Opinion: Weighing up King of the North

The ‘largest student-run gaming festival’ in the UK produced spectacular esports, and has room for improvement

Image: Dan Powell

Disclosure: I am the ‘Soft’ Tournament Organiser at the University of York’s Fragsoc and have organised LANs similar to KoTN in the past. In addition, I am the Overwatch rep for York, which supports three teams competing in both the NUEL and NSE leagues. This article does not represent the opinion of any of the brilliant tournament organisers or players mentioned above.

King of the North (KOTN) is, as its website claims, ‘the largest student-run gaming festival’ in the UK, and this year it lived up to its storied history, delivering four striking finals over the course of a mere weekend in one of Manchester’s prime media hubs: letting the best teams in the country compete under the shadow of the ITV and BBC buildings. Of course, events run by societies always leave room for improvement, and King of the North was no exception. I am glad that Manchester has always been open to constructive feedback.

Fragsoc’s Underwatch had a great time in Manchester, despite our 2-1 loss to Staffs in the second semifinal. Once the games were underway, the competition was enjoyable and well-executed. The facilities were incredible: practise rooms with solid GPUs, plus great internet and a range of relevant sponsors. The general feedback from the event should make the society proud, and I mostly second it. My issue is that Manchester’s excellent infrastructure and talented volunteers do not compensate for some of the issues the tournament faces as a whole.

It’s a titanic effort to put on a four-game event over one weekend, and Manchester manages, just. Unfortunately, with that number of games, come delays. Overwatch was played over two hours late, on backup PCs that needed to have the game installed first. Siege players faced further problems, compounded by delays from the Overwatch portion of the competition. (Sorry about that.)

These delays, as caster Rooc notes: were out of the hands of the admins: ‘games were really fun… [the issues] were unfortunately out of the hands of the TOs due to the complications of running events in a university building and due to some awkward peripheral setup inbetween games for the teams.’

A leaner schedule wouldn’t immediately solve this, but it would give the admins flexibility. Fewer titles means less time spent testing or fixing mistakes, and allows greater leeway for problems which are to be expected at all levels of esports, and only worsen at the lower level: players misplace peripherals, game clients hate admins. It happens.

Of course, fewer games would also allow organisers to run longer series sets, which benefit viewers and players alike. A best-of-three Overwatch series is not, in my view, an adequate count of maps for a semifinal at a £600 tournament. That’s not to say that it would have helped us much: Staffordshire are just that good.

It’s not my place to recommend which titles to drop. That question falls both to demand, and to whether there is applicable admin expertise within the Manchester committee.  It does, however, lead me on to a second question for KOTN: was hosting the finals for USL and NUEL’s CS:GO league really necessary?

Hosting a league final for one of the ‘big two’ has obvious benefits for funding and society visibility but confuses lines of responsibility and sacrifices the society’s independence. Of course, building relationships in esports is useful, but as one of the very few tournament-organising societies, Manchester should, in my view, try to keep its options open: NUEL can host its own events, and Manchester doesn’t need the NUEL to run brilliant LANs. There is a lot to be said for the exposure brought to smaller leagues such as USL however, and that’s an argument I acknowledge.

My final recommendation to Manchester stems only from personal experience at the event: admins need to develop a clearer chain of command at their tournaments. We were at times confused with timings or direction because different requests were made by different admins.

This challenge is to be expected when running several games, but information wasn’t always provided as coherently as it could have been. Most of the admins were experienced and helpful and most of our questions were answered promptly. Occasionally, however, we had conflicts between people. Some personnel directly contradicted each other on rules both in and out of the game.

On the improvements suggested, Jon ‘Dr Pie’ Chia responded on behalf of UoM esports: ‘Our game range is constantly under consideration and this time we were very happy to have held the USL finals along with NUEL’s CS:GO finals. Having worked with NUEL at this event was a great pleasure, their support and presence was a large force in the improvements we were able make for the qualified teams & players. Bringing on USL was a key focus for us, as they are a new tournament and by providing them with a live stage finals we wanted to help give the players the best experience and help bring USL more exposure. As a society we are not all full time TOs and we rely on the hard-work and grit of our volunteers to provide the best experience possible, we are always looking to improve on our next event and constructive feedback is appreciated.’

I want to make it clear, that I am not claiming that the fault for the delays over the weekend rest with Manchester’s handling of challenging scenarios, or particular staff. Fragsoc’s CS:GO Invitational the weekend prior to KOTN had its own issues that could have been handled better.

I am, however, arguing that better organisational structure and fewer titles give more leeway for issues to be solved when they develop. Greater focus equals more time to troubleshoot and prepare, and that’s an important factor in a high-stakes, high production-value tournament like KOTN. The tournament remains a landmark for other universities to follow.

The NUEL did not respond to requests to comment, but this article will be updated if they do.