The making of a juggernaut - Complexity's plan to become a global force
We visited Complexity's headquarters in Frisco, Texas, and sat down with Jason Lake to examine the organization's evolution from a middle-of-the-pack North American side to a powerhouse making massive international moves.
In esports, five years is a lifetime. Players rise up, build legacies, and are forgotten. Games go in and out of fashion. New fans arrive, while some of the old ones go away.
Five years have passed since Complexity were last a standout brand in Counter-Strike. The historic Complexity lineup reached the playoffs of the first two CS:GO Majors and made a mark on the scene before transferring to Cloud9. Following a year-long hiatus from the game, Complexity made their return in 2015 and have fielded teams ever since but always with modest success, even during some of the weakest periods of the North American scene.
Jason Lake, the founder and CEO of Complexity, is one of the few people who can say that Counter-Strike is in their DNA. His organization was built around a CS team back in 2003, won major tournaments in the 1.6 version of the game, and took part in the failed Championship Gaming Series (CGS) project before springing back to life when Global Offensive was still in its infancy. With almost two decades of shared history between Complexity and Counter-Strike, it is easy to believe him when he says that the last four years in CS were "incredibly challenging, frustrating, and often depressing".
"We tried, within our financial means, to field and develop the best squads we could," Lake says during a tour of Complexity's headquarters at the start of this month. "I think that, from time to time, I was loyal to a fault, and we never quite achieved the level of success that is acceptable for this organization and Counter-Strike". He points towards the financial side of the game as a big factor holding his organisation back: "From a business perspective, salaries in Counter-Strike, for the most part, have been very challenging for years now".
Lake makes it clear that money wasn't the sole reason he lost the Sean "seang@res" Gares-led lineup to Cloud9 in 2014, but he admits that financial issues also played a part. "Sometimes relationships tend to break down'' he starts, before describing how the income from team stickers caused a rift between the players and the organization.
"This was way back in the early days of CS:GO, when the audience wasn't there yet and frankly the only reason we even supported the team was because of how much we loved Counter-Strike," he says. "At the time, we were in League of Legends, which made a lot of sense from an investment perspective, but we wanted to support Counter-Strike and the growth of the game. It was the first event when stickers came out, and in our contracts, all types of intellectual property items went back to the company.
"So after the first stickers came out, that money went to the company and I think some of the teams shared that with their players, which created a bit of uneasiness and unhappiness with our players, like: 'Where is our money?'. We showed them the contracts and intellectual property items don't go to the players - you get prize money, you get salary, you get these other things.
"And that caused a breakdown in our relationship at the time where they felt they were wronged and we felt very confident that we were in the right: legally, morally, and ethically. We were looking at the spend for Counter-Strike and just decided to go another direction. They were speaking with Jack from Cloud9 and I think everybody just agreed that it was the right time to part ways."
For many years, Complexity was a "bootstrap company", an organization without a big financial backing, unlike most of the ones that have left their mark on the game. After scraping by from 2015 to 2017 with teams that featured the likes of Timothy "autimatic" Ta, Daniel "roca" Gustaferri, and Derek "desi" Branchen, and seeing more and more investor capital come in, Lake realized that the only way forward was to fight fire with fire:
"If we would develop a good player who was making $3,000 a month and someone with investor capital would come and offer that player $10,000 a month - it is an obvious choice," he explains. "What that results in is us becoming more of a feeder team, a more of a developmental type of a team. So I set out to find the right partners with the right investment to take our company to the next level and scale it appropriately."
As fate would have it, the deal that helped make Complexity a household name again came through someone that Lake had met at a CPL event in Dallas 16 years ago - Travis Goff, a long-time esports enthusiast and also the son of real estate investor John Goff. The negotiations were swift and John Goff, together with Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, acquired a majority stake in the Complexity brand in November 2017.
The monumental deal shifted the paradigm for Complexity, even though that wasn't apparent from the outside immediately. The deal flew under the radar for many CS fans, especially those outside of North America, unfamiliar with the scale of the Dallas Cowboys. Since 2016, the American football team is the most valuable sports franchise in the world, eclipsing the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona, the New York Yankees and the Knicks.
The centerpiece of the cooperation is integrating Complexity's headquarters into "The Star", Dallas Cowboys' newly-built home base in Frisco, Texas. Describing it as just "a home base" is an understatement, though, as The Star is a 91-acre campus built by the sports team, comprising a sports hospital, a hotel, a 16,000-seat in-door football stadium, football training facilities, residential high-rises, as well as numerous shops, restaurants, and cafes. Complexity's headquarters, the GameStop Performance Centre (GSPC), span over 1000 square meters yet are dwarfed by the size of the whole campus. The disparity goes to show how much esports still needs to develop to reach stick-and-ball sports, but also gives an indicator of how much spending power Complexity now have with their new ownership structure.
The GameStop Performance Center was finished just six months before this tour, and while certain parts are more gimmicky than actually useful, it was apparent that a lot of thought had gone into the design and development of the project. Lake calls it an "esports 3.0 training situation", the next step in the evolution after playing from home (esports 1.0) and playing from gaming houses (esports 2.0).
The two practice rooms, one of which was being used by NiP's Dota 2 team at the time of the tour, were designed to mimic on-stage booths and are one of the more impressive parts of the HQ, as they feature custom lighting and audio systems that emulate distractions players might face at LAN tournament — such as flashing lights and crowd noises. Deeper into the GSPC is where the Cognition Lab and Herman Miller Innovation Lab are located, two rooms reserved for Complexity's work for the future.
"In American football, we measure how fast people are at the 40-yard dash, in basketball you have the vertical leap, but in esports we don't really have any measurements - how fast are some of these people outside of their game?", Lake questions. Together with Mamba Sports, Kobe Bryant's sports academy, Complexity are trying to find a parameter to define the skill of an esports player over in the Cognition Lab. "This system measures that and it is interesting to see professional gamers match up against 13-year-olds and seeing who is quicker." The Innovation Lab is a more product-focused environment, but also a place where cooperations with local universities and a sports hospital are bearing fruits.
A classroom, a streaming room, offices, meeting rooms, a lounge and of course a nap pod — everything you would expect from a high-tech esports team headquarters is also there, and Lake isn't scared of people seeing and copying what they have done.
"Right now it is kind of an arms race to build the best headquarters and some people are building some cool stuff," he says. "Anybody with enough money can replicate what we've done as far as the headquarters go, but I think that when you take a look at The Star and everything that we've got, from the gym right there, the hospital, the cafeteria, the giant stadium, I think it is pretty hard for anybody to catch up with our overall infrastructure."
But a training facility can only help a team gain a small edge, and Jason Lake witnessed that throughout 2019.
"I think some fans neglect to realize that, when we got our investment, I could've thrown that team out immediately and started hiring people," Lake says when asked about the infamous "Juggernaut" Tweet that went viral while the StarLadder Berlin Major was still going on. "As I referenced earlier, sometimes I think I'm loyal to a fault. We had some really good people we wanted to try to build around, we wanted to give them an opportunity with the new infrastructure and system that we built here in Texas to prove they could get it done." But the success of reaching top-eight at the FACEIT London Major in 2018 was never replicated by Shahzeb "ShahZaM" Khan and co.
Complexity's CEO notes that while the tweet came from a place of frustration, it was also a calculated move as it opened some doors and started conversations with high-profile players. "I think if I were able to pull back the curtain and share some of the superstars who reached out because how much they respected that tweet, that attitude and mentality moving forward, people would be very surprised."
The support of Complexity's ownership allowed Jason Lake to go out and make big moves, completely reinventing the team, with Owen "oBo" Schlatter the only player to dodge the axe. But it wasn't a simple task, as he describes the process of approaching and recruiting players as "more of an art form than a science". After the scouting and data analysis were finished, the art of negotiation came into play.
"Convincing European players that what we offer here is exceptional enough to leave their family and their friends and to come to America to play is no small task," he explains. "It is well known that I flew to Europe on about two-hour notice to recruit some players who I thought could really move the needle for us. That is something I hope our fans understand: from the top-down, at Complexity we will do whatever it takes, 24/7, to build a winning Counter-Strike roster. And that starts with me."
Just as important as signing a player, if not more important, is keeping him in the squad. There are numerous examples of players, especially Danish players, heading back home after a few months in the US, and Lake is cognisant of that. "We want to make sure that we provide a lifestyle and a quality of care that is unrivaled anywhere else in esports. Even then, you are still going to have people who just get homesick, so we will balance that out by having bootcamps and things in Europe." With reports suggesting that Complexity were ready to offer Aleksi "Aleksib" Virolainen a $1 million, two-year deal, it is no surprise that Lake is confident that the organisation's financial muscle should fend off many potential suitors: "Economically, I'm not worried about any organizations coming in with offers better than ours because our team is already one of the highest-paid, if not the highest-paid team in Counter-Strike". Even with all of that, he says that "there are no guarantees" when it comes to importing talent: "Some players excel in that environment, some players falter, but we are definitely going to do everything from our end to give them a great experience and hopefully build a championship roster".
Even Complexity's decision to go all-in on Counter-Strike and ignore other big esports titles is tied to the wealth they have behind them now and the position they are in. "We don't have what is pretty common in the industry in terms of FOMO - the Fear Of Missing Out", Lake explains. "We have a long-term investment strategy and we want to sit back and wait and see which one of these franchised systems, if any, starts to gain true economic traction, and make a wise investment." And this thinking makes it apparent that, with the Cowboys' support, Complexity isn't just another organization with an investment, they are on the next step.
"I think that there are many good organizations that are making decisions based on what can currently increase their valuation — and that is fine and I respect these organizations greatly —, but we are on a slightly different track as we don't intend on selling," he says, chuckling. "We are not planning an exit based on a certain valuation, we want to build a long-term sports property. We have the luxury, I guess you could say, of waiting to see which franchised systems emerge and are successful before making our investment."
The long-term thinking about Complexity is clear when Lake draws parallels with the sports team that pumps money into his project. "The Dallas Cowboys are the most valued sports franchise in the world for a reason, this family knows how to build a sports-entertainment product and make it a billion-dollar enterprise that is multi-generational" he says, before laying out Complexity's ambitious plan: "To build a billion-dollar, multi-generational sports entertainment property."
Complexity's approach to building their team and the organization as a whole has been a high-spending one, and these things do not happen in isolation. Lifting the bar in terms of salary affects the rest of the ecosystem, especially when there is a bidding war for players as a number of new organizations try to enter the CS:GO space at the same time. As someone who witnessed during the CGS era the struggles that come with overspending, Jason Lake acknowledges the concerns but doesn't intend on stopping soon.
"I do think the current salaries are not sustainable until the revenue really catches up with what we are doing in this ecosystem," he says. " I do feel some responsibility, as one of the old-timers of esports, to spend responsibly in order to create an ecosystem that is sustainable. But on the other hand, I really want to go out and kick people's asses. And if it is going to take a mountain of money to get the right players in the door, then that is what we are willing to do. Right now we want to win more than we want to be examples of economic stability, and I think we've built a Counter-Strike team that is going to do just that next year."
Is this a selfish way of thinking? Perhaps. But there is little difference between Complexity's current approach and what other organizations have been doing since the start of CS:GO. Were the most successful organizations over the last five years only paying sustainable salaries? It seems very unlikely. So now that Jason Lake finally has the financial power on his side, it seems understandable that he wants to put it to good use.
Complexity are slated to make their LAN debut at the end of January, in BLAST Premier. By then, it will have been almost three months since the roster came together. For someone known for being outspoken, Lake is surprisingly cautious as we discuss expectations for the team, who were bootcamping in Europe at the time of the interview as Kristian "k0nfig" Wienecke, Benjamin "blameF" Bremer and Valentin "poizon" Vasilev were all getting work visas done.
"I'm picking my words carefully because I don't want to put undue pressure on them," he says. "Like all top teams, it is going to take time. They are going to fall on their face a couple of times. That is just how you learn, how you get better, how you grow. In a couple of months of scrims, you aren't going to be beating Astralis and Liquid consistently, that's unreasonable. But I think we've got the pieces in place for a team that could make a top-10 run by the summer and maybe a top-5 run by next fall. If they work hard, keep their heads in a good place mentally and are dedicated to each other, I think we'll have one of the best teams in the world in 2020."
Perhaps the lineup of oBo, blameF, William "RUSH" Wierzba, k0nfig, and poizon won't achieve the desired goals. Maybe these five players will never live up to the "juggernaut" billing - a name that the community has started to use to refer to Lake's team, more jokingly than not. Be it as it may, Complexity have already proven that they really are indeed a juggernaut - at least as an organization. The support of the Dallas Cowboys makes them one of the most influential organizations in esports, and they are willing to use that power to make up for the years spent in the shadow of bigger, more powerful names.