Tonight I'm having a chat with my friend Kris Abel, Technology expert for Canada AM. He recently hosted a small HALO tournament which was also his very first. Having been there to see it happen, I know it was a learning experience for him as well. Hopefully what he has to share will give us a better idea of what goes on behind a videogame tournament.
Ever since competitive videogames have been around, they have become sport in tournaments. Recently a number of one-shot game tourneys have been popping up, as seen on the comprehensive lists at TwinGalaxies.com for scores and reports. While most of them are in fact marketing strategies by sponsoring companies, they actually do work.
Tournaments bring out the players (known consumers) who buy high end products such as videogames physically to the stores. Tournaments give sponsors a chance to expose their target audience with any new and upcoming product they wish. For most of these consumers, when seeing something new in the flesh, it's much harder to resist buying.
Sheila: Dude, you are now 'the man' when it comes to talking about videogames in Canada. That said, how did the idea of having a tournament with you as host happen?
Kris: Adrienne Simic and Bettina Allsworth, two spokeswomen for Toshiba had called me first as an advisor, to pick my brain on what game titles they should look at and how other tournaments had been run. After meeting me in person, shaking my hand and looking me over, they decided I was their guy to host. According to them it had something to do with confidence and charisma, but I think my being on Canada AM didn't hurt.
I jumped in because they were talking about doing it on laptops and using the latest games. To my knowledge, that had never been done before. Laptops have never been powerful enough, so just to be a part of that, I was in.
Sheila: While watching you at work during the tournament, I personally felt that you needed an assistant to keep things going, rather than trying to handle everything yourself. What kind of support did you need, and what were you provided to run such a tournament?
Kris: I had three groups of support ? Kevin Dockstader is a professional games events organizer. If you've been to a mall and found a small Xbox or PS2 carnival, he's the man behind it. He took care of putting the LAN together, editing the maps, and keeping the controls at default. Richard Ting from Toshiba was on hand to fix any technical problems with the laptops themselves, and finally I had a pack of young attractive Toshiba women to take care of registration and recruitment, and most importantly because we had a major sponsor, to handle the camera crews and media that showed up.
I expected to be busy because I was the frontman for the tournament and so the guy everyone wanted to direct their questions to - players, reporters, or Toshiba staff who looked to me to guide them on rules changes, etc. because I'm the game expert and so should know what's fair. Even if I did have an assistant, people would still want to talk to me specifically, so I'm not sure if it would make a difference. Having a sexy young woman feed me from a bowl of chocolate-covered almonds in between rounds would have made a huge difference, though.
Sheila: I thought the age range was pretty high (17 years and up), do you think that most tournaments should separate players by age group, or just base it on the game's rating? What kind of player demographic was your tournament aiming for?
Kris: I was in for the idea of using laptops to tourney with a hot, new release. It's just not something that was possible before and we chose Halo specifically because it was new on PC and graphically very demanding. Halo doesn't have any cheat codes, so that helped. The game does have an ?M? rating plus the sponsor Toshiba was interested in going for an older demographic, they don't see as many fourteen year-olds buying $3,500 laptops as they do seventeen year-olds. One advantage with an older crowd is maturity, but then you're also dealing with people who are only just learning to deal with the effects of puberty. I'm keen now to get a deodorant company like Gillette to take an interest in doing some sponsoring for tourneys and conventions.
Sheila: The matches went by pretty quickly, and some with huge skill level gaps. If players were matched according to number of kills in their first round, I think it would have made for a better end battle. How did you decide on the rules for your tournament?
Kris: Because Best Buy gave us their store as a location, I had to make it so that anyone shopping in the store could join in if they were interested. Not knowing how many players that would be, I decided to go for two ladders, one that we could run with the pre-registered players, and then another for those who wanted to join after it started. The final showdown was between the winners of both ladders.
Tweaking for skill can be tricky, a friend of mine had suggested using handicaps that will slow down the players getting the most kills and speed up the players lagging behind to help balance. Doing things like that, to me, sets the stage for complaints and controversy. I prefer to keep things simple. If I could have created a ?tournament B? where the eliminated could go to compete for a lesser prize, I would have, but that wasn't an option.
Generally everyone was happy, there were some requests to turn the radar screens off from the more skilled players, but I didn't do that, telling them I wanted the game to play as people know it from playing at home. I also felt that the radar screens helped spectators follow the game, Best Buy customers who aren't gamers, would ask questions like ?Who's that guy playing? Where are the other players? etc.?
Sheila: Usually things don't go according to plan, while running the tournament were there any major snags or problems you encountered that you should have been been prepared for?
Kris: I was surprised by the number of people too intimidated to play. Not only was this tournament advertised on websites and in game stores, but a press release was sent out and through the media and it was given a big push. The feedback I got from store managers and Toshiba was that many people didn't want to sign up because they didn't think they could win. Nobody, apparently, wanted to play just for fun.
That's funny to me because Halo was new to PC, so your chances are higher than say in a Virtua Fighter tourney where people have had years to practice and get good. That I could understand would be impossible. We even got that reaction from people in the store being recruited by my Toshiba girls, I had to personally talk a number of guys into playing and they actually thanked me later. The sad part is that had there been more people to pre-register, I could have gotten some sponsors to help put together a little goody bag for everyone to take home just for playing.
Sheila: What would you do to have an improved tournament in the future?
Kris: I'd hold it on a Friday morning. We had to go with Tuesday morning because Best Buy didn't want us trashing their store when it was busy and since Tuesday is when the new games come out they thought that would be good. Only it was a tough time for people to get off from work or school, so we could have done better.
Now why in the morning? Here's my big tip. If you're lucky enough to get a sponsor for your tourney, you have to take care of them more than just exposing them to 50+ fans in exchange for a banner and some prizes. They're better off doing a giveaway with MuchMusic or a game site. The reward for them is media coverage and most reporters and camera crews have to get their stories by noon. Even if you hold a little pre-tourney round at 11am, you're giving your sponsor the chance to call in the news channels and paper reporters. They get to expose their products being used by fans to an audience of 200,000 or more people rather than just 50. You can still hold the real event later in the day, but you have to have something on a weekday morning. Professional tournaments like Fragapalooza and the World Cyber Games do this and that's why.
Sheila: I saw that you brought your own cameraman to the tournament, what do you recommend to anyone who wants to promote and host a tournament? Do you think outsourcing to people who specialize in running such events is worth it in a larger scale?
Kris: If you do get a tourney up and running, you need to take pictures if you want to throw more tourneys in the future, not just to show other potential sponsors what you can do, but also to use in promos in case it becomes an annual thing. I might be doing this again with Toshiba next year, so that's handy.
It think it's easier to promote an underground tourney built around an old, but fan favourite game like Street Fighter, just put out the word on the Internet and they will come, but you'll have a hard time attracting sponsors with that. With a big name like say, Nintendo or Dell they'll want you to use their newest gear and that might not get the fan fever running, but you'll have the financial support to take care of the people who do show up. The best thing you can do is hook up with a store or several stores that sells games and get them to post a notice about your tourney.
Sheila: How much did it cost to host a small tourney? Did any special equipment need to be rented?
Kris: This was a great tourney in that there was no drive to make a profit and everything was donated. Best Buy gave us their store including furniture and some of their staff, Toshiba donated the laptops and their public relations team, Microsoft gave us copies of the game and 2nd and 3rd place prizes. The biggest cost was hiring Kevin Dockstader to run the LAN, and I of course don't know how much that was as Toshiba covered that. Without all of that commercial support it would have cost a small fortune and I would have had to charge an entry fee. This way, people had fun and it didn't cost the players a dime.
Sheila: Your tournament had an expensive gaming-ready laptop for the winner. Do you think that the worth of the prize in money or it's use to a player is the main reason players would want to show up and do their best?
Kris: There were a couple of people who told me they would have joined had it been Halo on Xbox. I tried to get them to play anyway by showing them the notebook they could win. It's a sweet, sweet machine, the P20 Satellite, I wish I had one, and it wasn't a huge tourney, the chances for winning were very reasonable, but they didn't care about that. So I think in general people want to win first, then win big prizes second. It's more important to prove to yourself that you're as good as you think you are at your favourite game than to walk home with a $3,500 machine. Personally that girl with the chocolate-covered almonds is sounding like the better idea to me.
Sheila: I remember a time when players would regularly travel to other cities or even countries just to participate in a tournament for the fame and a chance to challenge someone well known. It feels like these days recognition for skills have become an afterthought and tournament winners become forgotten. Do you think player attitudes towards tournaments and tournament winners have changed over the years?
Kris: It's one thing to be a big fish in a small pond, another to find a big fish in the ocean. It's not just that games have grown beyond the geeks and so the population of gamers out there is big, it's also the sheer number of games out there to choose from. Interest is widely diverse between all the popular games and so it's hard to grab bragging rights for being good at one specifically. In time this'll change, we have to wait for games to get more in the mainstream, when tournaments become televised, then you'll see that kind of recognition come back. It's already like that in South Korea and we just need to catch up.
Sheila: Finally, I have to ask the question all the ladies at the tournament were dying to know: boxers or briefs?
Kris: Calvin Klein makes these extended briefs that are the best of both worlds, snug, but without looking like tighty-whiteys. I'm wearing them these days.
Sheila: Thanks for your time, Kris and good luck on your future tourneys!
Hosting a Videogame Tourney