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Celeb barbers, delays, and light shows - why last night's eChampions FIFA tournament on Sky Sports was one of the worst ever

Go back a few years and the world of esports was a very different place. Events were smaller in scale, and a lot of companies were trying to cash in on a rapidly growing industry. This resulted in a whole host of events from companies who had no idea what they were doing, with tech delays, cancelled events, and other issues being irritatingly common.

Fortunately, in recent years, those kind of events have become rare. The big event companies such as ESL, MLG, and DreamHack - along with publishers who run their own leagues like Riot and Blizzard - have created incredibly high quality events that are almost always issue free. Despite these advancements, Sky Sports broadcast the eChampions 2018 event last night, and it felt like a return to the dark days of esports.

The eChampions 2018 event was the second of its kind. The debut show was much smaller and held at the Fnatic Bunkr, a shop/office space for esports organisation Fnatic. This year, the event was a combination of two tournaments, which were played at the Sky Sports studios and broadcast online.

One tournament featured 16 of the best FIFA players from across Europe battling it out for a £5,000 prize pool. Players such as reigning world champion Spencer "Gorilla" Ealing, his former coach Sean “Dragonn” Allen, and West Ham’s Jamie “Jamboo” Rigden were just a few of the big names in attendance, which meant fans were expecting some high quality matches.

The other tournament was more of a showmatch competition, featuring celebrities such as musicians Avelino and Kojo Funds, YouTubers such as Emmanuel John "Manny" Brown, and professional footballers such as Southampton’s Ryan Bertrand (who is a co-founder of the eChampions company) and Crystal Palace defender Patrick van Aanholt. These celebs competed in a single elimination tournament, which was the main part of the show.

Despite having some of the best FIFA talent in the world playing for a sizeable prize pool, none of the matches were shown on stream. Not one. Outside of around a minute or two of highlights and a random section of live gameplay, we saw nothing of the pro tournament, with the commentators occasionally giving updates on what was happening. The broadcast focused on the celebrity tournament, showing every game between the eight players, even if the first 10 minutes or so of in-game action were often missed. There was also time for some celebrity barbers, but more on that later.

“Within the broadcast, they reference back to the [pro] games and show a few highlights, especially Richard [Buckley] and Brandon [Smith], the casters on the evening,” eChampions Global COO Luka Zak says. “However, by no means is that saying there was anywhere near enough shown from the pro tournament. That is a mistake I will take on the chin. Some [mistakes] were probably avoidable and some unavoidable, and we underestimated the technical side and the duration of the games. All of these things compiled and had a knock on effect, which reduced the amount of time we were on air and it meant that, from a broadcasting perspective, we were unable to fulfill everything we wanted to.”

When things did go smoothly in the celeb tournament, the event didn’t seem too bad, apart from the fact the stream for fans watching at home was only in 480p. Event organiser eChampions hired top FIFA casters Brandon Smith and Richard Buckley to walk us through the action, and they made some parts of the broadcast enjoyable, especially when the matches were full of goals.

“We are very happy with how the all-star tournament went and we got some great feedback,” says Zak. “We can all kind of high five about that, but at the end of the day this was more than just the all-star tournament. This was an opportunity for us to evolve the brand and make sure that we are showing the esports community that they mean a lot to us. So, yeah, we were happy with the all-star tournament, and that is a great tick, but that can't take away from the fact that there [were] people, the professionals, who weren't happy and were not able to finish their tournament. So, in our eyes, it’s only half an event that has gone well.”

Over on the other side of the event, where the pro players were, things were not going well at all. After being totally ignored by the broadcast, the players were running into multiple issues. The start of the tournament was delayed, and the schedule was very tight, meaning players were already concerned that the event would overrun. Then there was the added issue of having to play right next to the main stage where the celeb matches were taking place. Three times during the broadcast, the stage hosted musical acts with full light shows, which certainly had an impact on the players.

“The main issue was they couldn’t get EA accounts so couldn’t start the tournament till later,” Conran "Rannerz" Tobin, a pro FIFA player for Roma Fnatic, says. “They also didn’t allocate enough time for the tournament, even if it hadn’t been delayed. It definitely didn’t help with music and the lights whilst trying to play top level FIFA.”

At one point, Kojo Funds was performing on stage with a full light show at the same time as one of the matches in the pro tournament, which was being played just meters away, was in a crucial moment of extra time.

With the initial delays, poor scheduling and double the amount of matches compared to the celeb competition, it is no surprise that the pro tournament was not completed. The first round and one match in the second was all that was played before the remaining seven players and event organisers decided to end the competition and split the money between the seven players. This meant some players walked away with an estimated £700 just for winning one match of FIFA.

Despite the payout, none of the players were particularly pleased with the event, annoyed that they were given no spotlight on the broadcast, an almost impossible tournament schedule, and less than ideal playing conditions.

“I was excited [about the event]. I was using it more as practice for the eClub World Cup and Playoffs coming up,” Sean “Dragonn” Allen, who plays for the Lightning Pandas, says. “But they didn’t care about the pro FIFA players, they only cared about the famous guys being happy and relaxed. It was like we broke in and sneaked a FIFA tournament in on the side. I could have ran a better tournament from my bedroom, but as long as them barbers are good, that’s cool.”

Sean’s last comment refers to the strange addition of two professional barbers to the broadcast. These barbers, who work on the hair of Premier League footballers, were given more screen time than the pro tournament. Why they were there was never really explained, but they did cut some hair. It was weird.

Clearly, the event was not as successful as everyone involved had hoped. The celebrity side of things certainly wasn’t terrible, and did have a few enjoyable moments, but the inclusion of the pro tournament felt like a wasted opportunity. They had serious money on the line, the best players in the world, and could have made a truly great esports event - instead they decided to focus on the big name celebs and leave the esports players out of the broadcast.

Even if technical issues were partly to blame, they could have had a more even split of the broadcast time between the two competitions. You can see why the pro players and fans who wanted to watch them compete were pretty annoyed.

“We are new to esports, we are a emerging brand, and we want to work with the esports professionals to make sure that when we put these things on in the future we don't repeat the same mistakes that occured last night,” Zak says. “It just made it very complex to have these two [tournaments] running simultaneously - maybe a little too complex for a first big event, and that is probably why it didn't turn out how we would have liked it to. The ambition was absolutely there, but for an event that was a higher profile and upscaled from last year, it was maybe a step too much, especially if you bring in the broadcast element where it needs to be very slick.”

It’s rare to see an event go as poorly as eChampions 2018 did, but it is refreshing that the people behind it are willing to accept responsibility and promise to improve. Apparently, both Zak and Bertrand spoke with the pro players to get their feedback and to promise that the next ever would not repeat the same mistakes. At the very least, they seem to know what went wrong and why, and they are on the road to fixing it. Hopefully future events from them will be considerably better, but there is no doubting that eChampions 2018 will live long in the memories of the pro players for all the wrong reasons.

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