December 2, 2017

Exploring the streets of Amsterdam

Day 2 of my Europe trip. Well, in reality, it’s the third day here. I’m riding on the super comfortable, incredibly smooth high-speed railcar called Thalys. It is pretty great. But let’s chat about some explorations accomplished yesterday.

A row of houses off a canal in Amsterdam.A row of houses off a canal in Amsterdam.

Waking up in Amsterdam

The morning in Amsterdam was beautiful, especially in the quiet residential neighborhood I woke up in. The soundscape was of bikes whizzing along roads, muffled conversations in the distance, birds chirping, and rail dropping. No honks, no yelling, just a pleasant and mild morning. Perfect for a croissant and coffee from the cafe across the street.

Morning view that leds out to a big ole porchMorning view that leds out to a big ole porch

Despite a great start to the day, I found a way. A way to mess it all up. Setting up a beautiful, pre-dawn photo of the magical Rijksmuseum took some time. It was a pretty good shot, great lighting. We’ve done it,” I said to myself, we’re off to a great start here.”

Forgot an SD card, making the photo impossible. And also realized I’d been standing it was started as a light winter rain that had turned into a pretty constant downpour. In winter clothes. Great for snow, but not great in rain.

After 15 minutes, I was back in my hotel room, soaking wet, no photo to show for it, and a stunning realization that I was not ready for a rainy, cold day in Amsterdam.

View from the porch. Not bad, but needed to get back out again!View from the porch. Not bad, but needed to get back out again!

The second attempt

Not to be deterred, and the caffeine setting in, we began the second leg of the morning adventures with a trip to the Apple Store. In another twist of bad fate, the Macbook charger I had forgotten cost a pretty 120EU to replace. Ouch.

The Apple Store. I kind of hate this place.The Apple Store. I kind of hate this place.

But we ended close to the city center, near a bunch of canals, and a more tourist-centric part of town. And thus began the exploration of the streets and businesses nearby, capturing photos along the way.

The square the Apple store was on. Ended up exploring around here for a couple hours.The square the Apple store was on. Ended up exploring around here for a couple hours.

I stumbled across a coffeeshop called The Dolphins (personally, I think The Dophlin” makes a bit more sense for a name, but that’s beside the point). It was run by two very chill hippies; and embodied the laid-back and relaxed vibe that the cafe exuded. It seemed like a blend between a kitschy, beach-side surfer shop; and a mid-city cafe with a laid-back-but-still-gives-a-shit style of service. I remember my Uber driver from the airport recommending the place, and was not disappointed.

The Dolphins Coffeeshop. With a hand-carved dolphin next to a bike rack. Because Amsterdam.The Dolphins Coffeeshop. With a hand-carved dolphin next to a bike rack. Because Amsterdam.

And like most coffeeshops in Amsterdam, the coffee was not the primary menu items. However, their actual coffee was surprisingly good, and reasonably priced. A pleasant afternoon treat.

Wish I took more photos of the shop itself, lots of kitchsy and cool art. Next time!Wish I took more photos of the shop itself, lots of kitchsy and cool art. Next time!

I ended up stuck inside nearly two hours, dodging the effects of a rainy day. A neighborhood cat decided to come join me, and the ladies who ran the place chatted a fair bit. A nice couple hours. Once the skies began to clear again, I ventured back outside; only for the rain to change its mind and again began to pour down. Which was fine, it was lunch time.

At a suggestion from the coffeeshop, ended up at a spot called Tomaz. A cozy lunch spot nestled down an alley, it proved a bit tricky to find; but I’m glad I did. The atmosphere was charming, filled with warm lights and packed into a small space. A tasty lunch menu proved a challenge, as everything looked great.

An intimate, cozy cafe off an alleyway in Amsterdam.An intimate, cozy cafe off an alleyway in Amsterdam.

Ordered a roast beef sandwich. Had some sort of slaw, a dutch-style cabbage, fresh dark bread, and the perfect amount of tomato and lettuce. The chef brought eat dish out to the guest and asked if it was good; a nice touch. Everything else I saw ordered around me also looked amazing; fresh ingredients, great smells, and presented very professionally. Everything was superb, and didn’t spend as much as I thought I would. Will come back here.

Found myself dodging the rain for a bit inside the cozy restaurant, and eventually ventured back out when the rain had subsided. Figures crossed that the skies were clear for the day, we dug deeper into the city center and some of the crazy and awesome city that Amsterdam has to offer.

Walking around the busy streetsWalking around the busy streets

A time to explore

Well-fed and a bit buzzed (the caffeine, beer, and effects of Amsterdam beginning to set in, after all), it was easy to walk up and down streets with no set goal. I walked around a couple museums, walked through some indoor malls, walked down alleys and over bridges. Took a few photos, and just was a tourist. The usual.

Nice buildings, Amsterdam.Nice buildings, Amsterdam.

I found myself a few kilometers away from where I started when it began to downpour again. Damnit, rain! I was forced in the lobby of a Hilton hotel while I called an Uber (had to rely on scattered wifi hotspots), making the escape back to my hotel. I didn’t get to explore in daylight as much as I had wanted, but did get a few good hours of exploration in. And plenty photos to show for it.

Storms-a-brewin'. Again.Storms-a-brewin'. Again.

Round three, start

Another shower and another change of clothes; was starting to feel I spent most of my day trying to dry off. After night began to set in, it looked like the rain had finally let up for good. Ended up walking around a bit before landing on a great dinner spot, a trendy late-night restaurant called Cannibal Royale. Ended up munching on a burger that had Sauerkraut, roasted pulled pork, fried onions, and a sweet BBQ sauce.

Alright, ya giant burger. Let's dance.Alright, ya giant burger. Let's dance.

After an IPA to wash it all down, ended up walking around Amsterdam for another few hours. Didn’t stop at too many places, but found some good photo spots I’d scouted before, and got to work. First time working with long exposure in a couple years, so it was a bit of a challenge. But with a nice tripod and a bit of patience, was able to score some great shots.

Night photography, take 1.Night photography, take 1.

I suddenly realized it was 2am and I was still just wandering around with camera gear. I packed it in, returning for a final time to the hotel. After looking through a couple photos on my laptop, realized that the long day was worth it. Got some really great photos, had a fun day exploring, and kind of fell in love with the city despite the rainy conditions.

Night photography, attempt 2Night photography, attempt 2

I was bummed that this was my last day here, but I will be back. Oh Amsterdam, I will be back.

Thoughts on Amsterdam

The architecture and general layout of Amsterdam makes it hard not to love. Canals carve through streets, reflecting the busy streets on rippling water. And walking in overly touristy areas, or breaking off the path onto quite streets and more residential neighborhoods; everything felt quirky and inviting. Everyone spoke English with relative ease, making everything just a bit easier to navigate.

I titled this photo "I'm bad at HDR."I titled this photo "I'm bad at HDR."

There was a lot of stuff I bumped into that I didn’t write about. Bars, cafes, coffeeshops, museums, etc. Overall I had a great day, despite the rain and busy streets. It was engrossing.

Meeting people along the way

When traveling, I’m just as happy doing my own thing or meeting new people. And with any travels, there’s periods where I can go solo for hours, or non-stop chat with people from hours. I like a mix, and Amsterdam certainly provided that. And there was some interesting characters along the way.

The Russian

A guy about my age pulls up the chair next to me at a bar. I’m eating a messy burger, so I’m not great company, and have found an out-of-the-way spot because I’m feeling a tad anti-social at the moment. I suppose the fuck off” vibe I was giving wasn’t strong enough.

As soon as he spoke, I figured he was Russian. Listen, I’m not a racist; but there’s just a single fact I know about solo male travelers from Russia.

Oh, great,” I thought to myself, a bit in-my-head, how long until we talk about prostitutes?”

I made a bet in my head that it would be 10 minutes. Checking my watch, it was 5.

He has a girlfriend in every major city around the world, just divorced his wife of 9 years, and loves being single. Knows all the good clubs and has an in at most. Wants to visit Brazil because apparently there’s 10 women to every one man. This guy.

He was actually pretty entertaining conversation, spoke English well, and I couldn’t help feeling a bit sorry for him. He mentioned his ex-wife every couple minutes. He seemed like he was having a good time, though, as he sipped on an Earl Grey tea.

I’ve got to have a cup of hot tea before going clubbing, you know?”

Oh, I know, strange Russian man. I know.

The girls next door

Two young ladies stayed in the room next to me. They hailed from Norway, I believe, though their accents were thick and a bit hard to understand. But I was like 90% sure they said they were from Norway.

Anyway, the hotel had these huge outdoor balconies outside our rooms. They spotted me out there and bothered me for a light — and again discussed the green tourism of Amsterdam for about an hour. Sounds like they had an even better time than me, and jotted down the names of a few places to check out on my return.

We complained about the stairs, the rain, and shared a quick cigarette before calling it a night. I’ve never met someone staying next to me at a hotel in the US in my life, so it was a nice night cap to a long day.

Couple from Bristol

This young married couple were a chatterbox, having just got off the train at Amsterdam Central. They made a quick stop before making the way to their hotel, where I bumped into them. They explained they were from a rougher part of Bristol, so the smoking culture wasn’t the primary draw; they loved the culture, streets, and the live and let live” lifestyle in Amsterdam.

It turns out they had scheduled the vacation six months earlier, but the wife fell ill and couldn’t make the trip. Instead of cancelling (it’s hard or impossible to get refunds on tickets and hotels), the husband went and had scouted out Amsterdam for his wife. And then he had just now saved up the funds and surprised her with this visit–both of them looked happy and relived to be there.

Anyway, we had chatted for about an hour, trading recommendations and things to do. I realized I was pulling for them, hoping they had a great vacation from their kids and family. I’ve never felt so invested in a stranger’s vacation, haha. Hope those coffeeshops are treating them well.

Let’s just talk about this Thalys again

Alright, listen. I wanted to just talk in the past tense, discussing yesterday’s happenings. But I can’t get over this ride.

First up: I’m pretty sure this train is floating. What is this rail technology that creates such a soothing, bump-free ride?

Second: despite the train being fairly busy, nothing like a noisy commute on a rail in the US. Everyone is whispering to each-other, no loud cellphone conversations, and the like. Even the conductor who checked my ticket was just a nice guy, barely spoke above a whisper, and fluently spoke in Dutch, French, and English with batting an eye. Why can’t we have this in the US?

This train literally changed my life. High-speed rail. It's the future.This train literally changed my life. High-speed rail. It's the future.

We literally just came to a stop; mid-paragraph. I couldn’t feel the train de-accelerating. This is madness, folks.

Arriving in Brussels soon

Since it appears that half-way through I began discussing my current day, I’ll finish up with today’s plans. We arrive in Brussels, drop off luggage in my hotel, and begin exploring the city.

Arriving in Brussels, already dark!Arriving in Brussels, already dark!

I’ve got a few photo spots, a few breweries, and a few streets I want to walk down. Everything else is up in the air… plenty of time to get lost in a new city. Just how we planned it, folks.

Cheers!

November 29, 2017

Day 1. It was a Tuesday in the afternoon when I set out from West Virginia, and by the time I arrived at my hotel in Amsterdam it was Wednesday at 11pm. Time flies when you’re having fun, or when you’re dealing with international flights, haha.

from dulles airport (dc) to istanbul (turkey)

airplaneairplane

It was my first time flying Turkish Airlines, and it wasn’t bad at all. Decent food, not terrible seats, enough room to do stuff without feeling too cramped. Bonus points for an aisle seat with nobody sitting next to me. Yay!

istanbul sunsetistanbul sunset

I flew into Istanbul and was a bit blown away by the airport there. It was very modern, functional, but also kind of beautiful. Was lucky enough to touch down right at sunset and snapped a few pictures. They had a fresh squeezed orange juice vending machine, too (which the processing behind the glass!) Sadly didn’t get a photo, but it was pretty interesting.

arriving at amsterdam

Amsterdam’s airport is a bit more of a traditional European airport — seemed a bit more utilitarian and less concerned with aesthetics. When you went outside into a market-style area with the metro lines, news stands, various stores and cafes… it definitely felt a lot busier. It was pretty nice, but I have to say that Istanbul left a more memorable mark.

amsterdam airportamsterdam airport

Blew threw customs without incident and got my bad pretty quickly. Didn’t really feel like navigating the metro system at 11pm with Dutch as the primary language… so opted for a taxi. Ended up costing a staggering 45EU for a 20 minute ride. Looks like we’re gonna stick with Uber from now on.

Driving through the streets offered a quick glance as what’s to come. First of all, they love their Heineken here. A lot of national pride, apparently. Every bar, restaurant, and cafe seemed to have a glowing neon sign announcing that they served Heineken. But what caught my eye more was the narrow streets and alleys, the twisting city streets, the canals that blend right into the cityscape, and a brilliant scape of lighting at night.

By the time I got out to explore at midnight, basically everything was closed down and the streets were empty. I knew that Amsterdam was a city that biked, but even in December at midnight, bikes were the main mode of transport. With huge bike lanes everywhere, it was awesome to see. I also heard that any vehicle that gets into a collision with a cyclist is held liable — not sure how true that is, but kind of shows where the priorities lie.

Biggest letdown was finding out that the International SIM card I have needed an activation code that’s on a piece of paper back home. Looks like I’ll have to carve some time tomorrow to fine an EU roaming data SIM card. Kind of a bummer, but not a huge deal.

tomorrow: we explore

Didn’t see or do to much today besides survive a hellishly long international flights. But as flights go, it was not bad at all. And actually got some shuteye. I’m learning this whole international flyer thing.

istanbul sunset 2istanbul sunset 2

Tomorrow we’re heading to some parks while it’s still dark out (and it’s already 2am! Yikes!) I want to get some sunrise photos while it’s still early.

Cheers!

August 30, 2017

Back from The International 2017

the international 2017the international 2017

Just got back from a long, exciting weekend in Seattle. Specifically, it was a trip to check out the TI7 finals (and wow, what a story–more on that below). But it was also a time to catch up with friends, check out some breweries, chow down some chowder, and tourist it up a bit.

A second trip to The International

After having a blast last year, I was determined to visit the event again this year. It wasn’t easy; tickets are sold out insanely fast, and cross-country airfare can be difficult to afford. Luckily, it all panned out in the end, and we had two finals tickets lined up.

Last year, I went with Alex. He’s a friend (and former roommate) from college, as well as a queue-buddy in Heroes of Newerth (or, simply, HoN”). We played a lot of HoN together in college. We never got into DOTA 2, as the release was poorly timed for us–we’d just graduated college and didn’t have the hours that every MoBA requires as tributary.

However, Alex follows DOTA 2 more closely than I do, and at the very least knows what all the heroes do. It’s a useful resource (and some would say a requirement) to enjoy watching DOTA 2 — there’s just so much going on; you need someone to ask questions to really get much out of it.

Esportin’ with the boys

While I have long been involved with esports, for a lot of people it’s a completely new experience. This year we were joined by our mutual friend who flew out with me: Matt Yates. Matt is from the same era in college, that saw too many late nights sacrificed to cheap beer and HoN.

Matt, unlike me and Alex, doesn’t follow esports at all. He plays Rocket League with us every couple of weeks; that’s about it. The world of esports, DOTA 2, and The International were all new to him. And bringing along someone you want to have a good time to TI who doesn’t play the game or follow the teams? That’s a challenge.

Alex quickly secured a third ticket, and we were off for a cross-country visit… and an entire esports event to take in. I was just hoping we could suck Matt into it.

Thankfully, it was easy to have a blast at the event. Our shared knowledge of HoN (which itself was a port of the first DOTA game) made it easier to explain what was happening. And by the end, Matt was tossing around predictions, questioning draft picks, and yelling during every teamfight along with the rest of the stadium.

Any nervousness I had at bringing a new friend into the esports realm was quickly squashed, and by the end of the weekend we were excitedly talking about who else we should bring next year.

Who would have thought a group of college buddies who don’t even play DOTA (I’ve uninstalled the game on four separate occassions) would create a yearly tradition around an esports event? Just goes to show that esports is in a pretty exciting (and growing) time.

The International 2017

Going into the event, our goal was essentially to cheer on teams that had players from HoN. Alex and I also had a few favorite players we wanted to see. In the end, we were rooting for OG, Team Secret, Cloud 9, Team Liquid, and EG. Unfortunately, by the time we arrived for the final two days, it did not look good for our HoN brethren.

But, let’s talk about the event itself.

The International 2017 (“TI7) was an absolute nail-biter this year. Despite projections, Chinese teams did exceptionally well, crushing fan favorites and dominating EU teams with little problem. Teams like EG, OG, and Cloud 9 were all out of the tournament fairly early on, with Chinese teams such as LFY, LFG, and Newbee kicking them to lower bracket without much difficulty.

Quickly it dawned on us that our dreams of watching a HoN teams in the final two days was not going to play out. However, the unlikely rise of Team Liquid was fun to watch. And more than that–it was incredibly exciting to see them play in the stadium itself. A very tense run all the way from the lower bracket, rising back and eventually winning the Grand Finals 3-0.

For more about the winners and the games themselves, I’d check out this article from RockPaperShotgun that digs into the details.

That special something

It’s hard to explain just why The International is such a cool event. It’s clear to see why DOTA is Valve’s baby. From the live orchestra and music performances to new hero announcements to dozens of emotional and humorous videos, there’s just so much put into it.

In a way, it feels like Valve just taking yet another victory lap around the track. They bask a bit in their successes with the game, as an esport, and as a company that cares about it’s community. It’s not really structured as a convention, like Blizzcon. Instead, Valve pours their effort into TI, and as a DOTA fan you leave with plenty of swag, announcements, and a newfound appreciation for the game. It makes me jealous that I’m not more of a DOTA fan myself.

Part of the draw is certainly the crowd. Being able to witness it all in-person, and with the roars and gasps during every team fight, it’s something pretty cool. Hell, it’s memorable. But there’s more to The International than the crowd…

What that is, I’ve yet to find out. I’ve been to a few other esport events, but there’s some extra special about TI. And it’s that magic that wants me to gather my friends and make the cross-country trip year after year.

Biggest disappointment? No visit from the man himself, Gabe Newell, though he did make a cameo in one of their perfectly crafted videos.

Actually, wait, no. Biggest disappointment: when I setup a meet-and-greet with the man himself: BreakyCPK. My idiot friends got too distracted to go and grab a beer with him. Alex, Matt, if you guys are reading this, y’all fucked up hard.

Next year, BreakyCPK. We’re coming for you.

hontrash squad out

July 11, 2017

This time, we’re going all in. #2017

Alright, ladies, and gentlemen, and basically anyone listening to this echo chamber of near nothingness. It’s 2017, and that means some awesome new resolutions.

I’ve got a boat load of new ideas, projects, and side-projects I’m working on. We’re talking podcasts, stories, blog posts, video series, some of that old-school, legit-as-hell game reviews that everyone has been demanding. Movie breakdowns. Maybe even a short film. I’m a god damn wild card.

So much content you wouldn’t even believe.

This time, we’re doing it up. 2017 is my year. I AM DOING THIS.

… Wait, it’s July already? Fuck.

July 10, 2016

ESL One Cologne 2016 comes down to SK Gaming and Team Liquid

The finals here at ESL Cologne have come down to Team Liquid and SK Gaming. The two powerhouse teams did not have an easy road to the finals here on Sunday.

esl one stageesl one stage

SK Gaming had to reach new depths against Virtus.pro (VP) in the semi-finals, scrapping together a 2-1 win over a VP that seemingly put everything on the line and had a nearly god-tier performance.

And Team Liquid had to performance in match after match that they were predicted to fail. Defeating Na’Vi and Fnatic to get into the finals was an absolute triumph, and they’ve had to beat two of the top three teams in the world to get where they are.

To everyone’s surprise, there seems to be a huge amount of teamwork, synergy, and trust in Team Liquid, and they’ve got a legitimate chance to overthrow the current favorite: SK Gaming.

The only question is, can Team Liquid keep this unbelievable streak alive and beat the current world champions in CS: GO? A lot of factors will need to line up: s1mple needs to continue his dominant performance, EliGE and nitr0 need to continue to show up, and Hiko needs to bring a few more match-changing performances.

It’s going to be a hell of a match, I’ll tell you that.

A quick look at the live production, event setup, video productions, and game observing is all overly positive. PGL has brought a lot of great production values into CS:GO, and the matches are always fun to watch. The various videos sprinkled around are incredibly well done, and it’s always a pleasure to see how seriously ESL presents CS:GO. It never feels like they treat it as just a game”: it’s a sport to them, and something with a lot of passion and excitement.

The only real complaint is there’s some obvious mixups in the observer feeds here and there, something you don’t see as often in ELeague or MLG. And when casters talk budget, you don’t normally see the money of players (opening player tab). Favorite tweet on the matter:

However, the mistakes are very minor compared to the overall kickass production values. Seriously, hats off to all the people behind the scenes, and of course to the analysts and commentators who bring yet another awesome event under their wings. The tier 1 talent pool in CS:GO is a very sharp, funny, and engaging crew: always a pleasure to watch.

Being here in Cologne has been an awesome experience, this is the first CS:GO Major I’ve attended in person, and have had an great time watching the games with the rest of the crew at DOJO MADNESS.

We’ve also had a chance to chat about our new, upcoming CSGO statistics toolset with a few people around the industry, and we’ve gotten some awesome feedback (and some very positive reactions) about what we’re doing. It’s a very innovative, interesting project, which I’ll be writing more about in the future.

The games are about to start here in Cologne, and look forward to watching the matches. In the meantime, keep an eye out for this exclusive drinking game.

Matt Mattc0m” Richards, reporting live from ESL Cologne, rooting for that American dream. Let’s go USA!