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  • James Willis, Jr., / Jim Willis

When Games Become too Real: Why Event Security is a Must

Updated: Dec 1, 2022

The Sunday afternoon of August 26th seemed to be just like any other weekend day at the Jacksonville Landing in Florida. A local pizza restaurant and game bar was hosting the second day of a Madden video game tournament. Game enthusiasts from all over the country were enjoying what by all accounts was a fun “eSports” event like many they had attended before. But that all changed when one of the competitors, David Katz, a 24-year-old from Baltimore MD, who had just been eliminated from the competition, retrieved a handgun from his car, reentered the restaurant and opened fire. Before he turned the gun onto himself, he had injured 11 people and murdered 2; 22 year old Elijah Clayton of California and 28 year old Taylor Robertson of West Virginia.

This shooting incident highlights just how lethal the unintended consequences of poor event security planning and preparation can be. It can be called an unintended consequence because no one deliberately sets the stage for such carnage or intends to allow an angry & irrational misanthrope to open fire at unsuspecting attendees. However, the lack of security planning and preparation does just that. It is your responsibility as the host of an event, any event, to ensure that it takes place in a secure environment as possible. And face it, coming up with an after-the-fact security plan is useless.

Though eSports, the name given to competitive video gaming, is mainly the realm of the “under 35” demographic, there are striking similarities between the video gaming tournament and events hosted by electric co-ops, utilities, and corporations.

It may not be easy to see the similarities at first glance, but look closely. For example, when compared to an electric co-op annual meeting, it’s easy to see that the attendees have similar characteristics. Many of those in the video gaming community know each, either personally or through their online interaction and persona . They tend to be somewhat clannish, with their own culture, and sense of community; i.e. - who’s a part of the group and who's not, with corresponding friendships and rivalries.

Compare this with the co-op members that attend annual meetings. Almost everyone is a “local”, and many attendees knowing each other personally with some being related to each other, or lifelong friends. Many have similar socioeconomic backgrounds and like gamers, they have a strong sense community, who belongs and who doesn’t. In such an environment, disagreements and issues can flair up quickly with unanticipated intensity.

Video game eSports events tend to have very lax security. At the Jacksonville incident, the pizza restaurant where the tournament was taking place had plainly advertised the fact that the location is a “gun free zone”. But in reality these signs are advertisements, not security; they do nothing to prevent such incidents from taking place.

It is our understanding that there was no armed security presence, and no plans for handling such a contingency in place. What little, if any, unarmed security element that was present wasn't prepared or equipped to deal with the unfolding crisis. In post event interviews, many of the professional gamers have mentioned that they have long believed that the lack of security at these events was a problem. Like at any sporting event or competition where money, egos, and reputation are on the line, tempers flare with little provocation with people holding long-lasting grudges. Remember, people do take things very personally.

What is the take-way?

  • First, make sure that security is a priority in your event planning and preparation.

  • Second, avoid “linear thinking” when developing your security plans and “expect the unexpected”.

  • Third, consider drawing on the expertise of an external security expert - it'll be worth it if a crisis develops.

It’s impossible to know just what a shooter is thinking or exactly what they’ll do once they decide to act. In preparing your security countermeasures you have to take into account that shooters seldom use linear thinking. This adds an “unknown element”, or variable if you will, into the mix that makes it impossible to predict just how an event will unfold with complete accuracy. For example, the “unknown” element of the Jacksonville incident was the shooter's victim selection. The shooter, David Katz, had lost two rounds of the game on that second day of the tournament to two different people, however, when he returned with his gun, he didn’t target the two individuals that had just beaten him. He literally walked past one of them, and even made eye contact with him, but he didn’t shoot at him. Instead he kept going deeper into the building looking for targets. It’s still not clear how or why Katz chose the victims that were shot.

That’s part of makes the shooting incidents like this so terrifying. How do you stop an attack that doesn’t appear to have a clear motive or objective? - You have to have plan for multiple contingencies and then prepare and implement effective security before an incident takes place.

In the Jacksonville incident it is easy to see the lack of security in planning and preparation, such as:

  • The lack of entry security to recognize the imminent danger that he posed, or to stop, or at least delay, his entering the event with a weapon.

  • The absence of security protocols to prevent him from getting close to gamers who were actively participating in competition and were live-streaming at the time of the shooting.

  • The lack of security countermeasures to mitigate the damage and limit the carnage.

This is where security planning, preparation, and personnel, and security trained event staff could have possibly made a difference. Of course, it’s impossible to say with certainty that they could have prevented his getting the gun into the restaurant. In fact, shooters are often first seen with their weapons outside their targeted location yet are still able to gain entry. However, had security personnel been deployed strategically throughout the event when the firing began, perhaps steps could have been taken to mitigate the damage and maybe prevented some, if not all, of the 11 people from being injured and possibly saved the 2 killed.

Just because your utility or corporate event hasn’t had a violent or lethal incident is no guarantee that it one will not take place. Just as video game tournaments are not known to be unruly, violence-laden events, people can and will act in with unexpected aggression.

Special events and meetings, even those will long histories of nonviolence, are vulnerable to unpredictable violence and even outlandish post-event retaliatory action. Take for example the 2010 Auburn Tree Poisoning incident. The University of Alabama and the Auburn University's football teams have been meeting each year in the famous “Iron Bowl” rivalry for over 120 years. Every year, passions run high, and team pride is on the line, yet most seasons the rivalry passes by without a major incident. However, in the fall of 2010 after Alabama's loss to Auburn, one "Bama" fan reacted aggressively. On the weekend after the game, lifelong Bama fan Harvey Updyke drove from his home to Auburn, Alabama and poisoned two historic trees located at Toomer’s Corner that were considered sacred to the Auburn fans. Updyke then called into a major sports radio show and bragged about the action. If you’re an official at Auburn, how do you predict that? Nobody had ever actually done something like that in a century, so why now?

What could have been done to prevent the attack? Well, in reality you can't clearly predict such actions, but by engaging outside expertise to assist with security planning and preparation will help you see vulnerabilities that you may miss and help limit your exposure to attack.

To a security expert, the idea that the trees, a symbol of Auburn pride, were vulnerable to attack was obvious and heightened security and surveillance for a period following the historic win would have been warranted.

This is the unknown threats to your event that you have to prepare for. Event security planning and preparation is now a must. And seeking outside expertise is often a smart move, and may be the most important countermeasure you can take.

Remember, security planning and preparation is like a seat belt, it will be too late to engage in it after danger strikes.

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