My first taste of running tournaments was seven years ago. It wasn’t a choice I wanted to make – it was simply the reality that if my friend and I didn’t learn how to run things on our own, there wouldn’t be any more competitions in Sydney to play in.
There wasn’t much enjoyment to be had and I was happy to pass the mantle on a few years later when the opportunity arose. But one of the things it did give me was a strong appreciation for those who have been in the business for longer, people who understand the pitfalls and pleasures better and those individuals who actually enjoy it.
Until recently, Derek “Dox” Reball was one of those. It took a new career to deprive him of the time necessary to stop becoming the cornerstone for Starcraft 2 competitions in Australia and his expertise will surely be missed. But before his career deprives the community of his experience altogether, I sat down with the man to learn a thing or two.
GON: You originally started running tournaments for Warcraft 3, a scene that was dedicated but much smaller compared to other games such as Counter-Strike and the fighting game communities. Was there a lot of resources or other admins that you could learn from when you started out?
Derek: I just kinda jumped on board the whole eSports movement while it was still establishing itself locally in 1999. The phrase “eSports” didn’t even exist back then; we just called it competitive gaming. I watched some Brood War tournaments – no prizes, just bragging rights – at The Bunker and took mental notes. From there, it lead to running the Brood War side of the World Cyber Games for a few years, and everything since then has been a snowballing series of lessons. Back then, it was an educational experience for everyone. Players didn’t understand the concept of a bracket, and terms like “Double Elimination” and “Round Robin” meant nothing to them. All they cared about was playing the game. More often than not, players would disregard the bracket and spontaneously start playing their own King of the Hill style matches instead. Between 1999 and 2002 we saw an enormous cultural shift in Australia where people just started to “get it.”
Everyone saw this shining beacon of opportunity where they could play games and be recognised as the best. There wasn’t a lot of prizes going around at the time, and money was almost nonexistent. It was just simply about being the best at something they loved. There was a serious lack of people willing to run the events, unless they saw an opportunity for profit. There wasn’t really anyone I could learn from back then, it was just this kind of clunky road where I’d stumble through an event without a clue what I was doing, and by the end of it, one of the players would approach me with a good idea to implement for next time.
GON: Time management is always a factor that seems to plague events all over the world. How do you cope, what can you do to minimise delays and what tricks or strategies do you have for making up for lost time?
Derek: Funnily enough, most time delays are completely out of my hands. I mean, over the years I’ve developed a solid routine where I can practically run an event in my sleep. (Seriously, I’ve had people tell me I’ve been talking in my sleep about brackets and maps and all sorts of stuff.) So ultimately, once you have that routine down, you know what to expect and you can prepare a lot of it in advance. A few things I’ve learned over the years:
- If you want the event to start at 11:00AM, tell the players it starts at 10:00AM. Gamers generally have very poor time management skills, so more often than not, you’ll have a few stragglers running late.
- Save yourself time in advance by preparing all of the resources you need the night before. If you require the participants to fill out a registration form, create one in Excel or Google Docs and allow them to enter their own details. Provide them with examples so they know exactly what is expected of them. Make the bracket page early, and include as much info on it as possible, so all you need to do is enter the names the next day.
- When gathering details of participants, be sure to grab their phone number. People often wander away during events because, although you might have a very specific schedule in mind, they might decide to go and grab a snack or take a cigarette break between matches – leaving you stressed and stranded whilst inevitably causing delays.
- Send reminders prior to the event. If you just let them sign up on a forum or a registration page, chances are, they’re going to forget. I personally only allow players to register for an event via email, which allows me to communicate directly with them 1 week, 1 day and 1 hour before the event goes live. It also makes life easy if any changes occur to the format/schedule.
- Always do a test run the night before. You’d be surprised how many times I’ve announced the commencement of an event and left out something really important, like the maps or who is being seeded. Just create a dummy bracket, enter in the registrations and play it through from start to finish with some predicted results. No-one needs to see it, but it’s always fun to go back and take a look at the bracket the next day and see how close your predictions were to the end result.
- You need to find a way to be firm but polite with the players. In a close-knit community like ours, everyone is a friend and sometimes you feel like a jerk when you tell them to stop socialising and start their match. It’s worse when you tell a guy who is devastated about losing a match to pack up his gear and vacate the computer so the next player can get ready. If you let players stand around mingling and occupying computers to their own leisure, events will never, ever finish on time.
- Never be afraid to admit your mistakes. It’s how you remedy them that really matters.
GON: What was the first big lesson or mistake you made as an administrator?
Derek: There was an Australian qualifier for the Blizzard Worldwide Invitational back in 2004. Due to time restrictions, we only had 1 day to run the entire event, with players scheduled to fly back out at 7:00PM. So I made a decision to run groups, followed by a best-of-one single elimination bracket. Andrew “mOOnGLaDe” Pender went 6-0 in his group, whilst the rest of the people who made it to the next stage of the tournament went 4-2 or 3-3 at best.
In the first round of the Single Elimination Bracket, GLaDe got really unlucky against Bryan “SiZeMaTTeRs” Murphy – losing his entire army and hero in a bad creep jack. Because of this, an unknown player by the name of “SouLJaH” ended up taking out the tournament, and it left a really bad taste in the collective mouth of the community for a long time.
Funnily enough,SouLJaH went on to eliminate Wizard – one of the reigning champions from North America in the first round of the global finals before he was eventually knocked out of the tournament. But that was the day that I learned a very valuable lesson – never compromise the integrity of the event in order to meet a deadline.
GON: Many tournament organisers often have to put their hand in their own pocket to make balance budgets at the end of the day. How frequently have you had to spend your own dollars to cover costs, and what are the best ways to make an event as budget-neutral as possible?
Derek: Well, eSports – at least locally – has always been about volunteers and charity. Whether its flights, accommodation or venue hire, it always comes from the pocket of the volunteer who has agreed to run the show. The only exceptions in nearly 13 years are last years Battle.net Invitational in Sydney and WCS Australia/Oceania, where Blizzard covered my flights and accommodation.
Every other event to date has been an acceptable loss for me, with the biggest one being my own online event last year – Dox Cup #2 – where I put $2,000 of my own money into the prize pool. The best and only way, without the aid of sponsors, to recover those costs are entry fees. People may complain (because most competitive gamers are poor uni students, after all!), but it’s a necessary compromise in order to keep these events afloat.
Even then, I know that events like ACL are far from turning a profit. The entry fees barely cover the prize pool, let alone the venue hire, equipment hire and various other associated costs. It’s a sad fact of life that I often choose to ignore. When you really look deep within the scene and realise how many peoples’ wallets are bleeding, it kinda takes some of the magic out of it.
When it comes to events hosted at internet cafes, it’s another story entirely. There is this misconception that internet cafes lose money because the entry fee is often less than what they would make if their computers were occupied by regular paying customers. But truthfully, many people who are eliminated early in the tournament don’t spend the rest of the day at the venue. They’ll pack up and leave, vacating that computer for someone else to use. (Not to mention there’s no guarantee that an internet cafe will be completely full for an entire 8 hour block anyway.) And the real kicker is drinks. These venues purchase snacks and drinks at a wholesale price, and when a tournament is running, most people don’t have time to leave the venue and grab some food. So they’ll regularly turn over up to $4 per drink throughout the day. Rest assured, tournaments are very lucrative for internet cafes, especially when they offer products from sponsors as prizes instead of cash. So if you’re looking to break even or even profit from a tournament – internet cafes are your best bet. In my experience with venues like Elysium in Brisbane and iBisQ in Melbourne, they’re always happy to offer a significantly discounted rate when it comes to venue hire.
GON: A lot of gamers come to an event and they’ll see the games and complain or praise about the setup but they never really experience the exhaustion and time that goes into making it all happen. How much effort and manpower does it take to get a major venue, such as the Roundhouse at the University of New South Wales or the Moonee Valley Racecourse, ready for an event?
Derek: Back in 2004, when I was running the Innovative Home Show WarCraft 3 event for Pantheon eSports, we had to fly 8 people down to Melbourne 3 days in advance so that we could lay all the carpet, construct the stage, prepare the network, transport the equipment, test the audio/video, and configure the PC’s/peripherals. And here’s the kicker – this was before the era of streaming. We didn’t even have to worry about internet connections, stream quality, or any of the other associated nightmares.
When I look back at those days, and then look at the efficiency of the ACL/LanSmash team, it leaves me in awe. These guys rock up to the venue 1 day before the event with a team as small as 5 people and make pure magic happen. The combination of sheer technical excellence and manual labour endured by these guys is truly admirable. Competitors will never truly appreciate the amount of effort that goes into the setup until they’ve been a part of the process.
More often than not, these guys are working until midnight (or later), with only a few hours sleep before they need to wake up and kick the event off the next morning. And of course, that’s when some of the technical difficulties start creeping out … equipment which was working 12 hours ago is no longer co-operating. Internet is dropping out. Computers are losing power. Screens are refusing to turn on. Microphones have gone missing. But the ability to quickly and efficiently resolve these issues and keep the show running is a true talent. In the WCS Australia/Oceania documentary by The Filming Archon, you can see the crew constructing the booths, stage and rigging 2 days before the event went live. And these people are gamers man, they’re not paid professionals. They’re just passionate volunteers who do it because they love eSports. It’s beautiful.
GON: Let’s talk about the World Championship Series, one of the largest events ever hosted in Australia. What was it like from your side of the stage – how many hours did you have to put in setting everything up, what was the daily schedule like, what problems arose that nobody saw and so on.
Derek: For me the hours went into managing qualifiers, promoting events, sharing information across gaming networks, social media and so on. To make everyone’s life easier, the ACL crew set up some structured discussion boards online, with a long list of tasks which needed to be completed, who was assigned to each task and its current progress.
This was everything from purchasing/configuring/testing equipment, constructing and designing the booths, to arranging flights, communicating with subcontractors, accommodating and transporting players, contracting photographers and putting the stream up on the Team Liquid calendar. The vast majority of this work was completed by Nick Vanzetti and the rest of the crew in the Aus Gaming House, along with JB Hewitt and his LanSmash guys.
On game day, I played one of many director roles, whereby I would plan out the event structure from start to finish, budget for time and decide which matches would be on the stage, who would commentate them, and which matches would need to be postponed or played backstage. Then it was a matter of communicating this information to the rest of the team so that the guys managing the overlays could have them prepared in time, along with having the dynamic brackets updated on the ACL site.
One of the issues we encountered in real-time was that the caching for the directory containing the brackets images was borked, so viewers couldn’t see the updated results no matter how many times they refreshed. So i needed to host the files on my FTP and re-route the files ASAP. On top of this, every single match result was broadcasted across Twitter, SC2SEA and TeamLiquid, with upcoming matches being announced in advance. Each replay was retrieved at the end of each day and archived, where I would later sort through them and categorise into a list to be handed over to Blizzard post-event. There was a lot of coordination between myself and Linc, Josh, Nicolas and Ash whereby we would ensure that players were notified of when they were expected to move to the stage, have them in position and ready to rotate, assisted them with setting up their equipment and verifying the noise cancelling, sorting out map vetoes, providing refreshments to the players/commentators and resolving technical difficulties with the PC’s.
Some of the biggest problems that arose were organic ones that you simply can’t really resolve. You get one player out of the booth, and the next player in within 5 minutes, but then the guy running the stream needs to quickly run to the bathroom. So we do some giveaways on the stage to kill time. In the meantime, the commentators went outside for a cigarette. The venue security didn’t like people smoking near that door, so they locked them out and directed them to the other side of the venue. We lose sight of the commentators and we start arranging replacements. I run off to find the other commentators, and tell everyone what the new plan is via walkie-talkie. They update the stream overlays to tell the viewers who is going to be commentating the next series.
But then I bump into the original commentators and they’re back from their cigarette break, ready to go. But now one of the players is missing because he decided to take a bathroom break. And while all of this is happening, we have 10 frantic people all talking in my headset asking the same question: “What’s going on?” It’s hectic, but unfortunately these things happen. I can guarantee you they happen at every event. All you can do is try to keep the issues at a minimum and prevent them from snowballing into a nightmare.
One of the scariest parts of the whole event was actually Saturday night – the WCS Australia Grand Final between mOOnGLaDe and PiG. We were running so far beyond schedule that we were at risk of having the venue switch off the power in the middle of the match. We had until midnight to wrap it up and get everyone out of the venue. It was 11:45PM, and game 2 was just about to start. No-one wanted to live with the responsibility of shutting down the event and postponing the finals until the next morning – not with two days of built anticipation and tension. So of all people, they asked me to make a decision. I said, “To hell with it, let’s play the match and hope GLaDe loses in 10 minutes”. It was heartbreaking to actually say, because this harks back to that cultural shift I was talking about earlier, when the players aren’t the focal point anymore. The production is priority numero uno.
As coordinators of the event, we didn’t care about the games anymore. We just wanted it to be over so we could dodge a bullet. Thankfully, PiG took the next map with 3 minutes to spare, so Leigh ‘Maynarde’ Mandolov (MC for the event) got up on stage, blurted out the quickest, dirtiest congratulations he could, and promptly ushered everyone out. You wouldn’t believe the collective sigh of relief from Blizzard and ACL at that point. Fortunately for us, by day 3 we’d dealt with enough issues and endured enough fatigue that we became bulletproof. We knocked it out of the park, fueled by the enthusiasm of the crowd, and it will forever remain a keystone of Australian eSports in my memory.
Derek won’t be leaving the scene entirely. As the founder of Nv, he’ll be flying to Dallas later this year with his team to participate in the Major League Gaming event. You can follow his Twitter at @NvDox and he’s a regular contributor to discussions on the SC2SEA website.