Interview with Lorin 'Alystair' Halpert - Barcraft Co-Founder & TI4 Signature Guy

General Gosu “GosuGamers” Gamers

Hi Lorin, thanks for giving us your time! Could you give a short introduction of yourself to our readers?

I grew up in Israel, moved to Canada at the age of 14. I wanted to stay in touch with friends so I quickly learned about the internet and what it had to offer.  My dad's a self-starter (he pretty much single-handedly started the scuba industry in Israel) so I grew up with the entrepreneurial seed in my mind. I learned a ton about using computers, programming, and graphic design – basically technical expertise, and I also worked on games in the past. But yeah, I'm a weird mix of all kinds of trades.

So how did you get involved in Dota 2 then?

Dota 2 came naturally to me because I grew up playing WarCraft III Dota. After Dota I played HoN, then I quit for a year or two before receiving the Dota 2 beta invite. Also, just for trivia, I own the "Y" account on HoN.

I was actually booted out of the house as a kid because I played too much Dota 1, but eventually I got a job and was welcomed back. I love my family, and they did the right thing there. 

What about Barcraft?

I heard of the storm brewing in Seattle, Oscar's small event exploding out of any realistic expectation. It was really funny - he threw together a Facebook event and only about 20-25 people RSVPed. There was supposed to be a guy coming in that day to the bistro to paint a mural. About 100+ people showed up, bogging down the bistro staff to the point that the person painting the mural had to help out serving drinks. 

At that point, I knew this had major potential and wanted to push for Barcraft globally. So I was involved in planning the second iteration of this gathering, and I wanted to make it globally accessible - make the documentation easier to get into, reach out to new sponsors, etc. I wanted to grow the whole thing as organically as possible, which explained the explosive growth during the first year, but it came with a cost.

What was this cost?

When we first started we basically had a Skype room with the major coordinators in it - about 25 of us or so. It later expanded to over 200 locations worldwide at one point, and the coordinators became fractured and they stopped getting assistance from others and started making localized groups.

I tasked myself with launching - the design was finished within 2 months but I kept having really bad luck finding a motivated backend developer to finish things up. We went through about 8 developers or so, and by then the whole group was fragmented and uncoordinated. 

I can see why it would be a hassle for a fractured group to be licensed as partners with Blizzard, but at the same time did this not mean that the eSports scene was growing at the different locales?

It was growing, but in a way I and Primadog didn't envision. Right now events hosted in cinemas have gained popularity but personally I cannot stand them, not at all. It takes away from the whole rationale we had for Barcraft to start with! Grabbing a drink, being able to turn to a person you don't know and have a chat while watching the game, it is not possible in a cinema experience.

The licensing thing is a whole different ordeal, we had a minor panic because someone attempted to copyright the name 'Barcraft' but that was nipped in the bud with some behind the scenes dealings. I had to take care of the nasty side of things to make sure that some things don't become public.

So the primary objective for Barcraft would be to appeal to a slightly older audience who would be able to enjoy socialising/nights out but with eSports instead of other more conventional things?

I wouldn't say more conventional - I feel it's the future. My mother doesn't understand my love for watching curling either, but I've never felt so much emotion while sweeping myself, though. And it's the exact same thing with Dota 2 or Starcraft, League of Legends or what have you, it's enjoyable to watch and to talk to friends about.

League of Legends is interesting actually: many of the people that enjoy watching it are under the drinking age, at least in the USA, so they've been hosted in alternative venues, such as wing bars to great success.

Photo of a Barcraft in Irvine, California, courtesy of Carlton Beener via SoCal eSports

I really want to push for "BarFight" events - for the Street Fighter crowd. I also had high hopes for Shootmania but it didn't pick up the way I'd hoped it would, maybe CS:Go will displace it in the long run. The problem is that unless you were a hardcore player I doubt you could follow a CS1.6 match easily, and although the same could be said for Dota 2, we've been improving by leaps and bounds.

There are simple things game developers might not realize they should consider, like putting important UI elements at the top of the screen for spectators - because when you're watching with friends (or many, in a bar), the bottom of the screen is sometimes obstructed

In the light of MOBAs and their unreadability - you need to know the game to actually spectate it, I believe that Dota 2 has taken the right step with the noob stream as well as the increasing competition amongst English casters in hyping matches. Do you think that the casters have a much larger impact on how spectator friendly Dota 2 is, compared to say, a fighting game like Street Fighter 4?

Well, there are two main groups of audiences - the ones that are at home and those in a public venue. I feel the commentators give the games a polish that's absolutely necessary for mainstream acceptance, yet I don't think they are the end-all for making the games easier to understand. You cannot have a commentator repeat information over and over and over again without it being tiring to the seasoned spectator. Developers, in-game observers and casters need to work together to make things easier - simple things like visually demonstrating the abilities of heroes before they are played, or maybe even removing all the custom hats for that specific stream.

There are too many hidden mechanics at play within Dota 2, although many of them are what make the game interesting to play for so many years. I could probably write a small paper on improving the experience for the spectator persona.

Also, shoutout to the in-game observers, these people never get the credit that they deserve!

With that in mind - we have been talking about Dota 2, and we recognise that Dota2 has come up with a new term called Pubstomps to redefine the Barcraft experience in Dota 2 terms.

A rose by any other name would smell just as sweet, or rather, an IPA by any other name would taste just as good (although I prefer my local Duggan's #9). Well, it's not redefining the experience of Barcraft, it's the same experience with a different game, just like going to watch UFC or football. The crowds don't necessarily mix but I can guarantee that similar levels of hype exist at the different locales and amongst the different crowds. 

I agree, but it also allows for a different interpretation of the genre as well - we have seen Pubstomps that are done in cinema halls or at cybercafes, do you think the organic/amateur quality of these pubstomps may hinder or warp the path of spectator development?

I hate to say this, but yes. It's not personal hate, it's research I've conducted over the years. We have tested these things over the course of organising so many Barcraft events - people burn out from cinema style events more so than at bars, because it's a less enjoyable experience overall.

Would you then prefer that the respective game developers would step in to uphold standards for public spectatorship? Or do you see the burden on yourself to provide the benchmark for others to meet?

It was my original intention to swoop in and create some positive change but my work and pleasure within Dota 2 community has been quite distracting. The issue is that the developers themselves don't know what they are doing within the scope of public viewership yet - it's such new ground. As such, it's very easy for a company to shoot themselves in the foot if they don't know what they are doing.

Going back to Barcraft: three years ago it was founded on the passion of you and other likeminded people - but today naysayers are claiming that Starcraft II has entered its twilight years. What is the future you foresee for Barcraft?

It is up to the publishers themselves to keep a game's ecosystem thriving, but at this time I sadly don't see Barcrafts or any other similar events having much impact on the longevity of these games.

However, as long as there's interest for a game competitively there will be a local event waiting out there for you to attend! I am sure that public spectatorship will continue to grow in the years to come. 

I can see your passion for eSports - given your recent forays and activity into Dota 2, is this your new project moving forward? You mentioned at TI4 that you were actively involved with pubstomps and liasing with Valve, could you elaborate on that as well?

I basically made sure that many of the known event coordinators were submitting their events to the 'Official' Pubstomp listing. I also made sure that sponsors, potential sponsors and 'shwag' providers were looking out for not only their best interests, but for the volunteer organizers as well. It was integral because there were some official exclusive Dota 2 items given out only at Pubstomps this year, and they weren't available to the public otherwise.

The highly lucrative Pubstomp business - photo from Valve's Blog of TI3. 

Have you considered expanding into the Pubstomp business now?

Many of the original Barcraft organizers are involved in Pubstomp events as well, so you would be surprised. I would not call it a 'business' though, not in its current iteration, which is run mostly by volunteers. However, I believe that once we have a centralized point of operation, all of these events could be coordinated way more easily and folks would have a much easier time actually finding local events. As it stands, there is still no 'official' location to find all events worldwide. So if you happen to know any good web developers please send them my way, the website is better late than never.

I find that interesting to see, because I understand that spectatorship is driven by the community, but at the same time it is hard to ignore the monetization of Pubstomps/Barcraft, is it not? For example, the selling of merchandise, alcohol, cover charges upon entry.

Monetization for the bars and venues you mean. I'd say 80% of events worldwide are simply hosted for the love of the game, and most of these locations are simply looking to cover costs. That's why I don't enjoy cinemas, you're forced to pay a cover because renting the location for an event is so expensive.

Meanwhile, you can convince a bar that the added revenue they get compared to an average day makes up for everything, if they simply give you control over the A/V and hopefully have a stable Internet connection.

But it is quite possible that it could be an extremely lucrative business opportunity as well, which is why we have seen things like the MeltDown chain of eSports bars coming up.

Oh it is, I've run the numbers before. I know there are potential millions to be made but money was never a very large motivator for me. Like from where you’re from - there are many people that know how to make money in Singapore, one of my best buddies at TI4 (and TI3) is a great fellow by the name of Lukas. He basically re-ships secret shop items directly to people living in Singapore, it was practically his job during both events. I bet he made a good amount of profit from that.

But yeah - some locations know how to drive a profit, but I am unsure how the 'eSports-only' bars are doing at the moment. I feel it's a good idea, but not the right time yet. There's also a video game bar in BC, Canada -  we have one of these in Canada as well, but I haven't visited it yet because it's across the country!

I see, but do you mind, or foresee problems if people who are purely interested in profits end up taking over this budding industry?

The thing is that money makes the world go round, it helps change public opinion on certain matters. I feel it has to happen, you can't change the world without money these days. Sure you can have a passion that can only take you so far, or as I've found, ~250 locations worldwide between all coordinators.

A sample of the physical autographs that Lorin collected for implementation. 

Moving on, you were at TI4 as a VIP ticket holder but ended up helping Valve/the community by collecting the casters' physical autographs to be scanned and put into the game - are there other things that you have done that we don't know about?

To be honest, I am more of a doer than a spectator - I need to keep my hands busy or I go nuts. The first few days at TI4 were a nice vacation for me, but by the 3rd day I was going ape since all I was doing was eating amazing food, watching Dota and sleeping. This is a dream to some, I know, but it really wasn’t enough for me.

Lucky for me, Finol was sitting a few seats down so I brought up the Reddit post I made a long time ago and asked what would be needed to implement it. 'Asked' would be the wrong word here, 'told him' would have been closer to the truth, considering that I already had a head start of 12 autographs ready to be uploaded before the event even started. After a few email conversations, I was engaged for the rest of the event! I announced the update on Reddit as well, which was quite well received. 

At TI4 I also helped both iG and NewBee with some graphics at the event itself - they needed some help with their in-game banners as well as floor graphics, so I worked with them on that. 

So you collected those of the casters, what about the players, was that down to you as well?

Yep, everyone's autographs were collected by me - it was not just the casters, but literally everyone. The entirety of the production crews, players, casters, and other personalities involved in TI4. Thankfully I had the amazing assistance of three people that helped make the impossible possible: HippoVic and AutumnWindz finding, translating and explaining to the Chinese production crew what I was doing, and Stanislav Null-Iaroslavtcev, who single-handedly tracked down every single Russian production crew and some Russian players.

In total, that was about 60 production crew autographs, 33 workshop artist autographs, and 72 player autographs (because we’re still missing a few). But right now, I'm on to more fun things. With the release of emoticon submissions to the Workshop I'm starting work on my own pack as well, and in fact I just finished one today. I also had a shirt design that was in the Workshop, but it did not make it to the Secret Shop. Welovefine have decided to print it though, you can check it out here!

Thank you for the insight into what you do, Lorin. Before we end, do you have any shoutouts to people anywhere?

I would like to shout out to Mark ‘Eden of Chaos’, Brett, Korie Yang, and Primadog, wherever you are - we all miss you.

You can follow Lorin on Twitter, follow Barcraft on Facebook, or await's launch soon.