Jordi Roig of RFRSH: "We have an open dialogue with Valve, they don't want everything ending up in the hands of one company"
We talked to Jordi Roig, VP of Commercial Development and Partnerships at RFRSH Entertainment, about BLAST Pro Series, Astralis, and some of the hot topics surrounding the tournament organizer and its team.
We had the chance to sit down with RFRSH Entertainment's VP of Commercial Development and Partnerships, Jordi Roig, who was also the first person hired by RFRSH during the time it was starting to set up its Counter-Strike team, Astralis, and tournament circuit, BLAST Pro Series.
(Photo courtesy of RFRSH Entertainment)
In the interview, we went over the allegations of a conflict of interest as Astralis competes in a tournament circuit ran by their parent company, RFRSH Entertainment, the partnership system in BLAST Pro Series, and had a discussion about open and closed circuits, as well as the always threatening exclusivity deals and what Valve thinks about them, among other topics which can be read in the interview below.
Let's get right into it, a lot of accusations have been flying around about Astralis prioritizing BLAST events over other tournament organizers...
That's easy, the 2019 season has seven teams, seven partnered teams, and those seven teams have to play five out of the seven tournaments we're putting together. We're currently working on a schedule with the teams and every team chooses which tournaments they want to play in or don't want to play in. In a week or so, I hope the calendar will be locked for all teams and all tournaments until the end of the year.
There's no preferential treatment, what we want is that when the team comes to play these events they're fresh and ready to compete. We don't advocate for them to play too much, like what happened with MIBR now, who traveled to China, then Brazil, then back to China, now Miami... That's hurting them a lot. They don't have time to practice, to relax, and we're not seeing the best version of that team now. We want strong and competitive teams, and we want teams that look out for that.
That's why our format is short, they come on Wednesday and leave on Sunday, and with seven tournaments—of which they only have to play five—, it's good for us because we have teams rotating. The teams are happy because they don't have to play every single one of the tournaments to be a partner. When people criticize what we're doing it's because they don't know what's happening, but in a week we'll have the calendar for the whole season and everyone will see that Astralis won't be at two of the tournaments, FaZe won't be at two of the tournaments, and so on.
Another one of the topics being talked about is that RFRSH has a closed circuit that only certain teams can get into...
There are seven partnered teams and five of them play every tournament, with the exception of Miami where we were in a bit of a rush. ENCE were invited to São Paulo, there's a play-in for Madrid with the best Iberian teams, and we're not sure yet what will happen with the wild card in Los Angeles, but we'd like to have a play-in for it. For another one of the autumn tournaments, our local partners are putting together a pretty big play-in, and we're using 2019 to see how we can use these qualifiers and play-ins to create substance wherever we hold events. In Brazil, for example, we're already talking about how we will do it in 2020. We have a whole year to establish it, and it's a country with a giant talent pool and we want to give them an opportunity.
If you look around, everything is through invites. I remember when Heroic was a part of our organization, we had to be calling tournament organizers all of the time to try and get invites and so on...
Right, but if you take certain leagues that have finals and relegation systems or tournaments that have regional qualifiers, that makes the circuit a bit more open. BLAST is a smaller circuit, it's more closed.
We want to create a circuit that has substance and we want to create consistency around the teams that participate in this circuit. We're working amongst ourselves and with the partnered teams, and we have a pretty defined agreement with the teams on how to work together to make this circuit work.
In 2019, it is the way it is, for 2020 we're still in talks with the teams to see how to do it, if we'll add more teams to participate, or what we'll do. In 2019 it's a consistent circuit with seven tournaments leading to the global finals. We're also using this year to try different play-in systems that will bring us more teams. In Brazil, the invitation went to the team that did well at the Major, but our goal is to always have the best teams in our circuit.
Right, so you're starting to do a lot of tournaments with these teams, with whom you have agreements, don't you think that will affect the way they now see other tournaments? For instance, several of your partners are not going to DreamHack Masters, which could make one think that since they're going to be in Miami, and Madrid, and wherever else there are BLASTs, they will start to skip some of the other events...
Yeah... But if you look at it the other way, if they play DreamHack, then they wouldn't play BLAST, so what I prefer is that the best teams play in our tournament.
Historically, in Counter-Strike, there have been people trying to take control and be the hegemonic power in the scene...
We have seven tournaments, every team is playing five. One tournament is Wednesday to Sunday. That's five weekends out of the 52 in a year. We don't occupy a lot of space, we don't have online leagues or two-week tournaments. If you count the days, we really don't occupy much time at all. Astralis will play five weekends out of the 52 in the year. Compared to a lot of the other stuff out there, we really don't take up much of the teams' time, and the teams themselves are happy that we offer to only play five out of seven tournaments because that gives them some freedom to relax or go to other events.
I don't think it's our fault that some of the teams choose to play our tournaments, it's my job to make a tournament that they like and want to play in, that both the players and the organization owners feel like is something good for their careers and their brands. I think that what happened with DreamHack is their problem, I'm never going to condemn a team that doesn't want to play our events. If they don't want to, then they can go play elsewhere. As I said before, we'll have two tournaments where each of the partners won't play, just like NiP isn't in Miami, Cloud9 wasn't in São Paulo, and that's how it will go.
Yes, I think the fear is more around exclusivity, is that something you're looking for?
Not right now, no. What we're trying to do is create a stable circuit and we just ask teams to play five weekends per year. We're trying to make a good product and we're pretty happy. It was a great tournament with a great crowd in Brazil, the country revels in esports and I think that's what the industry needs. We don't need half-dead tournaments with no excitement for the crowd. Our focus is on creating entertainment, and that's what we want to do at our tournaments, and we want them to be competitive.
I've read people say that our tournament isn't serious and so on, but this tournament is really hard to win. Every round counts, the team that qualified for the final in Brazil, Liquid, it was because of the rounds... FaZe and Liquid are in the final in Miami and could have an eight hour day, playing up to six maps, and if you're not prepared you're not going to win. We do the veto process early, we're doing it two weeks before the event in Madrid so that teams have time to put in work, and the one who works the most, can win.
We want to try and take the random aspect out, we want the best to win, and Astralis as the best team in the world only won 3. When MIBR won as SK they were #2 in the world, when Na`Vi won they were #2... so to say that it's a joke of a tournament, I don't really think it's true. If you look at the way we're running the circuit, with the points leading to the global finals, imagine how hard it is to have this competitive continuity during the whole season. In Counter-Strike, teams tend to have a couple of good months, then a couple of bad months, and here if you have a couple of bad months you could miss out on the global finals. We're demanding with our teams...
More demanding in what sense?
For example, if you don't work on the maps from the vetos before the matches for the next tournament, if you don't study your rivals, you're giving your opponents an advantage. Every map matters, and every round matters. We want it to be about talent, but we also want to see work and discipline, which is something that you need in traditional sports, and we want to create the conditions so that the most talented team that also works the hardest wins.
But is that ideal, to make it that stressful?
It's not about stress, it's about making the competition hard. Take the Tour de France, you could ask "do they have to go up so many mountains?" Well, the more mountains they have to go up, the more you can see who really is the best. What we want to do is push so that it is always the best team who wins because if not the competition becomes more like some Disney story.
But the Major format, for example, the Swiss best-of-three with the seedings and the ELO rating... That was a tournament that really got some of the best results as far as getting the best teams deep into the tournament and finishing more or less in the place they belong. So having a longer tournament, with more best-of-three matches, I think makes it less random.
Yeah, but you have to take into consideration that the product has to be good for the fans, as well, and the public doesn't consume that many hours of Counter-Strike. What we're trying to get is a format that will allow the crowd to enjoy the tournament, and it is both for those who are used to watching esports and those who aren't. The event in Copenhagen is a good example, you see families there, mothers, young people, a big mix, and everyone is enjoying the event.
What we've been able to do is attract new viewership, and that's what this industry needs to justify the investments that are being made in salaries, tournaments, etc. It needs a bigger audience. I know there are purists saying that things can't be touched and the best thing is having a best-of-five final or whatever... but, seven hours? If you start to look at audience engagement, there is way more audience in other formats.
I love football, I love watching El Clásico, but not seven hours of it. So what we're trying to do is create a format that works for those who really like Counter-Strike, so we have the best-of-three final, but we also want a format that is open to new audiences coming to events and saying, "oh, wow, this is really interesting, what's going on?" So basically, to have a more American sports event feel.
This is our sixth tournament, and we'll get better and better and we'll try new things. For example, in Brazil, we changed the stand-off map to a more fun map because the players told us that they didn't really like the old map. So we work with the teams, we hear their feedback and what to change or not. Every Thursday before the tournament we have a meeting with all of the players and last Thursday a lot of the conversation was about how the format can evolve and so on, so we're in a phase in which we're trying to get better. We're not saying what we have is perfect, because it's not, but it's the best we've been able to get so far. We want a strong competition in which the best team wins, but we also want entertainment for large audiences, be it on their screens at home or at the stadium. I think when the calendar comes out people will be able to see that everything is fair, and when the qualifiers start with the play-ins and so on, that makes it pretty open.
Well, just for one team per event, though...
Yeah, one qualifier, or one invited team, we're trying out formats, but in Spain there are now five teams playing to be able to be a part of BLAST. That creates a certain expectation, it gives them a circuit and the fans will be watching to see who makes it into the event. When we picked this six-team format instead of 16 or 12 teams, we did it because whoever buys a ticket for the event has to be able to see their team play in the stadium.
We've seen things like Virtus.pro not making it to the stadium at Katowice, so you have 15,000 people there that want to see their team, but they don't get to. Stuff like that happens a lot, and we didn't want to do things that way. So yeah, okay, we only have six teams, but we have six teams that will play on stage in front of the crowd, and having seven partners and seven tournaments with wildcards, we'll see these seven teams plus others that will be working with us. Next year, we'll see what happens. We demand a lot from teams, we want them to work...
What is it you demand?
A lot of promotion. They have to promote their matches, and we have very strong organizations here like Liquid, FaZe, Cloud9... with huge means to promote themselves. We don't need them to talk about BLAST, but at least share their own matches with their fans. In Brazil, MIBR worked a lot with us because they were the home team. We'll see who the home team is in Los Angeles, one of the American organizations, and we'll do some extra stuff with them so they also have an extra platform to work with their sponsors and their fans and so on.
The teams have to be competitive, and we have a clause for that in the contract, if they can't be competitive they will not play the season, and then we have stuff regarding branding and promotion. We're incredibly happy with Liquid, for example, they work very well and they've done well promoting this event. Na`Vi is working on promoting their participation in Madrid, and this is a way for all of us to increase the viewership together, which benefits everyone.
In the long run, let's say you grow, and you grow a lot, will that cause conflicts with the other players in the market?
No, not conflict. As we tend to say, if we make great tournaments with big audiences, like São Paulo, that benefits everyone. When we started in Copenhagen with TV production and 12,000 people in the stadium, that positively affected the ESL Pro League Finals that were in Odense a few weeks later. If we would have made a boring tournament with no crowd and delays, people would have asked themselves, "this is esports?" And they would not have given it another chance.
We see there's a move towards more entertainment and more seriousness in making something more than just putting up a screen with people playing the game. Organizers need to be responsible for the experience that the audience has since they have chosen to spend their time and money on what we do. We have to be very respectful of that, and we need to give the audience everything we can because if not they won't return, they'll go to a football match or they'll watch Netflix or go to the movies...
But don't you think that the core crowd that has been supporting the game all of these years, they may not like this new format?
You go to a lot of events, right? And I've gone to a lot as well. The first thing I noticed was that the crowds weren't huge...
Well, it depends where you go, you have the Colognes, Katowices, the Majors...
Yeah, and we're happy with the audiences there, but I think there's more out there. When people talk about saturation... How many Bundesliga matches are there? And then you have Ligue 1, La Liga, the Premier League, etc. Look at how many matches go on and people are watching. Here we talk about one tournament in one place, another tournament in another place, and the venues are half empty... A lot needs to improve, and that's our idea, to offer something better for the crowd and to try and attract larger audiences.
So far it has gone pretty well, we're happy with our numbers, and our numbers on the screens. I've worked in entertainment, I've done opera, football, musicals, and the importance never lies on the stage or the pitch, what matters is what is happening inside the hearts of the spectators, and the emotions you can create. It's not about what you say or do, it's about the emotions you create in the audience. That's the product.
I've brought sponsors to some of the tournaments, and when they start to do this [pulls out phone and starts swiping], that's when you know you've lost them. I've been to tournaments where a local team was playing the final and the outer ring of the stadium was full of people who were doing other stuff instead of watching them play. For me, for us, things can be done better, and that's what we're trying to do, to make people think "OK, it's nice to spend seven hours here," and the mothers won't be as focused or whatever, but that's why we use a lot of content explaining the game and what's going on, for the new audiences, to open the door and say "welcome."
You can see on the HUD, with the full buy bar, all of this stuff, we're putting it in so people can understand what is going on better. If you understand what's going on, your experience is much better, your emotions are stronger. When I started, I had no idea what was going on, and now I'm trying to understand more and more. If you watch an F1 race, for example, if you don't know that they only have a few engines per year, how the tires work, the strategic side when planning a race, if you don't get all of that, it's boring, then all you see are cars going around in circles, and what we're trying to do is create new audiences without losing the core audience that is already there.
Well, that's the key. How do you bring new people and keep what has always been the game's core audience happy?
Well, that's what we're trying to do, to be respectful of the traditions that are already there, and that's why we traveled and visited a lot of players and teams, we talked to everyone and heard their feedback. This product comes from a lot of feedback from a lot of players telling us what they like and what they don't like, and one of our core values is being authentic. We also like to put in easter eggs, and we try to be loyal to the spirit of the game, but we also want to try and push this format in a way that makes it more easily consumable for a larger audience. We don't answer a lot of the criticism we get...
But do you think some of this criticism is at least grounded on something? When people talk about Astralis prioritizing BLAST tournaments, for example?
Yeah, but the thing is what I said before, they have the same as the six other teams in the circuit, they play five out of seven tournaments and don't play the other two...
And you don't think it's unfair that only seven teams have a chance to reach the global finals?
But you've seen the teams they are?
Sure, some of the best teams in the world...
It's not so much about missing but take ENCE for example, a team that looks like they could be one of the best in the world. Imagine that in a couple of months they are still one of the best in the world, but they're out of this...
Yeah, it's a format that's pretty typical. If you take F1, for example, you can say it's unfair that I can't be in it, but maybe if I go to them and I talk to them and I have a good proposal, they let me in next year. If you want to play in the MLS it's the same, you have to make a proposal and say "hey, this is everything I can bring to the table, so wouldn't it be better if we played the league?" We don't have a closed circuit, it's semi-closed, because we do have the seven teams, but we're trying to have the flavor of the month with the wild card, and we do want a format in which the teams that come to play our tournaments are invested in playing our tournaments and we want to be invested in making them grow.
Let's say a good team is not a part of the circuit and they come along and pitch themselves to you, would you consider them?
Yes, of course. We would take their competitive level and their strength as a brand into consideration. I have a bunch of pitches from teams and we're already in conversation with teams that want to play our tournaments. We want to have the best teams, competitively, but also concerning the way the players behave, how the brands work—and not for us, but for themselves. It's something you can see in the NBA, every team works with their own fanbase, but that fanbase can also be valid for the rest of the league, as well. So it's great for the team, but also for the platform. Having MIBR in Brazil, Astralis in Denmark, that brings in fans and audiences, it brings fans for the players and sponsors for the teams.
When Astralis won the Major in Atlanta, then lost in Las Vegas against Virtus.pro... we haven't known anything about Virtus.pro since then, and that's why we have that clause, we want the best teams, and if suddenly they're not, then we have to see what's going on.
And you're going to do this seasonally?
Yes, seasonally. The first one is all of 2019 and we're open to trying a lot of new things, to see how it works... we're listening to the partnered teams, we're also talking to teams that are not partners, and we'll see what will happen in 2020, but it's not going to be the same thing because we will have a learned a lot of things and we will have the possibility to make things better, which is always what we're after.
If you look at the NBA, they have a best practices guide where teams share information, and we're talking to the teams to see if there's a way we can also make that happen here. So let's say Liquid finds something that works really well, they can share it to make the other six teams become stronger, and if we can all share, both about the competition and the commercial aspects, we'll be able to get everyone growing together.
There's one thing that moves this whole industry, and it's just one thing, and that's the number of eyes watching. Everything revolves around that number, around what the audience is going to spend on Coca-Colas, cars, insurances, whatever, but the whole value we can create comes from there. So what we have to do as teams, players, tournament organizers, is work so that more people come and see us because the more people come, the larger everyone's revenues will be. We're not going to fight over the crumbs on the table, we'll work together to have a meal that everybody can eat from.
But the problem is that at some point someone could try to keep the whole pie, which we saw the PEA try to do just last year, for example.
That's why we're not exclusive, and I'll repeat it. Five weeks a year, five days per week, do the maths...
Yeah, I don't mean that it's happening right now, but maybe it starts like this and ends differently.
We have a very open dialogue with Valve and they don't want everything in CS:GO ending up in the hands of one company, they're not interested in that.
And I think it's legitimate and probably why people get defensive about it, what made CS:GO work is that it’s an open circuit, you personally were able to come in when there were already people invested in the game.
Because Astralis started to play well.
But you could put tournaments together and run them even if Astralis don't play well.
Sure, that's true, and it will be that way, and it will stay that way, but if you start a team you have a really long way to the top. You have to get favors to get into small tournaments and so on. Before starting BLAST, with Heroic and GODSENT, I remember how much they worked to try and get into tournaments. It wasn't open to everyone.
Well, it depends...
If you're good, yes.
Exactly. If you're a team and you're good, or if you're a tournament organizer and you have the resources and the money, then you're welcome to join and if you have what it takes there's nothing standing in your way... There's no Riot telling you how things have to work.
Yeah, that's true, it depends what angle you look at it from, if you're a team or an organizer, but the truth is that ENCE wouldn't have played one of our events if they weren't good. They were second at the Major, and then they played a BLAST.
And they came out of nowhere.
So yeah, they can come to BLAST and it's not closed. We're also in talks with teams like Vitality, Renegades, NRG...
Right, but they can't make the finals, so in a way it is closed, they're not a partner.
Yeah, not for this season.
But they could be in the future?
Yeah, if they meet all of the requirements and we see that it's good for both them and us and we can reach an agreement, our doors are open. Not this season, because it's underway, and we're trying other things with the wild cards, the play-ins, and there's some interesting stuff coming in Autumn. One of our partners wants to create a pretty big tournament and have the winner take the sixth spot, which is interesting for us and we're fighting for it to happen. We'll see, but I like this way of doing things because what we see right now in the open circuit as it is, is that local and national tournaments don't have the weight they could have. We share this vision with Valve, as well.
In Spain, for example, you have LVP, which is a good, strong league, and it's run by people who know what they're doing. That doesn't exist in every country, but if we do similar things in Portugal, and Brazil, then you start to have some structures that resemble the Bundesliga, La Liga, etc.
You'll laugh, but I'm from Denmark and there's a football league there. People go watch the matches, and if I watch one of the Danish league matches and I change channels and I see Leo Messi, it's a waste of time because they're very bad comparatively. But people still go to the stadium because their father was from this or that team or they followed them since they were little... it creates emotions, and creating that national league system with play-ins into BLAST, which is the reward in itself for the small team... it's like the Danish league winner going to the Champions League, or at least going into a play-in to make it to the Champions League. They have the chance to play against teams like Barcelona and Manchester United. They may not make it, but they have the chance, and that gives value to the Danish national league. That's the system we're trying out this season.
We're not going to run any national leagues because we can't do that much, but we can definitely get partners like LVP to create structures that we believe are good for the growth of the ecosystem. Then it will be more open, teams can play national leagues and from there aspire to play internationally in leagues like ours, or like ESL Pro League, ECS, etc. I'm happy they're starting to eliminate all of the online stuff because that's where we really see some terrible, terrible numbers that are destructive for the whole ecosystem, and that's something you don't want to see. That's something we also wanted to eliminate with this format.