MLG Winter Arena is a Lean, Mean, StarCraft Machine

Written by PhilPhoenix
Mar 02 2012, 10:02 AM EST

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Shortly after the release of the iPad, Steve Jobs discussed how the versatile new device would fit into everyone’s daily technological lives. He likened the iPad and PCs to cars and trucks. Both get you from A to B, but as society evolved and people didn’t need to haul farm equipment for miles, many gave up their unwieldy trucks for compact cars. In the same way, the average technology user may soon find that they can use a mobile device for their general computing tasks and leave the PCs for those with more specialized needs. Both types of devices serve the same purpose, but each caters to a different need within a larger whole.

A Room With a View

The MLG Winter Arena was an experiment that, if successful, was predicted to significantly impact the development of sustainable esports event models. Leaving aside the $20 PPV controversy, what did this past weekend offer us? We still had the world’s best players, we had the nail-biting matches, we had great casters, and we had three days of the same excitement that we’ve come to expect when an MLG Pro Circuit event rolls into our local convention center. Those core needs were satisfied, as they always have been by the previous live events.

The biggest difference was the lack of the live audience component. Yes, the chance to witness players in their element and add the roar of a crowd to intense main stage matches is enticing for both the live and online audience, but that’s only the tip of a very complicated iceberg. The live audience is the end result of months of planning, renting out massive convention halls, hauling equipment across the country and back again, setting everything up, and then keeping the event up and running while tournaments for about four games are occurring roughly simultaneously. So yes, it’s thrilling to be in the crowd and chant your favorite player’s name, but the effort and cost on the back-end needs to be kept in mind when discussing the profitability of live events and sustainable business models for organizations like MLG, whose bread-and-butter until now has been largely in holding Pro Circuit tours.

There are upsides to a smaller-scale tournament, however. Making the event private created a much more streamlined event overall, which is unquestionably beneficial to all parties. Players especially have a lot to gain; they can focus on their games, they don’t have to rely on a loudspeaker to inform them of their match times, they aren’t deprived of nourishment while playing back-to-back matches, and they had their accommodations covered for their entire stay. Not too shabby. I would wager this creates an atmosphere that is much more conducive to top-notch playing, which leads to better games and an overall better product for fans to consume. Throughout 2011 we heard players discussing their difficulties dealing with the packed schedules that came with competing at Pro Circuit events. That intensity is the nature of live events jam-packed with live brackets and consolation matches, and the difference in the Winter Arena’s energy was palpable during my brief visit to the event.

A Chance to Relax

The easiest way to describe the setup for Winter Arena is to picture a Pro Circuit on a micro scale. The same computers are set up on the same tables in the same configuration, only instead of 200+ computers, there were maybe 25. Instead of a massive white board cluttered with upcoming brackets and matches, there was one screen listing the schedule for the day. Players and admins alike were still working hard (and the final product is proof of that), but everyone was able to keep their focus on a much smaller number of tasks. The casters were tucked away in separate offices, each casting a different match (remember, this was the first MLG event to broadcast every match throughout the weekend) away from the ears of the competitors. No need for noise muffling headsets or stifling sound-proof booths here. When you look at it from this perspective, weighing the comparatively skeleton setup of the Winter Arena against the jam-packed weekend of content we as spectators received, it’s easy to see why MLG felt the need to give this model a shot. There are advantages for every party involved, not least of all the fans, who as I said were treated to an amount of content that rivaled any Pro Circuit we’ve seen so far, with less downtime to boot.

When looking at the evolution of MLG and eSports as sources of entertainment, the truck to car analogy can lend us a valuable perspective. Live events are trucks; for a long time we needed them to provide our esports fix. They cost a lot of money and could only happen every few months, but when they did, they had plenty to offer spectators both in person and viewing at home. But things are different now. The ease and prevalence of online streaming has given organizations like MLG the option of focusing on designing content for online viewing. Much cheaper, much sleeker, this option is the car. We’ve gotten to the point with our technology and viewing habits that we don’t need a truck to get what we need from an esports event. We are by no means going to get rid of the trucks, we still need them for their size and scope. But cars are affordable and more maneuverable, meaning we can use them in more situations more easily.

Essentially what I’m saying is that live events are irreplaceable in the service they provide to the community, but we need more agile events like Winter Arena to give us a more steady and sustainable source of content while equipment is being hauled across the country and venues are being booked. MLG’s Winter Arena was a bold step for the organization, $20 price tag notwithstanding, and their success has proven that when done well, a smaller scale event has the potential to pack as much entertainment into a weekend as any live event has on its best day. In other words, the right car can still haul plenty of cargo, and look stylish as hell while doing it.

Written by Phil Fine