The After Hours Gaming League — Grassroots Grown Up

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As a StarCraft II journeyman, I have nothing but adoration for the Day[9]TV After Hours Gaming League. It’s a concept you don’t have to follow eSports to appreciate; organize a corporate league for normal nine to fivers to give them a chance to experience the pro treatment. It’s the StarCraft and League of Legends minor leagues, and it wasn’t made for want of a larger tournament.

“If I wanted to make an event that was just another tournament… there’s so much of that. How do you really express the joy of competition?” Sean “Day[9]” Plott said. “Eric Burkhart [Day[9]TV Founder and COO], said ‘I know the Silicon Valley scene is really in to StarCraft II and eSports, let’s just make a corporate league.’ That perfectly aligned with the idea of — how do we give people who just enjoy the game that experience of fun competition that has a league structure and a story arc.”

Of course, if you’ve seen a pro StarCraft competition, you know that the league structure and story arc aren’t why anyone gets involved. ”They even get isolation booths,” Sean continued. “That, to me, is the coolest part.”

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Competitors square off in the coveted isolation booth.

The AHGL finals took place at the Red Bull Headquarters in Santa Monica, California, and was a goddamn blast. In addition to free drinks, free food, and all the Red Bull a stimulant-addled brain can handle, I also got to watch some awesome games from players that are just a few notches better than myself. Seeing players make the same mistakes I do on a huge screen against live commentary was extremely endearing. The whole experience was far more intimate than watching incredible StarCraft robots play at a level I can’t even fathom.

And, to the credit of the Day[9] staff and the venue itself, nothing caught on fire and nobody died.

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God bless you, staff.

“It’s so funny what are the true problems of large event production. From an audience standpoint, you just make sure you have a stream and that it encodes properly, that you have people to talk on it, and computers to play on. That’s all you need for a show right? The things you’d think would be not an issue always are,” Sean said. “We got the Day[9]TV banner that we use in all our live shows — it’s the backdrop… we lost the stands. We took the box out and there was no stand and no screws. I was just like ‘Oh… fuck.’ We had to tape it to the wall and Sonia [Im, Public Relations and Events Consultant] was nice enough to grab printer paper and bottled water to stabilize the other beam. The tape kept sagging, so we kept asking ‘Is there any more gaffer’s tape?! Can we tie the tape back up?’ while the show is going live.”

All that frantic taping created an awesome evening for me, but Sean’s payoff came from something other than StarCraft and free pizza.

“The best moment was an hour ago when I just looked and the lobby is full of people just hanging out and socializing. Sure there’s an auditorium where there’s a game going on, but the important thing is that people are hanging out with each other, which in my eyes is the whole purpose of an event like this,” Sean said. “Just have a fun, good time. I am so happy about that.”

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Attendees socialize while League of Legends matches occur.

As much as it was a social event for the attendees and a pro-for-a-day fantasy for the players, it was a strange fantasy for me as well. Reflecting back on the Brood War days is surreal; savagely searching the Internet for a shred of video from a Korean tournament, marveling at the production, the enthusiastic (if unintelligible) commentary, and the roaring crowds. Now it’s all here, and so well established that a novel idea like the After Hours Gaming League can exist — sponsored by Red Bull no less.

Day[9] experiences something similar, though as a producer his vantage is different from mine.

“There are a couple of degrees of it that are just odd,” Sean said. “First of all, my team is in charge of the event, and it’s weird to say things like ‘We need this table moved ten feet that way,’ and a crew just moves it and hooks it back up. They’re like, ‘Is this OK, Sean?’ and I say ‘I approve.’ That’s weird!”

So weird, in fact, that Sean himself hardly even perceives any of it. Though the sensation sounds strange, I think I get how he feels. When I come to events like the After Hours Gaming League, I feel like I’m walking through an impossible dream while my real self is passed out in my room next to a bag of microwave popcorn and Star Trek: The Next Generation playing on TV.

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The crowd watches in rapt attention.

“I don’t experience it, really. At the end of the day I know who I am. I’m a nerd. If it’s Friday night and I wasn’t preparing for this event, I’d be either watching Netflix or playing StarCraft by myself,” Sean said. “Maybe I’d be playing some of my old Sega Saturn games which I’ve been doing recently. I’m really pumped because I have all four discs of Panzer Dragoon Saga. I’ve been reading the Dresden Files series recently, I still have some DMZ comic books I want to catch up on… this is my identity.”

The difference between Sean Plot, a nerd that sits at home and reads comic books, and Day[9], Internet Nerd Celebrity and Event Emcee, caused Sean to go a little Yoda on the topic.

“Whatever Day[9] does, Sean himself doesn’t experience it or see it. Then when I come to an event like this and people say ‘Oh my god! Hi! I just wanted to come up to you and say a nice thing!’ Wow… thank you! Whoa… I’m not doing anything more special at home. They don’t live inside my head where I think the dumbest shit all day long. ‘What would’ve happened if Jim and Pam didn’t get together in The Office… do you think the ratings would’ve…? How would I run my own grocery store?’ It’s just the dumbest things,” Sean explained. “I wish I was as cool as Day[9], man. That guy’s awesome. Sean’s just all… hairy and tired.”

If he is tired, that certainly doesn’t come through at an event. He sports an evergreen smile and has nothing but time for fans that want to come up and tell him how awesome he is. In fact, as we were starting our interview, two fans came up just to chat. I offered to take a picture, and he hugged them together instantly like a jovial nerd Santa Claus. You can’t help but wonder if all that attention would ever go to the man’s head.

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Sean “Day[9]” Plott behind a tangle of monitors, desks, and cables.

“It’s sort of surreal, and I hope it stays surreal, because the last thing I ever want is to say [in a haughty tone] ‘Excuse me, do you know I’m Day[9]? *sigh* God, I hate being in Group C in the boarding for the airplane. I should be in Group A. I’m important!’ You’re not important, guy, just stay in line.”

As it turns out, Sean actually did have some moments where he fought an online ego, but this was back during his Brood War days as a serious competitive player.

“I would say around 2006 that I started to rebel against the idea of having an image… just only being myself and whatever happens, happens,” Sean recalled. ”I remember there was this weird moment where you get on a forum and someone else is talking with another person about you, and what they’re saying is weird and wrong and makes no sense.”

Two unnamed forum-goers were claiming that Sean’s practice time had been negatively impacted by school…  but this was while he was practicing six hours every day and twelve hours a day on the weekend. On top of that, a third claimed that Sean only played one style of StarCraft and that it had been “solved.”

“Then WCG came around and I won with a weird, unique play. I was snarky and I found the post… and what you envision is that guy is going to be OWNED,” Sean said. “Like it is in a movie, where there’s a crowd of hot girls who are all ‘EWWW YOU’RE A LOSER’ and they all flock to me and I say ‘Let’s celebrate, ladies.’ That’s the fantasy. I thought that I had proved to him that he was wrong, but he was just ‘Nawww you got lucky and blah blah blah.’”

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Mike “Husky” Lamond shares casting duties.

Experiencing that divergence between public image and reality was frustrating, but coming to grips with it taught Sean a very important lesson.

“That happened in so many different ways, so many different times, that there came a point where I realized that you can’t prove yourself to anyone but yourself,” Sean said. “You have to be comfortable with your own self image, you have to set your own goal and do it, and not worry about this external stuff. That was really valuable for me, that’s when my enjoyment of StarCraft went up a lot.”

And then Sean proved that if StarCraft fell through, he could probably make a go of being a motivational nerd speaker.

“If you’re always trying to please everyone, you’ll basically be a weak echo of people who are somewhat inarticulate about their desires. That leaves you in this weird position where all you’re really doing is seeking personal validation. Screw that, man! Validate yourself to yourself.”

Perhaps stated more simply: ”All I’m ever trying to do is what I think would be awesome.”

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The ceremonial presenting of the novelty oversized check.

He’s certainly done some awesome stuff: the Day[9] Daily, the Red Bull Training LAN, the After Hours Gaming League, and — most important of all — the Fusion Core Dance. For a man that’s already contributed so much, what’s left to do? While plans for the near future are a little hush-hush, he does have a grand vision for the future of eSports.

“I have fantasies about people in random places like a bar having a conversation about eSports… about a parent sends their kid to school and the kid runs cross country and he’s in the chess club and the eSports club. On the weekend, instead of going to chess tournaments, he goes to eSports tournaments that are for high school students only,” Sean said. “I believe firmly that the experience of competition is great for shaping someone. ”

That’s the 40 year plan, at least. The more immediate plan involves (wouldn’t you know it) another Red Bull event! The Red Bull Battlegrounds Tournament in Austin, TX will feature awesome pro players, the casting talents of Day[9], DJ Wheat, Husky, and lots of awesome BBQ and beer (I’m just assuming that last bit). It sounds like another awesome event and I can hardly believe that a company as awesome as Red Bull exists to sponsor the whole thing.

Thanks for the great event guys, and I’ll see you at the next one!

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