Winter was coming! The first day of December. The trees had shed their leaves weeks ago. Now, frost clung to the naked branches. The chill seeped into the buildings through the open windows at night, when the heating was turned down. Then, when morning came around, the high school students from Shanghai struggled to get out of their snug and warm beds and brace the cold. And even for those who did get up, going outside was a hard no.
The weekend was the timei to hang out with friends and play video games at an internet cafe. But that all came to a grinding halt. Some internet cafes even closed their doors due to a lack of traffic. The cold weather was to blame for all of this. It kept the fingers stiff, which made playing games at the highest level near impossible. And every gamer considered themselves at that highest level! They weren’t about to let something like the weather ruin their rank! So they stayed at home, cuddling their Ahri body pillows, and played mobile games, watched popular streamers, or browsed online forums for the latest gossip.
There was one topic that was especially popular when it came to rumours and gossip. That was the Winter Collegiate Cup. New information was posted online every couple of hours, though none of it came from official sources. These were messages from people who claimed they were close friends with someone of the organizers or the teams they were gossiping about.
[+189,482] I’ve heard from reliable sources that a historically dominant team has picked up an amazing new talent! I can’t tell you guys which team it is, or who the player is, but trust me! This is going to be something really special!
[+131,652] There’s a quarterfinalist team from last year who supposedly said in an interview that they weren’t impressed with the recent improvements of some of their competition. They’re convinced that they can clinch the title this year! Find out which team made this bold claim in the next issue of What Gamers Say!
[+96,889] Shanghai University of Finance supposedly played a scrim against a high school team! The reason? That high school team is going to compete at the Winter Collegiate Cup! You heard that right! A HIGH SCHOOL team is playing at the COLLEGIATE CUP! You heard it here first from Leaping Asia!
Each of these posts gained a lot of traction, but it was the last one that saw the most heated discussions. There were a lot of people calling Leaping Asia out for spreading such an outrageous rumour. Comments argued that the Collegiate Cup was for university teams only, as the name of the tournament implied. And that only really dumb people would believe something as ridiculous as high schoolers playing at the university level. But there were also people in the comment section who enjoyed the thought of a group of high schoolers beating university teams. It just had a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ to it. The overall consensus, though, was that no matter how enjoyable the idea of it might be, it just was too ridiculous of a rumour. No one really believed that the Chinese Esports Association would really invite high school teams to the Collegiate Cup. So it was brushed aside.
That completely changed on December 4th. There were only four more days until the start of the Winter Collegiate Cup. The Chinese Esports Association posted the participating teams from all seven regions on their official website. It included three high school teams. One representing the Beijing Esports Association, one representing the Guangzhou Esports Association, and the last one representing the Shanghai Esports Association.
Leaping Asia became an overnight celebrity for his early rumour. Everyone badgered him with questions asking him if he had any more juice tidbits of information. They wanted to know how the Shanghai University of Finance had fared against the high school team. But Leaping Asia kept his lips tightly sealed. He refused to reveal who won, but did say that an educated guess could go a long way. Everyone took this as the university team having won. None of them believed for a second that a high school team was good enough to compete at the university level. There was just a level of experience that the high school teams were missing, as well as the hardware and training to get the most out of their talent.
After the initial explosion of messages died down and the people started to accept the fact that three high school teams were going to participate in the Winter Collegiate Cup, everyone started discussing this change to the format. Two groups of people quickly appeared. One camp believed that this move by the Chinese Esports Association was utter nonsense. They claimed that the officials were clearly trying to make a publicity move and that it was this kind of money-thinking that would see the quality of the tournament sharply decline.
The second group didn’t take such a hard stance. More than anything, they argued that there might be a very good reason for the Chinese Esports Association to make this move. Perhaps, they commented, there were several especially talented players in the pool of high schoolers and the Chinese Esports Association wanted to give these players a chance to get experience at the university level.
「I think it’s kind of cool. You know?」
「We get to see how good these high school teams are. Maybe they’ll surprise us.」
「piss off noob. theyre high shcoolers! itz a waste of my time to watch em play!!!!!!」
「YUUPPPPP those kids gonna be in for a rough pounding」
「but they’re representing the three big esports associations! They must have some skill, right?」
「Yeah! Maybe they’re just really really really good! Who knows! I’m excited to see this new format!」
「some people, like those two ^^^ should be sent to an institute for the mentally unstable!!!」
「idk man… maybe they really are somewhat decent. Who knows? few more days and well see」
「I’m just really disappointed by this move. The Collegiate Cup is always such a good tournament, because the quality is so high. I just fear that these high school teams are going to drag that quality down. I’ll watch them and really hope I’m wrong, but I think we all know the chances that I’m right are nearly 100%.」
「y so negative? GO GO HIGH SCHOOLERS! win this tiny tourney!!!!!」
The fans of the different university teams competing at the Winter Collegiate Cup all had their opinions and were eager to share those opinions with anyone who would listen to them. But the teams themselves stayed out of these discussions. There were some rumours from the weaker teams, ranging from curious to furious, but the stronger teams were radio silent. None of them said anything, even to their closest friends. This was because their focus was on preparing for the tournament. They simply didn’t have the time to decide how they felt about having to play against high schoolers. Winning the tournament was all that mattered.
The 4th of December! It was Tang Bingyao’s birthday! She was turning 18 years old! Her friends had arranged a party at a hotpot restaurant Lin Feng had scoped out. He claimed it had some of the best food in all of Shanghai, which he’d determined after visiting far more restaurants than he should’ve. And they’d also invited all of Tang Bingyao’s friends! There were the people from Senior Class 7, like Ren Rou, Ouyang, Yang Fan, and An Xin. Then there were her friends from the esports club, like Chen Ze, Liu Ye, and Wei Dong. And even the esports members from Shanghai High School’s old team were invited!
This was originally not the plan, but a small incident a couple of days ago saw them suddenly invited. It was at the cybercafe, where Team Shanghai was practicing. Zeng Rui’s old teammates had come to watch the games and were distracting enough that Lin Feng’s mind wandered. He’d suddenly gotten up from his seat and approached Zeng Rui. “Hey! ZengZeng! We’re throwing Tang Tang a birthday party on Friday! You guys should also come! We’re all friends now, and the more the merrier, right!”
Zeng Rui had wanted to refuse. He was getting friendlier with Tang Bingyao, but that was only in the setting of Team Shanghai. They didn’t have any contact outside of it, which meant they weren’t exactly friends yet in his book. But An Xin butted in before he could turn the invitation down. “Yeah! You should come! We’re on the same team and need to get more comfortable with each other! This’ll be a good way for all of us to bond more!”
“What BunBun says!” Lin Feng exclaimed. Then he added, “Though I’m already very comfortable with you! We’re best buds!”
Zeng Rui shook his hands in front of him. This doesn’t feel right. We’re not real friends yet. I only know her from playing video games with her. I don’t even know what her favourite colour is! We’re not friends, just colleagues basically. I can’t make it to interrupt her birthday party. That’d be rude. He wanted to say as much, but Lin Feng had already turned to his teammates and invited them too.
Zeng Rui massaged his temples. His teammates were looking at him, waiting for his answer. An Xin was smiling at him. She knows I have to say yes… And… He looked at Lin Feng. I hate that grin on his face so much! Damnit! He finally relaxed his tense muscles and said, “Fine. Fine. Let’s all go together.”
“Awesome! I’m looking forward to it! We’re going to have to look for a gift soon though!”
“I love parties. Love. Them!”
“Tang Tang will like this. You made the right choice, cap.”
Everyone who was invited to Tang Bingyao’s birthday party had gathered in a hotpot restaurant in downtown Shanghai. They sat with more than a dozen people around a large, round table, chatting happily. And Tang Bingyao stood at the center of this. She nodded at everyone as they all talked to her. And smiled. They’re all here for me. They’re really all here to celebrate my birthday!
Tang Bingyao was a quiet girl with not a lot of friends. This led to her never really celebrating her birthday with friends. She usually chose to treat herself to a small, simple cake and enjoy that by herself. Or she’d eat breakfast with her grandmother and celebrate it over a poached egg. But that was it. Until now, anyway. She looked at the people who’d all gathered here to celebrate her birthday and her smile grew wider. I have so many friends! Real friends! They’re here because they like me. They want to be here to celebrate my birthday!
A warm feeling filled Tang Bingyao’s chest. It was a strange sensation, something she hadn’t really experienced before in her life. But she instinctively knew what it meant. I’m happy. I want to be here, with all of them. Mhm! I’m really happy that they’re all here for me! She felt an emotional tear creeping into her eye and quickly wiped it away. I… I need to thank them! Mhm! But how… She looked around the table at everyone having a good time. And then she looked at her wallet. I did make a lot of money from the Shanghai 16 School Tournament… It felt strange in her stomach. She actually wanted to spend money on her friends. But she shook that thought away and got up from her seat. She then took her wallet out of her jacket and waved it around to get everyone’s attention. She announced “U-uh. Today is my treat. Mhm!”