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XLIVE Interview Series - Justin Varghese - DreamHack

This week on the XLIVE Interview Series we sat down with Justin Varghese, North American Marketing Manager at DreamHack, the Swedish production organization specializing in esports tournaments and other gaming conventions.

We spoke to Justin about a number of topics from the changes he’s seen in the esports space since he started in 2014, how DreamHack is challenging the norm of esports events, and what we may be able to see next from DreamHack. Read the full interview below!

Thanks for taking the time to sit down with us today, Justin. For those who don’t already know, can you give us a brief overview of DreamHack, your team’s services, and how the company has grown since its inception? 

DreamHack is a global events and production company. We focus on creating the best in-person esports and gaming festival experiences for our physical attendees, and then broadcast those experiences to the rest of our community through our online distribution platforms.  Over the last 25 years, DreamHack has grown from a small LAN between a group of friends to the world’s largest gaming lifestyle festival, with over 310,000 people walking through our doors in 2018. This year, we are hosting at least 14 events in 8 different countries.

Prior to working for DreamHack, you worked as a play by play commentator, stage host, and on-camera personality for several gaming titles. How did you get you start in esports, and how did you begin your career as an on-camera personality? 

My start in esports overall was incredibly grassroots. I started off covering Smash in the back of a game store called FX. My first night, I thought I’d be lucky if they let me stay on the mic for 5 minutes, but they really liked me so I ended up casting for 3 hours straight and closing out the night.

From there, things snowballed. I ended up getting picked up by the production company that did the Smash broadcasts at FX as one of their official commentators. Shortly after that, I covered the finals of my first regional tournament. Next thing I knew, I was getting flown out to various tournaments around North America, speaking before a global audience that was bigger than the towns I grew up in.

If there was anything I felt I did well in my time as a caster, it was goal setting. I remember fondly thinking upon seeing the announcement that DreamHack would be coming to the US that I would work hard enough to the point where I’d cast at DreamHack someday. It felt incredible achieving that goal back in 2017, and even better now that I work full time for such an amazing team.

You started working in the esports space in 2014, which is 5 years ago. For some industries, 5 years of experience can be considered ‘junior’, but in esports that experience level is widely considered as ‘senior’. Can you compare and contrast this experience level disparity between esports and other industries? 

When I think about the space as a whole, the biggest contributing factor to this experience level disparity lies in the fact that there is still so much unknown territory given how new overall the space is. Sure, every industry had to adapt to the advent of the internet, but we were one of the few industries to be born because of it.

Esports is also a relatively small space, which means that it’s lean, flexible, and constantly evolving. Ask anyone in the esports space, regardless of their title, they’ll tell you firsthand they are no stranger to wearing a ton of different hats on a daily basis. Speaking personally, I feel like I’ve grown and learned more in my first few months at DreamHack than I have working every other job in the rest of my career combined.

What changes have you seen in the industry since you entered? How has public perception of the industry changed, and how has this new influx of attention and capital changed the industry?

When I first entered the space, the most common question thrown my way was “what’s that?”. I felt like I had to constantly justify what I was doing on a daily basis to pretty much everyone I came across.

The most common question I get now? “How can I get involved?”

I think so much of this is attributed to the people that are essentially co signing their belief in the space. We’ve gone from having our primary sponsors at events being strictly endemic to now having a wave of non endemics enter the space, eager to figure out ways to capitalize on the critical demographics esports caters to.

I have a ton of hope for the future as well: no one wants to be first in the world of business, but everyone is eager to be second. It’s only a matter of time until every major company in the world carves out a specific portion of their budget to be sent towards esports activations.

Esports events have grown from LAN parties, to selling out some of the largest arenas in the world. How is DreamHack pushing the envelope in regards to what a gaming event can be?

aybe I’m *slightly* biased, but I feel like the per dollar value one gets from a DreamHack pass is unparalleled. Our goal from a show design perspective is to ensure that when someone comes in Friday morning, it’s not until Sunday night that they’ve experienced everything our show has to offer. We do this by filling our show with all sorts of content that you typically don’t see at gaming events, such as film screenings and live concerts from some incredible artists. This is really well reflected in our brand focus shift to be more of a gaming lifestyle event, which really opens up tons of avenues from a content perspective without compromising on anything we have built our legacy on.

What’s the best part of your job, and what is most challenging?

The best part of my job is by far the people that I work with. This is the first time in my career where I feel like everyone in the company truly believes in what we are building, and as a result works as hard as they can, happy and eager to help out in areas beyond their role.

The toughest part of my job, unsurprisingly, is the crunch time just before the event. With a show of our scale, there are so many elements we need to ensure we execute perfectly, which means tons of meetings and constant conversations with the team.

What's next for DreamHack? What should we be on the lookout for in 2019? 

There are a ton of announcements on the horizon that I can’t touch on at the moment. Right now, our team is laser focused around DreamHack Dallas, which will take place in Dallas from May 31st to June 2nd. It’s shaping up to be one of our biggest shows in North America, which is a great way to kick off our 25th year!

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How can people get in touch with you and DreamHack to learn more?

Feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn or follow me on Twitter! You can find details on all things DreamHack at our company website.

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