A Priceless Experience

At the time of my writing of this, I have only known of the existence of Dreamhack for all of three weeks. With that being said, it has become so incredibly close to my heart, not only for the unique experience it offered me as a gamer, but also for the opportunity it provided to develop my skills as a photographer, and network as a professional in the entertainment industry.

My words may never be able to fully capture the value of the past few days. Perhaps hindsight alone can offer a wholesome perspective on the significance my most recent work. What follows is my best attempt at recapturing the narrative of my weekend with Dreamhack. I hope you enjoy!

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July 5th, 2017: First Contact

It had been a couple weeks since I first began my venture into photography. I had only made my Instagram account a week earlier when my friend, Alex, called me and asked me about my interest in potential photography opportunity. I asked what it was but only half listened to the details. The offer alone was enough to excite me. He sent me the link to the website and I filled out a quick application before telling my friends about the offer. Needless to say, I embellished the truth a bit, wanting to sound as if I had been invited to the Oscars, knowing full well that wasn’t the case at all, but yet unaware of how significant the news actually was.

Very little time passed before I got a response from a guy named Mitch, which was honestly surprising because I never actually expected to be accepted. I applied with the sole intent of not wanting to look back and remember an opportunity I failed to pursue. After introducing himself, he asked me a series of questions regarding my interest in gaming, as an interview of sorts.

Truth be told, I haven’t touched my Xbox in months. I’m an entire generation behind now and I’m still playing the same games from 2013 and prior. My interests lie in viewing games, more so than playing them. I can watch walkthroughs and “let’s plays” on YouTube all day long (I already do), so it’s my version of Netflix. I love deeply engaging campaigns such as Uncharted 4, Prey and The Last of Us, as well as the fast paced action of competitive multiplayers like Rainbow 6: Siege and Grand Theft Auto V. There is also so much unspoken value in the unique qualities streamers bring to the experience of a game. Even when the story modes are the same, the stories themselves are different, because the players play, react and engage differently. Every video is like an episode from a show that everyone is performing from a different perspective. It’s immersive, it’s interactive, and it’s my favorite way to entertain myself.

These are the memories I spoke of in response to Mitch’s questions: the story, the variety, and the unique experiences. Apparently, it was what he wanted to hear. After asking for a way to see my photos, he told me I had successfully joined the crew! I would be one of eight photographers tasked with capturing the scope of Dreamhack Atlanta. Once again, I told anyone who would listen.

July 13th, 2017: Tools of the Trade

University Housing sent me an email saying that my package had finally arrived. I raced up to the mail room, grabbed the box, and ran back to my room like I just just found some long lost treasure. I tore away at the tape and labels and found, not gold, but the next best thing: my new camera (Canon Rebel T6). Since the beginning, I had essentially been working backwards in terms of my development as a photographer. Before capturing my first photo, I learned to edit and enhance on Lightroom. When I did begin taking pictures, I only used my phone (iPhone 7 Plus). Now, after learning how to edit, and spending weeks “learning” how to take photos, I finally had my very own camera. My excitement was unreal.

I immediately strapped up, went outside, and took pictures of anything and everything on campus. I went from the Founders Garden, to Herty Field, to Downtown. I probably dripped my weight in sweat in the 93 degree heat, but it was absolutely worth it. Not to sound like a social media snob, but likes, follows and shares are the currency of popularity, and popularity is (often) the foundation of success in the modern era, especially in my line of work. Being tagged on photography pages and featured on local city accounts is how I get my name, my brand, to the masses. I had already found some success with just my phone. My camera would take me to the next level.

July 21st, 2017: Bigger than I Imagined

Admittedly, the entire weekend was a bit of blur. Anyone who has ever worked a conference understands the feeling of enduring days that won’t end, experiences that run together, and yet somehow manage to be over in the blink of an eye. My weekend was no different. But I will do my best.

I get off work at 6 am, bags already packed and in hand. I have my luggage, laptop and camera. What I don’t have (more often than not) is gas. But before fueling up and hitting the road, I stop at Walmart to buy an extra memory card. My greatest mistake was leaving the store without asking someone to remove the dense, plastic safety box. That will become important later.

Breakfast is a meal I almost always skip, often due to a lack of time. I decided today would be different, given the occasion. I stopped at Krystal and got a couple Sunrisers, which, again, will become important later.

Later is now. I don’t need to remind anyone that the drive in and out of Atlanta can be perilous. It’s even more daring when trying to eat a breakfast sandwich at highway speeds. Still not wild enough? Imagine dropping hot cheese on your lap at 70 mph. I was as frightened as I was saddened. My life is precious, but so is food.

Avoiding death can be an exhausting process, so I was thankful when I finally reached the city. I stayed with Alex, the very same friend who first told me about the opportunity. As it turned out, he too was volunteering at the event that weekend. We were joined by a third, Brad, who wasn’t volunteering but was definitely attending. It took me all of 30 minutes after bringing in my luggage to realize that I had forgotten my blanket. But that would have to wait for later. I had to get to work.

I get to the Georgia World Congress Center just at noon and text Mitch to let him known I had arrived. He finds me in the crowd and he explains to me my job for the weekend. As the Business to Business Marketing Manager, it was his job to sell the idea of Dreamhack to potential partners in the hopes that they would sponsor our events, like the festival in Atlanta. As one of his photographers, it was my job to capture this opportunity in photos by taking pictures of banners, logos, workshops, and basically anything he could use to encourage companies to do business with us.

We began by taking a tour of the facility. The first stop was expo, a classic convention fanfare where companies offer trial runs on their latest projects. There were gaming chairs, VR headsets, curved monitors, jerseys, memorabilia, absolutely anything you could think of. I could have spent the entire conference there, but there was so much more to see. IMG_1544

Before continuing, we made a stop by a storage room to find a hammer. I still needed to liberate my memory card from the clutches of hard plastic and a magnetic latch. A couple good smashes was all it took. The floor was littered with shards of plastic that we spent a few moments cleaning up. The sounds of the impact likely startled a few people around us, but fortunately there was no incident. I know I mentioned this would be important later, but this is about as interesting as it gets. My apologies if you had hopes of something more exciting.

Our next stop was the main stage. Mitch and I wasted no time cutting to the chase and headed straight for the biggest attractions. He offered me tips on how to take the type of photos he needed, what he referred to as “boring pictures.” He wasn’t wrong, at least not entirely, because many of the shots he really needed didn’t include much action, but had plenty of billboards and posters. I was disappointed at first, but this changed later on.

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Before leaving the stage, he showed me a behind-the-scenes look into the production of each stream. We see the lights and cameras and computers used to create a well-produced show for the audiences there and at home. I met a director, producer, and on screen talent in the form of game announcers. We repeated this process across the board at every other stage with every stream that was running at the time as Mitch instructed me on when to capture the moment and when to avoid disturbing the professional setting.

When I could finally stop holding my breath, we made our way to the Fighting Games Center (FGC). Here, players could compete in Super Smash Bros. Melee, Smash 4, Tekken 7, Injustice 2 and Street Fighter V. It was BYOC, which meant different things at different areas of the festival. Here, it meant Bring Your Own Controllers, as Dreamhack had set up several GameCubes, Xbox’s, Playstations and Wii U units. One needed only BYOC.

Across from the FCG was Table Top, the newest addition to the festival. There were well over 100 board games and card games that anyone was allowed to play for free. Like the FGC, anyone could enter a tournament and compete for the championship in any number of games, such as Magic and DnD.

This concept of free-to-play was carried over to the LAN parties. In one section, BYOC meant Bring Your Own Computer. I would soon find out that the LAN party was the very foundation of Dreamhack, a history I will cover later on. Another section of the LAN party was composed of desktops provided by one of our sponsors, with several games preinstalled. I would end up spending a lot of time here, playing games I usually only get to watch other people play, like H1Z1, CS:GO, and even World of Warcraft.

After showing me the entire show room floor, Mitch finally let me run free to begin taking my first pictures. Naturally, the very thing I had to do was take a selfies with a Stormtrooper. I simply had to satisfy my personal desires before getting to work, but get to work I did. The rest of my day was essentially taking what I considered to be decent pictures.

Later that night, there was a Waka Flocka concert that I was entirely too tired to cover, so Alex, Brad and I made our way back to the room. Leaving my covers at home became far more apparent that night when I tried to fall asleep on the couch in a cold apartment. I somehow managed to get through it. Unfortunately, my sleep wouldn’t last long, as I had to be back at the Center early the next morning to attend an executive business presentation. I heard breakfast was provided, so sleep had to wait.

July 22nd, 2017: Work

I don’t want the title to be misleading. Everyday was work. There was plenty of fun, yes, but as long as I had my camera, I was at work. This day specifically was particularly taxing, as it would be longest of the weekend.

I made it to Centennial Park around 8:30 am, which was 90% of the distance from Alex’s apartment to the event. It was early in the morning, so the walk over didn’t make me too sweaty just yet. But just before crossing the street to Philip’s Arena, I remembered that I had forgotten to buy a new parking pass for the day. I can’t easily recall a time in my life when I was so aggravated with myself. The walk back to the apartment, and then to the Center again, definitively moistened my shirt, but it could do little to dampen my mood. I made it a point to travel different routes on the walks back and forth, making certain I could see as many different views of the cityscape as possible. In the interest of full disclosure, I only purchased the extra memory card so I could take person pictures while in Atlanta. I never really got around to doing that.

The first thing I noticed when I stepped in the room was the food. The breakfast in the crew lounge was mostly cold foods, like yogurt and fruit. It was free so I would never complain. However, this food was a step above: breakfast burritos, potatoes, bacon, eggs, pastries, etc. The spread was meant to impress the business reps who flew in to sample the festival and gauge the viability of a partnership. I seized the moment and ate what I could, while I could. I had to make up for the lost breakfast from a day earlier.

My feast was cut short by actual work. My inclusion in the meeting was nothing less than an honor. It was also very informational. After realizing that I was the only member of the crew invited to breakfast, I also realized that I was the only photographer, not just in the room, but on crew. There were several other videographers working with the streaming services, and plenty of journalists present at the Center, covering the event. But I was the only volunteer photographer, which explained why I was working so closely with Mitch. I am unsure as to what happened to the others, or if they even showed up at all. I never met them. I’ll explain more later.

Something else I learned was the the story of Dreamhack. In brief, it began way back in the early 90’s when about 40 Swedish kids brought together their computers and established the first LAN party. Each year since, the event has grown in scope and popularity, eventually becoming the behemoth it is today. It is currently the self-proclaimed “world’s largest digital festival,” and it’s growing. Just last year, they added the North American division when they visited Austin, TX. And now, they’ve made their way over to the Peach State.

I took pictures of the meeting, which would be the first of hundreds. As Mitch took the reps on a tour of the facility, I tested out the settings on my camera, fiddling with the ISO and shutter speed. This was when I really began learning photography. I researched what the different settings meant, when to use or adjust them, and what scenarios fit certain modes. This would continue for the rest of the event.

Mitch and I met up and began taking the actual photos he needed to do business. Much of our work was focused on expo since that’s where the most branding was located. We took a trip down the street to a sports bar called Stats that had allowed us to use their space for branding our sponsors. Even the sidewalk itself was branded. IMG_1065IMG_1183IMG_2012

As the day came to an end, so too did the need for strict professionalism. Mitch and I really got to know each other on a more personal basis. Since I was his only photographer (from what I could tell), I asked him about how the actions in his career so far led him here, looking for advice. I won’t tell all of his business, but I will say that Mitch was the type of person with the courage to risk it all in search of joy. I needed a conversation with someone like that. He admitted that he didn’t know a whole lot about photography, and that at past events, complications made working with certain others difficult, and getting the shots he needed near impossible. This was his first time working this closely with someone. I am fortunate to have been that someone.

There was a cosplay competition late that night that I found to be rather engaging. The competitors were incredibly dedicated in their characters, and the costume designs were top tier. Just adjacent was the Dream League Championship, where teams Planet Odd and Team Liquid competed for the $250,000 Grand Prize in Dota 2. I eventually watched as teams won over $800,000 in the span of two days.

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July 24th, 2017: Finale

The final day was here at last. Part of me didn’t want to leave, but another part of me was ready for it to end. I had taken most of the shots I needed, so Mitch gave me the creative freedom to take the shots I wanted, hinting that some of them might be used on the company website. I did just that, searching for shots with the most emotion and aesthetic. IMG_0694IMG_0813IMG_1218IMG_1723

As the day came to  close and the competitions neared their final rounds, Mitch and I decided to finally dump all the photos onto his computer one last time. While waiting for the photos to upload, we spoke again about our experiences that weekend. I mentioned how I was ready to go home, and he mentioned how he was (wasn’t) looking forward to the day-long tear down process. Before I finally left, he offered to get me some free Dreamhack merchandise. I don’t say no to free things. All in all, I walked away with four free shirts. He said it was his way of saying “thank you” since he couldn’t pay me. The experience alone was more than enough.

I could hear the cheering of three different crowds watching three different championships as I left the showroom floor. I would have loved to have seen the epic conclusion of such an incredibly competitive weekend, but my stamina was running low, and I had to get back to Athens to work.

Conclusion:

I’ve heard that your entire life can be summed up into just a few moments, and that those moments can be significant turning points, greatly affecting the course of your life. I believe this weekend, and everything that led up to it, to be one of those moments. From the impulsive decision to try photography, to the phone call from Alex, to the meeting with Mitch, and everything in between, I  believe I have reached a pivotal moment in my life. The experience. The networking. The practice. Whatever comes next will likely be a result of what came before.

I owe a debt of gratitude to Alex for even mentioning this opportunity, and for opening his home to me when I needed him. Without his help, this weekend would have never happened.

I cannot thank Mitch enough for his guidance, advice and friendship during this event. He was patient enough to let me take plenty of bad photos before finding a few really good ones, but also decisive enough to explain to me exactly what he needed, making it possible for me to deliver.

I want to thank Dreamhack for having me this past weekend. It was so immensely refreshing to have the opportunity to play the games again. I hadn’t in such a long time, I had forgotten how great it feels.

I must always thank God for setting the gears in motion that brought me to this day. He got me to and from Atlanta without harm. He gave me the opportunity to find a part of me I had not previously known. He gave me friends to encourage me, and a family to support me. For His many blessing, I am forever grateful.

And thanks to everyone who has read this far! I know it’s a lot, but it’s all right here, if and when you’re interested. If you have any questions or want to see more photos, let me know! I have plenty. I’m sure some of them will have what you’re looking for.

Love, Peace and Chicken Grease!

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