Thorin on FLASHPOINT negotiations: "There was a lot of fuckery behind the scenes; Astralis was the worst offender"
Duncan "Thorin" Shields discusses his criticism of ESL, the struggle to get the best teams in FLASHPOINT, and the possibility of the company running its own Major in the future.
It’s been over an hour since the FLASHPOINT press conference came to an end, and Thorin finally walks into the meeting room in the basement floor of The Loading Bay, an industrial-themed venue located in Shoreditch, East London, where I've been waiting for him. One by one, he has been patiently sitting down with every media outlet that attended the event, answering questions about the new league and discussing the latest details about the project and his role in it.
Each interview takes 20, 30 minutes, sometimes more. There is a lot to go over when it comes to FLASHPOINT, which until an hour earlier didn’t have an official name, and Thorin, ever so talkative, is not one who usually feels the need to measure his words carefully. "I don't necessarily have all the information, so I will always describe what I say publicly as semi-official," he starts off by saying. "I obviously do have a job there, so you can’t say I’m not affiliated, but that doesn't mean I always know what I'm talking about, as you might see from some of my takes on Twitter every now and then."
He is alluding to his recent apologies to ESL and to chrisJ and the CSPPA in two of the latest episodes of the ongoing tug-of-war between the two leagues that has dominated headlines since the start of the year. After announcing that he was joining FLASHPOINT (at the time still known as 'B Site') as Creative Director, Thorin quickly became, willingly or otherwise, the face of the project. He has since openly and frequently criticized ESL, and even vowed to never work again with the company until the people who were responsible for the nightmarish handling of Pro League Season 11 "are named and fired or leave the company."
"Even when I was just a journalist or just the on-air talent of a league, I've always done this, I've always given my perspective, putting it out there to the world," he tells HLTV.org when asked why he has been doing PR these days and fighting battles on social media. "Part of that is that I like battling people on what they think or why they're saying that or whether their points are correct.
"We have this saying in English, 'In for a penny, in for a pound'. I’m all in on this. What I do is, the things I know or the things I’m allowed to release to the public, I’ll tell them but I’ll do it in my own way. It’s kind of semi-official, and they certainly don’t always like the way it’s packaged, but they bought into my brand as well, so that’s part of why I’m doing it."
FLASHPOINT spared no effort to assemble a star-studded on-air talent crew, headlined by Thorin, Auguste "Semmler" Massonnat and Christopher "MonteCristo" Mykles, and secured the services of FACEIT as tournament operator as it looks to answer the million-dollar question of how to make money off of Counter-Strike. The league is a fresh take on things, with a clear focus on delivering a high-quality entertainment product that connects fans with their favorite players, but not everyone seems to be buying into their vision: the $2 million entry fee is a stumbling block to some, and ESL Pro League also seems to have the upper hand by offering Pro Tour ranking points that will help to determine invites to some of the biggest LAN events in the circuit, including ESL One Cologne, the most prestigious tournament outside of the Majors.
There's been plenty of back-and-forth behind the scenes in the last few weeks as organisations size up their options before making a decision that could have a significant financial and sporting impact. Details about which teams will be involved in the two leagues are still sketchy, though it seems that ESL will have the edge from a competitive perspective: FLASHPOINT is yet to tie down a top-10 side and was handed a heavy blow when Astralis announced their intention to remain in EPL after initially threatening to jump ship.
"First of all, Astralis was the worst offender," he says as I bring up his January 28 tweet criticizing the way some of the teams had behaved. "I actually don't believe they were actually genuine or authentic about wanting to be in this particular league, I think they tried to get all the info they could and that, cleverly, for their own interest, they played both of the leagues against each other to try to get the best offer they could.
"In the short term, if you don't have any professional ethics, it was the best thing for Astralis, and just like they did last year with BLAST Pro Series, they understood that, if you're the No.1 team, you kind of set the tone for all the other teams, the teams that want to be you and kind of just follow. You're the leader, and they're going to go where you go or they'll kind of copy whatever you're doing because they'll think that’s what’s making you No.1.
"There was a lot of fuckery behind the scenes. I was amazed at how many times, the players of a top, top team would tell me, 'I would like to be involved in this league. It's just that my owner has to make the decision. If he decides to be in the league, we'll see you there'. And then, the people involved in B Site would be talking to the owners, and they'd go, 'Love the league, love the concept, sounds brilliant, but the thing is... I'll let my players decide'. People were being pushed and pulled from the same sides.
"Some of the other teams were a little bit more complicated, some of them actually, believe it or not, big brands, aren't necessarily in the position where they can do the buy-in and pay the fines. We might think of some of them as legendary teams who have done amazing things in esports, but they're in tough spots, they've taken the VC money, they've given up the equity, some of them don't have a whole lot of liquidity. Forget the $2 million buy-in, some of them maybe don't want to have to pay $100,000 [in monthly fines if a team is outside the top 20 in a CSPPA-approved ranking] when their team sucks or if they lose their players have to completely re-up."
Thorin believes that negotiations between teams and the two tournament organisers will "probably will go down to the 11th hour", which is the reason why neither ESL nor FLASHPOINT has announced a full list of participants. "People are trying to get the best deal for themselves or seeing if something else crazy happens last minute," he explains. "It's like when you're going to the school disco: everyone wants to have an awesome time and dance, but everyone is scared to be the first on the dance floor."
Over in London and in Los Angeles - where representatives of some of the six teams so far confirmed in FLASHPOINT remotely participated at the press conference through a video call -, confidence is still high despite some setbacks. A common sentiment is that the league will eventually win over everyone and that before long there will be an influx of players from EPL, lured by the riches of the organisations that have bought into FLASHPOINT and by how revolutionary the broadcasting product aims to be.
Thorin has no doubt that FLASHPOINT’s franchise partners will eventually follow Complexity’s example and open their chequebook to make offers that top players simply cannot refuse, even if only to avoid paying the $100,000 monthly fines.
"I'd rather just take the top 10 teams in the world and bring them all to our league, that would be my choice," Thorin admits. "If we don't get many of those top 10 teams, yeah, I'll be disappointed on that front. Luckily, certain people behind the scenes who are on the business side have done some very clever things in terms of the fines and the buying aspect.
"If Astralis isn't in the league, that's fine. Next year, if someone from our league with a lot of money is saying: 'I'll pay a million buyout and pay him a 2 million salary', eventually some of Astralis' players are going to leave. I don't care what the team name in the league is, I care which players are in the league. If Gen.G end up having the best players in the world, cool, it won't matter to me that fnatic, the brand, will be in EPL. Who will be in EPL at that point in time?
"The product is built so that it can withstand a fairly mediocre level of talent. Luckily, and unless I'm very mistaken about the setup of the industry right now, if there's one thing I can trust players to do is constantly looking at the number on the contracts. If I were a player, I would say: ‘How much is blameF making? Wasn't he the 60th, 70th best player a month ago and now he's making more than me, and I'm in the third-best team in the world? This sucks. How do I get into a Complexity or a Gen.G?'
"These are the teams who can get all the money. Those owners are amazing at selling sponsorships, especially the North American organisations because of the market they have access to. I think it's an exciting prospect, because if you're like me and you want to see the best teams, what do we care really about how much those players cost and how much they're paying for them? Just like in FaZe, I want to see coldzera play with NiKo and see what happens there. I'll worry about how much coldzera cost later on."
Franchising has changed the face of esports in the last three years. The models introduced by Activision Blizzard and Riot Games have brought many investors and non-endemic partners, but the threat of esports being a bubble on the brink of bursting is very real and should worry us all. If a project like the Overwatch League or the Call of Duty League, with buy-ins in the tens of millions of dollars, collapses, it will have a domino effect throughout the entire industry in ways never seen before, not even in the late 2000s after the fall of the Championship Gaming Series (CGS).
None of FLASHPOINT’s partners is stranger to franchising. MIBR’s parent company, the Immortals Gaming Club, and c0ntact are among those who have signed mega franchising deals that have been criticised by many in the last few years, including Thorin. Isn’t it ironic then that he finds himself at the dinner table with the very same people who have pushed for deals that could threaten the future of the industry?
"First of all, it's great for me," he says. "Luckily, they don't make me become a corporate drone. I'd even make fun of them, they get really quiet when I mention the Overwatch League and they don’t seem to want to talk about certain leagues that are in the space, almost like they regret their involvement there, something called the sunk cost fallacy. I literally get to roast some of them, and it's pretty fun. It's almost like a punishment they deserve.
"This is the reason I believe this league exists, they've tried those approaches and they've tried pumping loads of money into the game dev, who doesn't make them any money and at the moment is sort of bleeding them dry or just keeping them strung along year after year with the promise of a little bit more revenue. I'd say those people are incredibly open to doing something different, and the key thing is that they know that didn't work. There's a Christian saying, 'Who knows better about the sin than the sinner?'. Those people have messed up already, they've bought into all the wrong leagues. Now they have a way more reasonable buy-in and with certain incentives that don't exist in those other leagues.
"I don't know why everyone is crying about the fines and those owners if they have bad teams and are losing money. I'm glad they're going to lose money, that will maybe make them think twice about what it means to be in esports. The thing that sucks the most is when an ENCE or a MAD Lions — when they were still in Tricked —, these teams already had the skills to qualify for a massive tournament, but if you have a franchise model it wouldn't be possible. In League of Legends and in Overwatch you could have a team that is already good enough to be in the main league but they're not a franchise so all they can do is win the bottom league and there's no promotion. I like the idea that, in theory, anyone can get involved and you offset the negatives in my opinion of the franchise system, which is that it's a closed environment.
"Anyone who has watched Counter-Strike knows that the brilliant thing about the game is that tomorrow's superstars are playing today in the bottom teams and we all want to see them come up. We don't want to have to wait for this general manager to get his act together. acoR is a brilliant player: if he had to just sit in a lower league, the Norths of this world could just set the tone forever, couldn't they?"
The sustainability of Counter-Strike as an esport became a hot topic in the community in September, when a report from Dexerto revealed that ESL was planning to introduce exclusivity rules in the Pro League in 2020 as part of the ESL Pro Tour. That prompted a response from Valve prohibiting tournament organisers from restricting teams from attending events hosted by a rival company. According to the game developer, such an approach could disrupt the ecosystem, but the fact is that, back in 2015, ESL had already attempted to shut out other tournament organisers and create an exclusive circuit with some of the biggest organisations in the world.
With ESL and FLASHPOINT continuously upping the ante in an effort to entice teams and have the best possible talent, it seems clear that players are the ultimate beneficiaries of the ongoing war between the two tournament organisers, reaping the rewards that would never be there if a monopoly were to be established.
"I think the CSPPA has had some quite interesting concessions from the ESLs of the world in terms of like the input into things that normally you would never let an employee have over his employer," Thorin says. "And if there is no competition I don't think you would get those.
"One of the main criticisms I have of the CSPPA is they seem to think it's outrageous that any of us would think they would ever boycott a league. But as far as I know, the only power any player union or association has is to withhold their labor, the threat of doing that gets you what you want. I think, in a way, we've almost helped them get a little bit better deals before they ever had to actually show that they can brandish that gun and fire it.
"I think right now, it's helping out some of the teams in the short term, and that is one reason why I don't begrudge a team that decides for whatever reason to go to EPL."
As much as he has criticized ESL, not only recently but over the years, Thorin insists he has no interest in seeing the oldest tournament organiser in the business going down. "I hope ESL is around in a few years and they find the model that gets them the monetization," he says. "It means we will still have brilliant events like ESL One Cologne and we will still have a TO that, the moment when you lose money running a Major can still afford hosting a massive Major that is worthy of the game we have.
"We don’t have Valve paying everything for a TI [The International], we need the big TOs if we want these awesome tournaments. I hope everyone eventually, through competition, betters themselves and we're not all just killing each other in some post-apocalyptic scenario."
Before we part and Thorin goes on his way to another interview, there is still time for one more question: Is it possible that we will have a FLASHPOINT Major somewhere down the road, potentially with FACEIT as a partner?
"I'm not sure about that," he says. "If we did it, I would like it to be like ELEAGUE's, where they took what they learned from the ELEAGUE seasons and did a Major separately. If it gets big enough and we do a good enough job with production, that would be cool. I will say right now that, economically, Majors aren't a great deal. A lot of people don't know this, but we almost did a bad thing by suggesting StarLadder should get a Major. They don't have a circuit this year, and where are all their tournaments? They lost money doing a massive Major, it was advertising for nothing, there was nothing in there.
"I don't even know if doing Majors, the best tournaments, is a very good money-maker. I'll just say: If it's viable economically, I'd love to run one of those and be a part of it and bring some of my ideas to what a Major could be.
"In terms of if we would actually host one: again, the one thing that is interesting is: FACEIT only has this minority ownership in FLASHPOINT [0.5 per cent], and even the max it can go up to is 5.5 per cent. If things for whatever reason don't go the way they should, maybe it's a different TO or league operator in the future. I don't necessarily know if it would be even with FACEIT, but I will say: it would be better than the FACEIT Major London."