The beginning of December saw thousands of gamers and gaming industry professionals descend upon Jönköping, a sleepy lakeside town in the south of Sweden. This is pretty much the norm every winter, as Jönköping is host to the annual DreamHack Winter LAN and gaming festival. What is touted as the ‘Biggest Digital Festival’ certainly lived up to its description in this year’s edition. A combination of excellent production values, an awe-inspiring scale and infectuous enthusiasm on the part of event management, teams and fans alike combined to make it an unforgettable experience.
DreamHack Winter was huge
Make no mistake about it, it’s an amazing sight when you put thousands of gamers and their gear shoulder to shoulder, covering spaces usually reserved for sporting events. Being a “DreamHack virgin” only added to the general feeling of being overwhelmed when stepping into the main hall for the first time.
DreamHack Winter covered the entirety of the Elmia sporting complex. Elmia is a purpose built exhibition and convention centre, with connected ice hockey and racket sports centres. It’s vast enough that just walking from one end to the other can take a reasonable amount of time. While the figures for the 2017 edition have not yet been published, the number of attendees is expected to be well over 20,000.
While the LAN festival was the main attraction of the event, there was a bit of everything in it for everyone. A dedicated hall hosted CSGO, Quake, and H1Z1 tournaments all through the event. The exhibition centre saw top hardware suppliers featuring amazing gear, and in one case, an actual car where you simulate playing a game.
The production was top notch
Putting on an event of this size is hardly a simple task. It certainly involved coordinating thousands of people and balancing complex logistics, making sure everything came together seamlessly. Everything was laid out perfectly, and there was always a member of staff around every corner willing to help out.
Perhaps it sounds weird to say that a festival with thousands of kids running around was seamlessly organised, but that’s how it truly felt. Our press contact told us about some behind-the-scenes happenings, but if he didn’t, we would never have known.
The production of the esports events, we were told, were also handled by the DreamHack Winter staff. There were four directors dedicated to handling the various esports tournaments on site, as well as to make sure that the broadcasts went right. While they did have their fair share of fumbles, from commentators getting sick, to missed scheduling, the overall feel of actually sitting in a CSGO tournament final is something for everyone to experience.
The visual cues for the live viewer are something you just can’t get while watching a match on twitch. Under each player’s picture is a spotlight. It’s blue if they’re playing on CT, and Orange if they are T. If they take Molotov damage, there’s a fiery overlay over their face. When they die, the spotlight goes out. When a round starts, the general lighting takes on a blue hue, and when the bomb is planted, turns red. When a bomb went off, there was a brilliant lightshow. This immersion took the experience to a whole new level, something that perhaps exists only in the esports world.
BUT, there’s room for improvement. The Dota stage was just red. Red. Occasionally the pillars turned white, for a bit.
Dreamleague season 8 was a major, but didn’t feel like it
Dota made its way back to DreamHack Winter, with a major and a suitcase full of a million one dollar bills, but instead of strutting into the event like it was walking in with big bronze kahunas, it sort of snuck in through the back.
First, the location. The moment you entered DreamHack Winter via the main entrance, you had two options. The main one was to continue straight on, towards the clearly marked MAIN HALL, where the mass of the crowd was heading, or towards some nondescript elevators to the left. So yes, you headed for the main attraction, the LAN party. Doing so meant that you would be shepherded around the venue almost a complete 360 degrees to get to the stage where the Dota event was taking place. This meant going through the entire LAN setup, up some escalators, thru the exhibition centre, up another set of escalators, around the esports hall, down a corridor, and into an auditorium.
Yes, the Dota major was held in an auditorium, or, as Elmia prefers to put it, a congress hall. It felt just like a high school theatre. The advertised capacity is 1,100 but it only felt anywhere close to that during the finals. This production could definitely have been moved to one of the bigger halls, where more foot traffic would have helped to increase attendance and interest. That would also have solved another major issue – no food or drink was allowed.
Evidently, interest in a Dota event is accentuated by starvation. Or that was management’s theory here.
Before you entered the hall, at least one of the security personnel would check if you had any food or drink on you. If you did, you were been asked to leave it on the table outside, barring which you were not allowed in. Pause for a moment… video games – kids – snacks – that’s pretty much a holy trinity. Take the last one away, and well, a fan may as well just go watch CSGO, where he can munch on overpriced nachos to his heart’s content. If you managed to sneak some goodies in, a well placed Swedish esport Stasi officer would spot you from the balcony, and send someone over to politely tell you off. Quite hilarious.
The seats were comfy though.
Some of the “lesser” esports have a fierce following
Forget for a moment the Dotas and CSGOs of the world. DreamHack Winter really had a bit of everything. Old arcade games were right there beside up-and-coming twitch streamers, who were beside PUBG casters. Smash brothers, Hearthstone, H1Z1 and a few other smaller games all hosted tournaments. Some had stages, some just had a few chairs in front of TVs. What was evident was that those who participated in those games, were very, very loyal.
Some viewers for H1Z1 stayed by the stage from start to finish, not wanting to miss any of the action. They definitely had the loudest cheers among any of the “smaller” tournaments.
The Hearthstone tournament also demonstrated how ferocious Hearthstone fans can be. Initially thinking that tournament software was at fault in wrongly calculating the top 16, organisers then manually recalculated the results, which also turned out wrong. They actually didn’t find out until much later, after the matches had already begun.
Twitter erupted like a Balinese volcano. Fans demanded justice for the wronged player, GamerSenei Seiko. In the end, since the matches had already taken place, and they couldn’t re-play them, Seiko was compensated with top 8 winnings, and travel and accommodation to the next tournament.
What people play at DreamHack Winter
One of the biggest questions heading into the weekend event was what would people in the LAN party be playing. With the crowd starting on Friday to collectively summon lord and saviour Gaben through their steam accounts, the overall play varied considerably in the first few hours. Since most of the hosted tournaments didn’t start until late Friday or Saturday, this was expected.
Once the ball got rolling, the clear winner was PUBG. Throughout the event, the LAN PUBG tournament took centre stage. Big Twitch personality, DrDisrispect was given top billing here, even streaming from the main stage. There were multiple servers for LAN players that fired off games every few minutes or so.
Second place, in our opinion, was CSGO, followed by Fortnite, Dota and LoL. There was a clear difference in what people played in various halls. The younger hall had a lot of LoL, Fornite and PUBG, while the main hall saw a lot of PUBG and CSGO. The 20+ hall had the most varied games, however.
Some in the 20+ zone were more adventurous in their gaming. A lot of Destiny 2 was played, with one guy bringing it back to the 90’s with Red Alert. Legendary.
The true essence of DreamHack Winter was captured by a group of about six people in the 20+ area, conveniently seated outside the press area entrance. They played games together through the event, starting with Destiny 2 and then getting into some weird games as the event went on. They seemed to have the time of their lives at 7am on Sunday morning, playing something which deserves the main esport stage at Madison Square Garden – Hand Simulator.
In that moment, that’s when we saw what DreamHack Winter was all about. Early morning, a dark hall, your buddies beside you, laughing as you try to control a simulated hand putting a bullet in a gun in a game that looks like it was made by 12 year olds. DreamHack.
Featured image credit: Gabriel Kulig (www.flickr.com/photos/thefoxintheattic)