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The Good, The Bad And The Gaming At Dreamhack Melbourne 2023

12 May 2023 | 11:18 am | Ellie Robinson

For three days, the Melbourne Park precinct was a melting pot of esports, cosplay, art and EDM – a clash of cultures that might sound weird on paper, but made (almost) perfect sense in practice.

28 years after it first launched in Sweden, DreamHack – an annual esports tournament and gaming convention – made its Naarm/Melbourne debut last September. 

Some 21,000 punters convened for the occasion, convincing DreamHack’s parent company, ESL Gaming, to host a second edition just eight months later. The effort was admittedly quite ambitious – especially sandwiched between two similar (and more established) cons, Supanova and the Oz Comic-Con – but it paid off, with just under 26,000 nerds rallying up for round two. 

This year’s DreamHack spanned the weekend of April 28-30 at Naarm’s Melbourne Park precinct. Happenings were split between two of the arenas – Rod Laver and Margaret Court – as well as the CENTREPIECE conference hall. 

Each arena was split in half to house two stages or purpose-built gaming areas: Rod Laver had the main stage and a BYO computer LAN setup, while Margaret Court had a second multi-purpose stage as well as one entirely dedicated to Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) tournaments.

Over at CENTREPIECE, punters could expand their knowledge of gaming culture with a roster of panels, try out choice pieces of tech and game demos, fawn over some of the world’s best cosplayers, or meet some of the esports “athletes” competing across the weekend. 

Also strewn across the grounds were various free-to-play arcade games and live game demos, and along the back end of Rod Laver was the Artist Alley walk – a major highlight of the con, where more than 50 independent artists had their works on display (and available to buy).

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Despite being its biggest drawcard, the gaming element of DreamHack was easily its weakest. We sat in on a few competitive games of CS:GO, League Of Legends and Fortnite, and while the arena setting, giant screens, lighting and live commentary added some atmospheric excitement to the fray, the schtick wore off within a few minutes; on an otherwise dead midweek evening, it can be fun to tune into a Twitch stream and zone out watching someone far more talented than us slay their virtual targets – but at an event like this, when there was so much else to enjoy and actually get involved in, watching other people play video games just felt like a waste of time. 

It also didn’t help that most of those competing in these tournaments had the personalities of stale white bread. 

During the days, we spent most of our time at CENTREPIECE watching the panels. Noise bleed was a major issue here – hectic and loud tech demos were held directly opposite the panel stage (an egregious oversight on behalf of whoever devised the floor plan) – but when we could actually hear them, we were engulfed in engaging discussions about how to build communities on Twitch, how “gamer girls” have carved out their very own corner of the scene, how groups like Team OCE have become household names in esports, and why cosplaying is more than just “dressing up as a character from an anime or video game”. 

On the Sunday (April 30), we sat in on a live taping of the podcast Just Be Cos, where hosts Maia and Jeremy – cosplaying respectively as Dawn and Lucas from Pokémon Diamond and Pearl – led the crowd through a series of interactive games and trivia. 

It was a fun and unique experience, if also deeply unhinged: we fumbled through more trivia questions than we’d care to admit, played rounds of Chinese Whispers that ended terribly every single time, and bested the hosts in all four rounds of a game where we, the crowd, were tasked with hiding plushies among ourselves. 

“We wanted to do something a bit different and a bit more interactive than all the other panels,” Maia told us after the taping, noting that she found it “pretty scary at the start” when the crowd was thin, but relaxed when chairs “really started filling up” around the halfway point. 

She and Jeremy are based in Brisbane, where they “don't really have many cons like this”, but the pilgrimage just adds to the fun: “We try to go to as many as we can,” Maia beams, citing SMASH! (in Eora/Sydney) and PAX (here in Naarm) as the next two on their radar. 

“We love meeting people and being able to connect with other content creators,” she explains. “It's kind of rare to have that in your regular, day-to-day life, so getting together at events like DreamHack and being able to talk about and bond over our passions, it's really exciting.”

Jeremy nods in agreement, adding to the sentiment: “A big thing I’ve noticed is that everybody here is very supportive and very keen to hype each other up. I think for a lot of regular people, they’re like, ‘Ah, Twitch and YouTube, they’re not really viable, streaming isn’t really a big thing.’ But everyone around here is saying, ‘Yes, you can do it, you should give it a try!’ Just being around all that positivity, I think it’s a really nice environment. It's amazing that we can be a part of something like this.”

The notion of “community” at cons like DreamHack is one we ran into frequently. Ren, a pin and charm artist best known online as Chibi Pins, says events like these changed her life: “My first convention would have been about 12 or 13 years ago. I was just out of high school, I loved anime and pop-culture, and I was like, ‘I need to find my family.’ So the first event I went to was Armageddon, and then from there I got into cosplay. Conventions became these incredible safe spaces for creativity, where you can discover things you might be interested in, but that you’ve never seen before, or that you don't come across in your ‘normal’ life.”

Over the years, art has grown to become an immutable part of Ren’s identity. 

Though she originally worked with more traditional mediums, she’s now a full-time vector artist, using Adobe Illustrator to craft her chibi masterpieces with a keyboard and mouse. 

This wasn’t always her plan, however, as she explains: “I have a rare disease [Friedreich's ataxia] that affects my coordination. I used to draw and paint a lot when I was younger, but when I started losing dexterity in my hands, I stopped drawing altogether – for like, years. But about three years ago, just before COVID, I was like, ‘What's Illustrator? What's this ‘vectoring’ thing?’ You know, I couldn’t really hold a pencil, so I tried drawing in Illustrator with a mouse and all the shortkeys, and now I’m kind of back to where I was before – I’m able to explore what’s in my head and make all these things, and it’s just so creatively fulfilling.”

We ended up buying four pins from Ren – a Hylian Sword and Heart Piece (both iconography from The Legend Of Zelda), a shark holding a heart, and a flan with a small bird perched atop it. 

From various other vendors, we bought a total of ten other pins, four acrylic charms, 17 stickers, six art prints, a tote bag, a candle that smells exactly like fresh-baked snickerdoodle cookies, and a pair of handmade felt cat ears… Needless to say, we spent a lot more cash along the Artist Alley than we’d anticipated – but we got to support some of the best underground artists in the country, and add a much-welcomed splash of aesthetic flair to our messenger bags and apartment walls. Very much worth it.

Virtually everyone we spoke to at the end of the walk shared a similar sentiment: they entered Artist Alley with a strict budget and left it having spent at least twice that amount. 

One fellow overspender was Taffa – an Eora-based DJ and producer billed to perform on the Saturday night – who bought “probably like five keychains, and then countless stickers”. She quips that it was “so easy to buy stickers because they take up no room, so I was just mindlessly buying all of them”.

DreamHack was the first con Taffa had ever attended, and for a newbie, she was “really, really impressed”. 

She suspects she was asked to perform because she often DJs virtually in VR clubs like Static and The Mob: “I was like, ‘I'm not really a gamer,’ and the guy acting as my agent was like, ‘Yeah, but you get these people.’ And I was like, ‘…Yeah, I suppose I do.’ It’s very exciting to take that into the real world – I feel like every time I get to do stuff IRL, I’m kind of representing the online scene with me.”

Taffa’s set oscillated between breakbeat, hardstyle and hyperpop – an eclectic palette of ultra-saturated colours tailored specially for DreamHack. “I was thinking about the fact that there was a LAN party happening behind me,” she said. “I was like, ‘Okay, what is gamer music?’ I didn’t want to play anything too slow, but I also didn’t want to play anything that was too distracting.”

Now that she’s ticked a gaming con off her bucket list, Taffa’s sights are set on the holy grail of niche cultural events: the almighty furry convention. “One of my all-time biggest goals has been to DJ at a furry con,” she declares. 

“I didn't really play any breakcore at [DreamHack], but a lot of the breakcore I play online is made by furries, furries make the most buckwild shit – like, the best shit. Remember, if you could do it, a furry could do it better.”

While DreamHack was void of any furry DJs, there were some floating around with the cosplayers. As for the rest of the live music program, we caught sets from EDM heavyweights like Mashd N Kutcher, Brambles, Luke Million, Godlands and Foura. 

They all looked and sounded phenomenal with Rod Laver’s bone-rattling sound system and DreamHack’s purpose-built futuristic visuals – but thin crowds and a general lack of hype took away from the experience. It seemed as though the con's live music component was an afterthought – the crossover appeal would stick much better if more acts (and a broader variety of them) were booked to perform throughout the day.

All in all, this year’s DreamHack showed that ESL still have some teething issues to work out – particularly the over-crammed CENTREPIECE layout and the middling live music program – but the con has enormous potential, and the uptick in attendance is promising. 

If more sections of Melbourne Park were utilised to space out the installations and diversify their programming, next year’s DreamHack could very well be the biggest gaming convention in the country.