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Marc Winther, director of DreamHack Masters, on North American expansion, PGL Major conflict and lessons learned from Las Vegas

Slingshot’s Vince Nairn had the chance to talk to Marc Winther, director of DreamHack Masters, about DreamHack’s North American expansion, the PGL Major conflicting with its Atlanta event and lessons learned from February’s event in Las Vegas.

Vince Nairn: What kind of has gone into the expansion you’ve made in North America, and how do you think the events have done to this point?

Marc Winther: I think in general with the launch last year with Austin, we were over the moon about the response we got. I think in many ways, DreamHack has always been a European thing, right? So to many it’s been this type of “We’ve heard about DreamHack. We’ve seen the photos. But it’s something hard to get to.” Maybe a bucket list kind of thing. So bringing that to the NA community was the right choice, and coming into 2017 we’ve seen the same trends. People are looking forward to it. In general, it’s just about serving the market and building the community. This year, we are expanding even further with locations in Atlanta and Denver. So it’s not just about CS, it’s obviously about the entire festival and the concept DreamHack festivals offer. So we’re supporting the different communities on all levels.

VN: Some of the cities you have on here are interesting. Denver, specifically, speaks out to me because it’s not really among the immediate places in America people think about regarding esports. How did you go about picking the locations, and also specifically Denver?

MW: Bottom line, it comes down to finding the right people to work with, wherever you go. In NA, it comes down to it being new for us, so it’s finding people that fit very well with our mentality and the product we are set to deliver. Same goes for the locations. There has to be some sort of interest also coming into the city. I want to say, though, if you compare Austin to Denver, yes, then most definitely Denver doesn’t have that much rich history around esports. But at the same time, over the years there’s been some good indications, and the area has been known to be a server hub for many years. Again, strictly speaking CS, there’s been some eports initiatives. We’ve seen MLG try it out in (Aspen). Obviously that’s a part of another event, and the X Games has large following, so maybe that’s not fair to do a 100 percent comparison. But still some signals that would indicate it would work. Bottom line, DreamHack has always been a little bit of the mentality of going to — I don’t want to say the odd places. But if you look at our history of the cities we go, it’s not always the European capitals. It’s sometimes the odd one out.

VN: (Cluj-Napoca), for instance

MW: Yeah, DreamHack Summer and Winter is going on in a city (Jönköping) where you think of Sweden, foreigners would go “Where is that?” So it’s working with the city, the people we work with. Bottom line, you also have to try some new stuff every now and them. Esports in general, the industry is still in a young age where it’s good to go in and explore.

VN: Yesterday the announcement for the Major came out and it is the same weekend as your Atlanta event. Will everything still go on as planned? What’s your reaction to that news?

MW: Absolutely. I think in general we tried to accommodate what the community has asked for many years, which is trying to be ahead of time in what events are gonna take place and making it easier for both teams and also viewers to plan right. It’s super unfortunate. The Major will also overlap a little bit with our Valencia event in Europe, so it’s two events being affected. It’s unfortunate. The event will still happen. Nothing changes in terms of the event. The event is more than CS. Obviously, we have the $100,000 CS event that will still happen. If that’s a matter of catering to NA teams and the fans in Atlanta, that could be. But it’s also maybe a chance for teams that don’t make the Major who still have something to play for. Nothing changes. It’s super unfortunate. We’d like it not to happen, but it’s now the case. So we have something to work with.

VN: Is there anything creatively content wise or format that you guys plan to do to get more eyeballs that weekend? Because it seems like during the Major, that is all anyone really has the desire to follow?

MW: I think we will continue doing what we believe is working well with DreamHack Open, and I think in general that’s often a bit misinterpreted and rightfully so. Open, previously, was the biggest (program) of DreamHack. So the biggest prize pools, teams, locations, etc. But last year, changing so that Masters is the top, DreamHack Open is now catering to a different set of teams. So I think the audience and community needs to learn that. It still is a little misinterpreted. I think what we’ll do is continue to tell the stories about these — in many cases — up and coming teams. Stars of tomorrow. For us, that’s what’s important. We continue to cater to the lower tiers of the, in this case, CS community. If it’s all focused on top tier, Tier 1, big stadium events, that’s all nice. But eventually you will kill off that grassroots level of teams that will eventually lead into who replaces the top teams.

VN: Atlanta has kind of become a hub for North American esports lately. What is it about Atlanta that is kind of appealing?

MW: To my knowledge, generally there is a lot of interest coming from the actual city. In general, many can kind of acknowledge this in the space, but esports is getting more and more a hot topic to talk about, and most definitely cities are getting interested in “What can we do to get an esports event to our city?” Atlanta is establishing itself as some sort of a hub. It’s somewhat amusing to see that happen. Around the European landscape, it’s a little more spread out.

VN: Obviously your first (NA) event this year was in Las Vegas, and that just seems like a weird place for an esport event sometimes. I think things didn’t necessarily go as planned. What, if anything, did you guys learn from the way Vegas went?

MW: Generally with Vegas, it also comes a little back to the points I already mentioned. The city and also finding good partners to work with, which we found with MGM and the MGM Grand location, which was great. I happily admit yes, we did face challenges in getting people to Las Vegas. There are many synergies in entertainment and vice versa, but not necessarily the right — people go to Vegas for a very short time and or various reasons. If it’s a matter of the period and location, I’m not sure. That’s something we would like to have seen been better, but at the same time there were still a lot of positives coming out of the event. Also, the operations we were able to execute on site were good. The online viewership, we managed to surpass our own expectations. A lesson there is that the West Coast is not necessarily so bad. I’m not sure bad is the right word. The European side portrayed the West Coast time zone as being extremely poor. And if you’re a European, sure, you’re nine hours away. But we managed to surpass our viewership from the last Masters event in Malmo, so we’re really happy with that. I’m happy we got to try the 360 stage. It obviously didn’t pan out too well when the audience wasn’t present to fill the seats. The on-site attendance was the biggest negative takeaway, but there were some positives as well.

VN Vegas for esports can just be kind of weird. There’s long days and so many things to do that aren’t esports. Is there anything you would advise people doing future esports  events in Vegas that might make it a little more esports friendly?

MW: It’s a good questions. We’re still evaluating a lot on the topic of what to change or make different. I think we also need to study the space in terms of timing. This was also the first time, strictly speaking CS, but Vegas is also a new destination. So it’s a matter of if Vegas gets used to (CSGO) and then people will come, I’m not sure. But you can see trends when brands are more established, that people saw it happen, saw how great it was and want to come to the next tear. Without saying fully it was about testing waters, though there was some truth in that, Vegas was a successful event. But also some stuff to work with on this one.

VN: Your North American expansion wasn’t just the US but also Canada with the event in Montreal, which you are doing again this year. What do you think overall about the hunger of esports in Canada?

MW: Again, it came down to the fact that DreamHack didn’t have an NA presence until last year and vice versa in terms of how we saw the reception in Austin. Montreal was good. In terms of coming back, people are excited to see stuff return to Canada and Montreal. I wanna say Montreal and Canada has had some stuff before, but it’s most definitely that Canada is getting used to the fact that they’re getting esports events. They’ve been more one offs or randoms throughout the years.

VN: You also had the Smash event. Last year, it was the same weekend as Super Smash Con, and you didn’t have a top field because of that. Do you expect you might be able to get a more high profile group with moving the event back into September?

MW: We appeal to the broader community, a lot of different communities. Eventually it’s unfortunate we had to deal with certain conflicts with Smash. Working with Alex Jebailey with our FGC stuff is also securing us that we have good tabs on what’s going on there and delivering a good product. In general, it seems like our entire Smash product for 2017 is looking good. It seems to have been received really well from the FGC.

VN: Anything else you’d like to add?

MW: I can comment a little bit now that the Major news is out. It’s obviously unfortunate to not see your pitch go through, but at the same time we’re still very much looking forward to our next Masters event happening in Malmo, Sweden in August. That will be just after the player break and summer vacation, so we’re gunning to have a good return to Malmo there. Even though there’s no Major status, we do believe we established something really great with the first event.

Cover photo courtesy of Adela Sznajder/DreamHack