Blog #6 Tournaments: TeSPA and the LoneStar Clash

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Tyler, Adam, you are the Co-Presidents of the Texas eSports Association.  Please introduce yourselves and tell us about about TeSPA and the LoneStar Clash.

We are twin brothers in our final year studying aeronautics engineering at the University of Texas.  TeSPA is a student eSports club that we started when we were juniors.  It is best known as the group behind the LoneStar Clash, which is one of the largest and most successful community-produced eSports events in North America. We’re about to hold the LoneStar Clash II on November 10-11—we hope a lot of your viewers watch online or attend in person. 

(Note:  Austin hotel space for LoneStar is going fast!  Book now!)

Credit: TeSPA

Start from the beginning!  How did you get into StarCraft and the eSports scene?

We grew up playing games as kids, especially WarCraft 3 and StarCraft Brood War.  We were obsessed with Brood War!  Beyond that, we were vaguely aware that there was an eSports scene growing up, but didn’t really get into eSports that seriously until college.  When StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty was released in our junior year, the hype was crazy.  We got into the beta and fell in love with the game all over again.

There had been a Collegiate StarLeague team before at the University of Texas Austin, but it was focused solely on Brood War, and the guys running it graduated.   So in the summer of 2010, we decided to create a StarCraft II group so we would have people to play with.  We made a single post in the community section on TeamLiquid inviting other students to come to a meetup.  We figured maybe five or six people would show up.  To our amazement, there were like twenty to twenty-five—and everyone was really passionate about eSports.   We thought: “Whoa! There is a lot of interest here…Maybe we should start up a club and tap into some of this motivation!”

So that was the seed that started the Texas eSports Association (TeSPA).  A few weeks later, in August of 2010, we officially launched TeSPA as a student organization at the University of Texas at Austin and started growing it, including reaching out to other Texas campuses.  We were amazed again when about forty people showed up for our very first TeSPA meeting. By the end of the first semester, we had a member base of about 100.

Credit: TeSPA

Why you?  Why didn’t somebody else do this at your college? Did you have a lot of experience running groups like this?

That’s an interesting question.  I think there were other people who wanted to what we did, but they just didn’t know how to get it going.  We don’t have any particular background in management or entrepreneurship but we had organized stuff before in high school (theater, math clubs) and we always liked making things happen.  That came to us naturally.  We had also participated in college student government and worked on a program that taught communication, team building and leadership to engineering students at UT.  That gave us some confidence, too.

But to be honest, TeSPA and LoneStar happened mostly because a bunch of people, including us, had the sheer willpower to make it happen.  I think a lot of people already possess the native skills it takes to launch something like this, but they hang back and are too passive.  They wait for someone else to take the lead and then they jump on board.  We have the opposite approach.  We like being in control and we like making things happen ourselves, because then we can ensure that quality remains high and that stuff happens right and the outcome is good.  We trust ourselves to work hard to make sure that the organization or the event will be the best it can be.  In that sense, we are very proactive and aggressive about accomplishing our goals. We’ve learned we can make amazing things happen.  But not everyone seems to have that same drive or willingness to commit.

In the case of eSports, we realized that the interest was there in the Texas community, and that we could tap into it.  We also thought we could personally get a lot out of setting up TeSPA, and learn a lot in the process.  Our motto is that we never back down from a challenge like that, we never say no.

So TeSPA started out as an SCII team.  How did you transition into producing large scale tournament events?  What was your first tournament like?

To be honest, we started very small.  In fact, at first, we didn’t have any real events.  What brought us together was the Collegiate Star League tournaments and some social gaming events.  From there, we figured out how to stream, and whenever TeSPA players played, we streamed those matches to other students.  We had a tiny audience, maybe  20-30 viewers at that time,  but the very fact that we did it brought people together.  We also held a couple of small LANs our first semester—social things, where people in TeSPA could get to know each other and have fun.

Then we got more ambitious.  We decided that the TeSPA officer team should focus on producing one really big event each semester, and we decided that event should be an eSports tournament.

Our first real tournament was in the fall of 2010 and was on a very small scale (see photo) but we were super proud of it.  We publicized our event by making an  announcement on Teamliquid and on every major university campus in the state:  the University of Texas at Dallas, the University of Texas at Arlington, Texas Tech, Rice University, Texas A&M.  Our event was a 64 player, single elimination tournament that lasted just one day, and we asked participants to bring their own computers. We had a $700 prize pool and we charged players an entry fee of $10-$12 to raise the money to cover that prize pool.  As a student organization, we were able to borrow a big room for the event free of charge from the university.  We used free online software to make the brackets.  The university also had awesome bandwidth and could offer us free internet. They unlocked ports so everybody could log onto Battle.Net.  We all brought in our personal gaming computers to help with the logistics of running the event.

It was awesome and it was crazy.  People drove in from everywhere.  We were all crammed into a single room, which meant we had to cast from same room in which the players were playing.  I mean it was a totally ghetto setup! But it was still the biggest StarCraft II LAN in Texas at the time. We were so proud of that event. 

Credit: TeSPA

So with that success under your belts, you then decided to ramp up for your next event?

Right, so the following semester, in the Spring of 2011, we planned a second tournament, the TeSPA Texas Open, this time with a $1,500 prize pool.   We opened it up to 128 people.  We learned from our mistakes during the first event, and this time we made sure we had access to a college auditorium in addition to the original game room.  That gave us a separate spectating area so we could accommodate more people.  It also meant that our casters were in front of the live audience, which made for a better spectating experience.  For the first time, we charged spectators a $5 entry fee and added food to the program for an additional $5.  The food was a great idea because we had a captive audience and a long event, and selling food and drinks generated extra cash.  Then we charged the players $15-$17 to enter the tournament, and once again used that money to fund the prize pool.

We just came up with these dollar numbers off the top of our heads because we thought they were reasonable amounts of money to charge even on a student budget and we discounted advance purchase/TeSPA membership purchase.  Nobody balked at the cost: they all wanted to break in to eSports and compete.

We had online qualifiers ahead of the event, so only the top 64 players competed in person at the tournament finals.  It was a one day event, single elimination bracket, and we streamed it online.  We got 10,000 views, which we thought was great. Remember, that was a big jump from our first efforts as an organization, where we had just 20-30 people watching!

We had no money to pay casters, so we just recruited local community guys to cast—we even jumped in ourselves during the event and took turns casting.  Our big coup was that we actually got a local  pro player from Evil Geniuses—StrifeCro—to agree to come.  We were so thrilled to have an EG guy there.  It was so legitimizing!  In fact, the finals featured StrifeCro against a former Brood War pro from Sweden named Tobias (ZpuX).  StrifeCro won 4-3 in this great, gripping set of final matches.   It was so awesome for all of us.  Great spectating.

Credit: TeSPA

And you kept going, right? You kept ramping it up?  The following semester you planned yet another, bigger tournament?

Yes.  In the fall of 2011, we took a hard look at our previous events, and tried to top ourselves again with the Texas StarCraft Showdown.

So, this is important for your readers to understand:  we didn’t just wake up one day and decide to produce the LoneStar Clash!  Our approach was to start small, iterate, learn and improve.  We were actually doing one of these events every semester for a while, and figuring things out.   We challenge ourselves but we don’t bite off more than we can chew.  We manage our risk in increments.   We learn what does and doesn’t work as we go and keep building upon our systems and expertise.  This approach has kept us out of trouble.

Anyway,  for the third tournament, we upped the players and the prize pool and the casters and everything.  We also upgraded the venue, so we could bring in more people.  We had 128 entrants with a double elimination bracket (which was more challenging for us, since it involved a lot of logistics and a lot more games).  We once again had online qualifiers. This time, we brought in real casters and attracted pro players like vileState and Quantic.iNkA.

We doubled the prize pool to $3,000, which was a big jump.  To make that happen, we brought on our first major outside sponsor—AT&T.  That was something completely new.  Up until then, we had bootstrapped everything through entry ticket sales and food sales.   But with the third tournament, we felt we had built enough viewership, and had enough of a track record, for a sponsor to take us seriously.

In fact, we ended up with almost 400,000 views for our third event.  So online viewership skyrocketed.  That’s when people started to pay attention to us nationally.  They were like:  who are these guys in Texas?  How are they doing this?

We also got iNcontroL to cast because again we were trying to up our production values.  We had met somebody at MLG Dallas, and become friends with him and he knew one of the EG players, so he acted as the middleman to get us introduced to Geoff.  We explained what we were doing over Skype, and Geoff agreed to cast for us.   So that networking really paid off.   In fact, the bigger we have become, the more important networking has become to us.

Credit: TeSPA

By now, we had also built a website for TeSPA, so we had a clearinghouse for all the communication surrounding our events.   That website played a significant role in the organization of the tournaments and was entirely built by TeSPA members.

We can’t emphasize enough how talented and hardworking and committed the TeSPA group is and how important collaborative work is to the success of these events.  Believe us when we say a strong team can make all the difference in the world.  As event organizers, you can’t do everything yourself and you can’t be expert at everything. For example, we were lucky enough to have Waytao Shing, knew the basics of event marketing and sponsorships and taught us how to do that.  We also had Jerry Lu, a brilliant graphic design guy, Donald Chan, who figured out how to stream effectively, Bo Zhang, a networking and power management guru who oversaw our technical setup, Brett Hallum, who focused on organizing volunteers and on-site logistics, Jorge Palomino, a social coordinator who organized side activities at the event, and many more.

And then came the LoneStar Clash I?

Yes, then we got really ambitious and thought:  why shouldn’t we put on event that rivals the quality of professional events like MLG and IPL?  So we decided to produce the Lone Star Clash, an event that featured a combined $11,500 prize pool with a pro invitation with 16 pro players from 8 countries and a regional collegiate tournament that attracted teams from 14 colleges.

That is a great overview of how you got into eSports tournaments!  In part two, let’s talk more in the next blog about the LoneStar Clash I and II.  We want to hear how you got your sponsorships,  how you got pros to come to these events.  We’d also like to hear more about your networking, your specific stream setup, and how you publicize yourself. And last but not least, what did do these events cost?

Credit: TeSPA