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Old heads in the FGC know that while the big hype often focuses on yearly majors like Evo and Combo Breaker, that hype doesn’t happen without local tournament organizers keeping their nearby scenes engaged. The highlight reel may belong to the big events, but the dramatic highs and lows from Evo finals are forged in each player’s local scene.
This is why you may hear us chant “Support your locals” to new players; to which the common response is “Okay, but what if I don’t have any locals?”, and then we say “Start ’em yourself!” and smile serenely like a Zen master. There are a lot of people out there who want to get into fighting games more deeply, but the strength of that motivation is not quite high enough to immediately dig into tournament organizing without prior relevant experience or local connections. (Most people just want to play the damn game without having to develop a whole bunch of useful skills and new friendships to do it.)
I am not a veteran tournament organizer. I’ve only been doing it for a couple months, and it’s been real easy because I’ve got some awesome folks helping me run the tournament itself (special shoutout to Starsky, AALanline, and Adapt for pitching in on commentary, bracket running, and stream production), plenty of other local TOs to learn from (especially HellaBrett and Hagure), and the wonderful WNFOakland + Esports Arena Oakland crew handle the event and venue overhead so we don’t have to (thanks Rose, Ted, and everybody else!). Many hands make light work.
So I asked around to see what kind of tech other TOs had developed to keep their locals running and make them hype.
What do you have and what do you want in your local?
“I don’t have any locals” can mean a lot of different things, and figuring out what you do or don’t have in your area is important because that determines what you have to build yourself. For example, Person A says “I don’t have any locals” because “There are no tournaments for the game I want to play within 30 minutes from me”, which is very different from Person B, who says the same thing because literally no one within an hour’s drive from her knows what a fighting game is.
If there is already someone running fighting game events near you — Tekken, Street Fighter, Smash, DBFZ, whatever — you can probably at least find some casuals for the game you want to play. It’s often not hard to find fighting game players who are interested in playing different stuff, especially if your local scene already supports multiple different games. Google is your friend here; most events will have a Facebook event page, or if they handle registration and brackets via smash.gg you can find more information there. You can also give toptier.gg a shot — it’s a search engine for tournament listings, though it’s pretty new and they’re still building out their database.
So if your goal is simply to find people who are down to play [insert your favorite game here], piggybacking off of an existing event isn’t a bad way to start. Do note, however, that while most TOs are generally fairly welcoming of folks who want to bring setups for side games, not all TOs are equally capable of encouraging or supporting side games at their events, so be tactful. (Just doing a simple thing like entering one or two of the games they’re hosting can be a welcome sign of good faith.)
No events nearby? That’s not necessarily a problem, but you’ll need to do some digging to figure out who’s part of your local FGC. Most of these tend to happen in Discord and Facebook groups, so looking there is a good start; you can try searching through this FGC discord list by Syniez, or this (somewhat out of date) locals list by Honzo Gonzo and Harrison. If you can’t find groups for the game you want, try looking in groups for other games; if you can’t find groups in your region, try asking around in other regional groups that might have overlap. You don’t need a large population to start a group, and even just finding that someone who has a couple friends two cities over who play games might be all the lead you need to get a carpool to a monthly two hours away.
Depending on where you are and what you’re trying to play, you might very well be in a situation where you have to drive two hours to play a video game. For some of you, that won’t be worth it, which is totally understandable. But the most lovely people I know in fighting games are often the ones who are willing to go through outrageous lengths to get games in, and two hours in transit is simply more time to think or talk about fighting games.
If your available player pool is small, don’t worry too much about running tournaments. Just getting together for casuals at someone’s home is a good enough start, and if you keep your get-togethers simple you can focus on getting games in and inviting new people as you find them. Tournaments are a fun way to test people’s skill and get people together for games, but they’re quite a bit of overhead, and, as klawww points out, if local scenes skew too heavily toward tournament play over casuals, the overall local play experience can be a bit too sharp to keep people around for the long haul.
Logistics and planning
If you’re set on running a tournament, consider this: You’re going to be taking on a whole lot of work which will make it harder for you to focus on playing the game.
TOing is a rad way to build up your local community and it’s super cool and rewarding, but it does take away from your ability to focus on playing the game. Personally, having just gotten into the game recently, I wish I had spent more of my time doing this sooner, as it makes the experience of playing the game with folks nearby more fun in a way just getting good doesn’t, but if you primarily want to focus on getting good, running tournaments can be quite a distraction.
Still with me? Let’s run through some basic logistics and see how that goes:
Where are you going to have this tournament?
I’ve been to tournaments at a bunch of different venues: arcades, garages, living rooms, PC cafes, bars, restaurants, comic shops, card shops, college classrooms, student unions, co-working spaces…the list goes on. Fighting game tournaments don’t need a whole lot of specific perks in a space to get started; as long as you have electricity, you can probably make something work. And hey, if you can offer the venue a reason to let you host an event — a cut of venue fees, people to sell food/drink to during off hours, that kind of thing — they should be excited to have you.
The one thing that most successful tournament venues do have in common, though, is room to make sure that your fighting game tournament can happen; Tag in Battle TO EspadaPete points out that it’s hard to get hype if you’re getting in someone’s way. At a minimum, you’ll need enough space for setups, tables, and chairs, and access to a bathroom.
What do you need to run a tournament?
Do not underestimate the sheer amount of stuff you need to get a tournament going. A non-exhaustive list:
- Power strips and extension cords (make note of outlet placement when sizing up a venue, for that might determine how you have to lay stuff out!)
- At least two setups per eight people per tournament (this will get you through a 16-player double elim bracket in roughly two hours or less)
- Oh shit, you didn’t buy Alex? Gotta load up on complete character DLC sets for every game you want to run (good luck with that, Gundam Vs fans)
- Displays for each setup, preferably low-lag
- Don’t forget the HDMI cords for those displays btw
- Whoops, your displays don’t have built-in speakers? Going to have to bring your own (or headphone splitters, or something)
- We should totally stream this! Uh, you have a streaming PC, right? Just bring that. And the capture card. And the mic. And the extra camera.
- Hey, can I borrow a stick? I forgot to bring mine.
You’re going to need a lot of stuff. Probably more stuff than you have, so ask people to bring stuff. Ask for more stuff than you need in case something goes wrong. Worst case scenario, you have plenty of setups for casuals. And if you don’t have a car to haul this stuff around, you’ll need a homie with a ride who can help.
When is this tournament going to be?
Next weekend! You’re free, right? Ha, if only it were so easy. First you’ll have to see when your venue is available, and then ideally find a day and time which isn’t too close to any other nearby events that might conflict with your potential players, like other tournaments or cons. You’ll also need to give yourself time to plan and advertise your event, and your attendees will appreciate the advance notice to help them fit it into their schedule. South Dakota TO lame-o stresses the importance of plugging into adjacent surrounding scenes to coordinate dates and build awareness of each others’ events.
Determining your time, day, and date can do a lot to define what the rest of the event looks like. If you can get a venue that’s open all day on a weekend, you’ll have plenty of time to run through brackets for multiple games, but it’ll be more important to make sure people can get food and drink nearby, and you’ll want to have extra setups on hand for folks who aren’t currently playing in a tournament. While the tournament itself is important, good food and fun casuals are what convince people to come back to your event next time.
On the other hand, if you’ve got a spot lined up for a couple hours after work on a weekday, you’ll only be able to get through one decently-sized double elimination bracket (and maybe some casuals) unless you’ve got enough setups (and TOs) to run two tournaments at the same time. Personally I find that weekday tournaments can often draw bigger local crowds, but balancing tournament/casuals/food with start time (when do folks get off of work?) and end time (please, no Thursday Morning Fights) can be tricky, and you probably won’t get many people coming in from more than an hour away.
(Oh, and speaking of food and drink, remember: No drinks on the setups unless you want Coke in your PS4. Assume that any beverage will spill, make sure it doesn’t spill on anything important. Starsky left a damn Dr. Pepper sitting on his laptop keyboard the other day and I almost had a heart attack when I saw that.)
When’s the next one going to be?
If everything goes well, people are going to ask you when the next once is. You’ll need to do this over and over if you want to build up your local scene, so it’s important to find a schedule that works for you, your venue, and your community. In my experience, the best tournaments are the ones that attract a consistent dedicated playerbase, because you get to see folks get to know each other and build up friendships (and rivalries) over time.
If you want to optimize for repeat attendance, running a monthly or biweekly tournament will make it easier for people to come to each one without missing anything (and missing each other). Unless your local playerbase is incredibly dedicated, you probably don’t want to start with a weekly cadence right off the bat because you’ll risk burning out yourself and your players.
Don’t underestimate the risk of burning yourself out. Being a TO means committing to a consistent schedule, and a lower frequency of events will be much easier for you to arrange the rest of your life around. Remember, if you’re doing this well, you’ll be doing this for a long time.
Personally, I’m a big fan of monthly event for two reasons: one, they’re easier on the organizers, and two, they’re infrequent enough that your players will want to make sure not to miss them. If you can find a solid crew to come to monthlies, you might be able to tap some of those folks to step up and run other events or host play sessions outside the tournament so you can get some games without having to worry about keeping things going. In NorCal we’re lucky to have a couple different TOs running monthlies, so local players always have something different going on each weekend, but each TO gets plenty of time to recover.
(Also, Core-A Gaming has a great video on the work of running and growing tournaments. Definitely check it out.)
Event format and rules
While the NA FGC’s standard ruleset (double elimination brackets, first to two wins, first to three for Winners/Losers/Grand Finals) strikes a nice balance between giving people a second chance and keeping the event within a reasonable time, you may find that your event would benefit from tweaking or replacing good old double-elim. For example, if you have fewer than eight people, round robin formats are great for letting everyone play each other, though you often won’t end up with a stream-friendly climactic tournament finals. And if you’re a little tight on time or setups, single elimination generally halves the amount of time needed to run the tournament, so you can make sure you save time for casuals.
You should also consider whether you want to have an entry fee and a cash prize or not. Money makes people take the tournament a bit more seriously, which can be a fun way to add hype but can also make an already-intense experience even more intense. If you don’t have a cash prize, more people who are on the fence about competing in tournaments will feel comfortable coming out, but your scene’s stronger players might not feel as motivated to show up without something to cover their gas money. And if you’re running multiple games, it’ll be easier to fill brackets with free tournaments than with paid ones, since players won’t have to pay extra to play each game.
Once you’ve built up a consistent playerbase, consider using other formats and side events to keep things interesting and fun. Random 2v2 teams, mass team tournaments (Ketchup vs. Mustard 10v10!), auction format, random select, mystery game, visiting player kumite, king of the hill, and many other play rules can make for exciting matches even if most of the folks there play each other every week. And when you need to bring in new players, consider running an event just for them; New York TO Sway has found that they can attract new players that end up coming through to the open-entry events later, and Idaho’s UnstableHamster has had success with newbie coaching tournaments that give new players a chance to connect with the scene veterans early in their journey.
Regardless of your format, I highly recommend using a bracket service like Challonge or Smash.gg to handle your brackets if the logistics allow it. Paper brackets are useful for large events where internet service is spotty, but sloppy handwriting and mismatched results are notorious bracket-killers, and nothing stuffs hype faster than bracket issues.
Also, make sure that your basic game rules are well known and publicized in advance, particularly if there are specific rules around banned controllers or characters, stage select, control modes, and other game-specific variables. Nothing feels worse than going out of your way to a brand new local only to find that your stick doesn’t work on their consoles and your character is banned.
It’s the little things
Getting a local up and running is a great first step, and you’ll get better at running them as you keep at it. Over time, you’ll find your local will evolve to reflect the community, and you’ll get folks coming through not just to test themselves, but also to hang out with good friends. Good TOs find little bits of the local experience that they can polish to make things a little bit smoother and more friendly, and often that’s what keeps people coming back.
One of the first things you’ll want to do is get folks to help out. A tournament needs people calling matches, updating the bracket, producing the stream, and commentating the action, and if one person is doing all of those things they’re going to get overloaded real quickly. Getting people to help out makes the load easier on you and makes them feel invested in the tournament’s growth and success, and if you can build a consistent team around your event then you can cover for each other if someone gets sick or busy and can’t come through one day. Just remember to feed and/or pay them, please!
If you do have a stream at your event, try to showcase a variety of matches instead of just focusing on your scene’s best players the whole time. I personally prefer getting newer players and folks I don’t recognize on stream, because then they can go back and watch their match archives later or show them to their friends as a souvenir from the evening. Plus, getting your players used to playing on stream is an important part of their growth! After all, you don’t want your local heroes to bomb hard on the big stage because they weren’t ready for the audience.
And when your bracket is all wrapped up, go ahead and take a picture of the top 3 for posterity — cash prize or no, it’s nice to have a little memento of the day’s events.
However, the best advice I got came from Sacramento TO Adapt and Central California’s jawnsunn: Always talk to the new folks,
How we Play Guilty Gear @ WNFOakland
I’ll wrap this one up by walking through some of the things I’ve learned from doing our Guilty Gear local over the last four months.
How we got started
Guilty Gear had fallen out of the WNFOakland rotation due to lackluster attendance shortly after Evo announced that GG was being dropped. The local community still turned out for GG at Norcal Dogfight and Caliburst, though, and when the WNFOakland crew ran GG for a pre-NorCal Regionals prep session we got 12 people, so I figured there might be an opportunity to bring it back on a more regular basis. WNFOakland’s UNI TO Hagure gave me some tips on setting up at the venue and pointed me to Rose, who gave me the thumbs up to start running GG. And so we got started with a biweekly tournament — frequent enough that people wouldn’t forget about it, but not so often that it would be easy to decide to no-show.
The logistics of free tournaments
Right off the bat, we decided to keep the tournament free to enter. Many of the Norcal monthlies don’t charge a per-tournament entry fee, and I personally liked how the free tournaments make it easier for people who aren’t already active Guilty Gear players to try it out.
But making the tournament free introduced a couple complications:
- We got a lot more players! Which is great, but they’re often entered in other games that are physically far away from our table space in Esports Arena Oakland, so it was harder to find them and they would often hold up our brackets.
- Since the tournament took longer to run, we often wouldn’t be able to finish the double elim bracket until 11PM, meaning that folks couldn’t get much time in for casuals. And because Guilty Gear’s netcode is trash ass booty garbage, casuals time is the most valuable part of coming to our local for serious GG players.
- We tried adding more casuals setups, but players who were still in the bracket often didn’t want to play casuals because they didn’t want to have to interrupt a set to go play their tournament match.
- No cash prize meant that the Bay Area’s stronger players, Daymendou and Bears, would come through and beat our asses to support the scene with nothing to take home for their trouble. While no one really plays GG for the money here, they would often be spending $20 for gas and venue, plus spending 2–3 hours on the roundtrip commute, just to donate a couple buttwhoopings. (We fixed this by throwing in a $20 pot bonus, and sometimes other players and nice folks on the Internet chip in on top of that. Thanks to my Patreon subs for the support!)
During a trip to Tokyo, I stopped by Fighting Tuesday to pick Jiyuna and Majin Obama’s brains on how they run their event. Fighting Tuesday features free-entry, free-venue tournaments for Tekken, DBFZ, and Soul Calibur, and I figured they’d run into some of the same problems that we ran into for WNF. But when I got there, all I saw was a smoothly run bracket that ended with plenty of space and time for casuals. Their secret, of course, was that Japanese standard local tournaments are single elimination. I think it was Majin Obama who told me that the tournament is the reason they come to their first Fighting Tuesday, but the casuals were the reason they came back.
This made a lot of sense to me. I saw double elimination tournaments become the standard when tournaments were often run on weekends with less of a time crunch (Sunnyvale Golfland locals) or with 8–12 people brackets that started at 5PM and just didn’t take that long. With 20+ people and an 8PM start, we were playing twice as many matches just to get to the part where Daymendou kills us with six counter hit Pilebunkers.
So we switched to single elim and started finishing 20-people brackets in an hour and a half, leaving plenty of time for casuals without having to worry about rushing things. Some folks initially grumbled about it, but because the tournament was free, we didn’t have to worry about someone not feeling like they got their money’s worth from the bracket. New players and folks who came to WNF for other games could enter without holding up our bracket, since they generally lose pretty early on, and come back for casuals later if they wanted to dig deeper.
Part of the reason this worked out so well is because the local GG community is honestly just super excited to get new players, and when they come to give the game a shot most of the experienced players are hella encouraging about getting new players to play casuals and ask questions. I also started just yelling at people to play more — if I see an open setup I’ll pick two people who I think would have good matches and suggest they play.
Don’t get me wrong: There are aspects of double elim that are really satisfying, and whenever you get knocked out of a single elim tournament you’ll think about how you could have gotten a little further if you had a losers bracket. Fortunately, we have Norcal Dogfights for double elim, so local Guilty Gear players can go there for more accurate tournament results and come to WNFOakland for the additional practice. If we were the only GG tournament in town, it would be harder to feel good about only doing single elim.
And single elimination has a major upside to it: Upsets are hype as fuck. The best player in the bracket is only a couple rounds away from elimination at any given moment. Anyone can get it.
Stream and commentary
One thing I learned on our first run: Space matters. Some of the larger games at WNFOakland have dedicated table space for stream setups and commentary, which is important for the standard player cam/commentary desk tournament stream format. While this is cool for the higher-polish streams, it requires a dedicated stream runner and more gear and time to pull off well, and we wanted to focus our efforts on making sure the in-person experience was good.
Rather than try to pull that off, we kept the stream format simple, with one layout that has the game screen with player/commentator cams on the side, meaning we could keep the stream close to the tournament setups instead of having to play at a separate table, and we wouldn’t need to do too much work to babysit the stream besides updating player games and match counts.
Getting our kinda jank stream setup close to the action also got us something unexpectedly cool. One day I brought along a spare Blue Yeti condenser mic, which is probably the worst possible mic you could use for a loud environment like Esports Arena Oakland, since it picks up everything. But it opened us up to an open-mic commentary style similar to like, early home session streams, where anyone can just walk by and talk to the stream, and get hype. The stream doesn’t feel separate from the local experience, it feels like a part of that, and I found that to be pretty cool (even if the sound is terrible, sorry Brett 🙇♂️).
This has the additional excellent side effect of ensuring that the competitors can hear the commentators mid-match (unless they bring their own earphones). Everyone who plays on our stream will hear their match being commentated (and occasionally roasted, but only if we know you like that) in real time, which keeps things fun and interactive between players, commentators, and stream chat.
Starting your own locals is work. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, and part of doing it is figuring out what you can do to make people in your community want to come. If you decide after reading this that you just want to play the dang games without having to do all this work, I totally get it.
But if you read this and think that you want to give it a shot, tell me about what you’re trying; if you have more TO tech you want to add to the conversation, send it my way. Everything that exists in the FGC is there because people built it, and there’s room to build a whole lot more if you’re willing.
Support your locals!
Thanks for reading!