metropolis into the capital of electronic entertainment – at least for a few days every spring.
From a careful experiment to the biggest event of the year
Using the Spodek Arena for a number of days to host a gaming event might have been perceived by some as a risky and costly endeavor. However, the popularity and enormous success of the event quickly put those fears to rest. Photographs of kilometer-long queues flooded Twitter and information on IEM was broadcasted in the Polish national news and described in newspapers both inside and outside the country. When in 2014 Poland’s Counter Strike: Global Offensive team – Virtus Pro – defeated the legendary Ninjas in Pyjamas, the crowd’s exulted cheer was heard during the casting of a StarCraft II match, and the commentators were wondering what had happened on the neighboring stage. In 2015, the total prize pool for CS: GO alone reached 250,000 USD and at that point the event featured tournaments for two other games – Hearthstone and StarCraft II. In 2016, the tickets for the event were sold out within 15 minutes and over 100,000 people visited the venue. In 2019, the number of hours watched online reached a whopping 157,000,000. The event is a huge boost for the region’s economy, as it attracts crowds from all over the world, including South Korea, China, the USA, Brazil and Australia. Both gastronomy and the hotel industry, not only in Katowice but the nearby towns as well, strongly benefit from the increase in tourism. Recognizing the international importance of the city, companies today are even more willing to invest in Katowice.
Enduring in difficult times
IEM continues to break records despite the ongoing global health crisis. Unfortunately, following the decision of the authorities and a debate lasting several days, the 2020 edition of the event had to close its doors to the general public just hours before the start of the event. The decision was necessary, but devastating for organizers, fans and local businesses alike. Only players, media representatives and staff members were allowed to enter the Spodek Arena. Nevertheless, the event continued in an online form and against all odds proved to be a huge success. In 2021, still unable to attend the IEM in person, the audiences spent more time watching the event than ever before, although CS:GO finals failed to break new records in terms of viewership. In this difficult time, IEM continues to grow. The StarCraft II branch of the event was entirely produced in Katowice, and now there are plans to produce other branches in the city as well.
Looking towards a brighter future
The inability to organize the event in its standard, natural form is painful for the entire esports community. Despite all the advantages and accessibility provided by new technologies, it is impossible to remotely recreate the same chemistry filling the Spodek Arena during IEM. However, in spite of the global crisis, IEM Katowice not only endures, but also continues to grow, and let us hope that the next editions of this beloved esports event will once again be attended by record-high crowds in person.