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Wednesday 11 July 2018 20:15

An interview with Nix0n, director of DreamHack Masters

I’m here in Marseille with Marc Winther, the director of DreamHack Masters CS:GO. I first want to start by asking how this event has been for you so far, on a personal level.

Sure, obviously we’re not done yet. Day one, we had some issues, I think I explained what I was able to explain, on Reddit, earlier this week. We had a misconfiguration of the new SSDs. As for the details, of course there’s things I will say and some I can’t say. But I think everything has been resolved on our end regarding this. Since then it’s been minor stuff that has been occuring. Day two and day three have been pretty smooth. Today, it’s the first playoffs day, and it’s almost like starting from day one again, because there’s so many new aspects, going into the arena.  We moved the production studio from its location to down on the floor. There’s so many things changing, so as I said it’s almost like going back to day one, and potentially running into the same kind of issues. On the production side, today was pretty good. Unfortunately we had a network issue, which I also explained on Reddit. Both day one issue and today issue, we would have been happy without it, but it’s resolved, and we are learning from it. I think it’s also important to tell everyone what is going on here. Otherwise it’s been good, I’ve been super happy with the crowd we had today, very pleased with the atmosphere they created. That’s a very positive takeaway. A lot of feedback overall, I haven’t been able to review everything yet, but yeah, I’m a happy camper.

We’re in Marseille, in France. How did this DreamHack Masters happen? There’s DreamHack Tours but it’s not the same scale evidently. What was the process behind this decision, and the choice of Marseille?

In a traditionally DreamHack fashion, if you’ve seen all of our events, we are never in the capital of the country. Of course it happens every now and then, but in the bigger picture we never really do the bigger cities, and there is multiple reasons for that. One thing to remember is also that while there can be interest from our side from where we want to go, there can also be interest locally, people coming to us, proposing festivals for instance, but also Masters event. So when we looked at 2018, we knew that Stockholm would happen, we changed from Malmö to Stockholm but it stays in Sweden. For the second Masters, we had multiple candidates but there was a number of factors. Number one, we saw that France didn’t have any big CS:GO event, and we felt that it was time to test the waters there. Number two, there was some interest, locally from Marseille. They wanted an event here.

How did that happen? Was that the city, through a local political figure, or any other representative, that came to you, pitching for an event? 

The contact actually came to us. We already have a team here in France, doing good work in Tours. The contact came to us and asked if there was an option to do Marseille. We reviewed it, analyzed it, did a lot of data research. Of course a lot of this is data driven and based on research, but it’s also a lot about gut feeling. So we thought that this could lift what we see as a Masters event. Then it came about and here we are.

Would you have any explanation as to why France hasn’t had big CS:GO events lately? This is a country that has a lot of top players, world-class level players, good teams, and yet it’s been a long time, back when there was the ESWC, before it declined in terms of importance. Do you see any reason for that?

It’s a good question. Actually one of my fondest memory in Counter-Strike is from the 1.6 days, at ESWC 2007, when Pentagram was against NoA in the finals. The crowd there was absolutely amazing, and it was one of my best moments from the early days of CS. But why there hasn’t been anything since, I don’t have the answer. Of course ESWC moved to a different style of product, integrated with Paris Games Week. There are a couple of big LANs in France, like the Gamers Assembly. Of course, doing an event of this scale, you don’t just come in and do a one-off. Maybe it’s been the lack of organizations branching in, or french organizers starting from scratch and building it up, I don’t know. We had good traction with Tours as a festival event. That’s basically some of the data we based ourselves on. We believe there’s a market here for it. But I don’t have the actual answer.

Moving on, there’s a lot of discussions about the format currently, what drived the choice of the GSL format here in Marseille, with Bo1 openers and losers’ matches?

It’s something that’s constantly talked about, tournament formats, what’s the best format, etc. Of course we’ve tested different formats, some organizers do some things, others do other things, and the Major has its own. I think in CS:GO and esports in general we’re still at a time where there is space to try new stuff. But of course to try new stuff that works, not redo all the failures from the past. There’s constraints when you choose a tournament format. How many day can you be in the venue? There’s also the financial aspect to consider. So we came up with this format despite the constant talks that you should never go out of a tournament after X maps, etc. But similarly we would turn it around and ask ourselves if you should go to the playoffs with winning only two maps. Pros and cons in both approach. I would be lying if I said I’m not looking at ways to do more Bo3 in the future, but as everyone knows it’s very time consuming. There’s the option to do dual streams as well, to run matches simultaneously, but as people know that just comes at a cost. It’s a constant equation of what’s possible within reason and finances, and what’s the benefit of it. Of course we just have to look at that. One day will it be all Bo3? Maybe, we’ll see.

StarLadder actually tried that with a monstrous full swiss round with Bo3 all the way.

Yeah, it was a pretty long one. I mean there’s pros and cons with all the tournament formats. At the end of the day I think it also comes down to personal taste. 

Moving on, we’re in France and this is a bit peculiar because we have a french cast in the arena, while the online cast is in english. How has it been working with different casting crews in different languages? What are your thoughts on this setup and the constraints attached to that?

It was one of the things that we had to look into going into this event. We know that in France, they speak french! At first we were like “ok can we just do english in the venue?”. But then we started assembling with different parties, that had done events before, looked that what the other people in the space have been doing. We’ve looked at what Riot Games did in Bercy, in Paris. The general feedback was that it was a requirement, they felt. Then, there would always be people that would be fine with english. It’s not like a 100%-0% split. But it’s favoring the in-arena commentary to be in french. In terms of working with it, now we’re working with 1PV which we have an agreement with. Of course it’s challenging from a production point of view because there is basically two production teams that have to communicate together. It seems the guys have gotten the hang of it now. There’s been some road bumps but it’s more like just understanding each other, how the production is running, and vice versa. Sure it’s been challenges, but nothing out of the ordinary.

You touched on this earlier but you’ve been pretty open and outspoken when communicating about the issues you ran into. We see that from other tournament organizers as well. What are the main reasons behind wanting to be straightforward and open about this?

In general when there’s a technical issue and people are sitting and watching on Twitch, what they see is either nothing, a screensaver and no countdown, and they’re like “ok what’s going on?”. I watch a fair amount of tournaments myself so I can relate. So first and foremost there’s keeping people on the stream informed. But also going a little bit in details with the issues at hand specifically afterwards. As people will probably understand, there’s certain things that we can disclose, and others that we won’t disclose. It depends what we’re comfortable with. Of course there’s also some industry… I don’t want to say “espionage”, but it's about keeping your cards close. I think it’s important that the community understands what’s going on to some extent, what has been happening, what has been done, and what we’ll be doing going forward. I see it no different that stuff like delays due to weather issues. Instead of just not having people informed, and then the viewers have a bad experience and wonder why they should continue watching, when will the match even resume. It’s important to keep people informed and up to date, because at the end of the day the viewers at home and the people here are what make our industry happen.

This weekend we’ve seen Valve update the game, right in the middle of the tournament, I think you tweeted that you had a heads-up in that case? Has it always been the case? How do you handle these usually?

Of course Counter-Strike is more than what just happens here. To some extent I can understand criticism about that, like “why aren’t Valve watching the Marseille event?”. Probably they are! But there’s a lot of other customers that they have to cater to. I want to say that there are cases where we hear about it, when there’s a tournament, and others where we don’t hear about it. Does it really matter? Of course it’s nice to know, but in the current state of IT infrastructure, we’re pretty well prepared in terms of what hoops we have to jump through when an update comes. It depends on what it is, if it’s gameplay related we just play on the patch that we started with, just as we wouldn’t implement Dust2 in the map pool here. It really depends. Now the update was focused on performances so it was pretty obvious that we needed to update. Again, we have protocols for not updating, for continuing on the old patch. Of course it’s a bit annoying that it happens during the event, but it’s something that we are prepared for just like if there was an update for anything else. With tournaments pretty much every weekends, it’s bound to happen anyway.

Alright. Another question that we wanted to ask is, how does DreamHack manage to have so many events throughout a single year?

What do we have this year, we have Leipzig, Marseille, Tours, Austin, Summer, Valencia, Atlanta, Montreal, Stockholm, Winter and Sevilla. So eleven events. One thing to remember of course is that DreamHack in general is much more than Counter-Strike, and our festival in particular is everything. It’s a LAN, it’s esport, it’s expo, it’s cosplay, it’s concert and music, it’s everything, right? I think they’re pretty well spread out. Of course if you just look at it through the CS:GO lense, the calendar is really packed. But DreamHack Open is an integral part of our festival because we want people to be aware that if there is a DreamHack festival coming, then DreamHack Open is a part of that event, for consistency. Of course it’s challenging to do eleven events in a twelve months span. We didn’t have an event in February or March, so you can do the maths for the rest of the year [laughs]. In general we are a strong team of full time employees, we have a very strong network of contractors. It should not be forgotten as well that, especially for our festival events but also here in Marseille, an important part of why this happens is the volunteers. Without that the wheel just doesn’t spin. The volunteers are just a beautiful part of this, I spawned from doing volunteer work myself. I know a lot of full time employees of this company that are coming from working for free and be very passionate about what they do, to now be in charge of something and with a full-time job. So never ever ever underestimate the power of a volunteer crew and their passion, because they most definitely deserve all the credit that they should get.

Talking about the difference between DreamHack Masters and DreamHack Opens, the first are world class tournaments with all the top teams, while the latter are often less prestigious with less teams. Is this because the schedule is packed and so it’s not possible to always have all the top teams? Or was that by design, to knowingly add a new layer of tournaments that are not for the top but just below, to fill a void or something?

I can describe why we described DreamHack Masters. It was because we saw that our festivals—of course huge events—couldn’t lift the Counter-Strike product anymore, to the scale of arenas, stadium, concert halls. So it came very naturally that we needed a product to cater to that and that’s why DreamHack Masters was created. We continue with DreamHack Open as part of our festivals, but it kinda evolved, as you said, as something for the lower tiers. In our opinion it’s also important to not focus too much on the top of the pyramid. Everyone right now is very focused on the pro teams and the top 1%, which is fine, it’s like sport, everyone wants to watch Real Madrid or Barcelona all the time, fair enough. But we have to remember that someone has to take over, in five to ten years. If it all becomes invites only, franchising or whatever it is, then you kill the grassroots, and the stars of tomorrow. That’s why DreamHack Open for us is important. It’s important that there’s tournaments not just for the top of the pyramid, but also for tier two, tier three, and the unknown teams. That’s the beauty of DreamHack Open sometimes, it creates storylines of teams for which it’s their first LAN. Maybe they’ll lose two matches but they get a lot of experience. Sometimes the team comes out of the blue, and people are like “who are they?”. That’s the storylines that we like, and that’s why we believe that DreamHack Open has a place in the CS:GO tournament circuit.

Moving on to Majors, it’s been quite a while since DreamHack organized the majors, your last one was in Cluj-Napoca, in 2015. Can you give some insight as to why and maybe shed some light on the Major nomination process?

It’s pretty known by now that you have to pitch for the Majors. We pitched for Majors and unfortunately we haven’t had one since the 2015 in Cluj-Napoca. That’s unfortunate, we would love to host more Majors. At the end of the day Valve picks who they think should be the organizing party of it. I believe we have the capabilities and are able to deliver a good product. 

Stockholm was pitched for the next Major if I remember correctly?

Yes, Stockholm was our pitch for the September Major. Does that mean we’re too focused on the Major? No, we want our events to happen no matter what. We believe that it’s important to have consistency and a legacy. As you can see with Malmö last year, which was the last week of August, it’s the same this year, we’re only moving the location to Stockholm. We want to try and make sure we maintain that slot in the calendar because then everyone, fans, players, journalists,  etc. will know that it’s Masters time. Of course it’s fun to pitch stuff that does not depend on being a Major. If it was a Major we would have to create it from scratch, but I think it’s important to have that consistency and that everyone can plan around it. We would be glad to host a Major again, but I also think we’re doing some kickass CS:GO events outside of the Major.

Would you say that the Major are a good way to build a brand, and once it’s done, it’s a standalone? For example, the ESL One were Majors before, and today none of them is. Basically the Major helped build the hype around it and now they can live without the Major status. 

I can definitely see that argument. So yes I would most definitely say that having the Major status absolutely helps you build your brand and build your events. Then again if you’re not returning to the same location or at the same time of the year, it would be more of a one-off. Having the Major status isn’t necessarily the alpha and omega. DreamHack Masters hasn’t had a Major yet and look where we’re at now. It can go both ways.

Finally, let’s close it with a more personal question. A long while ago you were working for HLTV. Since you stopped, how have you seen the evolution of Counter-Strike since then and what it has become today?

I don’t even know how many years I ended up being on HLTV from the very first volunteers, which was ten-something years ago, I’ve lost track. At that point, when I decided to step down from HLTV, I kind of felt that I had seen the tip of the mountain, at least with HLTV. It was time for me to try something new within esport. I didn’t know what it would be. I actually took a six months break during which I worked a regular job. Then I actually got employed at SteelSeries to do global sponsorship management. I stayed there for some time, the company restructured while I was there, from being in Denmark where I live, to being in the U.S. and I wasn’t going to be a part of that. By that time in 2014 DreamHack came along. I’ve known them for a long time, that was a pretty obvious choice and a very good fit. But then most definitely CS quickly started to pick up again. The early days of CS:GO were kind of slow. I think around 2013, 2014, that’s when I was like “what do I want to do?”. CS:GO was out and I’ve always been a fan regardless of the version, but I was wondering if it was going to stick around this time. It’s not that I lost hope...

There was the precedent of the Source and 1.6 split where the newer game didn’t really stick, or at least didn’t reach the same heights. Was that the same kind of feeling?

Yes. For the most recent evolutions, some of the key takeaways are that the ability to play with and against others is much more simplified right now. I remember back in the day when you had to install IRC, when you scrimmed you had to have a server. Jesus Christ, it was so complicated. It’s much more intuitive and easy for newcomers right now. So the game has changed a lot but at heart CS is still CS for me. It’s a different version but the key concept of the game is still what makes it to me the best esport. What other people believe… they’re free to have their opinion but to me that’s my esport, that’s my sport. It’s crazy to see where we are today versus the good old days when we were just sitting at crappy tables in LAN. I think it’s a beautiful evolution and it’s been an absolute enjoyment to be a part of it, and let’s see what the future brings.