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‘It was only a matter of time’: Security of esports events scrutinized after Jacksonville shooting

While some tournaments are held in pro sports arenas, others are held in public spaces like The Jacksonville Landing. (Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images)

In the wake of Sunday’s shooting at a competitive video gaming event in Jacksonville, players and organizers of esports events have called for increased security measures from game publishers and esports organizations. The calls have been particularly directed at smaller-scale events, similar to the Madden NFL tournament at which two competitors were shot and killed by a third competitor, who subsequently took his own life.

While larger esports competitions have the benefit of the baseline security measures offered by a bigger venue, such as an NBA or NHL arena, events such as the one in Jacksonville have largely been allowed to operate independently, with little or no security oversight, nor any regulations from the game publishers that sponsor the competitions, according to both participants and organizers of such tournaments.

It is unclear what level of security was provided for Sunday’s competition at a Jacksonville mall restaurant when, according to police, 24-year-old Baltimore native David Katz shot and killed Elijah Clayton, 22, of Woodland Hills, Calif. and Taylor Robertson, 28, of Giles, W. Va., wounded nine others and then shot himself.

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In response to the shooting, Electronic Arts, the software publisher behind the Madden football video games series and sponsor of the game’s competitive circuit, canceled the remaining three Madden Classic qualifying tournaments. The company’s CEO, Andrew Wilson, said it would “run a comprehensive review of safety protocols for competitors and spectators,” in search of a “consistent level of security” for all of the company’s competitive gaming events.

While rapid growth has rapidly raised the profile of esports, the label given to professional video gaming tournaments and leagues that often involve large prize purses, its landscape is composed of events ranging from massive to intimate. While some events held at popular professional sporting venues feature baseline security provided by the arenas or stadiums, there are also a significant number of smaller events held in hotel ballrooms, bars or other public venues. The latter events are the sort that often comprise the competitive circuits of some sports titles — like EA’s Madden — as well as fighting games like Capcom’s Street Fighter and Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros.

So while League of Legends claims 100 million active monthly players and has hosted events at LA’s Staples Center, New York’s Madison Square Garden and Beijing’s Olympic stadium, last Sunday’s Madden qualifier tournament was held in a mall restaurant. Madden’s competitive circuit is also comparatively newer and smaller than other more developed esports properties, but even those are now reexamining security questions.

Organizers are still learning the rules surrounding hosting such events. The business that hosted Sunday’s event reportedly was not permitted for a game room area, and the city’s fire marshal posted a cease and desist order on the restaurant.

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EVO, a 17-year-old, three-day fighting game tournament held earlier this summer at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, featured metal detectors and bag checks at the entrances of the Mandalay Bay Events Center for the tournament’s final event, but not for the first two days when contests were held at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center. Before the event, tournament organizers called the FBI after a mass-shooting threat was directed at the tournament’s Twitter account, according to an Associated Press report.

Tournament founder Joey Cuellar stated on Twitter in the aftermath of the Jacksonville shooting that all three days would feature the use of metal detectors next year.

Also according to the Associated Press report, a Call of Duty World League event held earlier this year in Dallas was disrupted by a pair of bomb threats.

As such, security remains a concern across the esports spectrum, with some voicing concerns on social media they harbored before Sunday’s shooting.

“Esports is behind traditional sports in many aspects,” Damian “daps” Steele, a Counter-Strike: Global Offensive player for NRG Esports, wrote on Twitter. “A lot of events I’ve been to have had gaps in security where something like this could occur.”

Shawn Pellerin, Head of Operations for Spacestation Gaming which operates esports teams in several leagues, wrote: “It was only a matter of time before it happened at an Esports event.”

Pellerin said in a phone interview that he had been to “hundreds of esports events” and that security has been lacking most of the time.

“Security is lax enough at most events that, if someone wanted to do something, they could,” he said. “Publisher-sponsored [events] have a bit more security than smaller events, but it’s still not up to the standards of other pro sports leagues.”

“It’s time esports events (large and small) double down on security for everyone in general and players specifically,” Jason Lake, CEO of compLexity Gaming shared on Twitter. One of compLexity’s athletes, Drini Gjoka, was shot in the thumb during the Jacksonville Madden event.

Less severe but more fundamental problems have also been visible, such as unruly fans too easily getting close to players. One of the top League of Legends gamers, Eugene “Pobelter” Park, earlier this month requested that fans stop “twisting our nipples” when he and his teammates greet fans after matches. A player on another team said he also had his nipples twisted by a fan.

Many of the gamers competing at the smaller tournaments, such as those for Madden or fighting games, noted a lack of visible security at a number of their events. That runs counter to what former FBI agent James S. Davidson believes to be an essential aspect of sound security.

“The first principle of security is to deter, you don’t even want a threat to approach,” said Davidson, who spent 23 years with the bureau. “But there’s still vulnerability of people in parking lot, or in any non-sterile area.”

Police identified David Katz, 24, as the suspected gunman of the video game tournament in Jacksonville, Fla., on Aug. 27. Katz took his own life at the scene. (Video: Amber Ferguson, Patrick Martin/The Washington Post)

An individual with firsthand experience with arena security plans, who requested anonymity because their venue does not comment on security procedures, said the esports leagues with which he is familiar do not have many requirements on par with the NBA, NFL, or major touring acts, which add additional layers to standard security procedures.

“The [major traditional sports leagues] leagues are all very stringent,” the source said, pointing to the NFL’s requirement that metal detectors be a certain distance away from the entrance and the NBA’s requirement for bomb sniffing dogs.

“The most important element for an event like that is perimeter security and controlled access,” Davidson said. “You should have some kind of wanding and metal detectors, but there’s a cost with that. Security is always a cost-benefit analysis.”

Esports leagues have sought to reassure their fans and competitors following the events of Jacksonville.

With two high-profile events approaching in early September, the North America League of Legends Championship Series, one of the world’s most popular esports leagues, issued a statement detailing security efforts already in place.

“The league utilizes multiple security measures including bag checks, item restrictions, metal detector screenings, and on-site security to ensure the safety of all those in attendance,” Chris Greeley, Riot Games’ NA LCS Commissioner said in the statement. The NA LCS Summer Finals will be held Sept. 8-9 at Oakland’s Oracle Arena, home of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors.

A spokesperson for Blizzard Entertainment, which operates the newly-launched Overwatch League, declined to offer specifics, but noted “a number of safety measures in place for our fans, players and staff,” in a statement to The Washington Post. The Overwatch League begins the next leg of its World Cup matches Sept. 9 at Blizzard Arena in Burbank, Calif.

“We’re deeply saddened about the shooting that took place in Jacksonville this past weekend, and our thoughts are very much with the victims and their families. Our security team is constantly evaluating procedures and talking with law enforcement as the security of attendees and participants is a top priority for us,” the spokesperson said in the statement.

Though some gamers pointed to previous concerns about security, other competitors noted they had seldom considered such questions, in part due to the grass roots nature of many such events and the tightknit communities involved.

Amos Hardy, 40, of Southport, N.C., has been playing Madden since the game came out in 1988. In the entire range of his experience, he said he never thought a competition would escalate into violence.

“It’s just competitive while they’re playing, it’s no different than the NBA or NFL,” he said in a phone interview.

Raymond Goode, 45, of Washington, D.C., both plays in and organizes Madden competitions. “I never, in a million years, thought this would happen,” Goode said. “Guys talk trash and then go out to dinner with each other that night. Everybody is family.”

Despite the security concerns, most esports athletes reached by The Post following Sunday’s shooting seem undeterred from competing in future events, citing that close community and suggesting they may now be safer due to the post-shooting scrutiny.

When asked if he had any trepidation about traveling to the United States for competitions, Thomas “Brolynho” Proença, a pro Street Fighter player from Brazil, answered via Facebook Messenger, “Definitely don’t.” Proença attended the 2018 EVO tournament and was aware of the mass-shooting threat. “Never felt threatened. Always felt safe in any competition. From now on it’ll be safer for sure.”

Lee “Infiltration” Seon-woo, another Street Fighter player from South Korea, said via a Twitter direct message: “Accidents can happen at random. So I should always be careful, but overall I am happy to visit the United States.”

The question now becomes which organization should bear the costs of tighter security. After Sunday, several members of the Madden community interviewed by The Washington Post believed that role lies with EA and software publishing companies.

“EA does need to make sure that security is tight and is enforced from this day forward,” Hardy said, going on to reference his experience at other sports competitions. “You’re not coming into no stadiums, bringing no gun. It’s just not happening.”

Freelance writer Imad Khan contributed to this story.