Guest Article: AHGL & Day[9] Staff Interview

Written by WellPlayed
Jul 20 2011, 1:31 PM EDT

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Written by Bobby "RockBobster" Alexovich
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StarCraft II: The Newest Corporate Battleground

Some people rate companies by how well their stock is doing, others by the number of employees or the net worth of the company. Recently, however, a new metric has been introduced which will remove any doubt as to where each company falls with respect to others. In what the Day[9]TV staff is calling an “edgy modern twist to the traditional corporate softball league,” Sean “Day[9]” Plott has teamed up with eight prominent high-tech companies to deliver an industrial-size battle royal: the After Hours Gaming League.

The AHGL, now entering its third week of games, is a nine-week tournament featuring company teams such as Microsoft, Google, and Twitter. Each week these teams duke it out in a best-of-five, team-style tournament with the winner receiving not only the title of StarCraftiest company in the business, but also $5,000 towards a charity of their choosing. The games are being cast by the likes of TotalBiscuit, djWheat, Husky, Rob Simpson from Blizzard and, of course, Day[9]. Between the corporate titans on the field and the all-star lineup of casters, it may be hard to believe that this is only considered the beta version of the league!

The Prelude to Battle
From the conception and realization of the event to the games themselves, the AHGL has had no shortage of activity. The story of how Plott and Facebook came up with the idea for the league can be found on the league’s website. Having an idea and making it happen, however, are two different things. Most HR and marketing departments have never heard of StarCraft, and in order to make them understand the concept of a “virtual league,” the Day[9]TV staff says they were often forced to “send down the entire SC team, armed with a press release, in person and get them to explain the AHGL and eSports.” No small feat, to be sure, but with the backing of Facebook to lend the league credibility, the team prevailed.

Even after the teams were assembled, there were still rules that needed to be decided. They had to decide how to deal with players on travel and players competing from other countries, how teams would qualify from within their companies, and who would even be eligible to play. Some people were worried that an intern might be hired specifically as a ringer for the tournament!

Once all the details were set, the website was created and released – only to have it crash on the first day. The event garnered so much interest that a quarter of a million people visited the site within the first 48 hours – which was a few more than they had anticipated, to say the least. Now the website is up and stable, so go ahead and visit the site guilt free!

The first week of games proved to be an absolute success. Every team showed up to play, and the games themselves were fun to watch, with the players on each team varying in both skill and tournament experience. This is the first tournament for everyone on the Twitter team, while Microsoft, for instance, boasts players with tournament experience dating back to StarCraft: Broodwar.

Reflections from the Battlefield
Each week presents a new set of challenges for the teams to face, and each player has his own way of preparing. Twitter says that they “study [their] opponents’ replays and prepare Special Tactics where appropriate,” while Peter “MegumixBear” Miller of Microsoft says that there are “a couple people who go out and research . . . our opponents, and there are others who prepare very little.” Miller himself, a veteran of SC:BW, chooses to practice only the matchup he will be playing the next week, though he says that those who do research their opponents will often let him know any pertinent information.
Through StarCraft II the players have become closer to each other, interacting at a level that merely working in proximity to each other does not encourage. Microsoft holds weekly LANs and has its own channel where players meet up online to find games and chat. A majority of the Twitter team knew each other before the tournament as well, but now they are all “working closer together for SC2 than [they] would be for regular work!” The Twitter team even gets together to speak with fans – go follow @TwitterSC2 and say hi!

The tournament is a hit with all the players, if the Microsoft and Twitter teams are any indication, but there is always room for improvement. Miller says there are a few changes he would make to the league, such as changing the format from a best of one to a best of three for each player to discourage “cheese,” moving away from the standard ladder versions of some of the maps towards maps like MLG Metalopolis where close spawn positions are prohibited, and adding a 2v2 game to the match instead of having five 1v1s.

Future Plans
Miller may get his wishes, though not in this season of the AHGL. The Day[9]TV staff says there are a lot of potential changes to be made after seeing how everything has gone in this beta stage. The staff said: “we really liked the idea of corporate 2v2's for AHGL and we've had a number of suggestions that we include it . . . However, for the beta we wanted a league that was as simple as possible. We are indeed thinking of adding this for the future!”

In addition to changing the format, they are planning on opening up the registration to include any company that wants to field a team, and will soon be releasing downloadable team kits to help get people started. And, as the name of the league suggests, this is not limited only to StarCraft. The Day[9]TV staff are hoping that after the initial success of the StarCraft II league, others will reach out for support in creating AHGL leagues for their favorite eSports.

This is a truly transformative time for eSports. Now is the time to get out there and send your local newspapers the press release for the AHGL, or field an eSports team for your company, or even just watch the games being played at your own leisure. The important thing is that you have fun while doing it, because ultimately, that is what this league and this scene are all about!

Full Day[9] Staff Interview

1) How many people are currently involved in running the majority of AHGL?
The AHGL is being spearheaded by the crew at Day[9]TV but our staff works closely with a steering committee consisting of the AHGL corporate founders and the AHGL team captains. We have been meeting on Fridays for several months now to hash out the tournament mechanics, how player selection would take place, what the goals of the League would be, what charities would be supported, etc. Everyone has been great to work with.

We’ve also invited some of our favorite casters to join Day to narrate all the excitement, including DJ Wheat, TotalBiscuit, Husky, and Rob Simpson from Blizzard. And our buddies from J!nx, the clothing company, have volunteered to create some pump videos for the website and to help us hype the event—they’ve always got really smart insight into how to do things right.

And then, of course, there is Blizzard, who has not only created the game we all love but, as ever, is super-supportive of community efforts. They’ve offered to actively help us promote the League.

2) How did you choose whom to invite? Was everyone invited able to field a team or were replacement teams necessary?
Last March, Facebook invited Sean to come up to their campus as a speaker and host an SC2 tournament for their employees. It was a huge success--lots of Facebookers showed up and everybody just had a blast, including Sean.

Day[9]TV and Facebook immediately agreed they wanted to work together again. They kicked around several different ideas and finally came up with the idea of a corporate extramural.

It was a perfect storm: Day[9] was interested in promoting and legitimizing eSports in the mainstream media and Facebook realized that an SC2 tournament was a great way to get the high tech community together for some fun. It was just such a clever idea—an edgy modern twist to the traditional corporate softball league. In less than a week, some of the SC2 players at Facebook reached out informally to friends at other high tech companies, and the roster of companies filled up. Everyone agreed that the league should be launched as a “beta,” with a limited number of companies, so that the kinks could be worked out before the AHGL was opened to the community at large.

We fortuitously ended up with a mix of big and small companies for the beta, which really helped us think through the organizational issues surrounding different types of company teams in the league.

Were we going to allow summer interns to play? Or only full time staff? (There was the potential that someone would recruit an intern as an SC2 ringer!) How did we cope with players who suddenly had to travel on business? Team members who were located in Europe on other servers? Substitutions? How would a team be qualified within a company?

3) Were there any hiccups preparing for the launch? How do you feel about how the first week has gone?
Well, you never know when good fortune will knock on your door. We knew this was a fabulous opportunity, one we had to pursue, but it came at a challenging time. Sean was still writing his master’s thesis, and we had CeBit, DreamHack, the GeForce Pro-Am, NASL and MLG events already on the schedule. All in addition to producing the Daily!

We were lucky to have some great help or it might not have come together. Nicholas Lavin at Amazon volunteered to wireframe out and assist with the building of a website. We owe him special thanks. Our great web designer Bernat Fortet in Spain interrupted his busy schedule to come up with the AHGL logo and website design. We depended heavily on our team captains to help us get all the team photos and bios together to populate the website. And our kick ass business advisor Adam Overton from Amazon (Yo, Adam!) kept us focused and on track., as usual.

One of the biggest challenges for us was just to get brand permissions from some of the larger corporations. We would call and call and write and write, and the people at the other end would say: “You want to do what? Who are you? Why do you need our logo?” I mean, if you think about it, the idea of a virtual League is totally out of left field. In some cases, we had to send down the entire SC team, armed with a press release, in person and get them to explain the AHGL and eSports. But once they understood the concept, all the corporations got on board. I mean let’s face it, these are among the most forward thinking companies in the country! They are all about innovation!

In the end, it really helped that Facebook backed us—it legitimized us in ways we can hardly describe. We can’t thank them enough.

Since the launch, we’ve had hiccups, but they’ve been good ones. After the announcement, on the first day, so many people visited the website that it crashed. We had a quarter of a million visitors in 48 hours! And we’ve had a ton of emails from companies wanting in—so many inquiries, in fact, we’re having a hard time keeping up.

Now we are discussing having a European division, a start up division, a military division, a Canadian division—it is all really, really exciting. We can’t wait to see how it evolves.

4) I noticed that the event is called AHGL as opposed to, say, AHSL. Is there any significance to that? Do you perhaps intend to expand the tournament in the future to include other eSports?
Absolutely. Day[9], you know, thinks people don’t play enough any more. That their lives are out of balance and they’ve lost their sense of fun. He was very inspired by Bernie DeKoven’s “Funsmith” essay on the kk website. Go read it—it is excellent. Day wants to be people’s Funsmith. He wants to be an ambassador for eSports.

Our hope is that after the SC2 league is launched, company employees will reach out to us for help in creating AHGL leagues for other favorite games. So we made the name deliberately open-ended. The key word is “fun.” Right now, these corporations are having a blast. They’re throwing viewing parties in conference rooms and inviting their employees to get together and watch replays and cheer on their teams. These guys work hard and they play hard. SC2 is a smart game and these are smart people. It is such a great match.

5) Sean, do you plan on overseeing future AHGL events yourself, or are you planning on handing the event off to someone else to free yourself up for other tournaments and events?
No, as usual, where Sean is working on a project he enjoys, he’ll sacrifice sleep to keep it going. Look at the Day[9] Daily! He is totally psyched about this League!

6) Can other companies get involved in future AHGL tournaments by some form of application, or will entry be on an invite-only basis?
Absolutely. The idea is to structure this so that any company team can join. We want to be inclusive, not exclusive. These high-tech companies playing right now were just kind enough to lend us their names and their logos and their employees and their marketing clout to get the League tested and up and running.

Once the beta is over, we will have a much, much bigger Season Two—probably this fall. We have downloadable team kits that we will be making available on the AHGL website to help employees get started. We are also keeping lists of interested companies that we will recontact at that time.

Will the finals at the Facebook campus be a LAN event or will it solely be casted from Palo Alto? Will the event be open to the public to view live?

No, it will be cast live from Palo Alto and streamed over Justin.TV and Facebook Live. For the beta, the event will not be open to the public because of space constraints—but in the future it absolutely will be.

8) Is there anything the public can do to get involved and support this project?
Yes! This is an opportunity for all of us to spread the word about eSports.

Recruit a team at your company. Reach out to your local newspaper with the press release (you can find it on the AHGL website). Get the word out by telling all your friends. Go to the homepage of AHGL and tweet/like/+1 - it makes a difference! See if you can create some noise. We think this is a great story with a strong modern culture/human interest aspect.

9) Do you have any other events on the horizon you’d like to promote, or have any other information about the AHGL you’d like to get out?
We had a blast at NASL, and we’re going to have a blast at MLG Anaheim. (We hope to see you there.)

We’d also like to give a shoutout to NVIDIA and our buddies Husky, TotalBiscuit and David Sievers at the Game Station who are all helping organize and put on the GeForce ProAm. We hope you show your support for companies like NVIDIA who put money—real money—into eSports! We’re really excited about that GeForce tournament because—like the AHGL—it gives non-pro SC2 players a shot at the big time. Check out their website.

We’re all about getting people into eSports and having fun!