Tournament Organizing – Q&A with Audri & Michael

HonokaIllya

Welcome to the 9th CX’s series on tournament organizing! There are a lot of questions about how to start a local scene, how to maintain it, grow it, and so on. This series aims to take a closer look at the one aspect of the game for which isn’t explicitly about the game at all, and for which no definitive guide exists.

Disclaimer: The views for this first interview will express the opinions and methods used by two organizers in the United States.  Your mileage may vary elsewhere!

Editorial disclosure: To organize our thoughts, Audri and I brainstormed some questions and provided our own answers. The ideas presented here are a compilation of our experiences and thoughts. The thoughts and views expressed herein are those of the respective contributors. Names of distributors, businesses, and individuals have been withheld to respect each entity’s privacy.

For our first article, we’ll be presenting the organizing experiences from two American organizers, Audri, and Michael (me!).

Audri comes to us from the US Midwest- the “Illiana” or Illinois + Indiana group.

Michael comes from the San Francisco Bay Area in California.

What brought you guys to WS?

Audri: I love CCGs. Seeing a CCG with so many great anime titles that I liked just sucked me in.

Michael: I am a long-time card game player, and when I heard there was a set for Madoka, I couldn’t resist playing.

What’s your favorite set?

A: Love Live!

M: Madoka! (Sorry Illya)

How have you done as players?

A: Won Danville Regional in 2012, 2nd place NC Regional 2013, Top 8 US Nationals 2013 – Undefeated after 4 rounds of Swiss & no lottery spot needed for me.

M: I’ve won 14 tournaments in my area since I started playing. I think my most unique accomplishment so far is winning SAO day with a borrowed green/blue deck that had 1 level 3 Kirito.

How about other card games?

A: I’m the last world champion of the Sailor Moon CCG and had a 2000 Constructed rating in Magic: the Gathering.

M: In Magic: the Gathering, my Total rating peaked around 1984. 0 lifetime pro points!

If you had to win a tournament, what deck from what set would you use?

A: Love Live!

M: Fate/kaleid (Sorry Madoka)

So how did you become a tournament organizer?

A: In 1998, our local Ambassador for Decipher, the equivalent of a Level 2 judge in Magic: the Gathering, was getting burned out from running events at six (!!) stores across Maryland and Virginia. He asked me and another to step up, take the courses and become tournament organizers. I’ve been a tournament organizer ever since, and been a judge and TO for about 20 card games total. I’ve even helped develop tournament rules for two (now dead) card games: CardCaptors and the Sailor Moon CCG.

M: My path to being a TO came from being a Magic judge. In my time as a judge, I have traveled across the country and around the world to run events. In 2011, my local game store had a relatively small but loyal player base. I approached the store owner and worked with him to create more events and grow the player base. I was eventually brought on as the events manager (and social media manager, and staff trainer, and internal IT), where I worked for a year and a half.

What does a TO do, and how do I become one?

A: The title of TO sounds really simple – come in and run events, right? Unless you are coming to a store that already has a thriving scene, you can’t really get away with that. In my experience, you are the person that ensures the game is a success for the store and not a waste of time or money for the players. You’re the teacher, cheerleader, rules guru, and ambassador for your store. You also represent Bushiroad with your efforts, even if you’re not directly involved with them. If you play Magic, you have a big advantage. Wizards of the Coast has amazing training that teaches you the role and tasks of being a TO.

M: A tournament organizer is the person inside a store or area who controls the flow of events within that store or area. Because the scene in North America has recently been localized to shops, a TO for WS tends to be the one person within a shop who is the specialist on the game, and who has a player base around him or her. A TO creates, promotes, and executes events, and ensures that they can happen again. A TO also must have the maturity, time, and bandwidth to handle all aspects of running events, from start to finish.  On a practical note, one needs a venue. Because stores are the most stable (and free!) venues, becoming a TO can be tricky business. The game is still growing in the US, so a prospective TO’s first pitch of the game will likely be to the store owner him/herself. Once you have the owner’s go-ahead (and the venue secured), you’re a TO!

How did you get the game started in your area?

A: I already had an established reputation for being a stellar TO. I walked into the store with the contact information for a distributor and a plan for how to make the game happen, despite no English cards being available at the time.

M: My presence as a TO for WS is relatively small and recent compared to a relatively large group of players spread out among a few hot spots in Northern California. Before me, a few players as far north as Sacramento and San Francisco formed the core of the player base and organized the majority of the events. As far as trying to get people interested in the game, I didn’t have to do any extra work. Because I was already employed by the store, I had a direct line to the owner, and he and I discussed the merits of stocking the game (no pun intended). We established a connection to a new distributor, had our store listed by Bushiroad, and established a regular tournament structure.

How did you grow your player base?

A: I had Haruhi wish it. Kidding, but here’s the best way I can frame it. We’re the Illiana Weiss Schwarz gang, which means we’re a “union” of small groups all over Indiana and Illinois that pulled together to make a group. We did a lot of internet advertising and posting to make that happen. On the store level, the player base grew by hyping our game and selling our events as ‘can’t miss’. It’s been all about having fun and pulling people into it – I’ve never said “no” to a demo, because you never know who your next big player will be!

M: The way that the Bay Area established its WS community is not too unlike how the Illiana gang got together, by my observations. From what I’ve seen, it’s a lot of social media, a lot of “hey, let’s get together here and play some WS”, and good old-fashioned networking. As someone who’s been on the store-end of things though, we were able to grow our player base and bring players in just by posting about it through our Facebook page, and putting it on our website.  One of the biggest things that we made sure to bring to the local tournament scene though, was consistency. That is, no matter who was working on what day, a tournament would happen. Consistency brings stability, and it is one of the biggest aspects to growing and keeping a loyal player base. Even if the events start out small, making sure they happen regularly counts for a lot more than a tried and true gimmick of pumping up the prizes for a single event.

How much time does this take? What kind of money is there in being a TO?

A: Wait, there’s money? This is news to me! LOL

For me, the work is nonstop. There are always things that can be done, whether it’s hyping events or playgroups, or doing demos and posting updates on the internet, or planning purchases with the store owner. It’s a second job.

M: Well for me, it was literally a job, haha. Prepping for tournaments is not an overnight endeavor, but there are still important things to do as Audri said, like advertising events and posting things and making sure new players know how to play the game. I’d say for someone who is a dedicated TO, he or she should expect anywhere from 5 to 20 hours per week of work. The money in being a TO really depends on one’s relationship with the store and the owner. Some may get paid in store credit, some may be paid by being put on payroll. The key is to always ask. (Note that this piece of advice in particular may not apply elsewhere I believe that my approach is indicative of a cultural norm in America, and because I do not intimately know business practices abroad especially pertaining to this, I must reiterate the disclaimer that was given at the beginning of the article.)

Do you do everything yourself, or do you have help?

A: Personally I try to surround myself with assistants that can help. I have one guy who is younger and can relate to the target demographic of players, so he’s my demo guy. Another organizes event travel. I mainly handle store relations and things like that. Getting people who are more capable or who shore up your weak points is a way to ensure things get done quickly.

M: One of the projects I gave myself before I passed my job onto others, was to create and write guides for the staff so as many people as possible would be empowered with the knowledge of the tasks involved. Being a TO requires a different perspective from the norm. Normally, if someone is very important to a cause, company, community, etc, he or she enjoys being the ONE person that people must go to for help. As a TO, it is important to delegate, train, and teach others to the point that you as the TO, though you are still the main go-to, could be replaced. So to this question, I have to say that help is not just recommended, but necessary. 

How do you respond to criticism from the community? How have you done so in the past? Where should a TO reach out for support?

A: Sadly, I do make my share of mistakes. The best thing to do is to listen to what the players are trying to tell you. In most cases, players want their community to succeed and they are telling you these things to help you. As far as reaching out to others, I just ask. My group as a Facebook page and if there is something I am wondering about or a situation I’m not 100% sure on, I’ll make a question post and gather their thoughts.

M: My attitude and approach is that I’m always improving. Responding to issues is a matter of conflict resolution. You have to listen to statements, recognize them, validate the feelings, and then move on. While I believe that players want their community to succeed, in my view, not everyone knows how to. I believe that all feedback (even positive) has to be taken with a grain of salt, and being mindful of each player’s perspective is critical to keeping a clear head.

As a TO or community leader, what has been your best experience so far?

A: For me as a community leader, it was the WGP Nationals. With the event being double elimination, over half of the room was gone by round 3. Out of nine players from our group, six played in round 4, and two played in the top cut. For me, it was a huge reward knowing our group had made it.

M: For me as a TO (and de facto management), it was transitioning my job at the store as the events manager to other folks. I no longer work every day as a TO, and have become a resource for other growing tournament scenes. Being in a position where I can teach other people about how to be a TO is something I’m very grateful for and happy about.

What do you think it will take for WS to go to the next level? Larger competitions, etc.

A: First I think that we need Bushiroad to account for the division among players that play Japanese and English cards respectively. I think they could afford to advertise more as well. Lastly, I believe that education is key. I go to a lot of stores where even the owners believe that WS is a 100% luck game with cute girls, and not much is being done to clear up that misconception.

M: Regarding players, I believe Audri is on-point. Educating players is key, and Bushiroad has not really done much as a brand to shape player perceptions (right or wrong) about the game.

I’ve asked Bushiroad (as of February 2014) what their policy is for creating judges, and the response I got was not great: there is currently no policy and no program for judges. The implications of this are immense. This means that for the moment, WS has no go-to tournament rules, or penalty guidelines. Everything is enforced at a local level at TO discretion. On top of that, Bushiroad does not believe in using tournament software. Now, I could say that I’ve been spoiled having taken part in many Magic tournaments. But organized play for Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh! both use programs to manage their tournaments.

Last question – I’m a player / store owner / store employee, and I don’t want to become a TO. I still want to help out though. What can I do?

A: As a player, remember that a TO can’t do it all, as much as we think he or she can. Teaching new players and helping struggling players are two things that can have amazing ripple effects in your community. Also, I have to push this point the most: SUPPORT YOUR STORE!! Remember that online sources of cards don’t provide you a place to play. If you’re a store owner, don’t look at your customers like they’re nuts when they say they want to play a card game that’s in Japanese.

(Editor’s note: The U.S. Midwest has a significantly smaller Asian presence compared to other regions, such as the Bay Area. Cultural awareness may not be at the same level as other areas. With this in mind, this reaction may be commonplace in some areas, and completely unheard of in others.)

Risk the market and stock up on cards and supplies. My local store is a sports collectible store. The owner knows nothing about anime, but he listens to us, and he’s expanded his inventory to include stuff we’ve asked for. If you’re a store employee, don’t talk down about the game or its player base. I’ve been visiting stores where the Weiss scene was struggling, and at one store I overheard a store employee laughing at the players about their “girl cards” and that they weren’t playing Magic. Funny thing was that in that particular event there were several high ranked players that would have wiped the floor with him in Magic, but back to my point. Customers trust store employees for their purchases, and it isn’t in anyone’s interest to say bad things about a game.

M: If you’re a player, keep playing. Keep it fun, and keep it fair. If your local scene is hosting a tournament, make an effort to go and spread the word about the event. Hype is fine (that can include funny trash talk), but don’t attack people, and don’t be a jerk. If you want something to change, talk to your local TO.

If you’re a store owner, your situation will vary. If you have a completely empty area (no known players, no known interest), it will take a storefront effort to spark interest in the game. This could mean taking a chance on buying some trial decks and stocking only those for a while. If you have seen it in your store before but are unsure of interest, Bushiroad’s distributors will happily send you collateral for the game that you can put up to gauge interest. Most likely I’ll end up writing another article about this, if there is enough interest.

If you’re a store employee, follow Audri’s advice, and keep your opinions of the game and its players to yourself. By bashing a game and/or its players, you create bad stories. Take Audri’s story for example. The store that she mentioned could have a wonderful location and could have excellent prices. Do I want to go there? No, because I now have received the impression that I will not be given good customer service. Most will claim that a company stands to lose money because of bad service, but I will also add that there is an intangible and hard-to-measure metric of goodwill that is lost there too. I won’t go into a lot of detail because textbooks are written with that idea in mind, but a brand marred by bad PR can only suffer poor outcomes.

Thanks for reading, everyone! This was certainly a much longer read than usual, and we’ve only really touched on a few of the things that go into being a TO. If you would like to ask questions that will be featured on future articles about TOing, or if you have questions or comments, please send us an email at theninthcx AT gmail DOT com.