Dreamhack Melbourne Changed Focus, And It Worked

May 9, 2024

Written by Jamie Galea

When it comes to major gaming events an Australian can go to in any given year, the amount is growing steadily over the last few years. While PAX is the default for most people, and SXSW is an option for people living in New South Wales who can’t make PAX, both of these are much later in the year. Kicking things off however, has been Dreamhack, which has defined itself as the place to go for arena based esports and LAN gaming. This year though, Dreamhack Melbourne aimed to challenge that description.

Instead of Dreamhack Melbourne being purely focused on esports, with the conventional elements of a standard convention (artist alley, an expo hall etc) off to the side, this year felt like the inverse. There were definitely competitive games you could watch, and they were fun to be around for sure, but if you were going to Dreamhack this year, it’s safe to say you were there for the convention itself.

To give you an idea, this was a show that put a lot of emphasis on content creators and VTubers from Hololive over big arena esports. If you’re used to Dreamhacks prior, this sounds like an event going through an identity crisis, one that’s chasing trends to capture newer audiences. The truth of the matter is, it was maybe my favourite Dreamhack to attend yet, and with the resources gone into making the convention side bigger, it’s a promising start for this new direction.

The best way that I can explain the new direction is in how the event used the Rod Laver Arena space. Where in previous years it was divided up into multiple stages, one for esports, the other for panels or other games, this year there was no division. Rod Laver was solely used for the main stage for all the big panels and events, with the floor used as the Dreamhack Expo, where exhibitors could show off wares or try to spruik energy drinks or anime figures or somewhat questionable streaming platforms.

The Expo was something I felt was kinda lacking, because it did feel pretty cramped at times and unless you really wanted to buy anime merch or PC parts, there wasn’t a tonne to really do. Then you had to deal with the fact that if a panel was on, the expo’s volume had to compete with the main stage volume. Granted, any expo hall like this is always going to be loud and noisy, but I think this might’ve been a bit too much to be around.

At the same time, the arena setting made sure that there was plenty of seating if you wanted to catch any of the action on the main stage. While there was floor seating for the ideal experience, particularly if you wanted to participate in Q&A sessions, those seats were always full up, which was encouraging. Though if you didn’t really care to be a part of the panel and just wanted to experience it, the full arena seating was opened up if you wanted to just sit down for a little while and chill for a spell.

Though really, if you wanted to chill out, the best place was the inclusion of a space known as the Cozy Corner, which might genuinely be the low-key best thing about this year’s Dreamhack. I’m always going to be a fan of any convention that acknowledges that people need a space to get away from the noise and bustle of the convention, but I adored how this space was decorated and filled out.

Aside from big beanbags for people to chill out in, low-fi beats provided the exceptionally chill soundtrack required, there were spaces to charge up your devices, a coffee station if you needed a pick up, stations where you could play Stardew Valley or The Sims, and even an honest to god bookshelf with books you could just take and read. The way this space was laid out was so well done that I really want to see more cons just flat out steal and implement this.

Furthering Dreamhack’s convention focus was its artist alley, which might be one of the biggest I’ve ever seen at a local event. Much like with last years show, it took up a part of the concourse in Rod Laver Arena, except now it took up a *lot* more of the concourse, stretching into parts of the Margaret Court concourse. I didn’t get a real measure of distance, but to give you a rough idea, it took around five minutes to solidly get from the start to the end of the alley. Fair to say there was a lot!

Admittedly part of that was because it was packed – I think the biggest issue that having it in a concourse was a natural one: congestion. There were a lot of people in a small space, one I don’t know how you fix that without just moving the Artists Alley to another part of the complex. Yet at same time, there’s a really novelty to it being held in that specific space that I think you’d lose by moving it. It feels like an actual alley as opposed to a standard block of tables you’d see in most cons.

So while the con side of Dreamhack definitely saw the brunt of the focus, that’s not to say there wasn’t a reason to check out the competitive side. For the full weekend, Margaret Court Arena played host to three full days of Counter-Strike, and let me tell you, if you’ve never been around it, I highly urge you to check out arena based Counter-Strike events. Particularly Australian CS events, because they are some of the most hype and fun crowds to just be around.

While I genuinely couldn’t tell you much about the general scene because I don’t follow it as much as I should, being in that crowd is really something. It’s a crowd that wants to banter, not afraid to use rude chants, and generally wants to have a great time. There’s an infectious energy when watching Aussie CS, creating this incredible atmosphere that you’d only get at a big non digital sports event. If you’ve always thought esports, especially at this high of a level, were too corporate and safe, Australian Counter-Strike crowds would very much like to have a word with you.

It also helps that only a small section of Margaret Court Arena was used, which sounds a lot worse than it really is. It made for a far more intimate setting, and it probably looked really good on camera to have a full crowd setting, especially one that was really into what was happening on stage. And it helps that CS is generally an easy game to follow and watch, which is something that a lot of competitive games tend to struggle with. Even if you don’t know the teams or the storylines leading into a given event, being in that space is really something, and one I’d argue is worth the price of admission alone.

That being said, I think maybe the biggest issue, and I wouldn’t even call it that — instead, I’d call it a quibble, was that for a gaming convention, there really wasn’t much to actually…play. Sure, there was a tabletop area, a very tiny freeplay area and a smattering of arcade machines throughout the event, but that’s kinda it.

It’s the one part of Dreamhack that I don’t want to really compare to PAX or SXSW, because I think they each ultimately serve different goals, but if Dreamhack wants to go further down the path of becoming more of a gaming convention, I think this could be better addressed in the future. I get that they can only do so much with the spaces they have access to, and at the very least there’s surveys out that suggest they’ve at least thought about it, but it’s food for thought.

At the end of it all, Dreamhack really did surprise me. I won’t lie, I was initially worried that the show would lose its identity by focusing more on being a general convention, but I’m really happy that wasn’t the case. It certainly made for a different feeling show, and one that was worth checking out, but one that if they’re going down this path, I think still has a few kinks to work out. At the very least, they’re on top of the issue of attendees getting harassed, which is a very encouraging sign.

When he’s not visiting conventions, Jamie can be found on social media at @jamiemgalea, finding new and exciting ways to hang out with people.

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