Gaming

6 tips for running an online tournament

© Dale Tidy
Taking your tournament from offline isn’t as easy as it seems. If you’re looking for tips on how to make the transition, this guide (and a wired ethernet connection) have you covered.
By Marc ShawPublished on
Running a fighting game tournament can be as rewarding as it is frustrating. When there are reasons you can’t host at a local venue (geography, lack of an active scene, the crushing pressures of adulthood), online might seem like the way to go. However, there is a lot to consider if you want your event to succeed.
We’ve put together a list of tips which should help prospective first-time online Tournament Organizers (TOs) put together a successful competition. While this list is primarily aimed at the FGC, some of the tips still ring true for other game types, and may be useful to organizers of all skill levels. Here are 6 tips for running an online tournament.

1. See if your game has the necessary tools

A game with a good lobby system is crucial if you want to run a successful bracket. While a small tournament may get by based on the honour system of having people connect to each other and reporting their results to you, it lacks the community feel of queuing up with the organizers and waiting for your next match to be called.
Games like Street Fighter V and Tekken 7 come with a room system, where you can create a lobby for up to 8 members who can queue up for matches that everyone in the room can watch live. In the case of Tekken 7, this can be an exercise in patience since you can’t give up your turn. Having multiple people in the lobby means waiting for several 30 second timers to count down before the correct two people are matched up.
If you’re planning to stream your tournament, rooms are invaluable as one of the people in the room can stream the live matches they’re watching. Tournament organizers can just sit tight in the room, calling out matches and watching along as they proceed. Bigger tournaments may require a few rooms, since playing simultaneous matches allows the tournament to proceed at an efficient pace.
Games like Tekken 7 and Dragon Ball FighterZ actually come with dedicated online tournament modes already, but they’re kind of lacking in options for people who want to use standard rulesets. Even FGC mainstays like Street Fighter V are still beta testing their tournament modes (as of this writing) despite having been released in 2016.
Adopting the room system gives organizers more freedom to flip between rooms and call different games up for stream depending on if they have broadcast time to fill, among other options.

2. Decide the rules

A solid ruleset is the backbone for a good tournament. As a TO, your aim is to provide a good experience for your players, so you need to think about how your choices will impact them. Do you really want to have all of your matches be best 3 out of 5? The format has its advocates, but slower running games like Dragon Ball FighterZ means longer wait times for your players, and an even longer running time for your whole event. Look closely at how your game actually plays and make informed decisions. Maybe save the 3 out of 5 sets for the finals.
You’ll also need to determine the scope of your tournament. In the interest of having many entrants, you might want to open it up to anyone and everyone, but, depending on your region, that could severely impact your players’ experience. With the current state of netcode in fighting games, running a cross country tournament in Canada is a totally different animal than running a cross country tournament in Japan.
This doesn’t mean you should limit things only to players within your city. Netplay tournaments can be an awesome way for your region’s players to get games against competitors who can’t attend your locals, without needing to travel to a major.
Most importantly, keep the rules simple. You may want to spice things up with all types of ban and counter-picking rules, but that doesn’t save you from one key fact: most players probably won’t read your instructions. You don’t have to stick with tournament standard rulesets we’ve all played a hundred times, but do so at your own risk.

3. Decide how you’ll actually run it

Actually running your bracket presents its own challenges. Remaining organized is one of your biggest assets. Paper brackets are a thing of the past, but luckily there are online, easy to use, tools to keep an eye on player progress.
There are many choices for which system you want to use like: Smash.gg, Challonge and Toornament. Some are easy to use, but don’t have the most robust toolset. Make sure to look at what tools they offer and pick the one that’s best for you. Smash.gg is one of the most popular bracket running sites (despite it still not having a mobile app) for a good reason. It comes with a suite of tools that go beyond letting you see who’s in Grand Finals.
Smash.gg has options for match check in as well as mandatory Discord sign ups. Whether IRL or online, you’re going to deal with no-shows. Match check-in lets tournament staff or volunteers know who is logged on and ready to play, which makes calling matches a breeze. If you’re a player reading this, please remember to check-in, or hold that DQ.
Discord integration is useful as well. Forcing players to join a Discord server, which can be tournament specific, the official discord for a whole scene, or something in between, provides a lifeline between players and TOs. If someone has a problem, or if you’re trying to call matches, a Discord with a dedicated channel is going to smooth out the process.
Considering incentive is another part of deciding how your tournament will run. While not necessary, if numbers are your goal, then offering some kind of pot bonus is a great way to coax out a high level of competition. Established organizers who have been running locals for a while may have access to some excess funds they could throw at special events.
In the end, it’s not really about the money. Players want to play, and good competition is its own reward. It’s up to you to decide what kind of tournament you’re running, and make it as enjoyable as you can for the competitors.

4. Decide if you're going to stream

A good stream is almost synonymous with a good event. Just like you want to ensure attendees at an IRL event have a good time, you want to make sure the viewers at home have an enjoyable experience.
The same holds true for online events. Games with good lobby systems make broadcasting gameplay pretty easy. Whoever is running the stream just needs to be in the lobby and they can broadcast the gameplay to their viewers on Twitch, Mixer, or any other preferred platform.
This allows commentary over the action for those tuning in since they’ve got a live look at the action. Of course, solo commentary can be a drag and you may want to call in some backup. If you’re spread out from other would-be commentators, a Discord channel is your solution. Just run the audio through broadcast software like OBS or Xsplit. Depending on how much you trust your community, you may want to lock the voice channel to prevent any unwanted voices barging in on your broadcast.
Keep in mind, commentators shouldn’t be tuning into Twitch and commentating what they see. With stream delay, any of the action they’re discussing will be several seconds out of date. The most optimal way to handle this is save a couple of player room slots for commentators to spectate matches.
If a game’s lobby system doesn’t allow non participants in a lobby to give up their turn, you can simultaneously stream to Discord. That comes with a little lag, but is useful in a pinch when up against inefficient player rooms.

5. Promote it!

Let people know about your tournament! This can be as simple as posting in your local FGC discord and taking whoever shows up, or it can be as complicated as hitting every mildly related group and forum you can find. It all depends on how big you want to go. Make sure to ask permission from the admins, and don’t be a spammer. As long as you keep things succinct, you won’t need to send too many reminders beyond your own channels.
For announcements to go out smoothly, have all your assets ready ahead of time. As part of a good asset pack, you’ll want an FAQ for your own personal use. People are going to have questions, so starting a google doc and sharing it with your team (or keeping it to yourself if you’re running solo) will help with having answers already on hand.
Something eye catching is also a must. People may not read instructions, but they do look at well put together graphics and slick trailers. Don’t crowd your visuals with too many words and stick to the important stuff: What the event is, when is it happening, and is it free/is there a prize pot?
As for the writeup, keep it simple as well and make sure all relevant links are in the main messaging. User engagement goes down as messages in a thread go up, so you’ve got one shot to deliver all your points. Links for Discord, stream and signup should all be in the initial post. It’s the one that will get shared the most.
If you can, keep people’s attention in a single app. While YouTube uploads of trailers are great on sites like Facebook which embed them well, Twitter prompts users to open YouTube app. It’s probably better to directly upload your video in the tweet. You want engagement, so you have to keep people focused.

6. Run it, then decide whether or not you ever want to go through that again

The last, and most crucial step is: Run the event. Problems arise, but as long as you’ve planned effectively, you’ll be able to find workarounds for unforeseen circumstances. Once it’s all said and done, and the champion has been decided, make sure to compile a list of lessons learned.
What worked well? What didn’t? Could you ever see yourself running an event like this again? Being a TO is a tough, and often thankless job. Locals, Regionals and Majors have obstacles to overcome, and running a netplay event comes with its own unique hurdles. Try to have fun with it, and remember who you’re doing it for: your community.