DreamLeague’s Hardin talks player unions, making everyone happy

DreamLeague is off to a bad start.

Image via Newbee/Facebook

DreamLeague is off to a bad start. The highly anticipated annual Dota 2 tournament, run by European esports titan DreamHack, is normally a slick and polished affair. But this year’s contest has been quickly derailed by bizarre administrative decisions in the qualifiers, including, at one point, the apparent creation of a new rule on the fly.

That has left the organization the target of heated criticisms from all corners of the scene—fans, players, managers and team owners.

With player and public confidence in the tournament at an all-time low, DreamHack called in a group of veterans to right the ship: James “2GD” Harding and the GD Studio. Once a home-grown organization, Harding and company have developed into one of the world’s premier hosting and tournament production houses, landing many of their contributors on top stages, including the biggest Dota 2 tournament in the world, The International.

GD Studio normally runs the live portion of the competition, but this year the seasoned veterans were called in early to put out the fires still smoldering after this year’s qualifiers—and salvage both community and sponsor goodwill in the process. I spoke with Harding to discuss the challenges of running a high-end esports tournament, the state of competitive Dota, and the importance of player feedback in shaping the competitive community.

Your team was brought into to help fix some of the problems from phase one. What are you doing differently?

During phase one, there’s not much we can change apart from adding an extra hand in communication, so [Bruno Carlucci]’s playing liaison to the players to make sure, “are you going to be able to play or are you not?”

You still get fun situations where you’re watching teams play in Bucharest and you’re saying to yourself, “that team’s scheduled to play in our tournament on Monday,” and then you message the player and the player goes “oh yeah, aw shit, yeah I guess we can’t play Monday because we’re flying back from Bucharest!”

So Bruno’s kinda been that person helping out and it’s been okay because, you know, at the end of the day the league has to accommodate the players getting through phase one. What we deemed important about the project was kinda phase two and three. Phase two is a seven day LAN and phase three is a seven-day final of the LAN.

So phase one has been, for us, kind of unchangeable and the only thing that we’ve been trying to do is accommodate the players with better communication.

So your team is helping phase one primarily with accountability and preventing the sort of last minute changes that have plagued the league so far?

Yeah, I think we’ve tried to accommodate the players more than the league, but we also have to understand that when we run a studio production from Monday to Wednesday, these involve five to six people working backstage for DreamHack that are expecting to turn up to work. If there’s one game instead of two games then only half of them need to work. So we’re just trying to add a layer of communication through someone who’s actively talking to players.

We weren’t really meant to come in during phase one and do that kind of stuff, but when we came in there were questions flying around the organizational Skype rooms of the DreamLeague. Bruno naturally looks at that and says “I can do this, I can solve this.” (laughs)

Does your extensive experience producing a show allow you to simply walk in and fix a situation like this? What in particular does the GD Studio bring to the table that wasn’t there before?

The main thing that we try and focus on, which I think some people may forget in the amount of work that they have to do is that you’re trying to please two people, essentially. One is the players who bring the value to the tournament, and the other is the community who watch the players.

So the only two people you’re really trying to make happy are the players who are playing; is it worth their time? Is the time they put in gonna be good for them? Will they get exposure? Will they be able to build their brand names? Are they playing too much for too little prize money? Have you got the balance right?

The other side is just the community in the sense that, are they going to enjoy this product? Will they be able to follow this product? Are you going to deliver things that the community are going to be entertained by during the shows? Those two people are the only people you really need to please when you design a product.

So when we go in and we talk about phase two and phase three, we sit down and we say, “Right; these are our two categories. This is what we’re going to do for the players and this is what we’re going to do for the community.”

A knock-on effect of that of course is, if the community’s happy, DreamHack should be happy. If the players are happy then they’ll want to turn up to another DreamHack, which makes DreamHack happy and then hopefully ASUS and Nvidia are happy because people have said nice things. (laughs)

So I wouldn’t say we’ve really taken over, we’ve just added two additional project managers…we’re an extra pair of hands. We’ve sat down and looked and phase two and said, “this is the talent we’re gonna bring, this is how we’re going to treat the players, this is what the community gets.”

It sounds like taking care of the players is a more in-depth task than people realize.

Well for example, for the players, they’re doing a seven-day LAN. So one of the things I wanted to get across in the meetings is that we need to make sure this LAN is really, really fucking nice for the players because if they’re turning up for seven days, what can they get out of it other than just prize money?

So we’re like okay, let’s make sure that we get them a really good bootcamp place. So we contact Inferno Online who is a really nice, big Internet café and we’re like, okay, not only do we need them to be at Inferno Online, we need them to have a very private training place (there). That way, even if the LAN isn’t as successful for them, they’ll be able to be on LAN with their teammates for five days in a very private area where they’re provided with food and drinks. That way they’ll be able to make the most out of it, even if they walk away from the tournament saying, “we didn’t qualify, but we got to bootcamp.”

Because it’s private, we also need to make sure that we also know that teams don’t necessarily walk behind the other players when they’re talking about picks and bans and other stuff. So we need people on site to make sure that everyone is in their area, but if they want to mingle that they do it outside of the team area.

And then we have to be like, okay, let’s make sure the hotel is close to the bootcamp. And then we have to think, like, players are gonna be pretty bored if they’ve just got seven days and when they do get bored of their PCs they’re going to want to go do something. So let’s provide them with [transit cards] so they can travel around the city freely, let’s also make sure that each team has a Swedish Sim card with prepaid credit so that they can call us or we can call them in case any one team doesn’t have working mobile. Then, let’s also make sure that they have something to do in the evening so let’s provide, say, 10 cinema tickets per team so that they can just take a break from Dota.

With restrictions on player time being what they are, I’m sure that making your tournament worthwhile to competitors is a top priority.

I think, with the amount of Dota tournaments there are, you have to ask yourself as a player, “how much time am I committing and what am I getting out?”

I think one of the problems that Dota has is that, even outside of DreamLeague with so many tournaments, I don’t turn on Twitch and say “I’m gonna watch this tournament.” I read the title of the tournament and see “Team Secret vs Team Tinker” and I see that and I say, “I’m gonna click that.” You know, I don’t know which stage of the tournament we’re in, or anything, until we’re at a LAN final and I can see faces on camera.

And honestly, I think that’s kind of a dangerous place for Dota 2 to be in. Because I think the players do need to have a union where they can ultimately decide, as players, where they want to compete and how much they want to play on a weekly basis—and why they’re doing it. And if the players had some sort of strength to bear depending on the prize money and the time they put in, I think the players could actually help shape Dota 2 to be a lot healthier for them in terms of the amount of time they have to compete—and maybe even a better viewing experience for the audience.

Unfortunately, you can’t talk about DreamLeague right now without talking about the controversy in phase one. Do you feel that those missteps got more press than they deserved?

No, I don’t think so. I think, in all fairness, the DreamLeague, in terms of how it organized its initial kick-off to phase one was, to say politely, very poorly organized, and that’s kind of what we walked in on. We had player not knowing rules and not knowing when things were happening and I was like, “How do they not know stuff?”

If you’re in a project, even if I’m in a project on various other things, when people tell me stuff, they also know that they can’t just drop me a message and hope I’ve read it. They need to kind of be like, “Yo! I sent you this. Did you read it?” And I think that it was poorly organized and didn’t deserve its bad press. It was basically lack of time on the side of DreamHack compared to the volume of work, and it sucked and I feel bad for all of the players who had a shitty time in phase one.

But that’s why we’re trying to help out with what we can do which is phase two and phase three. And add an extra level of communication in phase one, which I think has given people a slightly nicer time, but it’s not like it’s magically… like we’re all happy.

And, of course, it’s important to make everyone happy so that the sponsors are happy, correct?

Yeah. The reason we took the project is if DreamHack decided everything was going tits up and would cancel or the players decided everything was shitty and would cancel, that’s $100,000 in support from sponsors and DreamHack that players wouldn’t receive.

So we were like, welp let’s try to save that situation. And in all honesty, if there was a players’ union I think things would have come to light quicker. It’s all fine tweeting because it did cause a reaction from DreamHack and they did make a change (hiring Bruno and me), but, if the players had more power they could help shape the future of Dota 2 more.

Of course, the community also contributed to this via Reddit. So the two most important factors, the players and the community, did what i expected them to do. But Ii would like to see them have more power [so that] organizers would deliver to expectations better. DreamHack were sloppy, as I said, and if I was a player in a union I wouldn’t be opposed to boycott and make an example of DreamHack.

DreamHack can be the best. [Phase one] wasn’t, but it can still be great. Now, we’re focused on getting the players and the community a product we think they want.