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How smaller-scale esports tournaments have changed after Madden shooting

Security guards check bags at the entryway to The Big House Super Smash Bros. tournament. (Noah Smith/Noah Smith/For The Washington Post)
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DETROIT - Inside the tournament hall of the Cobo Center, a cavernous 2.4 million square foot convention center best known as the home of the North American International Auto Show, the scene at The Big House Super Smash Bros. tournament was the same as ever. Players and fans mingled freely on the floor of the esports event, competing and cheering as beloved Nintendo characters sent each other flying off the screen. At the door, however, was a reminder that smaller-scale, locally organized esports events such as this have entered a sad new chapter.

Before they could stand shoulder to shoulder around consoles and monitors, the tournament’s attendees had to first form a line outside the hall’s only access point. There they had to surrender their bags for search and pass through security guards with metal detector wands -- one of them armed. Such is the immediate impact of the shooting at a Madden NFL tournament in Jacksonville, Fla., in which a tournament participant, David Katz, killed two competitors, wounded 11 others and then took his own life.

The shooting took place in a similar type of video gaming tournament as The Big House. Though each tournaments feature different games and are of different sizes, both are intimate events held in a public setting with little extravagance and, until the Jacksonville shooting, little security. Now grassroots-organized tournaments must face the specter of gun violence in America, and the increased costs required by new security measures.

'It was only a matter of time': Security scrutinized after shooting at esports tournament

News of the late-August shooting in Jacksonville was a shock to tournament organizer Robin Harn. “It definitely hit harder for me as an event organizer seeing that happen,” Harn, 27, said in a phone interview.

Harn, who also goes by the player name “Juggleguy,” was 19 when he hosted the first Big House at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The inaugural event had 115 entrants. Back then, security wasn’t even a thought for the organizers. Much of the effort was put toward finding a venue and rounding up CRT televisions.

Now The Big House is on its eighth iteration and last year 2,495 people signed up to compete. The event is still small by the standards of major esports competitions, with some software publishing companies packing major sports stadiums like Barclays Center, Madison Square Garden or even Beijing’s Olympic Stadium for championship competitions. And unlike those larger tournaments, The Big House is not backed by a major software publishing company, meaning the logistical costs and the tournament purse are supplied by the tournament’s entrance fees and other sponsorship support.

Following the shooting, Harn and his team noticed an uptick in messages regarding security for The Big House 8, which took place this weekend and again surpassed 2,000 attendees. Given the industry-changing massacre, Harn and his team reevaluated security and took measures that included occasional metal detector wand checks, individual bag checks and an armed guard on site, all things which have not been done at prior events.

Tournament organizers also said an undercover security guard was on patrol inside the event. Additionally, Harn worked with his security director for a more comprehensive emergency action plan, a set of protocols for his staff to enact in case of an emergency. Harn said the increased security resulted in additional costs in the four-figure range, but felt all these measures were necessary to ensure the safety of attendees.

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“It definitely makes me feel more safe. More organizers should be doing bag checks and stuff like this because it does worry me, hearing what’s happened before,” said player Goma Miqueli, 20, who traveled from Cleveland.

That peace of mind was echoed by several other players. But while the security measures at The Big House, though increased from past years, were far from foolproof. There were no metal detectors other than the wands, and guards did not wand every person to enter, leaving open the potential for someone to sneak in a concealed weapon.

Putting players at ease is crucial for tournaments like The Big House, as it helps assure that participation -- and in turn ticket sales and registration fees -- remains high. This is particularly true given the increased expenditures. The additional security costs narrowed profits this year, but despite the increased cost, Harn did not increase ticket prices.

“I don’t think it’s fair to [pass] an extra cost to attendees, especially because we were already in the middle of registration season,” Harn said before the event. “So, that’s just an expense I have to swallow this year. But, it’s a part of the territory.”

The increased security was deemed particularly necessary given the wide-open nature of the event. Super Smash Bros. tournaments like The Big House are open to anyone who wants to participate, meaning that everyone, from established star players to relatively anonymous newcomers, must compete in qualifying rounds. This is unlike events for some other esports leagues, where teams sit backstage and are separated from fans by venue security.

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Ryan “La Luna” Coker-Welch, a professional Super Smash Bros. Melee player for Misfits, an esports team owned by the Miami Heat, acknowledges that the open nature of fighting game tournaments could potentially put players at risk.

“I kind of get a little bit worried because some people are just -- they kind of don’t think logical, or kind of have a psychological problem. So it’s kind of nerve-racking,” said before the tournament. Coker-Welch does not feel, however, that things have gotten so out of control that he can’t continue to pursue his passion.

“Me personally, like a lot of other players, an incident like Jacksonville will never ever discourage me to become the best,” he said.

Noah Smith reported from Detroit. Imad Khan reported from New York.

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