The ultimate guide to running a local e-sports tournament

Looking to join the glamorous (note: not so glamorous) world of e-sports tournament organizing? Well, it’s quite the hefty task. Tournament organizers don’t start setting up multi-million dollar events first thing. They start on the local level, hosting meet-ups and smaller tournaments for amateurs.

While the step-by-step process for running a tournament will vary wildly from game to game (and we will cover that in other articles down the line) this article will provide tips that are applicable for most first time organizers. Check them out before you even post your first sign-up page. 

Why Run a Tournament?

There are tons of people out there running multi-million dollar tournaments. Why do you have to get your hands dirty?

Well, you probably aren’t going to be running anything on the scale of the DOTA2 International any time soon, but major tournaments like that can only exist because of small tournaments on the local level. Running local tournaments not only helps you build a community for your game of choice, it gives amateur players a critical opportunity to hone their skills against other players of a professional skill level. It’s a crucial step in fielding new talent in any e-sport.

It’s also a fantastic way to meet new people and get your name out there as an organizer. Many local tournament organizers have gone on to be prominent streamers and eventually professional broadcasters in the e-sports world.

It’s a great way to help support a local business while simultaneously granting moneymaking opportunities to small time professional gamers.

But most importantly, it’s the best thing you can do to support an e-sport you love. The more people you get playing, the bigger the sport grows, and people can only play when they have an outlet to do so.

The Golden Rules of Tournament Organization

Before we even get started, remember these five simple rules.

  1. Don’t panic! – Any problem has a solution; you just have to find it.
  2. Plan ahead… way ahead – Enough planning will help you stop problems before they start.
  3. Ask for help – Throw pride out the window. If you don’t know what to do, ask for help.
  4. Don’t be a jerk – Running a tournament involves doing a lot of work for a lot of people without a lot of direct reward. Humble yourself and you’ll have a better and easier time. This is also good advice for life in general.
  5. Seriously, don’t panic! – Yes, this piece of advice was so important we listed it twice.

Choosing the Game You Want to Run

You might think this is the easiest part of tournament running. Just choose the game you want and you are done! Right?

Nope. Even choosing a game requires a lot of forethought. Different games and different genres require vastly different amounts of time, equipment, and space. A small fighting game tournament can run off one TV set up on a folding table, but a small first-person shooter tournament requires multiple computers at multiple tables all connected to the internet. A single Hearthstone game can finish in a few minutes, but a single Starcraft II game can last a half hour or more. Try to not only choose a game that you like, but also choose a game that fits the resources you have available to you.

Consider the nature of the game you want to run a tournament for as well. Games with large online communities will probably be looking to have online tournaments, while arcade-style games will thrive better in meat space. The game you choose will also have an effect on how you advertise your tournament and what communities you reach out to. Even the mindset of your tournament participants will vary wildly from game to game.

While you might not want to run a tournament for your favorite game given the above considerations, I would recommend at least running a tournament for a game you know something about. Do not try to run a tournament for a game you have never played. This may seem obvious, but many first-time tournament organizers choose a game because they think running a tournament for it would be easy, and then start to panic when they realize they have no personal experience with the rules, tournament formats, or even station setup for that particular game.

In short, this whole section is a long way of saying, “don’t bite off more than you can chew.” Choose a game that you have passion for, but also that you have the resources for.

Finding a Venue

Every tournament needs a venue, but first-time tournament organizers won’t have access to huge stadiums. Luckily, there are lots of other alternatives to get your local tournament off the ground.

Houses and Apartments

The most basic tournament space is someone’s living space. It’s free. It’s easily manageable. It requires no paperwork or bureaucracy of any kind. But it’s also kind of inconvenient. You’ll likely have very limited space, depending on the size of the home. Not to mention this requires letting a large amount of strange gamers with dubious character into your personal living space. Still, if your tournament is small enough, this is probably the way to go.

Game Stores

What better place to host a video game tournament than a place that sells games. Game stores are great venue picks because they will usually help you advertise, which will get your tournament an impressive turnout. They also usually have equipment you can use, reducing the need to source equipment yourself. Most average size game stores will have space to spare even after you set up your equipment. Don’t limit yourself to video game stores either. Card and board gaming shops are usually more than happy to bring foot traffic to their door.

Unfortunately, there are some drawbacks to using a gaming store for your venue. First of all, their event dates are limited, since they will be running their own promotions. They will likely impose a ton of guidelines on you, which may interfere with the way the tournament is run. They also tend to ask for gigantic venue fees to be added into the tournament registration fee, which may make your tournament financially untenable. Finally, they usually won’t let you give away actual cash as prizes for legal reasons. You’ll have to settle for store credit or something similar.

Eateries and Bars

Why not grab a burger and play a round of Street Fighter V? Food establishments are a great place to hold your tournament because they are usually OK with no or low venue fees, keeping tournament entry fees low as well. The foot traffic alone will help them make money on food sales, which is a benefit to everyone. They also tend to have plenty of space to set up, but they usually aren’t equipped for gigantic turnouts, and they certainly won’t allow your tournament to run if it interferes with normal business. They also tend to have a packed schedule with limited event dates and many lack access to the internet, which could mess up certain styles of tournament. Also, forget running any PC game at a restaurant unless it’s being run on a laptop. They are one of the few venues that will absolutely refuse to let you set up a local area network of desktops. They just don’t have the space or the infrastructure.

Public Event Space

If you want to run a massive tournament, you are going to have to look into public event space. This includes hotels, convention centers, and any place that rents space specifically for tournaments and events.

The good news is that these facilities are amazing. You will get tons of space, a dedicated staff to help you out, easy internet access, and even equipment provided by the venue. The bad news? It costs an arm and a leg. To make a tournament at a public event space worthwhile you have to make sure that you have enough people coming to cover the cost. Many people have taken to Kickstarting or otherwise crowdfunding tournaments in public event space simply to make sure they have enough money before the tournament even begins.

It’s also worth noting that public event spaces are huge. Running a tournament in one will require a lot of teamwork between a dedicated group of tournament organizers in order to run well. I strongly caution against running your first tournament in a public event space, but once you have a few smaller tournaments under your belt, think about volunteering to staff a major or two. This will give you enough experience to eventually run a massive scale tournament of your own.

The Internet!

If none of the above venues sound like good options to you, consider holding your tournament on the internet. Online tournaments provide a ton of advantages. Everyone already has the equipment. No one has to drive out to the venue. Streaming them is super easy. So much of the work is already done for you.

But for as many advantages as it gives you, it comes with equally as many disadvantages. You need a totally different set of skills to run tournaments online than you do in meat space. For example, match reporting becomes much more important since you won’t necessarily just be able to watch the match yourself. Ringing players for their match becomes harder because you can’t just shout their name at the venue. Enforcing a schedule becomes super important, since one delayed match can set your entire tournament off, which will cause more players to drop since they don’t have time to wait around for their matchups. Using the internet as a venue essentially means you have to micromanage every single competitor to make your tournament a success.

But How Do You Even Get a Venue?

This section has gone over the pros and cons of each different venue, but has said little about actually nailing one down. This might seem simple, but the best way to get a venue is to just cold call them. Say you are looking to run a tournament and see if the venue is interested. Even better, go in person, give a nice firm handshake, and explain how much traffic your tournament might bring to the venue. You are essentially selling yourself and your e-sport to the venue owner, so make the best impression that you can.

Equipment and Set Up

No tournament is run without equipment, but luckily there is a simple three letter cheat to help small tournaments go off without a hitch: BYO.

Bring Your Own… everything really. Desktop, Laptop, Keyboard, Mouse, Controller, Monitor, heck you can pretty much ask gamers to bring just about everything except tables and chairs. Of course, when your tournament gets big enough you probably can’t juggle everyone bringing their own PC. At this point it helps if you have volunteers bring equipment that other people can play on. Usually you can offer something like a waived venue fee or otherwise reduced entry into the tournament for asking them to go through the trouble of lugging equipment out. Also, be willing to bring your own TV, console, or computer. You can’t really expect others to volunteer their equipment when you aren’t bringing your own.

Before the tournament even begins, lag check everything. EVERYTHING! Monitors, computers, controllers. Check everything that you are providing to players (even volunteered setups). www.displaylag.com is a great resource for monitor latency, and most games have their own utility that determines whether or not they are running at a smooth FPS. Set every game on every setup to the same settings. If this means that the awesome gaming rig that was brought has to run your game of choice at low settings, so be it. You don’t want anyone to complain about possible unfair advantages. “His rig had shadows on! He was able to see characters at the edge of the map a split second before I could!”

After you lag check everything, check to make sure everything is tournament legal. Be incredibly wary of turbo buttons or keyboards that can program in macros. Be equally as wary of wireless controllers. I’d personally suggest banning them all together. Never enforce the usage of a specific controller, just ban the usage of controllers that aren’t legal. If you are running the tournament on a console, make sure that every console is the same version (don’t mix up PS4s and PS4 pros) and make sure it’s the same brand (don’t run a tournament on both PS4 and Xbox One at the same time) because different consoles run games slightly differently.

Once you are certain all your equipment is kosher, label it. Everything. Every monitor, controller, and keyboard. No one will come back to your tournament if they lose their controller or, worse, their monitor in the setup shuffle.

And do all of this before the tournament even starts! The venue should be totally set up an hour or two before the game playing begins. This will give you enough time to handle any last minute problems that arise. It also gives competitors time for some casual matches before the tournament begins. You might even want to dedicate some extra setups to allow spectators to play casual matches all throughout the tournament.

If you are streaming your tournament, be sure to calculate stream setup time into this. How to set up your own stream is a topic for another article, but if someone is setting it up for you just ask them how long they need.

The rest of equipment setup is a matter of logistics. Make sure players have enough room to play and spectators have enough room to spectate. Try not to have spectators hover over competitor’s backs if possible. Instead, dedicate one setup for running major matches and feed that match onto a big screen. Spectator mode works just fine in most shooters and any other game works just fine with a HDMI splitter running the video output to a second monitor or projector.

Keep paths to important areas open. The most important areas for your tournament are probably the front desk, cash register, food locations, tournament sign up, game setups, and of course, the bathroom. Do not make players cross through a gameplay area to get to their gameplay area. That could screw up a match in progress.

Finally, if this is the first time you are running a tournament, take it from me. Take however much time you think it will take to set-up the venue and double it… at least. Trust me, you’ll need it.

Tournament Pricing – The Root of All Evil

Much of what I mentioned above can be used to run friendly tournaments all you like, but when your tournaments grows you might want to consider offering your winners some of that sweet, sweet e-sports money. Just remember this one thing: gamers are cheap!

If your tournament costs too much to enter, lower skilled players won’t show up. Meanwhile, if the prize pool is too low, pros won’t show up. No one signs up for a tournament that costs an amount of money they don’t want to lose.

You should split your entrance fee into a pot fee and venue fee. Venue fees go directly to, appropriately enough, the venue. It’s the cost of having your event at their place. If you paid for the venue ahead of time the venue fee should be 0.

Pot fees are essentially the money that is up for being won. Remember, laws for what constitutes gambling vary state by state, so you might have to use the pot fee to purchase something else, a gift card, store credit, a console, or something like that. Even then, there are usually loopholes, like offering a new console which the winner can then immediately sell back to the game store for full price. Just be smart and you shouldn’t get in trouble.

Your goal is to make your venue fee plus your pot fee equal to an amount of money people are comfortable paying just for the experience of being in a tournament. In general, you never want to make the venue fee higher than the pot fee. A 2 to 1 ratio of pot to venue fee is a good start, but you’ll find that cost/worth ratio varies greatly based on different games and communities. You just kind of have to feel it out. Look to other local tournaments in your area for an idea of what a fair entrance fee is.

Once you have the money, it is now your responsibility to hold onto it. Once again, if you lose the pot, no one will come back to your tournament. You’ll have to decide how to split the payout between the winners of your tournament. The easiest method is to pay it all to the first place winner, but that discourages people from entering. Consider splitting the pot between first, second, and third place in such a way that third place will at least break even. 70%/20%/10% and 60%/30%/10% are some very common splits for first, second, and third place, but larger tournaments will sometimes split the pot down to 16th place and beyond. Once again, this is something you have to feel out, but can look to other tournament for an example.

Rules – Contrary to Popular Belief, Not Made to be Broken

Every game except for the newest of the new has a commonly accepted tournament ruleset. If this is your first time running a tournament, use it. You can find it with a quick and simple Google search. If you can’t find tournament standards, then use the game’s default settings whenever possible. Note that this is just for your first few tournaments. Feel free to get creative after you have a couple under your belt.

Be careful about changing rules based on personal preferences. Don’t ban characters, weapons, or other options. Don’t change the time limit. Don’t change health or damage settings. Don’t do anything unless A) the tournament community agrees with it or B) you inform everyone coming to your tournament of these changes well in advance. It doesn’t matter how cheap you think Fox is. He is tournament legal.

Be very careful about format changes that could piss off your entire tournament roster. A simple change from double to singe elimination could cause half of your players to drop out. The same is true for doing things like giving matches infinite time just because you think they are fun, or providing copies of games with partially locked rosters. Try to fall in line with community accepted standards as much as possible.

Running the Bracket – Seriously Don’t Change the Bracket

There are many different tournament styles to choose from, but most small tournaments run best in single or double elimination style. Once again, consult your community standards to see which is right for the game you have chosen.

Once you have figured out what bracket you will be running, you’ll need a way to run them. The simplest way is paper or hardcopy, which is useful as a backup but, come on, we aren’t savages.

Perhaps the best browser-based tournament software out there is Challonge.com. Not only can the entire bracket be edited from any mobile device, it is also viewable via the internet to the spectating public. Challonge even gives you tools to help ring players when it’s time for their match.

You might also want to invest in a third-party tournament running software, such as ALJ Tournament Maker, or Tio. While these don’t have the useful online interface of Challonge, they do have other features, such as keeping track of entry fees and doing the prize split automatically.

Whatever service you choose, it’s important to let entrants see the bracket. This is why internet services like Challonge are so useful. You can just provide a website link and you are done. However, it doesn’t hurt to go a step beyond. A separate monitor or projector goes a long way toward making the bracket accessible to the masses, but simple poster board will do in a pinch.

How you seed the bracket will, again, be different from game to game, but if there aren’t easily accessible standings to help you seed then random seeding is always a good fallback. But whatever you do, do not shift the bracket around. Not if someone is going to have to play his or her teammate. Not if someone feels they have a harder path to victory than most. Not even if a meteor falls in the parking lot. Do not, do not, DO NOT shift the bracket around. Shifting the bracket around will cause you a world of headaches as your bracket software goes on the fritz and you have no idea who won what.

Minimize situations which might affect your bracket in any way. Don’t let people in late. Force people to come up to you to report match wins. Make sure BOTH players agree so you don’t get a misrepresented win. Don’t let players take breaks for no reason. Enforce your schedule! If a player doesn’t show up for their match, make an attempt to contact them. If they hold up your tournament for more than a few minutes, disqualify them. In fact, don’t be soft on anyone who does something to be disqualified. The DQ is your most powerful tool for keeping players in line.

Final Tips and Words of Encouragement

For tournament organizing, the devil is in the details and unfortunately there are few details that apply universally to every game. But here are a few last tips to help you out.

  • Separate your venue fee and tournament fee for easy bookkeeping
  • Make sure the rules for your tournament are visible and known before the tournament starts
  • Consider having people sign up with their phone number or some other form of contact to keep track of entrants that have disappeared
  • Advertise your tournament on social media, community sites, and even with fliers and posters.
  • Find sponsors if you can. Sponsors will help you run your tournament and will even provide prize support for a little bit of advertising. Once again, cold calling is perhaps the best way to get sponsors to work with you, other than making your tournament big enough that they take notice.
  • Have a zero tolerance policy toward sexist, racist, or violent behavior. No one will go to a tournament that isn’t a safe space for all gamers.
  • Be creative! The tournament running experience should be fun for you as well as your players. Consider running fun retro game tournaments or obscure gaming tournaments. Feature wacky matches like hot sauce money match exhibitions. Make your tournament unique and different so people have a reason to come back.

Finally, here is one sad truth that will haunt your first tournament running experience. All these tips? All these rules? You will likely break every single one of them in your first tournament in an attempt to make everyone happy. You will encounter problems, piss off players, and make mistakes. You will not be perfect.

Just remember, don’t panic, and don’t be discouraged. Scenes can only thrive due to dedicated tournament organizers like you.