Carmac: "I wouldn't call the situation pleasant, but the community has been excellent to us, and I can't thank them enough"
We sat down with ESL's VP of ProGaming, Michal "Carmac" Blicharz, to discuss the authorities' decision to cancel IEM Katowice's mass event license at the last minute amid coronavirus concerns and how it impacted the event and the organizer going into the future.
In an interview conducted on the final day of IEM Katowice, Carmac spoke to us about how the team behind organizing and producing the event was able to deal with the shocking news that there would be no audience present inside the Spodek arena for the playoffs, which had come out on the evening ahead of the main event and forced the organizer to refund all tickets and make changes to the broadcast at the last minute.
The ESL representative, who made a brief but emotional appearance on the IEM Katowice broadcast to address the situation, also talked about his experience from going around Katowice during the playoffs and speaking to the people who were affected, and shared what the response has been like.
With all sorts of mass public events being canceled all around the world because of fears amidst the coronavirus outbreak, whose impact continues to increase with over 90,000 confirmed cases, Carmac went on to comment on the status of the tournament organizer's arena events in the near future, as well, explaining that they are being looked at on a case-by-case basis.
ESL has four large-scale events currently scheduled for three next three months: the ESL One Los Angeles Dota 2 Major, the last three stages of ESL Pro League Season 11 playoffs in Denver, 2020's first CS:GO Major in Rio de Janeiro, and ESL One Birmingham.
How did ESL deal with the last-minute news that there wasn't going to be an audience in the playoffs and how much of an effect did it have, first of all from a broadcast perspective?
I would say we had actually been thinking about how to deal with it because it was a possibility that we had been considering since the start of February. As I said on the stream, we received multiple reassurances that we were okay to go on, so we kind of had a decent plan of where we would go, but, obviously, at the eleventh hour that was a little bit unsuspected.
In terms of the broadcast, not a lot changes. We've narrowed down the variety of shots that we get to work with because when there is an amazing clutch or ace or anything of that nature, then we usually go for reactions of the fans, which is not available at this event. But otherwise, if you just watched for one round, you wouldn't tell the difference.
I imagine it was a conscious decision to, for example, not put the casters in the arena to avoid having the typical reverb so that it doesn't remind people that there is no audience.
Yeah, I mean it's not difficult to do. You have one major element that gets removed, but it's an element that's much more easily removed than, let's say, the absence of players. The absence of an audience is something a little bit easier, and I think the crew has done a fantastic job overall to get through how fucking bummed out we all were, because we really were pretty shaken. You never know how you react to news like that until after you get news like that. But the crew shook it off very, very well, because I think there are two types of people that work for ESL in live production and at the event itself. I'm not talking about those people that are in super-high management or maybe in finances, but those that were directly at the event, there are two kinds of people. There are people who made the choice, could work on television or elsewhere, doing IT security for a bank, but made a conscious choice that they want to work in esports in a more complicated, crazy environment. And there are people who were given everything they have thanks to esports, who were fixing bikes and assembling IKEA furniture for people; similar to the SPUNJ story, he was a plumber in Australia before Counter-Strike, I believe.
People forget that. We often get painted as the evil logo out there that doesn't have a soul, but the people that put up the events, they are here because they love esports. And it's not difficult to go through difficult situations with people like that, who have a common goal, who care, who will go the extra mile. The show director was up until 3 AM rewriting the show because he was affected the most. The broadcast was affected the most because we had to make a choice of what to do with Zeus, for example. Is it fitting for a two-time IEM champion to bring out the trophy into an empty arena or is it better to wait for next year? What do we do with the trophy ceremony? All these things change, but, again, these are the people that made the choice to be in esports not because this is a cash grab or a safe job, it's neither, but they're here because they love it, they're here because they want to be.
What about from the financial aspect, from tickets being refunded to business-to-business opportunities being cut off all of a sudden? How much of an impact did that have on the company?
There is an impact for sure. For me, personally, my way of getting through this was to completely and utterly focus on the games, on the matches, because the rest of it I can't influence. I actually thought the more we would spend time talking about the impact of this or the meaning of this, the more it takes away from the tournament while we have the world's best players on stage playing, so I haven't given it too much thought, to be honest, and I can't give you a well-thought-out, intelligent answer for that reason. At the end of the day, historic stuff is happening on stage.
Of course, but when the tournament is over, we have to look at the future and think about how this affects not only you but also the scene, the industry as a whole. All kinds of events are being canceled around the world, so what dangers does that introduce to ESL and your future arena events such as the DotA Major coming up in Los Angeles, or in terms of Counter-Strike the Pro League playoffs in Denver and the Rio Major? What steps do you plan to take to deal with something like this happening again?
Every event that we have in the schedule in the pipeline is being looked at on a case-by-case basis, and every event has a task force similar to the task force that Katowice has had. But, honestly, I can't speak much more about that right now, simply because I'm in my esports bubble right now, and I wasn't thinking about or discussing non-esports topics since we got the news. We can talk at another time about this, but, for now, this is something we want to start tackling — the people that are here, directly working the event, that is — on Monday. There are other people that are already on the task, but when it comes to people in Katowice, all we think about is the grand final right now.
Katowice has had a special place in the ESL circuit for eight years, will this decision from the local authorities put that relationship at risk? Could ESL decide to move away from Katowice and into another Polish city in the future?
As far as we are concerned, nothing has changed. We have an excellent relationship with the city, an excellent dialogue with the city, so it's a very short answer. Nothing's changed.
To touch on a more specific issue, a report from ESPN claimed that the Minors will be affected, can you comment on that?
Not at the time because, again, I haven't discussed this, haven't thought about this. Obviously, we're going to have to pull up our sleeves starting Monday and get to work and see what's going on.
When you came here yesterday, you mentioned that this has given you some invaluable experience. What did you learn from having to deal with this?
How to react quickly and how to be ready for any future situations. The reaction has been quick, has been swift, we've discussed it and we had very good knowledge of what to do. It was very good that this is an event of such a scale that there's a lot of people here who are heads of departments. So, a lot of competent people could take multiple things: "Okay, you take care of talking to the press, making sure they feel safe, they know what's going on. You handle the tickets, all the people that bought tickets, what do we do with that? You take care of all the vendors at the expo, you take care of this, you take care of that..."
I think it was a very valuable experience for everybody involved because the task was parceled out very quickly, very efficiently. Our COO, Krzysztof Pikiewicz, who was actually one of the fathers of this event, he handled the situation very well, and it's all a very good blueprint for any future situation that will arise that will be similar. You can't possibly simulate a situation like this, there's always going to be something different, but our reaction to this is something that we will definitely take as a learning and make sure we implement it as a process going forward, not as something that is planned quickly, but something that is already planned ahead weeks in advance.
In a scenario where the outbreak isn't controlled any time soon and this keeps happening, do you see tournament organizers move away from arena events and towards studio events completely?
The only thing I can say is that if mass events, mass gatherings of people become unsafe, then what are people supposed to do? It's quite obvious that if it all becomes unsafe, then you can't have mass gatherings of people, simple as that. There are multiple scenarios where all this could go and it's really difficult to talk about it and speculate about it right now, but yes, looking pessimistically, a lot of different things could happen. Again, it's so difficult and I need to be cautious not to give a terrible soundbite, but we have to look at everything, evaluate everything, and think about it. At the end of the day, the health of all the people you're hosting is the most important thing. So if it's not safe, then we will obviously not have good conditions to be running a public event with tons of people.
You've been going around bars Katowice along with other ESL representatives talking to people. What has the response been like and what have been some of the stories of people that you've met?
The people we've met have been absolutely generous with us. The first thing most people said to me was "I'm so sorry your doors got closed." That's practically what two-thirds of the people said to me. Most of them presumably had tickets to the event so they have every right to be upset, they may have traveled from abroad, may have traveled from a distance, and were hoping to have a completely different experience here. It's so wonderful to see the Reddit threads, Tweets, saying, 'Here's what you do, here's where you go, if you're bored go see this, if you're hungry go there, if you're thirsty you go drink there, why don't we meet...' There's a Discord group, that's how we found one of the bars and all of that. I feel like the response of the community gives you so much hope. Those people came to Katowice to go to Spodek and make a memory that they could take home, they could go back and they can tell their friends, their family, or their kids about it someday, and thanks to the community of all the people that gathered in Katowice to watch it together, I think many of those people will still come back with different memories but also very valuable ones that they never expected to have. I think that's really awesome, that's really amazing.
Is there anything else you'd like to say to the public out there?
I'd just like to thank everybody who treated us so well and had so much understanding for us. The positivity around the event wasn't the usual 'you made a mistake' in an esports-type event, where it feels like Cersei walking through King's Landing naked and everybody is flinging all sorts of things at her, yelling, 'Shame, shame.' It was the opposite of that. I wouldn't call the situation pleasant, but the community, both online and in real life, has been excellent to us, and I can't thank them enough.