How did the Poles overtake Red Bull and organize a world championship in escape rooms?
Even with a huge budget, you can fail by organizing a competition in a field that is specific, niche, and that needs to be well understood. Escape rooms are definitely such a field. An entertainment that globally emerged only a dozen years ago has already seen a sports movement. Red Bull was the first to organize such championships, but it is now the Poles who are behind the most popular games.
The escape room discipline has grown, matured, and evolved and has developed to the point where a sports movement has already taken shape within it. Highly motivated players form their own teams, train regularly by visiting dozens or even hundreds of rooms each year and compete with each other against the time.
- This is a whole new category of 'athlete'. There are few disciplines in which players have to demonstrate both cleverness, the ability to solve logical and analytical puzzles, and manual skills. Both physical and mental agility count. Apparently, something like this has been missing, because in just a few years we have gone from a quiet online competition consisting of publishing our times from specific escape rooms to an international competition with up to 3,000 participants every year - says Bartosz Idzikowski from Lock.me, the organizer of the ER Champ international competition.
The first to recognize the potential of this field was Red Bull, which back in 2017 organized the first world championship called Red Bull Mind Gamers. The competition was organized with flair, the utmost professionalism, a grand finale in Budapest, and a team led by Scott Nicholson, professor of game design and development at Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada, was hired as consultants. A total of 3 editions have been held, the last in 2019, which have been year after year.... less and less popular.
Eventually, Red Bull abandoned the project, and global competition came to the fore with the ER Champ competition organized by the Poles, which evolved from the Polish championships. As the most experienced escape room enthusiasts note, the reason for the regression of the former competitions and the expansion of the latter comes down to an understanding of the core of the competition that teams are engaged in with each other. The first, elimination stage of Mind Gamers played online was based on 'single player'. Each participant solved tasks on his or her own, qualified, and only then were teams of four players formed with sufficiently good scores. The teams thus formed competed in the national local qualifiers.
- Escape rooms are a team sport. It can be said that teams form a single organism in which each player has a specific, irreplaceable role. Reaching out and knowing each member of the team is therefore crucial here. In the case of Mind Gamers, this foundation of competition has been removed and replaced by a completely new formula. This would probably work well if it were a competition simply in puzzles. But escape rooms are so much more than that and that team element is, in my opinion, absolutely essential - says Jakub Caban, Lock.me co-owner.
Recipe for success: go to the roots
Red Bull did everything right at first glance. The competition had an extraordinary setting, with competitors from virtually all over the world taking part. It was also very attractive for spectators, who were able to follow the competition stationary and online in real-time. On the organizational side, it was downright exemplary. It is fair to say that the project crashed into the format of the competition and the nuances that differed from how teams compete on a daily basis. In the semi-finals and finals of Mind Gamers, there was already a format based on the escape room model and gameplay that resembled traditional games as much as possible. However, at that time the teams were assigned to one of 8 groups of 3 teams each, which played their games at different times (similar to the World Cup), and in the semi-finals, the teams' times were not published, only their order. This resulted in missing the most authoritative comparison and the identification of the actually fastest teams.
An integral part of escape rooms is also the storyline. Puzzles, tasks, and challenges are in turn the way to discover and complete them. ER Champ has developed this area very strongly and every year the elimination stage has its own story - for example, the story of a young IT specialist single-handedly struggling to maintain the servers needed to... organize an escape room championship.
In recent years, the competition has attracted around 2,000 to 3,000 participants from countries ranging from Japan, Hungary, Poland, and Germany to the USA, Canada or Chile. During the pandemic period, all stages - including the semi-finals and finals - were played online, but this still did not result in a decline in the popularity of the competition. However, already in 2023, the final will be held stationary in Wroclaw, Poland on October 7th.
- I've been extremely impressed with ER Champ's approach to the online tournament over the past few years. Back in the Red Bull days, I was involved in many discussions about what the ideal online escape room competition might look like, and I have to say that your approach has checked all the boxes. While there were many ideas out there, the main features we all agreed on were things like having everyone compete simultaneously in real time to prevent any cheating and making the experience feel as much as possible like a real in-person experience both in terms of puzzles and multi-player interactions. Beyond that, I think that ER Champ has become the de facto escape room world championship because in addition to having an excellent product that ticks all those boxes, but also, because it has had such a low barrier to entry which allows people from all over the world to participate on a level playing field - says Rich Bragg, a participant in both Mind Gamers and ER Champ and creator of the largest global escape room ranking Top Escape Rooms Project.
The history of ER Champ can be heartening for fans of niche disciplines facing budget and organizational shortfalls. The competition was non-commercial from the start, with an entry threshold open to basically everyone, prepared in their spare time - and yet it has proven to be an international success, growing steadily over the past six years. It also shows what potential there is in niches. All the time, there are more and more disciplines that at first glance seem heavily underground, but once their enthusiasts are brought together under one initiative, a whole, global community is revealed.