BLAST Director of Product Nicolas Estrup: "We cannot solely rely on rankings to determine who participates when we're thinking long-term"
While at BLAST Pro Series Global Finals, we sat down with BLAST's Director of Product and Experience, Nicolas Estrup, who shed more light on the tournament organizer's revamped seasonal format for 2020 and the recently announced partnered teams.
During the Bahrain event, BLAST revealed more details about their revamped Premier tournament series for 2020, which will consist of two seasons leading up to a Global Final at the end. The tournament organiser also confirmed the 12 partnered teams, who will constitute a large portion of its participants over the course of the year, and London as the location for the beginning of the Spring season.
With the list featuring organizations such as Complexity and OG, whose brand new lineups had only recently been completed, and most notably missing the highly-successful duo of fnatic and mousesports, the announcement immediately sparked a heated debate in the community.
In the interview conducted shortly before the grand final in Bahrain, Mr. Estrup shed some light on the decision-making process behind choosing the 12 partners and discussed the tournament organizer's plans for the 2020 BLAST Premier series as a whole, talking about the changes to the format and overall product, and qualifiers.
Can you explain how the process of choosing the 12 partnered teams went? Was there a process in which they applied or was it down to your criteria and then contacting the teams?
It was obviously a long process and we tried to make it as good and solid a process for everyone. We talked to more than 20 teams, had dialogues — obviously, I can't disclose these singular dialogues, but they were positive on the whole. The hardest part about ultimately having to pick and choose was: which criteria do you do that based on? Anyone who has been in Counter-Strike for more than a couple of minutes knows that we cannot solely rely on rankings to determine who participates when we're thinking long-term. We have seen how that can change dramatically and what impact that can have on a TO like us. Knowing that we wanted it to be as open a circuit as possible, we still needed this group of teams in there and we lined it up so that we had a long list of criteria that carried weight.
One important thing is that we couldn't solely be reliant around what the lineup of a team is right now, at this moment. Our dream, and I'm sure every other TO's dream, is that the setup they build is also going to last them a long time. To ensure that, the organization behind teams and all these extra parameters weigh in just as much and maybe even in some cases more because it is a long play. Having the long process, being clear with ourselves internally on what the criteria are and how we want to position that when having to make the decision made life easier, even though there are a lot of good teams. We feel really excited about the lineup we'll be working with in 2020, and there are going to be plenty of ways to play into it, which is probably something that many fans might not be completely aware of, but the fact is that the 12 teams are just a part of it.
The two teams that most people noted weren't part of the partners were mousesports and fnatic because their competitive stance at this point as top-five teams in the world, and there is a team that won a BLAST Pro Series stop last year in ENCE, who weren't included either. Can you speak to those omissions?
I think it would be hard for me to dive deep into the exact decision why they weren't included in these 12 teams, but I think it comes back to those parameters. Something that is interesting is that I know that there were a lot of opinions around teams like Complexity. If you look at it from the outside, it might look like there was a more obvious choice, but knowing Jason Lake and knowing the way he operates, the passion he has when he operates, I think that even came through in his whole process of building this new team. Seeing the mindset he had was a positive factor for us because it meant that here's a guy who is willing to wipe the slate clean, go out and be bold, build a good roster, knowing that it will take time but wanting the roster to be really good. And then having a facility like he has, which is obviously incredible. All of that combined begins to weigh in all of a sudden, and that's when it gets be hard to nitpick everything apart. For some, maybe it doesn't make sense why their favorite team isn't directly in it, but I'm sure there will be opportunities for them to potentially make it in, eventually.
Talking about those parameters and criteria, did it come down to lengthy talks with the candidates you had in mind to figure out if your ideas aligned?
That was an important part. For all of this to work in the best way possible, it's super important that we all have the same mission, the same vision for what we want to achieve. I don't think that the teams that weren't picked don't necessarily share the mission, but when it's as tight a race and you have many teams — we picked a great time to try to pick teams because all of a sudden it just seems like everyone is beginning to step up their game. It was beautiful that mouz got the victory on Danish soil, great for Finn and the whole gang, all that stuff is perfect, it just makes our lives harder to make the decisions (laughs). We feel like we've been open with the teams in the process, and just like with everything else it's never fun to have to say no to someone, but we feel like that we did it in a good way and feel comfortable about it. The parameters are what helped us get over the line, and I can't touch on what all of those are, but that is what helped decide when we got to the ones that were tricky to decide on.
Over the past couple of years you have been widely criticized for disrupting the schedule that was already in place by all the other organizers. Was it difficult to find space for this revamped format and to get those 12 teams to sign off on an entire year of competition?
A key learning from last year is that the whole scheduling thing is wild. I don't think any TO or team is having fun trying to figure out their year. But we all tried to make it work. When we sat down and looked at what we wanted to achieve for 2020 it was clear, if you look at the format that we've been using until now, we had a lot of tent pole events. Some of them were definitely too close for comfort for production and for teams, but it was the number of tournaments we wanted to do. We are a young TO, which I think is often forgotten, we are 50 people in the company spread across two offices in London and Copenhagen, we're not a mega-corporation. We were running extremely fast and making more tournaments than we probably should have just for everyone's sanity (laughs), but we felt like we needed to make that happen. We then saw it filled up the schedule, so when looking at 2020, we thought about how we could create comfort for production, for our own company, for the teams, and for talent as much as we could from our end. The way I try to approach it from our side is: we as TOs have a responsibility to help keep everyone in as comfortable a state as possible.
When looking at that, it became clear that, from a storyline perspective, we couldn't just drop eight big trophies over the course of the year. It loses its effect. When you sit there as a fan and you see a BLAST trophy lifted for the sixth time and we haven't even made it to the Global Final yet, you've kind of seen that happen. We needed to do that less often for the storyline to be better, for that curve to build up better. And from a scheduling perspective, we needed to do longer periods coherently at the beginning of these two half-years that we created. That's where the studio setup comes into play, which I think is going to be nice for the teams because they're only committing to one week out of the three, which means that they're then free to go bootcamp if they want to or go play something else if they want to. I think that was important. That's how we want to kick off those two half-year legs because it gave teams freedom and it gave them a platform where it's slower-paced next year in general.
Going from all these best-of-ones, three matches at a time, that's intense for anyone, especially for the players, that's super-taxing. It might have been a given for many fans, but we wanted to be progressive when we came at the beginning so I think all of this is a learning for us. This means that we can do a better format that is less stressful for everyone, I feel confident that the fans will get better Counter-Strike, and we get better value out of it for the company. It's just easier to tell those stories and build everything up towards the end of the year.
Is that how this idea of having the seasonal format with a Global Finals at the end came about, trying to slow down?
Totally. Slow down for everyone's sake. We have to think about that as TOs, we have to slow it down because it ultimately makes for greater storylines and a better viewing experience. That was one important aspect, and the other was the build-up. The hard thing about Counter-Strike, one thing is that it's beautiful that we have an open ecosystem. I'm sure any TO would love to have it all to themselves, anyone would be crazy not to say that, but in the world we live in where the system is open the best we can do is to slow things down and find the right places to fit in. There are so many leagues going on that have a more traditional league setup and we shifted direction when we started building our stuff. Seeing the movement in the space in all of 2019 we could see we had to change our setup, too. We felt like we needed what we've created now. We needed to float to the top to some degree and have less of a strong foothold as I would say leagues have more of, and then be the place where a lot of these teams end up competing. And then back to the storylines; it is just a much better story arc if we can start from the bottom, get gradually higher tent poles up towards the end of the year, where the mastodon that is the $1,000,000 prize pool for one team is. That's going to be the great thing waiting at the end. That's an important key to that story.
You were talking about trying to find the right spots to fit in — there is the ESL Pro League and this rumored unannounced North American league, and the two of them are clearly going to go head-to-head. Were there talks with these other entities in trying to figure out where you fit in?
We've talked to both. I don't think it's in anyone's interest to work against each other. I think there will probably be times over the course of the year where they will most likely clash, this rumored league and what ESL is cooking up, and we might clash with someone, too. But we, at least at this moment, knock on wood, aren't clashing with that much, so that's good. There are things that are sacred that we should never clash with, the main Major events and all that stuff, we need to leave that in there, that's a beautiful thing that needs to happen and needs to have time to happen. But, right now, I'd say we're as clash-free as we could dream of, even though there are clashes happening. We tried to smoothly fit in where there was some open space.
Transitioning into the first part of the Spring season, you mentioned your offices in London and I suspect that has something to do with choosing that location for the first part of the season, so why London?
I'm from the old days, I remember 4Kings, I remember Mangiacapra, the whole old gang. I have a tiny dream that UK Counter-Strike comes back to some degree. I was gone when HenryG had his stint in Source and all that stuff, but I have heard of it. But all joking aside, the UK is just a great market. Just like any other sport, this is a business. You have to look at which markets you want to go to, where you want to see Counter-Strike grow. London was just an obvious choice. We also feel like it's a premier city, it's a triple-A type city that we feel comfortable in because we have an office there and a setup there out of which we could run a lot. Our entire commercial operations sit out of London, so it was natural. Our production arm, when it comes to the venues and all that, also sits out of London, they have a long history of doing touring concerts, so it's their own back yard. For teams, I think London is a good choice, it's there right in the middle, from a broadcast perspective it's a good timezone — obviously not for the entire world, that's never possible.
We found a special place. Doing a studio is a first for us. I think there have been some great studios over the course of time. I loved visiting the ELEAGUE one. That was a great representation of how to do a studio with an audience. So having those three weeks, making them special was important, especially because we like making a show, we want to try to create a spectacle where we can. How do we transfer that into a studio setting? The way we saw that was that we needed an untraditional venue, and the one we've gone for is a film studio. And with that comes that add-on experience. When I went to the site visit there, there was a musical artist that most people most likely know making a music video in the hall next to the hall we were looking at. It's a studio where Wes Anderson and Danny Boyle have done some of their biggest movies. That's a great experience. We wanted to create something that felt just like the ELEAGUE studio, that you're part of a live broadcast. You're not part of just a sports event necessarily, that's half of it, but the other half is that it's a live environment, it's TV, and it feels exclusive to be there. So we're doing a studio setup where there are going to be fans.
One of the things that went along with the announcement of the teams was that the setup was going to bring the fans closer to the teams, the closest they've ever been. What does that entail?
We want to continue the immersiveness that we tried to bring in Copenhagen and in Bahrain. We now try to follow the players into the rooms, follow wherever they go with the cameras to tell that narrative, for fans to see them at all times. We want to take that to another level next year. That studio, combined with fans who are going to be chaperoned into this active film studio, into what we will have then built, I think it's going to be a great experience and it's going to set it apart. What we can see is that what happens with the game is one thing. We have a job to bring fans and players as close to each other without players being uncomfortable, and just giving them that connection. You can see that when they get to feed off each other, that's special. Anyone who has been anywhere in the world has seen that, whether it's Copenhagen, São Paulo, Cologne, Katowice, when you give them that space and the energy can build up, it's an incredible experience. And then you think, "how do we achieve the same for the people at home?", It needs to be immersive as well. This whole process of opening up not just the studio but the whole building, the whole structure, the set, to the people watching at home is going to be a key component. Then we will be doing a lot of broadcast segments that I can't talk about yet that I think people will enjoy as well, to push those boundaries.
Can you elaborate on what you said on Twitter after the team announcement, saying that more than just those 12 partnered teams will be a part of BLAST Premier? We have heard about this Showdown mechanic but very few specifics, such as how much space there will be opened up to the teams outside of the partners.
We're close to having the final mechanics locked down for that, but I think it's fair to say that we're truly working on making that as open as possible. Something that we could see had a ton of value over the course of 2019 when we did the local qualifier in Madrid, Movistar Riders and Giants — perfect, Giants coming in and playing up against some of the best teams and doing well, that's exciting. Moscow was bonkers, we saw the two qualifying teams in the final! No one would have counted on that happening. That component is super important. We felt the need to make sure that below the Showdown — whose format I'm also really excited about because it will be a fresh take on how that can work — is where we will have various qualifications and other ways the teams can make it in.
It would make no sense as a TO if we didn't leave space open to be able to work with teams that skyrocket onto the scene. ENCE is a beautiful example of that, obviously a legacy org but in terms of their form they just blew up out of nowhere. That is something we need to leave room for, and the same for teams that are just beginning to consistently perform really, really well. If one team goes from a qualifier into another into the Showdown, then Spring or Fall final, and make it to the Global Final and win? I'm going to lose my shit. I'm going to be super happy. That is the underdog story that any Counter-Strike fan would most likely love to see.
So we can expect local qualifiers based on the finals' location as part of that qualifying process again?
Definitely. That is the metric that we're trying to finalize now. There are a lot of constellations of that that are interesting, if it is a mix of direct invites fighting off against people who have qualified from other arms, other tournaments, then that is super-interesting. Those are the things that we are looking at finalizing so we can make it as clear, transparent, open, and easy to understand as possible.
In our interview with Robbie Douek from about three months ago, he talked about looking to get better financial results after having reported around $7 million in losses in 2018. What changes to the product are you going to bring to help with this?
Changing the product comes down to being smart about how you produce, how you build your setups, what you innovate towards, trying to be frugal with the cash that you have, and be mindful of what you try to achieve in the short term and the long term. That's one side that is probably pretty straightforward. The other that is more interesting is that we, as an industry and in Counter-Strike especially, need to get numbers to grow, we need to get viewership to grow. We need to get broadcast deals to grow in size, which benefits everyone. What that is essentially going to mean is that we, TOs, aren't going to burn the amount of cash that we are doing now.
Things should begin to shift, which is what we at least focused heavily on. That is sometimes also why we might not always go back somewhere. There are a lot of things tied to doing an event of this scale. You want to try to get as much help from sponsorships, from broadcast deals, from local partners that want to work with us and carry some weight, and that turns into an economic shift, as well. That is the truly interesting part of where things will begin to become healthier, we're dealing with a game that also wants this openness in having more TOs that can do it. That just puts additional challenges on us, which is fair because it's the people that own the game that want it this way, but it means that we have to be really smart about where we go, the markets, how we can get money in, broadcasters we can benefit from, and all of that. It's that whole side of the business that we need to grow and try to push forward even harder.
And surely that's also part of those criteria in choosing those 12 teams that you're partnered with for 2020.
Of course. Obviously, there is a tremendous amount of funding coming to teams, but I think the important part is: getting $50 million as a team is great, but how do you spend it, what are you trying to build? That is also of interest to us because it shows what their mission is, that could be parallel to us or it could be a whole other direction, which isn't bad, it just means that it could help in another way or not help at all. All of that are things that you have to take into account. As a Counter-Strike fan, I think it's easy to forget the business aspect of it, both from a TO perspective and from a team perspective. It's a job, we all try to make money so people can get salaries, so we can grow it and hopefully be bigger and better than we were in the past. If that's not the mission for anyone, it doesn't make sense at all to have a business.
Is there anything else that you'd like to elaborate on based on the feedback that you've received in the past few hours since the team announcement?
I just think it's great to see passion. I've been in this space for 15+ years and the passion has not changed. It is the hardcore passion that you will see anywhere on this goddamn planet, and that's the beauty of it. That can sometimes be hard as a TO, we've seen passion in good and bad ways in our lifetime and we've tried to take some slaps to the face with a raised head and we feel like we've done that pretty well. We're sitting here feeling comfortable, not just comfortable but extremely excited about the year to come. I just love this community and the passion they show. Even though the people love the teams that are in or have some frustrations with some of them, that's all part of it. It sparks debate, you can see people discussing and debating on social media, on HLTV, Reddit, everywhere, that's just the beauty of the world we're in. I feel like it has gone as positively as I could have hoped for, I'm just excited to kick off 2020 and try to push a hard agenda for making it a better space for everyone. That might sound a bit Mother Theresa-like, but essentially, we need to keep players, talent, and ourselves sane. We need to take care of our people and the fans, ultimately, and we at least take the best steps we feel like we can.