ERChamp Vs. Red Bull

A recent article on Escape.Buzz compares the Red Bull Escape Room Championship to ERChamp. As someone who has been close to both, I feel the need to offer my own insights on the phenomena observed in the article- namely that ERChamp as a volunteer-driven activity continue to grow while the big budget Red Bull competition shut down after only 2-3 years.

To open off, I need to admit something: I was a latecomer to both ERChamp and Red Bull Mind Gamers- 2019 for both. I only participated in Red Bull Mind Gamers in the event’s final year and didn’t hear about the Red Bull escape room tournament until well after the events were done. I first heard of ERChamp slightly afterward- through someone I met at Red Bull Mind Gamers.

In the bigger picture, it’s also important to note Mind Gamers and the Red Bull Escape Room Championship were part of a larger initiative from Red Bull. Clearly someone at Red Bull wanted to stake an early claim in the next “eSports.” As part of the project, Red Bull managed an impressive Rubik’s Cube league and several video game tournaments under the same umbrella. I was very surprised to see Red Bull’s Rubik’s tournament ended in 2021- it felt like of all their projects that one was getting the most mainstream interest. It even got a Netflix documentary!

My experience with Red Bull tells a lot about what happened to their venture into “mind games.” The events for the year consisted of a series of open-ended challenges, e.g. “describe how you would use X list of items to get a train past a killer robot.” Red Bull picked three finalists from each round and then public voting decided the winner. All winners were invited to a week long summit at MIT Game Lab featuring guest speakers from NASA.

The event was a lot of fun, but its design showed some of the same flaws Jakub described about the Red Bull escape room championship. The selection of the finalists was a tad subjective, and the public voting was a disaster. The interface didn’t work well and had periods in which voters could vote for themselves an unlimited number of times. One of the other winners confessed to me later that nearly all his votes were votes he cast for himself. For my part, I didn’t vote multiple times, but I did aggressively campaign to friends and family to sign up and cast votes. It was no longer about the “mind game” but rather an exercise in endurance, ethics, and politics.

The prize itself also spoke to some of the challenges Red Bull had managing the program. The main thread tying together the week-long event was for the winner group to put together our proposal for what Red Bull should do with the program. We had a brilliant team, and I’ve made some lasting friends from the event, but we received no guidance as to Red Bull’s ultimate objective. Looking at Red Bull’s portfolio of projects, it seemed to me that they wanted to develop some kind of competitive thought arena, something that could eventually be a spectator event, but the event hosts seemed one layer removed from the objectives and couldn’t comment. We ended up designing a pitch for a puzzle game about a mouse in outer space- it was a really fun concept and a blast to design, but I wasn’t surprised when it didn’t get the green light from Red Bull’s program manager. That was the end of the Red Bull Mind Gamers program.

I shouldn’t hold the late missteps of the Mind Gamers program against some of the earlier projects. On paper, the idea of setting up an escape room championship by engaging known experts in the industry sounds like a solid bet. Somehow, though, as someone who solved an escape room in every US state in 2018, I didn’t hear about the event until 2019. If I didn’t hear about it, I can’t imagine how anyone who isn’t addicted to escape rooms would have.

Jakub did a good job summarizing reasons for why ERChamp has been successful in contrast to the Red Bull events. ERChamp really nails the fundamentals of the competition. I don’t think the average player understands exactly how much the designers care about making a level playing field and providing a stable, positive experience. It’s a far cry from the broken voting system that picked the winners in the Red Bull event. I would also add that ERChamp is set up to be fun and rewarding for participants who don’t expect to win the whole event.

I wish that Red Bull’s Mind Gamers program and escape room tournament would have survived and that more events like it would catch on. That’s another reason to be appreciative for ERChamp: with ERChamp, we have a solid cornerstone for testing and growing the world of competitive puzzle solving.

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