Luck is certainly involved, but there’s a lot of work on the periphery required to put on a show like ELEAGUE’s Boston Major. The event ran for over two weeks, concluding Sunday, and has some calling it the “greatest” Counter Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) tournament ever.
The Daily Walkthrough spoke with IMG’s executive vice president of content strategy and partnerships, Karen Brodkin, to get some insight into putting on the in-person aspects of the show.
ELEAGUE, which was launched in 2016 through a partnership with Turner Sports, is as a cohesive relationship where “macro decisions” are made together, she said. Turner deals with production, and IMG focuses on the “competition” and “esports expertise.”
Part of that expertise includes handling 24 teams, their players, coaches, support staff and families as they travel from around the world to two separate locations — first to Atlanta and second to Boston. Flights, hotels, transportation, meals, comfort and amenities are some of the many logistics IMG juggles.
“I would venture to guess these players and these teams don’t have as good of an experience at other tournaments,” Karen told TheDW. “We treat them the same way [as any other athlete] … If their plane is delayed or cancelled, we handle all of it. They stay in nice hotels. They’re fed nice food. We have a welcome dinner at a nice restaurant and a closing dinner at a nice restaurant.”
IMG doesn’t directly manage visa acquisition for foreign teams, although Karen did say it’ll step in and offer support if teams request it. “There’s always issues that can happen … It’s on them, but we’re supportive and we provide support to them.”
Outside of managing the teams, IMG also deals with all ticket sales, promotions, merchandise and arena “swag.” The only ticket option was all three days for $120 plus tax, and attendees were given a bag with various goodies, including a wristband that lights up in correspondence to in-game events, beanie, water bottle, fidget spinner, collectible pin and portable charger.
“We’d gone to this very painstaking effort to make sure every person who walks in gets a bag of stuff,” Karen told TheDW. “This is a cost center for us. We’re not selling it.”
She stressed continuously that respect is one of IMG’s main priorities as it immerses itself in esports.
IMG was met with fan backlash when it tried to offer a VIP package above and beyond the general admission tickets.
“We tried to do a VIP experience for the Major. Every major sporting event in the world does VIP experiences,” Karen explained. “We tried this year to create one around the ELEAGUE Major and we got a very, very, quick negative reaction online, ‘Why are you only offering this to a few people?'”
The “immediate” negativity and “drama” was surprising, she admitted, and they ended up pulling down the offering. They intend to implement it again in the future, but not for some time.
“I’ve never seen, for another sporting event, a fan base react to the idea that you could purchase or win some sort of special experience” in a negative way, she said. Karen and IMG work with a host of other traditional sports like football, golf and tennis. “I’m unapologetic about it, because I thought we were doing a good thing for the community.”
Despite the VIP experience’s removal, Karen said IMG spends “an unbelievable amount of time” figuring out how best to keep attendees engaged in between matches.
“When a ticket-holder walks into our venue, what will excite them beyond the competition? How can we engage them between the matches? What do they care about? We want to wow them. We want to find a way where they can’t walk more than 10 or 15 steps without an activation in front of them.”
Some of those activations include RFID badges that enter fans into giveaways, autograph opportunities, booths for sponsors, “trading zones,” scavenger hunts and photo ops.
“We spend a lot of time and energy thinking about authenticity and being true to the community,” Karen told TheDW. While some ideas ended with a whimper, she insisted IMG listens to fans in the “chat rooms and on Reddit” for insights and future ideas. IMG was even worried the four enormous big screens above the players in the arena wouldn’t be received well.
She argued that “every entity” moving into and working in the esports space is in “the learning phase” due to esports’ “fast-moving, fast-changing and very nascent” nature.
“There’s a balancing act, though. At the end of the day you have to be true to what you think puts on a good production,” Karen said.
On a personal level, Karen told TheDW “everything” about esports has been surprising to her. From fan passion to player intensity and dedication, she has been amazed by the community growing around esports.
As she was getting into the swing of ELEAGUE, Karen divulged one of the first questions she ever asked about esports: “What is this Ninjas in Pyjamas thing?”