FACEIT's Director of Esports: "We made a lot of mistakes with ECS, the biggest one was that sometimes we wanted to play too nice"
Roald Van Buuren talks about the ground-breaking ECS model, shutting down the project, and the plans to cater to the tier-two scene for the second season of FLASHPOINT.
FACEIT is the official tournament operator of FLASHPOINT, the new franchise league that will kick off in March with upwards of $2 million in prize money for 2020. The new competition, which was officially announced at a press conference in London on Wednesday, aims to build a sustainable esports model for organisations and players with a clear focus on delivering high-quality content and storytelling to fans around the world.
At the same time, FACEIT is pulling the plug on the Esports Championship Series (ECS), which ran for eight seasons and had LAN events in the UK, the United States and in Mexico. The league had been established in 2016 through a partnership with Twitch, shaking up the Counter-Strike ecosystem by offering offer co-ownership and revenue sharing to all competing organisations — also two of the core concepts of FLASHPOINT.
In this interview, Roald Van Buuren discusses some of the issues that the company ran into with ECS and the reason why the project had lost lose the vigour of the early seasons. He also reveals that a new pathway to FLASHPOINT is currently in the works and talks about the London Major.
Why did FACEIT decide to shut down the ECS league? When did you start thinking that this was perhaps a project that would not be sustainable in the long run?
I don't know exactly the date, it was probably about nine months ago, probably start of 2019, more or less, when we started noticing and talking with teams and players, and they didn't feel involved, it was hard for them to see the benefits of staying in ECS. For the teams and for the players it was the constant travel, event to event, nothing felt special anymore, so we knew that there had to be structural changes. We already announced the changes for Season 8 with a schedule that was a lot less heavy for them, with the weekly tournaments. But I think throughout the first season of that we figured out that it was still hard on the teams and it was hard to engage the teams with that format.
Was there no way around it? Revamping the structure, increasing the prize money...
I think you have to go to the core of the product of ECS. Teams need more incentive, which means different revenue share avenues. In the end, I think the amount of prize money that we would have to put together to make it relevant, for us, would be unsustainable. We always ran ECS to be a sustainable product, and unfortunately, there were others coming to the industry. Even when we were still running the FACEIT League and in the early days of ECS you saw these organisers come in and put in a lot of money, and a lot of those went away. Things might not have always looked the prettiest, and the format might not have always been perfect, but we always tried to make it a sustainable project, which we could not make massive amounts of money off of, but at least we wouldn't suddenly collapse and leave a hole in the ecosystem.
In ECS, teams were offered co-ownership and were entitled to a portion of the revenue. What was the process like, to shut down a league with all the partners that were involved?
Fortunately, a lot of the memberships ran out after Season 6, and I think every single membership ran out at the end of 2019, so there was no issue in terms of terminating contracts or anything. All member teams terminated their contracts because they knew what was coming up, that changes were coming, so contracts were terminated before that. The wording in the deals was that, once you terminated with ECS, you would still have to play two or four seasons before you were actually out of the league, so that was an issue that they didn't have to face.
Over the course of the eight seasons, you paid out something like 6 million dollars and held events in three countries. How would you describe this project?
I think, looking back, it was needed for the ecosystem when we launched it. We did it fairly similar to FLASHPOINT because we saw there was a push for exclusivity at the time. We sat down with the teams and asked, 'Do you want that, or do you want something else?'. They didn't want to be exclusive, so we wanted to give them another option and that was the first real push where teams started getting revenue share. I think that helped the ecosystem to progress to where it is now, and hopefully where it is going to go in the next years, with everyone getting a piece of the pie, not just teams, or players or organisers. Your return needs to be backed by the investment you put in, whether it's financial or effort, and I think that structure is coming now. If you put in this amount, and I don't mean just financials, but also man-hours, the number of people you have behind the project, the community you bring in, that needs to come back in revenue, equally and fairly, and I think with FLASHPOINT we have achieved that much better than we did with ECS. I think we made a lot of mistakes with ECS and I think the biggest one was that sometimes we wanted to play too nice and we didn't go out to the world and say, 'Look at what we've built. Look at what we're doing for these teams and how revolutionary it is'. Yes, we said it in some press conferences and statements, but it was never a focal point within the league and that kind of got drowned out in the end, when no-one actually what knew what it was, players didn't really know, teams didn't really know, the community didn't know about it. The product kind of went a bit downhill in terms of prestige and the teams we could get. So that was the biggest mistake. But looking back, I do think it was successful. EPL is doing what we were doing, with major structures, BLAST as well, they're doing a great with job with their product. We can take the next step where everyone gets rewarded for all the effort they've put in for the last eight years or so.
One of the biggest talking points in the Counter-Strike community, with the rivalry between ESL Pro League and FLASHPOINT, has been the costs associated with running teams and hosting tournaments. Can you talk a little bit about the operational costs of running a league like ECS, with an offline component?
I can't share the exact numbers, but let's look at an online tournament like the one we were doing with the ECS main season. You need about three or four admins who need to be paid, which is not a major cost but it's a cost. We have an entire infrastructure behind it that needs to be maintained and updated. Developers and people from the FACEIT platform, who need to constantly need to keep an eye on the game servers. Then we have the studio, with four, five, six people running production on that, all on a full-time salary, equipment costs that go into hundreds of thousands. On top of that, talent coming to your studio, flights, accommodation, talent fees... And that's just for the online stage. And then you go to the LAN Final, if you have a full LAN circle, you have to cover flights for a lot of teams, which comes down to a hundred thousand or so, hotels for eight, 16 teams or whatever you have. Arena costs can be moderated if you have a partnership with cities or a football team or whatever who is willing to help you with a stadium. But just for a product like ECS you're already looking at a couple of million for a season. And I'm not talking about prize money.
Is FACEIT going to focus solely on this league, or do you consider running standalone tournaments in the off-season?
For CS, the platform is the main part, which we want to focus on and continue catering to the players there and build a community, with FPL, all the regional communities and just general matchmaking. That's our core focus. ECS has always been something to create an extra layer for players to get into. 'I started on FACEIT, but look where I can get'. And we can still do that with FLASHPOINT, our focus is now really on running the league from an operational and broadcast point of view, but also creating a better layer below that. Open qualifiers are nice, but those are not for everyone. We really want to create a layer that makes a stepping stone into FLASHPOINT less big. You go through one qualifier, that's one thing, I can go with a group of friends and play a qualifier, and if I'm lucky I might make it. If you have a more structured tier below that, where you constantly have to show up, it makes sure that you are ready to take the next step. We don't plan on stopping doing qualifiers, but there's definitely going to be a layer somewhere in between, where tier-two teams can have something meaningful and where they can easily progress to the next level and have a very clear and structured path to get there. That is going to be our main focus for this year. It's going to be part of FLASHPOINT, we're looking at various options of how to feed into the league for next season, but it's going to be a big focus for us, to find ways to better cater to the tier-two community.
Are you still going to pitch for Majors?
We'll see. The Major, at the end of the day, is the pinnacle for everyone. The London Major was a massive learning experience for us...
A success or not so much...?
If you'd asked me the week after, I would have said it had not been a success. Looking back now, because of the lessons that we learned from that, I feel very comfortable saying that our next Major would be of a very high standard. We're always looking to be part of the Majors in some way or another, whether it's through the open qualifiers online or hosting the actual Major. We're always interested.