I remember vividly the first tournament I ever went to where I took a mild gasp of air and went “Wow, this is a biiigg deal…” It’s October, 2011, in Glendale, Arizona, and I’m gearing up for Devastation 2011, which promises to be one of the biggest fighting game community events outside of the legendary Evolution Championship Series in Las Vegas. When I think back to that breathtaking feeling of seeing how massive the tournament looked, I now compare it to when Kate Winslet’s character Rose first sees the eponymous ship in the movie Titanic. Neither of us could have seen the disaster we were walking into.
On paper, it almost seemed to good to be true. Devastation was offering over twenty games of all varieties: fighters such as Super Street Fighter IV Arcade Edition and Mortal Kombat, first-person shooters like Call of Duty Black Ops, the incredibly popular MOBA title League of Legends, and even competitive sports titles like Madden 2012. In addition to all those titles available for play, Devastation was a mere $19.99 to enter, with no additional cost per tournament you chose to enter. I’m not kidding. 20 bucks and you could play however many games you wanted. I myself ended up entering four different tournaments, because why not?
I had attended Devastation 2010 as a spectator, and it had cost very, very little to do that. Not only that, this tournament was notable for having a big crossover with traditional E-Sports by having Marcus “DJWheat” Graham as the tournament’s host, providing live updates for the viewing audience inside the ballroom and those at home watching via Justin.tv, the predecessor to Twitch.tv. Watching it, one could only think “professional;” here was DJWheat in a blazer interviewing players with T-shirts and jerseys that were littered with brand names like a Nascar racer. The stage was immaculately built, there was house lighting, and it took place in a nice hotel ballroom. 2011, despite the absence of Graham, was promising to top that, with more games, a convention hall, and an even bigger prize pot than before. Rumors swirled of a playable demo of Capcom’s upcoming Street Fighter x Tekken, and Mark “Markman” Julio was there with a bunch of Madcatz swag for all the attendees. It all sounded too good to be true. It was.
While the tournament took place in a convention hall, it lacked the house lights and various accompaniments of the previous year. Carlsbad Caverns was better lit than this event, and there wasn’t much in the sense of decor, either. Hard concrete and blank, plaster walls were all that surrounded what was, admittedly, a pretty badass stage. The event itself, even with its various booths selling t-shirts, perler bead art, and other wares, did not take up even half of the convention center room. Despite this being a major event, the entire room had a sort of lifeless, drab look to it more befitting of a military barracks than a lively video game tournament.
Dazzled as I was by the amount of “famous” players in attendance and some of the cosplayers (including two excellent Tifa Lockharts), I was less than thrilled with the main tournament I found myself in, that of Mortal Kombat. With over 200 attendees it was looking to be one of the bigger tournaments of the year, and a lot of the bigger names of the time were in attendance. Steve “16 Bit” Brownback, Giuseppe “REO” Grosso, Alex “DetroitBallin” Rayis and Bill “Tom Brady” Menoutis were just four of the countless figures in the Netherrealm scene that had shown up, and I wish that the tournament had been up to the standard that having those players should have been.
I played my first match in the winner’s bracket around 12:30 in the afternoon, then another match not too long after that. I was knocked into the loser’s bracket after the second round, and so I eagerly awaited my redemption match in loser’s.
And I waited.
And I waited.
And I waited.
Two and a half hours later, I was summoned to the stream station to play my match. I was certainly not a good player, but the fatigue of waiting for hours and deliberately avoiding lunch to do so certainly had me out of sorts. The reason for the delay? Bracket runners hustling back and forth like chickens with their heads cut off, paper brackets rattling in their hands, rife with crossed out names and sections. Anyone who’s ever worked knows that communication is key, but without any sort of system beyond checking in with tournament organizer Robb “Jedirobb” Chiarini over at his position in the middle of the show floor, the volunteers running the tournaments were playing an extended game of telephone and all the inaccuracies that come with it. There were even some players that were actually completely eliminated from the tournament only to be reinserted because of the errors in bracket construction.
After that fustercluck, I now had nothing to do but wait for the Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix (I can’t believe I typed that whole thing out) tournament, which was scheduled for sometime around 7:00. I had already competed in Street Fighter 4 Arcade Edition and Marvel vs. Capcom 3 the day before with similar frustrating wait times and a similar middling performance. Anyone who’s been in the FGC long enough has heard of ‘Tournament Standard Time’, but for those who don’t know, it’s essentially the unit of time that a standard video game tournament will run on, which runs contrary to any known clock in the world. Sure enough, my SFIIHDR (much easier) bracket started at 8:30 PM TST. I actually placed decently high in the bracket, given that it was a small tournament and at least 1/3 of the players disqualified themselves, citing issues with how late the tournament was running.
And that was it for me. I came back on Sunday, of course, to watch the finals for every game, as is FGC tradition, but the event in general left me feeling cold. Robb had promised a lot for this event, and I couldn’t help but be disappointed. In trying to reach so many audiences, I felt the event never really ended up serving the tournament players very well. Amidst large scale rock-paper-scissors and push-up contests, players were left sitting and waiting to hear on brackets that were moving at a glacial pace. It stuck me as way too many cooks in the kitchen, which will be a recurring thread as I move through this series.
Of course, this was not the end of the story, as some of you reading may well know. Sure, the iceberg had struck the Titanic, but it was just a flesh wound, right? Wrong. In the aftermath of the tournament, disturbing reports began to release that the top placers of some of the smaller tournaments had yet to receive payment, most notably REO for Mortal Kombat and Aris Bakhtanians for Tekken 6, both of whom were not shy about addressing the fact. Radio silence from Robb followed, and nobody knew exactly what the hell was going on. Finally, a few weeks after the conclusion of Devastation, Robb released a video explaining what had happened.
Apparently, the big money that was promised was coming, but not in the way it should have. According to Robb, some of the big money sponsors had inexplicably pulled out of the event in the midnight hour, leaving him high and dry when it came to paying out his winners. Worse still, the frazzled TO was then burned in a deal to offload his massive comic book collection to an anonymous dealer, which was going to be his saving grace in paying out his players. In the video, Robb claimed that while it was going to be time consuming and difficult, he had a commitment to paying out his players. While nowadays it would be easy to be cynical and assume that Robb was never seen again, this story actually has a happy ending.
Robb did, out of pocket, end up paying those that had not received their money, at least from the FGC side of things. I’m sure it was at great personal cost to him, but he did what he could to make things right, and that is what sets him apart from future charlatans like John Nelson of Tournament Legacy and Shane from Epic! Gaming Lounge. That said, it did take a very long time for the money to come, which should never have happened in the first place.
I’m not a businessman and I don’t have an understanding of what it takes to run a tournament, but I would assume that when you promise money, contracts need to be signed to guarantee that money. Obviously we only know the one side of the story, and we will probably never know the whole thing. Robb is still in the business, actually; after Devastation 2011, the event itself was retired, although Robb continued to run little events sponsored by Devastation for a couple more years. In 2013, Robb revealed that he was taking a job with Activision-Blizzard to help run events for IGN’s pro league, so Devastation was going to fold. He held one final event at a Microsoft Store in Scottsdale, Arizona, which was a launch event for Netherrealm’s then new title, Injustice: Gods Among Us. Yours truly won the event, and was given the promised prize of a copy of the game and a brand new Xbox 360 console right there on the spot. Robb then moved on with Activision-Blizzard, and when the IGN pro league fell through, he later took a job with Ubisoft, where he still works today, in their Esports division.
However, despite all the bad, that ‘ol FGC magic always seems to find its way in, no matter how poor the event. I remember sitting down to warm up in Marvel vs. Capcom 3, feeling that I was falling way behind in the way the game played. As usual, I said what’s up to the gentleman I was playing, who introduced himself just as “Job.” Job beat the ever loving shit out of me, folks. He played the character Zero, who had yet to introduce himself as the unstoppable force that he was, and I just couldn’t touch him. I was not good, but if I ever needed a cruel, cruel reminder, here it was. But Job was friendly, offering me some tips here and there and explaining how some of the devastating gameplay could be countered. After 3 games or so, we both got up, and talked a little bit more. Job explained to me that he was from Florida, and that this was one of his first big events. He was excited and nervous, wanting to do well but anxious about how he could perform on the big stage. I ran into him later that day, and he explained that while he had gotten decently far, he was eliminated before the top 32 of the tournament. Once again, he insisted that he had fun and was just happy to be there.
“Job” turned out to be Job Figueroa-Perez, the player known as Flocker, who would go on to become one of the game’s top players, culminating in a stunning, grueling victory over Justin Wong at Evolution 2013 to become the world champion. Job has no idea who I am and I’m sure he has no memory of our interaction, but I’ll never forget it. I had no way of knowing then, but that’s the beautiful part of how the FGC works: you never know who might ascend to greatness.
The other event that sticks out to me was that I was first introduced to the magic of 16 Bit. Bit is current Netherrealm Studios employee Steve Brownback, and he was one of the best to ever play both Mortal Kombat and Injustice: Gods Among Us. Being relatively new to the NRS scene at the time, I just knew him as a high level player. When I first saw him play, it was against one of my local sparring partners. After he won he proceeded to march over to the stream station, grab the mic, and cut a blistering promo against one of my other local guys, proclaiming “What do you have to say now!? I just beat YOUR GUY!” at the top of his lungs. I was bewildered: this big, burly dude was just absolutely lighting up my buddies and I had no idea how that was allowed. Luckily, there was more to the story.
Apparently, my guys and he had been having a feud on TestYourMight.com, the central hub for the competitive NRS scene. The Arizona guys had claimed that Steve was not all he was cracked up to be, and that his high placement at Evolution 2011 was a fluke that would be exposed at Devastation. Naturally, as I would come to find out, denying Steve his props is a very, very dangerous thing. Never shy about his feelings, Steve was merely retaliating for a feud that had proven to be very one-sided. This waved off my initial ill feelings, and over the past six years he has proven to be one of my great friends. It’s a shame that the newer members of the community merely know Steve as an excitable employee of the company and not the provocative, fierce player that he was in his heyday.
Now, some of you reading may be scoffing, and saying “My God, that’s it? Everyone’s had a bad tournament experience, why is this special?” And you know what? You’re right! My experience at Devastation 2011, as I would come to find in major events I’ve been to since, was not necessarily a unique thing. Bad bracket running, poor communication and planning, and crappy payouts are still happening to this day. My point in writing this series of articles is to show that even with a lot of money pumped into an event, it was all for nothing. We didn’t get a better experience as players, the viewers for the event did not get a better experience (VOD from Devastation 2011 for the finals of most games is still nowhere to be found to this day), and the guy responsible for the poor business practices at work is still getting work at an even higher position than before. These events, which promise next-level production and treatment, always seem to have a funny way of benefiting a select few and never the whole group, which is why, frankly, that I’m not all that into what “Esports” has really meant for the FGC, a community known for its openness. Yes it’s bigger, and people are able to make careers out of tournaments because of the money involved, but when it comes at the expense of taking care of all the players and the soul of the event, is it really worth it?
Welp, that about does her. Wraps her all up. I want to thank anyone that took the time to read this rambling schlock, and I hope that the positive doesn’t get overwhelmed by all the negative, because there sure was a whole lot. I’m going to continue this series by next looking over the events surrounding the MLG Anaheim tournament that took place in 2014. A disaster on many levels, this event is also a prime example of “Esports” benefiting few while simultaneously screwing over everyone else that paid their hard earned money to attend. What do I mean by that? Tune in next time to find out, same Hippo time, same Hippo channel. Pce!