Edge of Innovation

Behind the Scenes at a Major eSports Event

Jason Johnson Freelance writer and editor

What does it take to run the world’s biggest gaming tournaments?

The second leg of the Intel Extreme Masters (IEM) tournament just got underway in Cologne, Germany, which means that right now someone probably has a big headache. While it may seem that getting people together to play video games would be easy, it is anything but.

Major eSports events are huge, and they are extremely complicated to run.

There is a massive amount of technology in play — from the games to the hardware to the streaming broadcasts — and keeping these moving parts in synch is a tremendous endeavor.

2015 ESL One Katowice - major esports
2015 ESL One Katowice

This was the big takeaway of All Work All Play, the feature-length documentary that followed last year’s IEM tournaments and championships. The film, releasing in theaters worldwide this week, somehow managed to keep pace with an increasingly exhausted-looking Michal Blicharz.

“This is an extremely stressful occupation,” said Blicharz, the 35-year-old director of ESL. Between the amount of travel and logistics, Blicharz says each event is a massive undertaking.

“Every time you come into a new venue, you have two days or less to build an entire tournament from the ground up, including network, PCs and everything.”

Michal Blicharz - major esports
Michal Blicharz at the Intel Extreme Masters

The payoff — a hundred thousand screaming fans at the finals in Katowice, Poland — is worth it, of course, but getting there is fraught with challenges.

As the tour snakes its way across three continents, it makes stops in some major cities that despite their international prestige, might not be prepared for the technological needs of eSports.

major esports
2015 ESL ESEA CS:GO Pro League S1
Photo: Helena Kristiansson

Contrarily, IEM comes to town with 80 God-tier computer stations, a platoon of production crew and IT people, and, depending on which games are featured in the lineup, debuggers and technical experts from game developers like Blizzard, Riot and Valve.

The organizers have to be prepared for anything, from a computer crash to their internet connection faltering.

The man in charge of smooth operations behind the scenes is Bastian Veiser, who divides his duties into the “creative part” of choosing the selection of games for the events, and the “technical part” of making sure an auditorium of people and electronics hums like a well-oiled machine.

One concern is uniformity, or verifying that playing conditions are equal for all players in a match. This is important because it would be an unfair advantage for one team to get lightning fast computers while the other is stuck with the spinning hourglass.

major esports
2015 WCS S2 Premier League Groups
Photo: Helena Kristiansson

This starts with installing identical hardware on all computers in the arena, including those used by the referees and elsewhere, Veiser said.

Additionally, when they first set up an event, they create a master image of a single hard drive and copy it onto every computer, so that every single bit is the same.

This level of attention to evenhandedness even extends to the length of Ethernet cable that connects players to the game.

Both teams in a match will sit symmetrically in a row of computers, so that there is no speed advantage for being positioned very slightly closer to the local router.

This might sound like overkill, something that no one would notice, but these players are so good that a few milliseconds could be the difference between a win and a loss.

2015 WGL Grand Finals - major esports
2015 WGL The Grand Finals
Photo: Helena Kristiansson

Blicharz and Veiser must also think about disaster management. What do they do if all of a sudden a computer fails during a match?

“Very rarely computers have shut down on us,” Veiser said, but even once is a problem due to the fact they are running a live show with millions of people watching.

When the occasional malfunction does occur, the operations team is prepared to swap out the whole unit on the spot, like a pit crew replacing a balding wheel.

Since these are online games, they synchronize with the game developers, so that the servers of the games they are playing do not go down for maintenance in the middle of a big match. If the internet goes out — well, they can only pray.

 

Editor’s note: All Work All Play comes to theaters in the U.S. on July 21st and worldwide on July 28th. Skywalker Ranch interview with Patrick Creadon filmed on location by Bradley Whalen.

 

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