NEW YORK -- I've been to Carragher's before, but I've never seen anything quite like this.
It's 3 o'clock on Sunday afternoon, and a healthy crowd has gathered at this West Side watering hole named after Liverpool legend Jamie Carragher and littered with soccer memorabilia. El Clásico -- Real Madrid vs. Barcelona, the biggest club game in the world -- is just underway, but I don't see Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo on any of the five giant TVs in the main bar area.
All I see is Cloud9 and Team SoloMid.
That's right, one of the best sports bars in Manhattan is hosting a League of Legends viewing party -- more specifically, a viewing party for the North American League Championship Series spring final. And it is indeed a party. Over the course of the next five hours, roughly 100 or so League fans down gallons of beer and booze while glued to those five screens, watching C9 and TSM battle it out for a championship.
The group has dubbed themselves League of Libations, and the members have been gathering at Carragher's for a little over a year now, according to bar manager Mike Romero.
"The crowds just keep getting bigger and bigger," Romero said. "When we first initiated it, I was oblivious to the popularity of it. Unbeknownst to me, not only is it popular, but the enthusiasm behind it is surreal. These guys are screaming at the TV louder than you would when Liverpool misses a sitter."
The leader of the group is 30-year-old Judy Barbosa, a Bronx native who works in IT technical support. A longtime League of Legends player and fan, she took over about three years ago when the original organizer decided to hand over the reins, and quickly discovered it wasn't an easy job.
"I just started walking around to bars saying, 'Hi, would it be OK if we just sat in a corner of your space, just give us one TV, I'll plug it into my computer and we can just watch these video games,' " she said. "And they're like, 'What do you mean, watch video games?' I had to explain it over and over.
"I pitched it to like 10, 15 different bars before one spot let us have a corner -- they had like 40 TVs across the whole space, they gave us four in a corner. Me and like 20 people showed up, and we were the loudest corner that afternoon. It was all history from there. I remember the manager coming up to us and saying, 'The people on the other side watching hockey want to know what the hell you are watching, because you guys are so entertained and you're so excited about what you're watching.' And it's been like that ever since."
Barbosa discovered Carragher's via Foursquare -- "I was just looking for bars with TVs," she said -- and it sounds like it has been a perfect match.
"I said, 'Hey, how do you feel about hosting events? I have groups of anywhere from 30 to 70-plus people who show up to watch this,' " she said. "And they're like, 'Sure, let's give it a try.' And they've been nothing but awesome to us. And that was honestly unusual at the time, because I usually have to do a lot of convincing."
Romero knows next to nothing about League of Legends but seemed to get a kick out of watching the customers take in the action Sunday.
"My barmaid will serve them, and they can have a five-minute conversation and she might understand three words of what they said, because they're talking about characters and galaxies and God knows what else," he said, chuckling. "[But] we're happy to host them, because for the most part they behave, too. You don't really run into any liability with these guys. The strongest bit on them is their brain and their thumbs."
I don't know a whole lot about League of Legends, either. But I enjoyed watching these fans consume their favorite sport -- and drink -- the same way I would. The crowd roared for First Blood, or the first kill of each game, just as if someone had scored a touchdown. There was trash talk aplenty, and familiar arguments over matters like who deserved to win league MVP.
And there was fierce team loyalty on display as well. Nick Emmons, 26, decked out in a Cloud9 jersey, could only shake his head and cover his eyes when TSM won the first two games in dominant fashion. But, dejected as he was, Emmons wasn't giving up on his team.
"I'm optimistically hopeful," Emmons said. "The last three years it's been the same matchup, TSM's won every time. So this is pretty normal. I've gotten used to it."
Emmons has been coming to League of Libations events for the past two and a half years, and used to travel three hours round-trip from Connecticut to attend, before moving closer to the city.
"I guess it's just gathering with like-minded people," he said, when asked why he went to such lengths to attend. "I'm not your biggest sports fan -- I don't really care for football, soccer, anything like that. People get a lot of sense of community from this. This is a thing that's like, yeah, this is a community I can feel at home in and comfortable in."
Barbosa echoed those sentiments. "That's probably the appeal when I first went to one of these," she said. "That's what I fell in love with -- having that shared language, being able to in this space feel comfortable around a bunch of people talking about something I know we all love."
Thirty-year-old Thiago Orlandi was in a happier frame of mind early on, beaming as he bragged about his favorite player, TSM's Søren "Bjergsen" Bjerg, whose jersey he was wearing.
"Best mid laner, best player -- he's been so consistent, it's so crazy," Orlandi said. "I wouldn't say the best in the world, because there's only one best in the world, that's Faker. But second best to me, definitely."
Orlandi has been coming to League of Libations events for a couple of years now, too.
"I've made friends with a lot of people here," he said. "So now it's not just a sporting event, now it's like I also go to see people I know. It's a social thing, we hang out afterwards, and outside of it too."
Unfortunately for Orlandi, Cloud9 came from behind to win Games 3 and 4, forcing a winner-take-all Game 5 in the best-of-five series -- one concept I was familiar with from my traditional sports background.
I couldn't quite dissect what was happening in the actual game. But it looked as if Bjergsen came through in the clutch in a dramatic final sequence, leading TSM to another championship and prompting a boisterous celebration all around me.
Orlandi was in the middle of that celebration, and still sounded out of breath when I caught up with him a couple of minutes later.
"Oh my God. We didn't want the reverse sweep," he said, clearly relieved about the thwarted comeback. "Cloud9 and TSM, that's like the best rivalry right now. It's always exciting, man."
Drama. Rivalries. Great players, pulling off great things. And beer. Yep, I can get behind this.
Now I just have to pick a team. I'm leaning TSM.