The week of October 12, 2014

Inside Europe’s most successful esports festival

By Ian Barker

The public face of the most influential and successful esports organization in Europe sits in his office fiddling with buttons. “I have this super complicated headset,” he says, his voice barely audible over Skype. “There’s like, too many buttons on it.” Finally finding the right thing to push, Robert Ohlén’s voice comes crackling over the speakers.

“I was bored as shit,” the CEO of the computer festival DreamHack says. I’d just asked him about his time in the tech sector as a dotcom entrepreneur. He’d made millions in the late ’90s Internet boom, before the bubble burst and his patience with conventional business ran out. “I was fed up with fluffy, unsubstantiated, bullshit things.” In no short time, he said he’d become “suicidally bored.”

When I spoke with Ohlén—a middle-aged Scandinavian with a short crop of hair and somehow un-ironic badboy scruff—he was in the midst of preparing for Dreamhack Stockholm. The three-day festival in late September featured a gaming expo, a collaborative programming competition, or “hackathon,” and some of the best pro gaming teams in the world. Eight-and-a-half thousand people showed up to the DreamHack event, and video from the festival was broadcast live over video game streaming site Twitch, where it was watched by hundreds of thousands around the world.

The festival’s modern success owes much to Ohlén’s stewardship. It has become an institution in an industry in which events, tournaments, and careers form and fall apart with the regularity of the changing seasons. After nearly two decades of instability, esports is quickly reaching critical mass. Rapidly growing audiences, high-profile partnerships, and growing coverage in mainstream media are turning the once-novelty into a full-on movement. That DreamHack is among the remaining esports contenders is a testament to its organic, almost accidental origins.

DreamHack wasn’t planned. It was born.

In 1992, a pair of Swedish teens gathered their computers and a few friends at a local nonprofit youth center in Malung, Sweden. The teens, Kenny Eklund and Martin Öjes, were members of something called the “demoscene,” a movement centered around computer arts, from programming to music production to digital animation.

The gathering quickly grew into a recurring event. Parents liked the idea of a hip hangout for kids that was creative and drug-free; local teens saw it as a chance to experience a burgeoning, modern movement first-hand. In 1994, when the event had outgrown the youth center, the Swedish duo decided the get-together needed a name.

“There was a Swedish event called Hackerence back then, which sounded cool,” Öjes says. “We were bold and proud and aimed at something epic. When ‘DreamHack’ was proposed, I don’t think there was any discussion.”

The first official DreamHack was held in 1994 at the local primary school cafeteria—a major improvement from the three-room meeting space at the rec center. “We didn’t offer anything other than a great place to be, some electricity, a projector with a big-screen, and some competitions,” Öjes recalls. Promotion consisted of little more than hand-drawn posters, which Öjes and Eklund photocopied and then distributed via snail mail to nearby schools and youth centers.

For gaming, the festival only had relative dinosaurs available: 8-bit Commodore 64s and Amiga 500s. So the competitions were less about high-end computing power than about coding, graphics, music, and something Öjes and Eklund described as simply “wild.”

“Do whatever you want,” Öjes says, recalling the operating philosophy at the time, “as long as it is computer-related.”

“Esports doesn’t have to become mainstream. It will become mainstream by its own inherent force.” —Robert Ohlén

And then, as Öjes says, “something happened.” More and more people started showing up. DreamHack had 40 participants in ’94, it tripled in ’96, rose to 750 in ’97, and, two years later, ballooned to 3,000 people. At that point, it was already the largest LAN party in Sweden. No surprise then that, by ’99, a simple school cafeteria could hardly contain it. DreamHack needed to move.

When Öjes and Eklund approached a venue that was big enough, the Arena Kupolen in Borlange, they were shocked at the price. The budget for the whole festival at the cafeteria was $500. Renting the Arena Kupolen would cost “a whopping $30,000 per day,” Öjes says.

But they made it work, thanks to a combination of sponsorships and ticket sales. The transition wasn’t entirely smooth, however. “Delivering stable power supply to 3,000 computers was quite some challenge,” Öjes says. In fact, that much power was more than the entire city of Borlange (pop. 41,734) drew. One day, as the city’s power grid struggled to handle the load, the busy shopping center plunged into darkness for several hours in the middle of the Friday-afternoon shopping rush. Attendees lost their unsaved work. Öjes scrambled for a flashlight and a phonebook to contact an electrician.

Even still, the festival had started to acquire serious cultural cachet in Sweden, and its intrinsic momentum seemed to roll over whatever bumps stood in its way. In 1997, Eklund and Öjes landed a major partnership with Telia, Sweden’s telecommunications giant, which brought high-speed Internet to the venue. Gamers entered the fold in droves as DreamHack hosted a 128-team Counter-Strike tournament in the late ’90s. At the time, it was the world’s largest.

Not long after moving into its new home, DreamHack hit more growing pains. Local businesses opened up talks with the arena to convert the mess hall, where the gamers gathered, into shopping space. In addition, packing the place with wall-to-wall computers running hot and enthusiastic teenagers was making it uncomfortably crowded. For the third time, DreamHack needed to move. And now at 5,000 participants, it had outgrown all local venues in Borlange.

Eklund and Öjes identified venues in Stockholm, Gothenburg, and Jönköping that could host the gathering. But Stockholm, with its population of roughly 900,000, and Gothenburg, with 500,000, had neither the time nor patience for the convention.

That left Jönköping. With a population topping out at 62,000 in 2013, calling it a city would be generous. Listed among Jönköping’s notable residents are two Olympic kayakers, a survivor of the Titanic, and a member of ABBA. The town’s Elmia Convention and Trade Centre sits throwing distance from Sweden’s second largest lake, surrounded by acres of grass parking, public soccer fields, and bucolic residential development. Fortunately for DreamHack, the small city’s leaders were open to discussion.

Around the same time, Ohlén was changing tack, dabbling in real estate. But he didn’t like it. For Ohlén, who describes himself as a “young old person,” all that time in the dry, corporate world was leaving him hungry for the progressiveness and energy of youth. In 2004, a mutual connection introduced him to a fellow businessman named David Garpenståhl. As the founder of the now-defunct esports community, SoGamed, Garpenståhl had both connections and a long track-record in esports. And he was looking for partners in a new esports company he’d dreamed up.

Ohlén was a long-time gamer, but he had little idea what esports was. It didn’t take long for him to get it, though. “I talked to him and I understood, this is something that is pretty amazing on a global scale, and we can be a part of writing the manual on how it’s done,” he says.

The pair officially joined forces in 2004, forming a company they hoped would make it easier for esports events to find hosting in Sweden. Called the Esports Entertainment Group, it saw a quick start. The duo leveraged Garpenståhl’s connections to obtain licenses for major tournaments and leagues, such as the prolific, Olympic-style Electronic Sports World Cup and the pioneering Cyberathelete Professional League.

DreamHack wasn’t planned. It was born.

With the licenses in hand, Esports Entertainment Group needed two final ingredients: a venue and an audience. The answer was just 200 miles away in Jönköping, where thousands of gamers were already gathering twice per year. Premier esports seemed a natural addition to DreamHack. “There were 10-15,000 people there,” Ohlén says. “So you didn’t have to entice people to come and watch. They were already there!”

By pure serendipity, DreamHack was looking for new energy. Öjes and Eklund had successfully turned their little demo party into a staple of Swedish culture. But the next step in its development remained elusive. They weren’t teenagers anymore. Both were engaged and starting families. And the weeks away from home were taking their toll.

It was at that point that Ohlén and Garpenståhl said, “Why the hell don’t we buy DreamHack?’”

In 2005, the DreamHack wunderkinds and the pair of entrepreneurs entered talks. Öjes and Eklund, however, wouldn’t let go of their creation lightly. They spent a year pondering and discussing the idea. But eventually, they agreed: Ohlén’s company was the right candidate to take over what Öjes refers to as “our baby.” The deal was struck.

What turned an unassuming hacker party in a rec room into Europe’s premier festival of digital culture and competition? For Sweden specifically, you can argue that “there’s something in the water.” Referred to frequently as a “mini-Korea”—a nod to South Korea’s tech-forward culture and esports prowess— the Scandinavian nation is the perfect incubator for youth-oriented gaming culture.

To a certain degree, Sweden’s political model was built to enable progressive tech culture from the very beginning. Early in its industrial development, the country adopted a model of democratic socialism that, combined with an effective, populist reform movement, helped mitigate the polarizing economic and political effects that plagued the United States and Britain in the late 19th century. Coupled with a position of neutrality through two World Wars, Sweden managed to largely avoid the economic and structural devastation that beset its European neighbors. With a strong economy and and uninhibited industrial sector, the nation saw an economic upswing that lasted 25 years, effectively perpetuating the welfare state that had become a trademark of Swedish government.

That cultural and political milieu led to two changes that would prove instrumental to the development of gaming culture. The first came in the 1980s in the form of tax rebates for computers. This led to a ubiquity of personal computers in Swedish homes. The second was the rapid development of Internet infrastructure, quickly enabling the online culture that DreamHack now embodies.

The results speak for themselves. The all-Swedish team Ninjas in Pyjamas would become the gold standard for competition in the first-person shooter Counter-Strike, which for a time in the mid-aughts reigned supreme atop Western esports. Johan “Naniwa” Lucchesi would become one of the most competitive non-Korean players in the history of the Korean StarCraft 2 professional league. Marcus “Thorzain” Eklöf would break the long-accepted story of Eastern StarCraft dominance by taking a major tournament championship from a Korean juggernaut.

DreamHack is 30 years of Swedish tech and gaming culture materialized. And the technical staff, as Ohlén describes them, are “fucking geniuses,” raised in a culture that values skill and creativity in the digital realm.

“We were bold and proud and aimed at something epic.”

“When we held our first [independent] esports tournament, we had no experience at all, but we just thought, how hard can it be?” As it turns out, that trust in his staff would be well-placed. “The forums just exploded, saying, ‘This is the greatest thing ever! They must have been doing this for 10 years!’

“Nope, 10 minutes!”

Under Ohlén and Garpenståhl’s stewardship, DreamHack has grown from a festival into a full-blown esports event, one of the most important stopping points on what amounts to the pro-graming circuit for everything from Counter-Strike to collectible card game Hearthstone to StarCraft. Attendance figures top out at nearly 23,000 for each event. It’s expanded beyond Sweden, too, with events in Bucharest, Valencia, and even Moscow.

And it’s still holding true to its roots. Ohlén remembers one weekend when DreamHack was held right next to a local hockey game. Riot police were called in to control the crowds at the sports arena. He had to take a police escort into the festival, all because of the unruliness going on across the street.

“On one hand, you have 20,000 kids with less incident than a Ronald McDonald birthday party, and on the other hand you have this proper, nice, ingrained-in-society sport and you need fucking riot police.

“Old-school vs. new-school; which one do you want to be a part of?”

For a weekend late last month, DreamHack took over Stockholm’s Ericsson Globe arena. The festival was highlighted by a Counter-Strike tournament, which featured some of the best teams in Europe and a $30,000 prize pool. Shocking upsets and French upstarts made for ideal storylines. As the crowd gathered for the finals, the event was shaping up to become another signature “DreamHack moment.”

And then the Internet crashed.

As the delay grew longer, and audience members grew impatient, DreamHack did what few other tournaments would think of: It threw a party.

Competitors danced to thumping, self-consciously ironic techno music. On the livestream, shots of the crowd waving their hands and flexing their biceps were remixed into dance moves on the live feed. The spectacle became a perfect expression of the tournament’s theatrical, unapologetic personality—and Ohlén’s too. On stage, he’s known as “BossDH,” a character he’s created to embody the festival in all its bravado. He’s arrogant, he’s brash, he’s quirky, and he’s the perfect figurehead for the Swedish institution.

“Do you want to take this square peg and put it into this round hole just because you’re used to the round hole?” he later asks me, referring to esports fans’ frequent demands that coverage fit a more conventional sports mold. That DreamHack modus operandi doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon.

“Esports doesn’t have to become mainstream,” Ohlén says. “It will become mainstream by its own inherent force.”

And if there’s any doubt about the power of that force, just look at what happened to a gathering in a high school cafeteria 20 years ago.


Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the population of Stockholm. It has roughly 900,000 people living in its municipality. 

Photo courtesy of DreamHack/Flickr