This weekend's DreamHack Open: Bucharest StarCraft II tournament is poised to be one of the largest and most viewed third-party competitions of the year. The list of players attending already has fans and other professional players calling it one of the most difficult tournaments in the game's history, and DreamHack's CEO Robert Ohlén has eagerly chimed in via Twitter to agree, describing it as "the most stacked StarCraft tournament in Europe. Ever."
GameSpot spoke with Christian Lord, product manager for DreamHack Open, about his expectations for the event, the list of players attending, DreamHack's continued work with mainstream media, and its plans for the future.
You're less than a week out from DreamHack Bucharest, which will be the last independent DreamHack Open stop of the year. What does the week before an event like this typically look like for you and your staff?
It's of course very hectic as running events on this scale have an almost unlimited amount of details that need to be taken care of. During the final week before the actual event we're mainly focused on logistics anomaly management--it's too late to make major changes.
A huge improvement internally for this year's edition of DreamHack is that all the four stops plus the Grand Finals at DreamHack Winter use the same equipment and has the same staff. Therefore we get a much higher consistency, but it also reduces the amount of work you have to do for each event preparation wise. We are much more confident this year compared to last.
Outside of the events ran inside the festivals at DreamHack Summer and Winter, you've chosen to run your events at Stockholm, Valencia, and Bucharest for the last two years. What led you and your team to choose these locations, and what made you decide to stick with them for a second year?
In 2011 we reformed some of our focus at the company, and it connected well with the huge growth in eSports, and StarCraft II specifically, which led into our first eSport-only event, the DreamHack Stockholm Invitational, its sequel DreamHack Valencia Invitational, and the Grand Finals in the Hockey Arena where HerO won his first major championship.
The main reason to go to Valencia and Bucharest is because of our great partners. We believe it's impossible to go into a new market and country without a good understanding and great connection. Also being able to bring a premier eSport tournament to these cities and countries has been very well received and you can see it generating growth in the region.
The standalone DreamHack Open circuit only features StarCraft at the moment. Are there currently any plans in 2014 to add titles DreamHack Open?
DreamHack has always and will always be open to a lot of different communities and a great diversity of games. At DreamHack Summer and Winter we normally have up to ten games run as official tournaments. The same is going on at Valencia and Bucharest with several tournaments being held and attracting some of the best players and teams from the world.
DreamHack Open is our international championship that spans over one year, one storyline, and one champion. It's a fixed format when it comes to titles and sponsors. We definitely want to expand this into more games, but it's a matter of budget and opportunity. We have some great partners in EIZO, Logitech G, and Kingston HyperX who make it possible to run the show and have been been working with us for many years and are great supporters of eSports.
Is it likely that we'll see the Dreamhack Open circuit expanded with more stops next year?
As of next year we will return to the cities of 2012 and 2013 but we're also adding Moscow which is very exciting since Russia is one of the most important eSports markets in Europe. We want to provide the European eSports community with high-quality events in more countries, but it takes time to expand with standalone events and we want to grow organically.
We're focused on Europe right now, since we believe Europe lacks great eSports events that are standalone and not connected to trade fairs or generic gaming events. Future DreamHack Open-markets could be UK, Benelux, and France, but we're also looking to expand outside Europe in the future.
DreamHack CEO Robert Ohlén has commented publicly on a few occasions about wanting to host a DreamHack Open event in North America. Can you comment on whether your team is currently favoring the idea of running it the United States, Canada, or Mexico?
"DreamHack has its primary eSports focus in Europe, but we're also looking West for obvious reasons."
DreamHack has its primary eSports focus in Europe, but we're also looking West for obvious reasons. We will however never rush into something that we don't believe will be a resounding success. That being said, things have a tendency to move fast in the eSports world, and we may be coming to America sooner than we are planning at the moment. Other then that I can only really recommend following Robert on Twitter; it's always entertaining.
DreamHack Bucharest will be the second-to-last tier one non-WCS event before Blizzard's Grand Finals at Blizzcon. Did you and your staff see any increased interest in participating at your event from professional players due to this event being one of the last opportunities for professional players to earn those coveted WCS points before the year's end?
DreamHack Open has been having an increased interest when it comes to both participating players and viewers. Our Stockholm and Summer event this year had the highest viewership of a DreamHack StarCraft II event. This upcoming Bucharest event has the best player line-up ever in DreamHack history, possibly even in European StarCraft II history as well.
WCS creates for the StarCraft II community a more consistent storyline and of course it's very beneficial that we're hosting four WCS Tier one and two events. DreamHack is very satisfied with the cooperation with Blizzard Entertainment and that DreamHack Open is such an integral part of WCS.
How does DreamHack typically reserve slots for its Open events?
DreamHack Open is a first come first serve affair, which makes it possible for anyone to participate at the tournament. In addition to this, we work very closely with most teams and organizations to get the top dogs to be able to participate. A smaller number of fixed slots are reserved for those teams, since they are investing heavily into eSports and DreamHack. In a dream world we would host tournaments for 512 players, with flight and hotel allowance, but it's also a matter of budget in the end.
Has that system changed at all since the implementation of Blizzard's WCS?
In the regard of who would be able to participate at a DreamHack Open, the WCS has not changed anything for our tournaments. We used the same format like last year.
Doubling back, I think it’s relevant to ask about WCS' impact on all the other DreamHack Open events. Was Blizzard's creation of a yearlong, persistent point system an overall positive or negative experience for you as an independent tournament organizer?
From the get-go, when Blizzard initiated the talks about this year's WCS, we weren't sure how it would affect DreamHack Open but Blizzard was very transparent and it worked out very good for us. I believe that WCS has been beneficial for DreamHack Open and that we can see it in the growth of viewership numbers and overall exposure. We're very positive about that.
As we agree with Blizzard's ambitious long-term plan and vision regarding eSports sometimes it's impossible to execute everything over one night. That's something we also realized last year: it takes time to get things established, and sometimes it's better to wait instead of trying to do everything at the same time.
Developers have played a larger role in eSports, in general, over the last few years. StarCraft, League of Legends, Dota 2, and even Call of Duty all have developer-run events and in every case the developer-run event is the main event for the year. What challenges does this create for a group like your team who work exclusively in eSports?
For DreamHack this generates a lot of great possibilities. Working close with gaming developers has been very important. These massive events that the developers are producing is a great way of attracting more people to eSports and growing the community that DreamHack operates in. We don't see it as they are competing with us. Some of these World Championships are taking place at our events or are organized by other eSports operators. I think it's just natural that the gaming developer is organizing the World Championship in their own game, either alone or together with an eSport organizer. They have the community support and also the marketing power and budget to pull off these amazing once-a-year events.
As we see the demands and wishes from both the corporate world and the gaming community, we're sure about the position we have. Independent event and eSports organizers are needed.
This year in competitive StarCraft II has not been one that has been particularly rewarding for non-Korean players. Johan "NaNiwa" Lucchesi is the one non-Korean competitor that tends to standout for his performances in 2013, and even he has yet to find himself walking away from an international event with a gold medal. Taking a quick gander at last year's player list at Bucharest I can see that the tournament had three Korean players in attendance. The uncompleted list for this year's event indicates that at least sixteen Korean players will be attending. My next question is twofold: What do you think accounts for the increased Korean attendance this year? And do you find that not having strong non-Korean performers hurts viewership at your events?
To first answer your two questions: first of all, Western teams have signed more Koreans over the last year and therefore they are sending more Korean players to our events. Second of all, I think it all comes down to entertainment, storylines, and how you engage the crowd. I think it's easy to generalize all Korean players as the same and I won't agree on that. However, you will always have greater viewing numbers if one of the crowd favorites makes it far and if someone is performing exceptionally. DreamHack Open is located in Europe, but we are a global tournament and are glad some of the best players in StarCraft II participate in our tournaments.
I think some parties in eSports want to generalize when it comes to viewership. DreamHack for example, never had the same level of players like MLG, IPL, ESL, and NASL, but we still had some of the most viewed event streams on Twitch.TV in Wings of Liberty and Heart of the Swarm. Quality of players is important, but I wouldn't consider it more important than casters or other factors. It's a mix, together with production value, online promotion, brand value, community cred, general event hype, promotion from sponsors and publishers, and a couple of other factors. It's hard to grab one thing and say that's more important than the other.
You have two KeSPA players, sOs and Flash, playing at Bucharest. This is the first time KeSPA players will be attending a DreamHack Open event. What does this mean for you and your team?
We have had some dialogue with KeSPA over the years and are we are thrilled to have players from KeSPA attending our event for the first time. Having a living legend like Flash at your event is just fantastic, especially when his current shape seems to be very strong. I'm very happy to see all the excitement for sOs and what gameplay he will bring. For DreamHack this is a proof that our events are among the most prestigious in the industry and that all competitors around the world want to participate and become a DreamHack champion.
Last week you managed to rain on Major League Gaming's parade. Shortly after their Executive Vice President Adam Apicella tweeted the dates for next year’s MLG Anaheim event, you responded publicly on Twitter that they had scheduled their event over next year's DreamHack Summer. You went on to note that the DreamHack Summer dates had been available since May of 2012. While the issue was completely remedied, and remedied fairly quickly, by MLG moving their tournament back a week, the community was in a small frenzy until that resolution was announced. Can you elaborate on the talks between DreamHack and MLG immediately following the realization of the conflicting dates?
Having events happening at the same time has been and will always be unavoidable. This time MLG was simply not aware. We are very glad that MLG could act so fast and change the dates. Both me and Robert had some good talks with Adam as well as [MLG CEO Sundance DiGiovanni], as both companies have a history of good relationship. We know that it was not an intentional collision as it's nothing that either MLG or DreamHack would benefit from.
On November 15 of last year, DreamHack, ESL, and MLG announced a "partnership to unify and elevate eSports globally." The press release that announced the partnership included several goals, two of which were to "benefit players and spectators," and "alleviate the taxing event schedule." Given the snafu that we just discussed, is it safe to assume that the gang has broken up?
No, quite the opposite I would say. It is however rather complex to sync three large event organizations when it comes to dates. It's not always just up to the eSports organizer to decide. Venue abilities, partnerships, sponsors do have a say, which makes it even harder to not collide. We can only become better, since it is in everyone's interest, not the least the audience's, to have a yearly schedule with minimal collisions.
Did that partnership ever lead to any large scale collaboration?
The partnership was first and foremost a way to avoid colliding all the the time. We all have a common interest in growing our industry, and, both before and after our joint declaration, we've been collaborating, albeit in a more unofficial capacity.
Changing gears, you've worked with Sweden's SVT to bring mainstream media coverage at DreamHack Open stops and then you personally worked with TV6 for coverage of Valve's The International 3. What plans do you have for future collaboration with mainstream media?
eSports in Sweden and globally is growing rapidly. In Sweden the interest from traditional media has been great over the last couple of years, and DreamHack has a very good relationship with all the different broadcast companies. Having Swedish Public Services broadcast DreamHack Open on terrestrial TV is just amazing and each time we receive great reactions not only from dedicated StarCraft II fans but also from parents and more casual gamers. I believe it's a good way to break the ground between generations and to show one of the best sides of gaming: the entertainment and great competition.
"eSports in Sweden and globally is growing rapidly."
Our Swedish Championship is broadcast on the biggest newspaper and website in Sweden, Aftonbladet, and will broadcast Season 3, which generates a lot of attention to eSports and new talent.
In August, DreamHack produced a live broadcast of The International 3 for Swedish TV6. It was new to us to focus 100 percent on making TV as a production company and the result was great. We built a temporary studio, had me and an cameraguy/editor on location in Seattle. Bringing in the great Dota 2 talent of Drayich, Bodgan, Mini, and Boberg combined with a professional TV host that we been working with for some years created a great product.
It was one of the great moments in my life to follow Alliance winning the International, knowing the guys but also following them as a journalist was amazing. Being able to do a live interview with the team five minutes after they won live on TV6 was unbelievable and a proud moment for me personally. I just want to add that I'm very grateful for how easy and helpful Valve was before and on location.
Sweden has definitely taken the lead in Europe when it comes to eSports, and I think DreamHack has been playing a huge role in this process. I also think Europe is the most interesting market, and it will definitely challenge South Korea about being the "home of eSports."
"Sweden has definitely taken the lead in Europe when it comes to eSports, and I think DreamHack has been playing a huge role in this process."
eSports and television have had a touch and go relationship over the years. What technical challenges come with trying to work with that medium? And do you think you'll continue to work with television in the future?
Working with SVT and having DreamHack Open on the biggest channel in Sweden is just an amazing thing. The current SVT team has been working with us now for two years running with the DreamHack Open and at times it has been bumpy. The most challenging part is to run a combined production which has forced us to have a more structured working flow and improving our production schedules etc. The two broadcasts are also for different audiences and media and therefore we have had to adapt some parts into making our show even more appealing for the mass audience. It's always a stressful thing when we go from SVT Play to terrestrial SVT as it's important to be on schedule which is always challenging with eSports. I think we will do more things with big mass media coporations.
To wrap, what is the one thing you're hoping to see happen this weekend in Bucharest?
From the start of the year I had a feeling that Bucharest would be a highlight of the year. From last year we knew that the Romanian community is very engaged and excited, so for this year we have a much much bigger venue. We anticipate at least 5,000 attendees who will follow StarCraft II, League of Legends, and CS:GO combined with a lot of small 1-on-1 tournaments. As to DreamHack Open specifically, we have the strongest competitor list ever at a DreamHack event so we will most likely be treated with the best StarCraft II there is. Hopefully StarCraft II fans from around the globe will follow the tournament and be entertained.
DreamHack Open Bucharest will take place September 14-15 Games start each day at 9:45 CET (September 13th and 14th at 11PM PST). The tournament can be watched on DreamHack's Twitch.TV channel . All images in this story are courtesy of Helena Kristiansson.