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North America’s Unofficial “Official DDR US Championships”

This year marks the 10 year anniversary of the last Konami official US National DDR Championships that began on September 26th, 2009 in Grapevine Texas…

https://twitter.com/konami_ddr/status/26790130206

… or I guess 9 year anniversary? Really, if this is the first time you have heard of the US National DDR Championships or I’m reminding you just now, it’s okay. The event hardly got acknowledged by Konami themselves.

Before KAC, the last officially recognized US DDR major championship took place about 9 years ago in 2010 (link for a DDRFreak thread that has a total of two pages worth of discussion). However, as of this writing, I haven’t been able to find any information on how that went down. The more memorable US DDR National Championship took place in 2009 where Konami’s US division held their event in several Gameworks arcades throughout the United States. They hosted preliminary rounds to qualify for the finals which took place in Las Vegas. The insufficient visibility and not-quite-competitive ruleset played a huge part in why this event faded into faint internet history (you can catch a glimpse of the event through this YouTube playlist but don’t expect to find many photos or coverage). 

During this era of dance games, outside of Konami’s official jurisdiction, the DDR community was cultivating their own series of DDR tournaments and events. Champions of the Coast in New Jersey (also known as Kings of the Coast during the early 2010s), Rocky Mount in North Carolina, [email protected] (as part of the DigitalLife Expo in New York City), and Project Storm in Daytona Beach, Florida. The turnout in these events consistently saw 32 to 64 player brackets worked through in the span of a weekend.

Fast forward to this year, where we had three major Dance Dance Revolution events, The Big Deal 3D, DDR Storm, and Infinity Stage. For The Big Deal 3D, it was Texas’ third major music game event capping 160 players for DDR A (96 for upper-division and 64 for lower). For Infinity Stage, it is California’s first attempt at a major tournament seeing 120 players for the DDR A event (72 for upper-division, 50 for lower). For DDR Storm (formerly Project Storm), it is yet another year for them to gather over 100 DDR players for Dance Dance Revolution Extreme with players flying in from all around North America (the US and Canada) to compete.

The Big Deal 3D is the third iteration of The Big Deal tournament series which follows the same spirit of multi-rhythm game major tournaments of previous years featuring games such as Dance Dance Revolution, Beatmania IIDX, DanceRush, and Sound Voltex. Taking place earlier in the year (usually a month after the Konami Arcade Championships), they started as a regional event and quickly gained interest from players throughout the country and the world such as 1048 (BeatmaniaIIDX player who has a playstyle named after him) and 513 (DDR player and KAC finalist, however, he was unable to formally attend due to emergency).

CEO (Community Effort Orlando) has been running a large scale multiple fighting game events in Florida since 2010, organized by their Fighting Game Community. Much like the origins of CEO, Alex Jebailey used his resources to bring in DDR Storm last year right as the Florida DDR community also saw the fate of DDR Storm in uncertainty. This not only helped DDR Storm continue for years to come but also positioned it as one of several major international DDR events in the United States.

Infinity Stage, on the other hand, is a collaborative effort from major community members in California and other dance game organized groups, such as SF Evolved, a San Francisco based organization that covers dance game media & events and Valkyrie Dimension, a women’s tournament organization that encourages female competition throughout the world. Their event’s success comes as a result of promotion and branding, with work provided from other community members for graphic design and commissioned music from established artists such as Akira Complex (trailer, trailer song).

It is an ongoing passion project of the North American DDR community that has grown stronger and stronger over the span of two decades. Events to not only establish optimal competitive conditions to fully bring out the player’s full potential but also to bring out the high-level talent that remains to be unseen on official Konami platforms.

With the release of DDR A in North America on an official eAmuse network, this growth became exponential. With more than 100 machines spanned across almost every US state (and one in Canada) at Round 1 and Dave & Busters, players were finally given a unified platform to connect with other players around the world.

As a result, these events have effectively become the US DDR national events the top players look forward to testing their mettle in, moreso than the officially established events themselves.

I wanted to speak to some of the organizers that have helped host some of the largest DDR tournaments in DDR history. David Seltzer of The Big Deal Gaming, Steven Lo of DDR Storm, and Roger Clark & Steve Charron Jr. of Infinity Stage. Of course, these events could not have happened without additional help from the Texas community (for The Big Deal), the Storm/Atlanta League of Music Gamers (for DDR Storm), and SF Evolved & Valkyrie Dimension (for Infinity Stage). As hosts of major events, veterans in the community, and contributors to the DDR US Championship, I wanted to gain some of their insight to these community organized DDR national events.

Steven (DDR Storm):

DDR Extreme has gone two years as the largest dance game event for Storm. Why do you feel DDR Extreme is still incredibly popular in 2019?

If you’ve ever played a dance game in the United States and you’re over the age of 22 or 23, you’ve played DDR Extreme. To most people, it’s the game that brings back the most memories, and the game people have spent the most time on. The only exception to this is DDR Ace, which helped cause a sort of dance game renaissance with help from arcades like Round 1 and Dave & Busters. Ace has both brought back old school players as well as introduced a new generation of players to the game for the first time.

Comparing Extreme to Ace, how do you feel the competition differs?

For DDR Extreme, unless you’re a new school player who has put a lot of time into the game for some reason, it’s very unlikely to see an unfamiliar face in the top 8 of any given event. It’s at the point where unless we’re playing with the marvelous window (as used for years with random caprice rulesets), it’s going to be a crapshoot on who’d win a match for roughly the top 64 players in the US.

With Ace, while some of the consistently high placing Extreme players still show up in the top 16 brackets, there’s more variance and new players are starting to cause upsets in the upper echelons of this already established competitive community. 

The newer generation of players, however, is less likely to enter an Extreme tournament because of the significant quality of life changes made in DDR Ace such as screen filter, additional noteskins, and score tracking.

How did DDR get involved with CEO and how much of an impact do you feel this made for DDR competition on a national level?

DDR was featured in the game room for a few years at CEO but otherwise played no major role in the event. Storm was taken in by CEO because the dance game community reached out to Alex Jebailey of CEOGaming after the previous head of Storm, Joshua Campbell A.K.A. Tyger announced he would no longer be running the event. I was not in the financial situation to front the cost of a venue and knew if one person had the ability to keep this event alive, it was Jebailey. What most people probably don’t know is that Jebailey has deep roots in the Florida DDR community, especially its FreeStyle portion. He has been no stranger to the DDR Storm series over the years.

Being with CEO has made the competition even stiffer at the national level, heck even the international level. CEO is an event that has upwards of 5000 people attend it from around the world. 

David (The Big Deal):

How did Round 1 respond to the success of The Big Deal 3D?

Oh, they love us lol.  I don’t know the exact numbers, but I know they financially do well whenever we’ve held events there.  They’ve always wanted us to continue hosting the events (and even doing them more frequently if possible).  I think there’s also some internal workings going on right now to make corporate R1 more open to these types of events being run at any of their locations.

While DDR Storm has grown as part of a major fighting game event, how do you feel Round 1 as a growing Japanese arcade chain contributed to The Big Deal’s success?

There’s definitely a correlation there.  I know we’ve gotten R1’s attention with TBD, both locally here in the US and back overseas in Japan.  We actually had some JP execs come over to observe the first Big Deal at the time. The more R1s there are, the more people have access to these games, and the more likely they can “git gud” at them on official arcade hardware.  When we did the first TBD, I think Round 1 was at 10 or fewer locations. 2 years later at TBD3 they were at 30+, and they’re projected to be at 50 locations by the end of 2020. And we went from 80-100 people attending the first one to nearly 350 paid registrants for the third iteration.

You had to cap off DDR’s entrants because the event got too big. What do you feel Round 1 can do to help The Big Deal grow even bigger without restrictions?

Give us more machines!  We actually almost had it pulled off last year and might have been able to do so if we could have given them more than a couple of weeks worth of notice.  I think our plan next year is to make Friday a full day worth of events (likely lower and women’s divisions running that day), which will let us accommodate more people over a larger period of time.  And we should have the additional gold cab next year in conjunction with the two existing white cabs. 

In terms of next year, I’m sure we’ll have conversations with them in the next few months once we start ramping up discussions for the next TBD.

How would you compare the competition with DDR Ace for The Big Deal versus KAC (in terms of rules, the competition itself, player representation, etc.)

It can be a bit hard to compare the two talent-wise, because KAC limits the competition to about 6 players, where we had 160 in attendance.  But in terms of talent, we had (nearly) every top domestic player in attendance. 513 was also scheduled to be there until he had to go back to Taiwan for a tooth emergency.  Other than adding FEFEMZ and the top Japanese players like Brosoni and Yudai, we could not have a more stacked tournament than what we had.

Steve C. (Infinity Stage):

What would you say is the biggest difference in running a DDR tournament in the DDR A era compared to DDR Extreme and SuperNOVA tournaments 10 years ago?

While the skill level is so much higher, the skill gap between the top and bottom is overall not that dissimilar (excepting players at the extreme high end like iamchris4life, Kaze.573, etc). The biggest difference from a tournament organizer perspective are all the tools we have at our disposal now. Web bracket programs like smash.gg and challonge have cut down on overhead, card draw programs are more flexible and allow us to prevent outlier scenarios from occurring, and players are easier to contact and communicate with. Without these improvements, tournaments would take even longer than they already do, and I don’t think that 100+ player tournaments would be realistic.

With your experience, how would you describe the difference between community-driven DDR tournaments and Official DDR events sponsored/ran by Konami?

Konami has always had different ideas for tournaments. Much of it is probably cultural, but they also may have different ideas of what it means to be “good” at the game. Of course, many of Konami’s events have been about more than just the competition; they are about promoting the game, increasing visibility & sales, etc. KAC and the 2009 US Championships, in particular, did not have rulesets that the broader community would have enjoyed. [email protected] was more rigorous, but was still very different (in particular, [email protected] 2006’s modifier EX bonuses).

Community driven events are always trying to seek maximum competitive integrity within whatever confines we have, mostly time, and everything else follows that. That’s not to say Konami doesn’t care about the competition itself, just that it’s not the primary concern.

Roger (Infinity Stage):

Can you briefly describe how you and the Infinity Stage team convinced Round 1 to hold a major music game event?

The Infinity Stage crew approached me about running the DDR tournament because of our experience helping out at other events as SF EVOLVED. At the time, the event had already been OK’d by Round 1 management — Calico, the main organizer, works at Round 1 San Jose as the lead tech. He did an insane amount of work to make this happen on top of his actual job. He deserves a lot of credit for spending so much of his time off at Round1 instead of relaxing at home. 

If you want to know how to run an event like this, I suggest getting to know the staff at your arcade and trying to be a good customer and community member. Once they feel good about you, approach them with the idea of running an event — and try to make it clear that it’s a good idea for them: they’ll get money from the entry fees, more income from the extra customers, exposure and advertising. Get your friends to buy game credits and food/drinks from the arcade where you’re hosting the tournament. These places are businesses and we have to make these events attractive to them. 

With this being your first major DDR A event, what is a hurdle you didn’t expect amidst all of your preparation?

We got way more people than we expected. Our target for the DDR tournament was around 80 people, but we had to cap attendance after hitting 122 total entrants. We had to make some last-minute rule set and scheduling changes which weren’t ideal, and I’m sure that was frustrating for the players. Thankfully, everything eventually worked out and the tournament went smoothly. But without a lot of help from Ranatalus, Alecksaur_, and others, it probably wouldn’t have. Make sure you have help when you try to do something big. 

I had planned to do a lot more, including additional improvements to the live stream and writing an app to assist with keeping track of the tournament. But because of the attendance and the scale of the event, I wasn’t able to do as much as I wanted. Planning is really important, so try to be realistic with how much you can accomplish, and overestimate the attendance and the amount of time and work that each individual task is going to take. 

Questions for each organizer

Were you around for the DDR Championships hosted by Konami in 2009? If so, do you think Konami should try to organize a US DDR Championships again?

Steven: Yes, I placed 2nd in the Southern Qualifier to Soul of Ignorance (Christopher Austin).

I believe they should attempt to organize a tournament again, but with the help from the US community using the conventions, we’ve standardized over the years. We’ve been running ‘underground’ events at arcades and private venues for over a decade at the local to international levels. If Konami does not like the rulesets we’ve come up with, the heads of major events in the US are more than willing to work to meet a tournament layout that works for everyone. In order for Konami to be successful running tournaments in the US, we’re going to need more machines in more locations, though.

😜

David: Not only was I around during that time, but I was also one of the people who won a regional tournament and got a free trip to Vegas. Should Konami try to organize a US championship or some sort of competitive circuit again?  Absolutely. Do I think they will? No.

Among other things, I think the entire US office that put together that first event no longer exists, and the last US DDR home version was the PS3 version released in 2010.  DDR hasn’t been a blip on Konami USA’s radar for quite a while (although Dance Rush is amazing to play on). I think the only way we’d ever get Konami to come out of the woodwork here and give support for a US tournament would be if a new home version were to be released…and/or (and I hate this is actually plausible) to promote their DDR movie


Steve C.: I was! I helped run the NJ qualifier due to an illness of one of the organizers. It’s hard to say whether or not they should–they would run a tournament very differently than we would expect or be used to. I would be excited to see it, and I would certainly participate, but I wonder what the goal of such a tournament would be. There’s no home versions to promote, no partnerships or regional expansions to push. It would be fun, but I don’t see it happening, unfortunately.


Roger: I wasn’t playing much around then, but many of my friends were. Everyone was really excited about it and I still hear people talking about it today. 

A national tournament circuit across Round1 and/or D&B locations seems like the ideal outcome. KAC (the Konami Arcade Championships) is always hype, but it’s tough for a lot of people to make it to Japan, and the event is more of an industry showcase for their games instead of an event for players and spectators. North America only has a couple of representatives at KAC each year despite having a large proportion of the world’s best DDR players. I think everybody wishes that would change for the better. 

Steven with a second place trophy at the southern regional qualifier

Do you think Konami can do more to help DDR grow competitively in North America? 

Steven: If they really wanted to, yes. We’ve seen how massive Yu-Gi-Oh still is, so it’s not impossible to believe that DDR could be a viable competitive e-sport if it was more readily available to the market and machines were provided for large scale events. Other large gaming companies like Capcom and Bandai Namco have an esports division. There’s the Capcom Pro Tour for Street Fighter V and Tekken World Tour for Tekken 7.

DDR tournaments have been growing at a steady rate in the US with the release of DDR Ace. Machines have been trickling in and each year the events have been consistently growing in size. To put things in perspective, however, machines still exist in less than or maybe half the states in the United States, and the majority of them can probably be found within 5 or 6 of them. Not only that, but the quality of the machine is questionable depending on the knowledge or the amount of care provided by the arcade tech.This kind of ties in with the previous answer that we need more machines or easy ways to play.


David: Absolutely.  Will they do more?  No, for most of the reasons already listed above.  I think we’re stuck in our grassroots for the foreseeable future.


Roger: Konami could definitely do more. Any official communication with the international audience would go a long way. It’s a little frustrating right now because there’s clearly a growing fan base, but we don’t get any attention from above. One of our goals at SF EVOLVED is to make the US scene so powerful that they start engaging with us. I think it’s only a matter of time, but I hope it’s sooner rather than later. 


Steve C.: I think there’s such a major gap between what the community expects in a tournament and what Konami expects in a tournament that it’s probably better as a grassroots effort. While financial support, tech support, or allowing private owners onto eAmuse would be helpful, I don’t expect these things, and I’m sure they’d come with caveats and strings attached (such as KAC rulesets). I don’t know that the community would accept those things. Honestly, the biggest thing Konami could do to help grow the game in North America at this point makes it easier for arcades to purchase cabinets and get them online. More access can only be a good thing.

What is your goal when organizing these events? 

Steven: Because our community is so small in comparison to other communities like the fighting game community due to lack of access, my goal with organizing these events is to keep the community alive. Almost every event that’s run in the US is run by the community itself and comes from our money. We don’t have big sponsors and donations from major gaming companies or corporations. Most people organizing these events are established players who just love the game and our community. They have full-time jobs so anything they do for these events is in their spare time. Because of the nature of the games, I feel that there’s potential for us to become esports, and the recent pairing with dance games at fighting game events has been a ‘marvelous’ way to start on that path.


David: More than anything else, I want people to come out and have a good time.  I think we’ve succeeded with that? It’s really hard as a TO because while the event is going on, you’re completely focused on running the event and making sure things are running smoothly that you can’t really get a pulse on how people are feeling about the event until afterward.  But people keep coming back, so we must be doing something right.

I partly also want to expose high-level play with these games to a larger audience.  I think people have “esports” ambitions with the games, but I think people heavily need to temper expectations, even with the success of events like Big Deal and Storm.  We peaked at 500ish viewers for Big Deal, which is great, but that not even touching the tip of what we’d need to be “esports” viable. We need a larger focus on streaming and the viewing experience for people at home.


Steve C.: My personal long-term goal is to incentivize people to compete more regularly and continue improving at DDR. I truly enjoy running tournaments (more so than competing anymore) and I love the moments that occur. Close matches, come from behind victories, players that are so completely ON that day that they wreck the field, all of it. We’ve made such huge strides in every aspect of tournaments (organization, streaming, efficiency, promotion, etc) over the last 2 years that it’s impossible to predict where we’ll be 2 years from now.


Roger: I want the DDR scene to grow. I think tournaments can accomplish that because they move the game into esports territory and because they’re a great conversation topic with people outside the scene.

When you tell someone outside the scene that you’re heading to a DDR tournament next weekend, you’re legitimizing the game in the wider world. Every single person I know is aware of DDR and that’s not a coincidence. It’s the first thing I mention when people ask about me. And when people walk into Round1 or Dave & Busters and they see a tournament happening, they’re gonna go home and tell somebody about what they saw. This kind of thing is really important for keeping the momentum going. 

I love DDR. My ultimate goal is to help DDR get popular so Konami keeps making it for as long as possible. I want to see the new boss songs when I’m 80 years old and people have MFCd ENDYMION Challenge. I’ve never actually been a very competitive person, but the tournament/esports thing seems like the best way to make that happen. And even if you don’t care much about competing, it brings everyone together. This is what we have to do, so I’m doing it.

A final word (and advice) by Roger on live streams

DDR has always been the sportiest video game, and I think we’re still nowhere near realizing its potential for spectators and esports fans. Live streams are giving us a lot of exposure, and the SF EVOLVED team puts a ton of effort into making sure the streams look and sound professional.

Our rule: every stream has to be better than the last. That means better graphics, upgrading cameras, and video hardware, working on the audio mixing, adding features like the match song list onto the screen, and most importantly: hype commentary. DDR is a difficult game to understand for outsiders, so I want to stress that tournament commentary is absolutely essential for a great live stream.

We’ve learned that the best commentary comes from excitement about the players, attention on the match, and deep knowledge about the game: songs, steps, history, and the people involved. If a match is going on, we need to be talking about what’s happening in the game. Definitely bring your personality, but don’t talk about yourself or your scores, don’t interact with the chat unless you have some downtime, and don’t go off-topic unless there’s nothing happening in the game. Stay focused on what’s important.

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