5 Step Guide to Host an Online Esports Tournament

What makes esports so unique is its ability to organize tournaments to have participants compete at home, whereas sports require players to all meet in person. That means if you could be facing someone from the other side of the world without issues.

This freedom and flexibility appeal to many esport enthusiast who have never an event before or event organizers who have never dwelled into the online aspect of esports. In this article, I will go over a 5 step guide to host an online esport tournament.

In order to organize an online esport tournament, you need to clearly define your objective, do your research regarding your specific game, build up your tournament assets, plan and advertise your event, and execute your event effectively. For successful subsequent events, you will want to make sure you have a well organized and thought-provoking debrief.

Overview

1. Objective of Tournament

Event Main Goal

Before you go ahead with any project you run whatsoever, you need a clear and well-defined objective. Are you trying to expand your portfolio? Are you trying to make a profit? Are you trying to build a community around your title for future profitable tournaments and events? Are you trying to create a competitive scene for your game? Etc.

Once you figure that out, WRITE IT DOWN. Too many people, especially with their initial tournaments, try to get too ambitious, they want to run an esport event that is profitable and super unique with cool stuff and will keep audiences wanting more and we will create a huge stream and…. STOP. Running a tournament is hard enough, don’t stack it up with additional objectives you need to focus on, especially for one of your first online tournaments.

For example, if profitability is what you are interested in. You will need to look into possible revenue streams, like advertising space, sponsorships, entry fees, donations, and so on. You do not want to juggle all that at the same time as trying to create a competitive scene for your game of choice, because chances are that if you are building that competitive scene yourself, there’s no current return on investment for you or sponsors to benefit from.

If other objectives are indirectly achieved, that’s amazing, but it should by no means be an additional focus. The only thing I would recommend also focusing on is creating a sustainable tournament that can be hosted in the future unless for whatever reason you have your heart set on a one-off tournament (which I don’t recommend). As you start building subsequent online tournaments, you can expand your scope of work and focus on multiple objectives.

2. Research

The Game

Once you have your objective in mind, you will need to decide on the game you want to utilize for your event. Most people do this the other way around, which is fine if you are purposely wanting to build a community for that specific game, but if your objective is anything else (especially profitability), please be open-minded. Even if you don’t know the game and its competitive scene, that is why you research and consult others who do. For situations like that, I would recruit a new member to help me run the tournament as a content-expert.

Keep an open mind, the image above only shows a small number of video games with an esport scene (besides Garfield Kart, thats a joke)

When deciding a game, you want to look at factors such as popularity, your competition, stream-ability, duration and competition integrity regulations. Popularity will help you determine how scalable your tournament could be, your competition will give you a better understanding of how the online tournaments are run for your game, stream-ability helps you determine how easily you can stream games taking place and include that into your potential engagement and return-on-investment for sponsors, the duration will help you determine how a league or standard tournament would fair, and the competition integrity regulations will help you see if this game can keep competition fair and reduce cheating as much as possible when played remotely and with minimal supervision.

Don’t get hung up on running a tournament for super popular games either, from my own experiences running PUBG Mobile tournaments in Ontario, the unsatisfied communities also have a lot of potential and are much more appreciative with tournaments do arise.

The Competition

Once you decided the game for your tournament, you will really need to dig into the competitive aspect of this game. You should look at a bunch of different rulesets for the game and compile one that well suits your objective and is standard with the community (unless you want to have unique rules as something to make your event stand out, but if you decide to do this, make sure you understand the game and its players well).

For this part, if you are unaware of your game of choice very well, consulting someone who does is crucial. It can even be your cousin’s friend who plays the game once a week for fun, just anyone who has an understanding of the game and hopefully a bit of knowledge surrounding the competitive scene, it does not have to be some professional gamer who won the game’s biggest tournament three years in a row.

You will also want to do research on how long each game takes on average, its minimum duration and its maximum duration (and the associated probability for how often each would arise).

The Tools

Lastly, you will want to research the tools you will leverage to facilitate your online tournament. This would include communications tools and tournament management tools.

For communication, you will want to determine what tools would help you inform unaware players of that game about your tournament. I created a separate article about how to market your online esport tournament as it is a heavy topic to discuss (COMING SOON). You will also want to determine a communication tool that can be used for signed up participants leading up to the tournament and a communication tool that can be used for communication during the tournament. Those two tools could be the same tool, but it does not have to be. It could be something as simple as a Discord server, an email list with communications software, updates on third-party websites or updates on your own website.

You will also want to determine what tool you would like to use to manage your tournament. This would depend on your game and what is typically used, but some popular options are toornament.com, battlefy.com and smash.gg. But you don’t even have to go that far, you could use your own website as a UI or use Google Sheets as your preferred platform.

This image is our page 1v1 Me, Yo! Again. We used a third party software to regulate that tournament.

It depends on what you would prefer, usually a software helps make this process easier but sometimes it just creates pointless extra work and clutter for your tournament. For my online PUBG Mobile league, we were originally going to use toornament.com as most other small online event organizers were using that platform for PUBG Mobile, however after I created it, the page seemed way more complicated than needed. Furthermore, we were only going to have the same players play in one game each week, therefore my team and I concluded that our best bet was to create a webpage for our tournament, which was much easier for us and for the participants to follow.

3. Building Up Your Assets

At this point you have defined a well-detailed objective for your event, decided your game, researched how typical competition for your gameplays and you know what tools you want to use. You are ready to start actually building YOUR tournament.

Project Management Tool

One of the first times you want to do is determine work delegation. This really depends on your experience level managing projects, team size, project scale and delegating ability, but I would recommend the use of a to-do list or Gantt chart. As you start learning more about event organizing, I would recommend learning more about project management and testing out different styles such as hybrid-agile (as it is commonly used in esports).

This is the to-do list I used for SoliHack 2019. We have separate lists for each department as you can see below.

For new organizers, I would recommend using a to-do list, as it is very simple to create and follow. All you will want to include is the task, responsible persons, date began, deadline and completion check. In that example, we included a date completed tab and additional information tab; Adding additional tabs is completely fine. Try to keep your tasks in order of need completion, but that is up to you.

This is the top of the Gantt chart I used for the Lambton Esports Open 2020. It spans a little over 70 different tasks that needed to be completed.

This is an example of a Gantt chart. Almost like a to-do list, and the way we used it makes it almost as if it was a mix of the two. Nevertheless, it provides a visual aid for how your project should be transitioning. I would not recommend making a Gantt chart on google sheets like we did or following the example we have there, we just ended up doing what felt best for us at the time.

This is a physical scrum board I created for Esport How. My sprint was 2 weeks long, and I added a few more sections to personalize my board to my liking, although the standard is to-do, sprint and done.

This last photo is a scrum board, which is a type of agile project management. I won’t be going into too much detail on how it works, but this is one of the more complex ways to start managing projects as your projects grow and you need more effective ways to manage them. But that doesn’t mean that a Gantt chart is worst than a scrum board, it comes down to the specific project and project management preferences.

Tournament Identity

A tournament identity is how someone will recognize your tournament or your brand. This is especially important for a series of tournaments and events, but it is still valuable for one-off tournaments for marketing purposes and for expandability options.

In order to form an identity, you will at the very least need a name and a logo. A colour theme and art style are an add-on to solidify your tournament’s identity. If you are going into this tournament for a brand itself, you may want to consider creating an external brand identity and separate tournament identity.

So you would create a logo and name for your brand, let’s say Esport How for this example, and you would have a name for your tournament, let’s say OOPS Open Qualifier (Ontario Online PUBG-Mobile Series). Opting into this option gives you even more flexibility moving forward.

Financial Budget

In most cases, your tournament will not need a financial budget created. For most of you, especially since you are likely reading this as a new or beginner organizer, your only real expenditure will be your prize pool.

However, I included this in this guide for those who are planning on working on a larger online tournament and for everyone else to be aware that this is important as you expand. Remember, in order to make money, you need to spend money.

Where would you be spending money on an online tournament? This would include paying for the use of streaming tools, any external hardware equipment, marketing expenses, commentators, other organizers, yourself and anything else you do to enhance your tournament’s experience.

This is a budget that I created for a hackathon event a long time ago. This is the level that most online event organizers would need to take, but as you develop a more established event, you will want to use more efficient tools instead of a plan spreadsheet.

Ruleset Creation

A highly important aspect of any esports tournament is its ruleset. Now that you have already researched other rulesets, this part is fairly easy and you can make your rulesets a compilation of others.

I mentioned you will want to pick a game that has built-in competition integrity regulators since your tournament is played remotely. League of Legends has a strong built-in competition integrity regulator, the game is completely client-based and Riot Games has done an amazing job preventing third-party software from altering the game or players in any way. But even when I was interning for the High School Esports League and their massive League of Legends league, we still had match disputes.

For games like PUBG Mobile, it can get a lot worse. Our live events restrict the use of controllers, computers (why you would use a computer is beyond me), triggers and finger gloves. For our online event, there is no way to regulate that as a result, we had to say “the use of triggers, controllers and gloves are discouraged”, the keyword is discouraged.

If you ban something that cannot be regulated, if other players accuse those players of that offence, you have no way to verify it. It puts you, the accused and the accuser in an uncomfortable situation.

A match dispute procedure is crucial to include in your ruleset since people are playing remotely, and when something goes wrong for a participant, they need a way to communicate that with organizers. The issues could be a participant missing their match, a player inputting inaccurate game results or someone straight-up breaking the rules.

The procedure could be as simple as sending an email to a certain address or notifying organizers in a Discord server. It is important to define the procedure so players can have a clear way to file their complaints and understand that the organizers can resolve their issues instead of them escalating the issue with the opposing player.

This is the match dispute procedure in our ruleset for the 1v1 Me, Yo! Again online tournament.

Finalized Event Schedule

Now that you have done your research on the game’s duration and completed your ruleset, you are now in a position to create your tournament’s schedule. This can be created after you start working through your communication plan in step 4, but it is always nicer to have it prior. This will be a decision you will need to make based on your own time constraints.

When I create my own event schedule, I typically create several drafts before creating a finalized version.

This is my first draft for my 1v1 Me, Yo! event for League of Legends at Lambton College on November 21st, 2019. This event had two separate tournaments playing at the same time; one for players platinum ranked and above, and another for players gold ranked and below

My first draft, shown above, is usually my really messy thinking draft (I call it draft 0). This draft is just for me to help me figure out the best course of action for the event.

My second draft, as shown above, is my cleaned-up version that is still for internal use but used to explain the event breakdown to the rest of the team. This is easy to follow and lets your team know beforehand how the event is going to run on the day of the event.

This is my final draft for a different event, the Border City Battle 2019. I cannot show my final schedule for the 1v1 Me, Yo! event as it was on Battlefy.com and I have lost access to it now. (This is exactly why you need to keep a record of everything)

Your final draft is a cleaned-up version of your event breakdown meant for external use. It can be as aesthetically pleasing as you wish, for the example above we kept it simple and created it on a .docx file. But that’s not to say your event wouldn’t benefit from a nicer looking schedule, especially depending on where its placed and the theme of your event.

Communication Plan, Developing Marketing Assets, Landing Page

Like I mentioned before, I will have a separate article for advertising an online tournament, this is a very heavy topic (COMING SOON).

All I will say here is that you need time to advertise your event and you need to leverage as many online platforms as you can. Do not base the time frame you have to plan your event based on the amount of time you need to plan it, base it off the amount of time you need to advertise it, it is almost always more time (unless you already have a following and don’t plan to grow by much). This time will be allocated in step 4 as that is when you start your marketing (in most cases, I explain when you wouldn’t there).

Participant Communication Tool

Lastly, you will want to setup a communication tool. Hopefully, at this point you already have a tool that you want to use in mind.

The image to the left (above for mobile) shows the Discord Server channels I used for my League of Legends 1v1 Me, Yo!, League of Legends Worlds Championship finals viewing party and League of Legends 1v1 Me, Yo! Again event. Below I included a picture of what our #information channel said.

4. Marketing and Engagement

Once you have all your foundation set, you are ready to start talking about your tournament. This period is usually longer than the others depending on your communication plan, but make sure you give enough time to advertise your plan. For that reason, depending on the scale of your event, you could start step 4 while you near the end of step 3, but I recommend you have everything established prior to marketing.

Although this list may be short, every task listed here is on-going but this period is more of an easy period before you rack up more work again for preplanning in step 5.

Executing the Communication Plan

As the title says, you will be working through the communication plan you created in step 3. It’s as simple as that.

With the goals you have included, you will continuously want to check if you have achieved your goal. If you are falling behind your set goals, you will need to determine if you need to add something to your communication plan, which could include investing more money or advertising on a new platform.

Engagement through the Communication Tool

As people start signing up for your tournament, you will want to keep them engaged and excited for it. This time is especially important to build a relationship with your participants to create a fan base and make them want to attend your tournaments in the future.

One easy way to keep engagement that should already be in your communication plan is showing sneak peeks of your tournament. For example, you could show the seeding for the bracket a few days before your event or you could show the prize for the winner if it is physical (gift cards work).

I included one example below:

This is an engagement post to showcase the entry prize provided at my League of Legends Worlds Championship finals viewing party.

This period of engagement is important to do well to ensure participants want to come back to your tournaments in the future.

Volunteer Scouting

The last part of this step is volunteer scouting. Depending on the scale of your tournament, the level of professionalism you want to achieve and the number of people on your team, you may be able to skip this part outright.

Your first question in regard to volunteers probably is why would you need volunteers for an online tournament. Although there is no heavy lifting, there is a new load to be mindful of for online tournaments: match disputes. When people are playing remotely, there will be issues that one or several parties face and this will lead to an argument between players. For example, it could be something as simple as someone selected a character that is not allowed or something more complicated as someone missed their match time by 2 minutes and find it unfair to get an auto loss. Regardless of the problem, having volunteers to help when multiple problems arise is beneficial.

Another benefactor of volunteers is acting as referees. Having referees for online tournaments makes your tournament look a lot more professional and it makes disputes with conflicting arguments much easier to process and close. For example, in the 1v1 Me Yo! Again tournament, we had a referee watching the banning phase in ProDraft and watching the entire game. So, if someone claims the other player played a banned champion or went into the restricted area, we have a referee who can support or deny the claim.

In order to get volunteers, you will want to start by asking your friends; That’s the easiest way to do it. If you don’t have enough volunteers through your friends, another option is to make it public that you are looking for volunteers. This could be simply written on your website or advertised as a post. There is no shame in this for free and less known tournaments, but as you become more established or charge players to participate, I would recommend being more secretive about gathering volunteers. That or you pay people a fixed amount to referee instead.

For online tournaments, I would recommend getting more volunteers then you would need, as there will be a handful of no-shows and people who cancel nearing the event. A good rule of thumb is a third more signed up volunteers than needed. Since its an online tournament, having extra volunteers does not hurt them nor the organization, you can have multiple doing the same thing or let them be aware that they are on stand-by. Another good way to delegate it with extra people is by dividing it into shifts, but this should be decided on the day of so you can make sure you don’t give people more time than they signed up for.

5. Preplanning and Executing

After all this time you spent building your tournament, its finally time to my favourite part of tournament organizing; Preplanning and executing. Preplanning is about a week or two right before your online tournament (depending on your scale), while executing is between the time your tournament has started and ended.

Inform Your Team About Their Responsibilities

Your team is probably just as excited about the tournament as you are, during the preplanning phase you will have to make sure you delegate certain responsibilities to certain people. Make sure you provide all the appropriate information and control required for them to complete their tasks. Some tasks would include match dispute regulators, volunteer manager, tournament communicator, tournament bracket manager and engagement assurance.

Running through some test runs and theoretical instances would act as a large help to remove anxiety from your team and make them better prepared for the tournament itself.

This is an example of a responsibilities list created as an example by Major League Hacking.

Train and Manage Volunteers

In step 4 you collected and created a list of volunteers. During preplanning, you will start informing and training your volunteers in regard to their responsibilities. Make sure they know what they can, should and cannot do during the tournament and make sure they are aware of who to consult with certain issues.

Make sure you are appreciative of your volunteers and don’t forget that they are giving up their time to help your event. Providing some form of appreciation gift or message is a highly valuable tool to show that you care.

Forming Tournament Bracket & Seeding

With most, if not all, of your participants have signed up, its time to start finalizing that bracket format and seeding the tournament. There’s one thing you need to be mindful of, there will be a portion of your player base that won’t show up.

Because of that, you have two choices; One choice is to seed your tournament beforehand and provide forfeit wins to everyone who was supposed to face the no-shows. The other option is to seed your tournament on the day of, likely right before the start of your tournament.

I would recommend the latter as you could have one player surpass a large portion of the tournament because several of his opponents are no-shows, while others have to work hard to climb the latter. This ruins the experience for all participants.

Formatting the tournament and seeding the bracket can be done fairly quickly with small or even medium-sized tournaments. If you are using a third-party tool, this is literally an effortless process for tournament organizers that can be completed in a matter of seconds.

Preparing Resources

As the date comes close, there will be a few more resources you would need to prepare to have on hand for the tournament. One thing is ensuring all organizers and volunteers have access to the resources that would be beneficial to them on the day of the event, like volunteer information sheets, the ruleset and the tournament schedule.

In addition, you will want to ensure you are prepared to create your tournament rooms/lobbies or have your tournament rooms/lobbies prepared prior to the tournament itself. You also will like to include any speeches you may need for the day of your tournaments or any text bodies you will be sending out. The less you have to worry about on the day of, the better.

Ensure you have a solid match dispute resolving system in place and keep someone responsible to have the final call on problematic and complex disputes.

Contingency Plans

Have you heard of Murphy’s law? If you haven’t, once you become a more avid tournament organizer, that name will become second nature to you (and also haunt your dreams). Murphy’s law states “anything that can go wrong will go wrong”.

Your preplanning period is a great time to get your team together and ask the question “what could go wrong”. As you discuss possible issues, discuss possible solutions to those issues. Don’t discard a problem as unlikely and include a backup. Some backups will have additional costs, and in those cases you need to weigh your return-on-investment. How possible is this problem and how much would it cost if it goes wrong? And if you opt into this solution and it isn’t utilized, can it be returned or stored for the future?

Make sure you have a backup to the tool you are using to organize your bracket and have different forms of contact information with fellow organizers and volunteers in case their internet goes down if you are connected remotely (yes, it happens).

Execution

Its finally time, this is where all your blood, sweat and tears have gone to. But that doesn’t mean you can take it easy, instead you need to take your game a step up.

Meetup with your team and the volunteers prior to the tournament, provide words of wisdom and hype up your team. An excited team betters the experience for your participants and your team as well.

About an hour or so away from your tournament, send out an announcement and begin your check-in period. Your check-in period will allow you to gauge how many people showed up and will help you modify the seeding of your tournament and its bracket if need be.

As the tournament starts up, engage with your participants as you and your participant engagement assurance members ensure your participants are as fired up as you are. I have been in many tournaments where a participant may have been crushed right off the bat, yet he enjoyed his experience because of the organizers themselves. At the end of the day, you are running your tournament for your player base, if you care it will show and they will notice it.

Be on guard ready to deal with any situations that arise even beyond match disputes. This is exactly why you made those contingency plans in the first place.

As your tournament starts to slow down and you begin to reach the end, DON’T get concerned because you aren’t doing a lot anymore. I’ve been there too many times. Relax, at this period of time you should enjoy the tournament, connect with more participants and watch the semi-finals and finals rollout. Some members, such as your stream management team, may still be working, but as a project leader or tournament organizer, you can take it easy at this point.

It’s important to really take it in. You did this, you created this. All the issues you ran into, all the problems do not compare to the experience your participants have felt. It’s hard to overlook this, but it’s true. The value of your tournament is dependant on the satisfaction of the participants, and a lot of organizers get overwhelmed by their small mistakes and overlook that.

After the tournament ends, make sure to congratulate your team on the success and let them acknowledge what an amazing feat they accomplished. Make that speech all about them, give them all the credit. Let that speech be one of celebration and acknowledgement, you all did it and it couldn’t have been done without a single one of them!

Conclusion

Although a lot has been said, this really does not scratch the surface of the actual work being done to run tournaments, especially when you scale, work with sponsors, run into legal issues, incorporate pay-to-play and manage your team itself. This is exactly why I have created a course called “How to Plan, Organize and Execute Any Esport Event”, as I poured my years of experience and consulted other experts on what it takes to organize an esport event of any scale in the esport industry.

In that, we include further information on the secrets of successful online tournaments that I purposely excluded from here to keep the course’s value. Check it out here to learn more (COMING SOON).

Nevertheless, now you are equip to run your first online esports tournament. You know what to do!

If you still have questions, feel free to send me an email and I would be happy to help: uzair.hasan@esporthow.com.

(BONUS) 6. Debrief

I’ve pushed the release for this section to an unknown date, the method of approaching your debrief with your team is very important so I want to be able to give this section the time it deserves.

Sorry for the delay, but let me know if you have any urgent questions about it!