Jonas Gundersen: the former CS player who wants to build a new era for NiP
NIP's Chief Operating Officer (COO), Jonas Gundersen, discusses how the organisation has overcome Patrik "f0rest" Lindberg’s departure, its vision for the future and the feud between ESL Pro League and B Site.
How do you plan for life without your most-prized asset?
The Swedish veteran rightfully belongs to the pantheon of the greatest esports players, even though he has never really been the dominant player in the history of the Counter-Strike franchise; in 1.6, he shared the throne with Filip "NEO" Kubski (the question of who the better player was remains a hot topic of discussion among Counter-Strike purists), while in the early years of CS:GO he was in the shadow of teammate Christopher "GeT_RiGhT" Alesund. But he clearly wins the longevity argument. Unlike the other two, f0rest, who is now 31, shows few signs of slowing down and continues to be a difference-maker, posting the sort of numbers that no one else in his age has. He is an unprecedented case in esports of a player who seems to endure the test of time, and an argument has to be made for him to be considered the greatest to ever play the game.
To make life even more difficult for the new COO, f0rest was also the last remaining member of NiP's first CS:GO roster, which went 87-0, won a Major and went down as one of the greatest teams in Counter-Strike history. As f0rest closed the door behind him and brought the curtain down on an eight-year-long journey to reunite with his former teammates, it was clear that things would never be quite the same for the Ninjas.
"I think that, ultimately, f0rest wanted to try something else," Gundersen tells HLTV.org. "It’s not like we wanted to get rid of him, he’s a very good player and a good guy. And you don’t let go of f0rest if you don’t have to. When you have played seven years for one team and you have had such a decorated career, then you feel like you want to try something new. I think it was our duty as a team, as someone he had given so much to, to respect his wish to move elsewhere.
"And then I think it came – for me – at obviously a good time because I was coming in. I am looking at a lot of transformations, at the next ten years… So that obviously gave us an opening in terms of rethinking what it is that we’re doing and building a new era and a new line-up. Because let's be honest: regardless of f0rest and his legacy, we didn’t win anything for two years. And the 87-0 was seven years ago. That's many years ago in Counter-Strike, right?"
For him, that's a rhetorical question, for he knows inside out the game we’re talking about. He had a bit-part role in the long and successful history of Danish Counter-Strike, but he did play for two iconic teams in Titans and SK under the nickname calc. He is also remembered for his brief spells in the Iberian Peninsula with Spanish duo eu4ia and x6tence, and Portuguese side RoyalFlush, at a time when international rosters were practically unheard of.
After hanging up his mouse in 2006, he worked in sales, played poker professionally and helped to scale a few tech startups, in San Francisco and Copenhagen. In the end, the esports bug caught hold again and he found himself working for North as Chief Commercial Officer. More than a decade had passed since his playing days, and the differences were as drastic as night and day.
"All of a sudden, business and money started happening in esports," he explains. "I know how to build business models, how to scale teams and organisations, how to sell a product. My profile wouldn’t have worked in 2015 or 2016 because you simply needed a business around it first. When things started happening, I kept telling my wife, 'Well, this esports thing, this could be it. Maybe I want to go in'. But I was on the fence for many years.
"And then, all of a sudden, North happens. I knew a few guys there, and at the time the fit was really good for what they needed, which was the commercial and operational help. I decided to make the jump and combine my two biggest passions, which is executing startups and esports."
Gundersen is now the face of NiP's esports operations, serving as the right-hand man to CEO Hicham Chahine, who came under fire in the summer of 2019 following a series of accusations made by Robin "Fifflaren" Johansson and backed by other former team players. In an interview with Richard Lewis, the 32-year-old, who is currently coaching Dignitas, revealed that he and the other members of the old NiP team were still owed thousands of dollars in prize money and had been treated unfairly over the years.
An investigation requested by WESA cleared Chahine and the rest of NiP's post-2016 management of any wrongdoing, but that was not the end of it. The hurried manner in which the probe was conducted and the close ties between NiP and WESA, where Chahine still sits on the executive board, meant that the issue took some time to die down. The shocking details about years of gross mismanagement remain a stain on NiP’s image, but Gundersen rejects suggestions that his appointment was a response to the negative press that the company received or an attempt to deflect attention from the CEO.
"None of our changes we've made were caused by the scandal," he insists. "Our core values and principles are the same, but there’s one more executive to help run the company, to continue with our vision and build a better internal culture. The scandal was something that happened for a few months of a long history. Obviously we could have done better there, and that's something we’ve learned from. We have the utmost respect for the players, for the legacy they have, and we have tried our best to transform the company the best way possible.
"We're trying to run a high-growth startup, with a good atmosphere and where employees are valued. You’re not going to get anywhere near hitting ambitious targets without having great people around you. That’s always our mission, no matter how the press has been. Have there been mistakes in the past? Absolutely. But honestly, when you look across the industry, you see a vast number of organisations that have existed for 10,15 years and have had to go through fundamental changes in leadership and structure. People founded these companies many, many years ago. They weren’t even companies, but more like guilds and clans. All of a sudden, they had to become companies. The demands for running and scaling actual businesses are vastly different, so you simply have to reorganise most of a company's infrastructure. It’s all very natural in a hyper-growth context."
And the winds of change haven’t stopped blowing through NiP. The Swedish organisation recently opened a new office in Stockholm which includes a bootcamp space, a content studio and a fan engagement area, with further facilities expected to be revealed shortly. They have also bid farewell to their Paladins and PUBG squads and done some fine-tuning across other divisions, including the CS:GO team, who welcomed Tim "nawwk" Jonasson as their newest player and appointed Björn "THREAT" Pers as head coach once more.
The next few months will be a testing time for the CS:GO team. NiP still have an umbilical connection to the legendary 87-0 roster and its legacy, so one has to wonder whether an identity crisis is inevitable, now that such a rich chapter is closed. Gundersen argues that, just like football, Counter-Strike is cyclical, and claims that the fans' response to the recent changes has been mostly positive.
"Eras are not a constant, and every sports team in history has lost momentum and gone quiet for a while," he says. "Look at Liverpool: they had a great streak and then they were dead for like 15 years or something. All of a sudden, they’re the best team in England again. Teams are a dynamic organism and I think that fans understand that. And we’ve still been relevant, we’re still good.
"You always have the few hardcore fans who say, ‘Hey, I’m never going to support NiP again’. But that’s emotion, right? That’s what makes us human and keeps the passion alive. Overall, it has been the narrative of, ‘Damn, that was a good legacy, but let’s see what’s next’. The fans seem to be sort of in-between. Obviously, some people are excited about nawwk, but it’s also hard as a fan, I believe, to be excited about any new player in NiP right now, when it’s a player like f0rest who’s leaving. Tim is a great guy and a formidable talent, it’s just not really a story we get to tell before he 30-bombs a whole event."
nawwk knows he will have to become a much more consistent player to be able to thrive in the tier-one level of competition, which he is not at all familiar with. He will also share the AWPing duties with Simon "twist" Eliasson, with doubts remaining about which of the two will have priority. Gundersen is "incredibly positive" about the current lineup, even if some fans are feeling nervous. "The fact that nawwk also plays with the AWP is just an added bonus when we already have one of the best in twist," he says. "It’s going to make us a lot more dynamic as a team, and hopefully much harder and unpredictable to face. Ultimately, I think we now have a great group of players and coaches who really like each other and want to really work hard towards improving. That's a great mindset to have. They're hungry, all of them, they want to learn and they want to take us from where we are now to the next phase, and they know that takes sacrifice, hard work and constant growth.
"Right now, I see us as a relevant top-10 team. I am sure we can go ahead and do great things, but I'm not going to say that we will win the next Major. Even though I certainly think we could do it, I'm much more focused around the process that we use to build our own model for success. The way we practice, the way we recover, the way we interact with each other and stay motivated. That's very much my philosophy. That we work as one unit for a long time. The stability of that is going to produce results."
It's all rainbows and sunshine, at least until the team’s debut, this Friday, at BLAST Premier. But if things eventually go south, what kind of team will NIP want to be in the future? The Swedish veterans have gone to Dignitas, fnatic are on cloud nine once again, and the only experienced player on GamerLegion, Dennis "dennis" Edman, didn’t exactly have the best of times as a Ninja. Meanwhile, more and more organisations are taking the international route, complaining that they are finding it ever so difficult, if not impossible, to build competitive single-nationality rosters.
With the talent pool in Sweden looking a bit dry at the moment, will NIP consider reaching out to players from other countries? "I don't want to lock myself into anything," the NiP COO says. "At the core of it, we are one of the largest teams in the world with a Swedish heritage and Swedish headquarters. We picture ourselves as a Scandinavian organisation, and that core is obviously incredibly important to us because that is ultimately what we see as our DNA, even though we're a global organisation. I don't know how the game will develop over time, but I imagine we will probably stay in that region if we ever do something outside of Sweden.
"Who knows what meta will come around? Brollan is a household name now, but he was a prospect just a second ago. I don't really think there's a recipe for it, and a high-performance team is a constant living organism that you have to nurture and look at to understand what the next move is. And whether that next move is a 16-year-old or a 28-year-old is really hard to say. It all depends on where we are at that time and what fits into what we're trying to achieve. I don't want to limit ourselves and say, 'We're going to develop young talent' or, 'We’ll stay Swedish forever'. We're obviously going to try to build superstars like the rest out there, but I don't think there’s a catch-all answer."
The conversation then turns to the hottest topic of the hour, the 'war' between ESL Pro League and B Site. NIP have publicly committed to the former competition, while some organisations are still believed to be at a crossroads. Regardless of how the tournament landscape will shape up going forward, Gundersen feels that the discussion around this key subject, which could very well determine the future of the game, hasn’t been nearly as productive as he would have hoped for.
"I think it's incredibly sad that we, as a community, have focused so much of our energy fighting each other constantly," he says. "All the bad press, the big influencers constantly bashing tournament organisers and teams... That's just not getting us anywhere. We, as an esports industry, have grown incredibly over the last three years – and we have a legacy of 20 years before that –, and we are going to grow incredibly in the next three years. That means we have to modernize because now the money is here.
"We, as the biggest stakeholders in the industry, have such a big responsibility in how we evolve into the next thing. It's like evolve or die at this point. The money is here, people have poured money into us, saying, 'Can you please professionalize?’ But I'm so scared that if we keep doing this slandering we will not be taken seriously by the mainstream, which I think is the most annoying part about it. We need to evolve or we will simply die, and making these changes and getting away from the status quo will require some tough decisions. That means we will actively say no to some things. It's going to leave some people out, which is what unfortunately happens sometimes, when things evolve. I personally find that this is one of the most groundbreaking changes for CS:GO ever, for it to evolve into a sustainable ecosystem. However, I think the current toxicity around that is a really big liability to the industry as a whole.
"It’s almost like everyone is fighting for a larger slice of a cake, when we all should be focused around a whole meal. Then we’d all be able to enjoy this at a much larger scale. I sincerely hope we get there."