ReDeYe: What it takes behind the scenes to construct an event like ESL One Cologne

Having spent the last week or so at ESL One Cologne and fielding a number of questions while at the event, I thought it would be good to put together something that might help those who are not as fortunate to attend these gigantic esports events. This was mainly prompted by many questions relating to not being able to hear the crowd on the first three days to a misunderstanding about why, if the players were playing their matches in the group stage at the arena, wasn’t the crowd allowed in?

These were valid questions, but they also reminded me that we often forget about you, the people who tune in to these events. It’s often difficult to imagine why these things happen without having been involved or understanding just what it takes to create something like a Valve Counter-Strike major.

First, it’s about people. Lots of them. ESL had more than 500 people work on ESL One Cologne, and they ranged from drivers to riggers to stage builders to administrators and everything you can imagine in between. Even with such a large amount of people working and building the event, it will still take more than four days of work to build everything ready for the main show where the crowd comes in. You might think that as ESL hired the Lanxess arena, everything would already be in place, but while some facilities are built in, the majority of the event is bespoke. The main area provides a foundation for the event and nothing more.

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Every light you see used on the show (there are hundreds of them) must be set up, rigged and raised on giant trusses (themselves having to be rigged and raised by small armies of 25 people). Then there are the giant screens — four of them at ESL One — that all need to be created, framed, rigged and then raised on giant steel wires, usually with the aid of a small crane and another army of strong people. And we haven’t even talked about the main stage yet, a monster piece of framing and hardboard pieces that takes almost an entire day to create and build. Then there are the booths, tables, stairs and other associated areas that all have to be manually created before the stage is ready.

paul-redeye-chaloner-0005Then there is cable. hundreds and hundreds of miles of cable. There’s network cable, electrical cable, power supplies, audio leads, vision wire and a multitude of other cable — too many to mention in this piece. Safe to say, there’s probably enough to travel hundreds, if not thousands, of miles laid end to end. All of this comes stored in hundreds of flight cases, which all have to be shipped in in large lorry loads the night before. There’s also a support truck that stays on site full of backups in case anything goes wrong.

On top of all of that, there is a production area to build with its hundreds of screens, PCs, keyboards, cable (even more!!!) and mice, etc. Not to mention dozens of chairs and tables. Furthermore, there is the player area to fit out with PCs and tables, decor and interview areas to build, caster desks and analysts desks.

With all of this, you can start to appreciate that it takes time to put everything together, even with a small town of highly skilled people to do it. There is also a process to follow, health and safety to ensure everyone stays safe and reasonable working hours for everyone. With all of this put together, it still takes almost four days to create all of this. You might not be aware, but that means hiring the venue for those four days, regardless of not being able to sell tickets or have the public inside during the build (for obvious safety reasons, but also because there wouldn’t be anything to see!).

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So, like many organizers in esports, ESL is left with a bit of a conundrum. With group stages requiring 20 matches, all of which needing to be shown live (a Valve directive), they effectively need to produce not one, but two shows. In addition, logistically speaking, they need to be producing one show while at the same time, building the main stage. You could ask why they don’t just show all of the matches in one place, that place being the main stage, but taking into account that the venue costs are enormous to hire and needing to add a further 20 matches to the schedule, they’d likely need around another three days of stage time in order to show everything. That means hiring the venue for 12 days in total in order to build and produce and then pack down and remove (it takes almost 36 hours to pack down as well!). This is rather than hiring the venue for seven days (Monday to Monday) and an additional weekend, which is exceptionally expensive and makes the profit/loss sheet look very red, as they are unable to recoup the extra costs in ticket sales.

In answering the other question, it would be easy to ask why they don’t just allow people in to watch the group stage, but in truth there just isn’t room to do so in the back hallways. In previous events and other organisers, they’ve used a different venue for group stages and usually a TV studio. This is fine, but again incurs additional costs. By using the same venue (but just a different part of it), it saves the cost of a second venue, allows the players and talent to be in a hotel close to the one venue and cuts costs in other areas such as splitting staff over two sites. It makes a huge amount of sense.

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In the long run, I think events will get longer, but a lot of people just won’t buy tickets for Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday matches all day long. It means people have to take time off and pay even more money out to view matches that don’t necessarily make a big difference. By having the three days on the main stage contain only knockout matches, it maximizes the excitement for fans attending and helps create a unique atmosphere for those watching from home.

We need to remember we had never used an arena until four years ago and six years ago it was still unknown if people would even attend an esports event in the tens of thousands. We’ve come a long way in a short time and are still learning as we go along, but while this isn’t the final version of esports in arenas, it’s important we grow at a pace that doesn’t hurt organizers, publishers or even us the fans! It will, however, not only become commonplace that we have esports events in large arenas around the world (as if it isn’t already!) but likely extend to multiple days or even weeks in the future as esports continues to grow and attract large scale audiences.

All photos by Paul “ReDeYe” Chaloner. 

Veteran host, commentator, presenter and voiceover artist predominantly featuring video games and technology.

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