The Grand Final Ballet
Hugh writes about the experience of taking NS2 to Cologne for the NSL Invitational Grand Final, and the wonderful people that made it happen.
Time was ticking away. A minute ago, all those who would be on-camera, match admins, and other critical people had walked out of a final briefing from Oli, the producer, on the top floor of the Turtle Entertainment building in Cologne, Germany. At the base of the stairs, I passed Charlie my phone. ‘Walk with me boss’ – And the next few seconds were caught as part of NSL Episode 4 / NS2HD.
This was t-25 minutes. Sean, the evening’s MC and host, was prepping to introduce the show. Dillon was beginning to fire up the crowd. The teams were practicing their shooting, biting, and med-pack dropping. Shannon was going over her introduction, and watching our social feeds. Oli had assumed his position behind the backs of screens and switches that link the Electronic Sports League studio to viewers on Twitch.
Me? I was desperately trying to triage time to be able to go to the bathroom. Get Shannon logged in to our Twitch account, find a replacement USB cable to get shots off my phone, edit together and post the aforementioned YouTube videos, make final Tweetbook+ posts. The whole time, all I really wanted to do was sit on a toilet.
All of that could happen, there was just enough time. Breathe. But wait. It was in that Turtle Entertainment bathroom that a horrible realisation hit me. I had not given the Twitch login details to Oli. The absurdity of the situation was almost comical. In amongst the maelstrom, with all the threads falling into place, the master key was not in the lock. At 2000CET, nothing would happen. Or, the stream would go to the wrong address.
A startled Nexzil player stepped aside at the bathroom door as I raced back towards the studio. On the way, I barged past the enforcer responsible for keeping camera shots clear and held my open palm up to Sean: ‘If you have them, give me the five minutes.’ He nodded as I turned to bee-line for the control room. There, Oli was his usual calm and controlled self. His face barely moved when I told him what was wrong.
Charlie played the role of the wise and proud father. He has spent thirteen years of his life working to bring people together through play. He started Unknown Worlds with that goal. Now, he was watching six Americans take on six Europeans with a live studio audience, and thousands of people tuning in online. If there was ever proof that he had achieved one of the greatest goals in his life, this was it.
Wrestling, cajoling, and wishing Natural Selection into existence was a process that left Charlie little time for reflection. A modest and dignified CEO, he gives off the impression that he doesn’t understand how special his achievements have been in creating Unknown Worlds. Thanks to the ‘Troll King’ sitting in the stands during the show, he was rightly and wonderfully forced into the limelight. Dillon and James were forced to stop a post-match analysis as the chant of ‘Charlie, Charlie, Charlie Cleveland’ echoed around the studio.
Throughout the show, Dillon embodied the wonderful community spirit that NS2 is fortunate to harbour. He tirelessly worked up the crowd, was endlessly entertaining in front of the camera, and contributed a huge amount of energy to the studio atmosphere. Outside that studio, he tended to the needs of players and ensured they were having a good time in Cologne. His efforts were especially important to the American Nexzil players, some of whom had never travelled internationally.
The show format is to tick-tock between games and other content. Tick: Archaea and Nexzil open with a furiously contested first round. Tock: I get body-slammed by Dillon. Tick: Second round. Tock: Rantology wins a graphics card. And so on throughout the show. People need to be in the right places at the right time to minimise down time and give continuity to the viewer experience. The man making that happen is Oli.
When you see a caster spieling into the camera, or Sean sitting talking with an audience member, there is often a one sided conversation happening that goes unnoticed: Oli is in those people’s ears. Oli is the producer and in command of getting the right thing in front of the right camera at the right time in the right place. From behind his switchboard, he choreographs the crazy.
Much of that crazy is delivered by Sean. Oli and Sean work together to think of creative ways to get around show snags, downtime and unexpected equipment failures. All while the show is live. Off air, Sean handles the business end of making an event happen. On air, he sews the various patches of show fabric together in real time. Often, this involves improvisation and always quick thinking.
One of those patches is live interaction between the show and social media. Such media provides a binding layer between what viewers want and feel, and what is going on in front of the camera. Twitch chat, Facebook, and Twitter were the chosen poisons during the NSL Invitational Finals, and Shannon was in command of them.
Shannon’s job is one of the toughest in the studio. She is the personification of the ‘binding layer,’ and that means she must directly engage with whatever material the social media feeds throw at her. It is no secret that an unfortunate proportion of the male gaming population harbours an attitude toward women that is stuck in the 17th century. Being on the receiving end of this rubbish takes guts and Shannan has the thanks of Unknown Worlds for taking on the role.
While the ban hammer fell on many a caveman, I was proud to hear that the amount of sexist garbage posted on the Natural Selection 2 feeds was significantly lower than that regularly visible at the events of certain other game titles.
NS2 is different to other game titles in a another way: Size. As a relatively niche game, it does not have a deep pool of casting talent to draw on for events like this. That’s not to say there is not many an awesome commentator out there in the community, but no NS2 casters have experience with stages the size of the NSL Grand Final. Being a caster at such an event is not just about knowing the game and scene.
Throughout the event, James held the hand of Dillon and I as we attempted to pass muster. Having the ability to maintain sentence structure while Oli is giving instructions in your ear, knowing how to professionally thrown and receive from others in the studio, provide guidance on the operation of equipment, and a myriad of other skills are essential: Without James, Dillon and I would have been kiddy pool swimmers drowning in the Olympic deep end.
Though had we started to drown, I know who would have dived in to rescue us. ‘Much louder than an SC2 crowd,’ ‘This crowd is really boisterous;’ such was the type of phrase the ESL crew, including James, used to describe the group of people that turned up in Cologne to watch the event live.
From NS2-Fr, Radical, Blind, B1, Obraxis, to developers from other studios, to local NS2 players: The crowd gave life to the event and gave energy to everyone in front of the camera. It was a true pleasure to meet so many fellow NS2 players and have the opportunity to share the experience with them.
Through the magic of living in the future, that experience was shared with tens of thousands of unique viewers around the world. Twitch.Tv is a fantastic business – It breaks down the barriers that traditional media puts between content and viewers. Everyone that watched the NSL Grand Final, even if not for the whole four-hour show, has my sincere thanks and hope that the show you witnessed entertained you.
All the lights, all the sounds, all the raucous antics and brilliant plays and novelty cheques and audience cheers: All of this is a celebration of gaming and its ability to bring people together. Unknown Worlds does not turn a profit on events like this. We do not undertake them with the intent to ‘maximise user acquisition’ and ‘grow our monetisable audience.’ The long term benefits of the immense expenses incurred are not quantifiable and at best intangible. We pay for them outright, with no fiduciary sponsors.
Walking out of the studio, my face scrubbed of green paint and empty prize-bag in tow, my emotions were not what I expected. After four hours of watching people participate in a once-in-a-lifetime experience, after giving my all to the spectacle and firing on all cylinders, I felt empty.
The players, spectators, Dillon, and Charlie stood outside the studio doors in the crisp midnight Cologne air. In the near-distance, the lights of Koln HBF’s picturesque rail bridge twinkled. The mood was jubilant. Despite their loss, Nexzil were reveling in their German adventure. Ever magnanimous in defeat, Archaea too were keen for celebration.
Despite Dillon’s protestations that I join them, I cut a lonely figure and walked away from the group. At first, this confused me. Was this feeling sadness? Walking across the Rhine, I realised it was not sadness. It was shock – A hidden happiness that demanded I be apart from the beer and banter that the rest of the crew would engage in till the wee hours.
Watching the lights bounce off that river, thousands of kilometres from San Francisco, it all came crashing through my mind: Look how far Natural Selection has come. Look how far this game’s community has brought it. Look at what the passion of players has achieved. Look at the experience that a tiny little developer has managed to create. Imagine what we can all achieve together in future.