They've been described as the 'raves of the 21st Century' and the 'Glastonbury of Games', and upon arriving at i29 I could see why. Over a thousand people had made the pilgrimage to Newbury racecourse to take part in the largest UK gathering of gamers, the Insomnia series.
I made the trip to assess how far the event has come since my last visit, five years ago, at i10. Back then the LAN weekend represented the opportunity to play some quality multiplayer, as many people were still chugging along on their home connection of 56k. With the mass rollout of broadband in the last few years I was wondering how these huge LAN parties had adapted and kept the gamers coming back time after time.
The first thing I noticed at i29 was the number of tents dotted around Newbury racecourse. Tired looking gamers were huddled around these mini-encampments on a frosty November morning, cooking sausages bought from the local Tescos on camping cookers. Had I had to sleep out in the freezing cold I wouldn't have been happy, but upon speaking to these guys I realised they were far more zealous than I ever was about the gaming experience. I asked one fellow: "Had a good nights sleep?" and he simply replied, "I didn't sleep, I'm just down here to check my stuff is alright." I had instantly stumbled upon what puts the 'i' in 'i29, insomnia.
Once I had worked my way through the tents to the entrance of the event, I was greeted by a car which sums up a lot of what i29 is all about, showing off. The car, as you can see from the pictures, was a Nissan Skyline, brilliant white with stencilling of 'Need For Speed: Carbon' all over it. Gamers, like magpies, are attracted by flashy things. If it looks nice then it almost certainly is, and this car had no end of people coming over, checking it out and peering through the windows to look at the beautiful interior. Unfortunately I didn't get to test drive it, maybe next time eh?
Entering i29 is like stepping into a different world. The event was taking place across three floors this year, with each floor radiating a very different vibe. Being the logical person that I am I decided to go to the second floor first and take a look around:
The first thing that hits you when stepping out onto a floor of 500 or so gamers is the heat; the second (shortly after) is the smell. The computers can almost certainly be blamed for the heat. The smell on the other hand is a combination of unwashed, war weary bodies, eating pizza and drinking beer and producing, at a rate that would astonish scientists, methane and sweat in copious amounts.
This smell is not helped by the lack of ventilation. All the windows are blacked out, to stop screen glare and doors are usually kept shut. You can get to the outside if you so desire but few were doing so. Most of the gamers looked happy enough milling around inside; with the outside being a place deemed not even worthy of sleeping (even if they had brought a tent down). Not having a PC myself to join in the gaming shenanigans I decided to watch one of the competition match-ups.
Competitive gaming is a male dominated, testosterone fuelled pastime. In what sport do the competitors scream and shout expletives at one another the whole way through yet receive no punishment? (Er, football? - Ed) The competitors were pumped up, fuelled by adrenaline, energy drinks and anxiety due to lack of sleep. It was plain to see, watching 10 young men battle it out in a game of Counter-Strike: Source, that their heart and soul was going into the game and into the battle. When the final whistle was blown and the last terrorist was dead, screams of jubilation echoed around the whole floor. Despite all this anger and aggression during the game I observed great sportsmanship post-match, with both teams leaving their desks and shaking one another's hands and discussing the key moments in the match.
And this, I realised, is the most important aspect of a LAN event. People aren't here to win money (though there is a fair amount to be won), they are instead here to enjoy themselves, the atmosphere and meet friends they have made through internet gaming. The third floor, a far more chilled out affair, emphasised this because all of a sudden I started spotting some girl gamers.
One girl was wrapped up in here duvet, legs sprawled across two chairs as she quested in World of Warcraft. I waited for her to die before I went and chatted with her (you don't often get to write a sentence like that). "My boyfriend got me into gaming, he comes here to compete in the tournaments and I play WoW," she told me, "I really like it, we go for a drink, meet up with Guild friends, it's a social event." She wasn't the only girl there - I noticed far more girls than had been there five years ago, most of which were playing WoW and were with a boyfriend.