Dignitas CEO Michael Prindiville: "People might look at these guys and say that they are veterans, but I think they've got something to prove and will surprise a lot of people"
The North American organisation's CEO discusses returning to Counter-Strike, joining Flashpoint, and bringing back the iconic NiP squad.
"We’re building a dynasty."
Prindiville made quite the splash in September, when he announced Dignitas' plans to re-enter men’s CS:GO, more than a year after the organisation had last fielded a male squad.
When he took over as CEO, in May 2018, Prindiville inherited a CS:GO team languishing in 92nd place in the world rankings that had just been relegated from ESL Pro League. Appointed to steady the ship and make Dignitas a force to be reckoned with in tier-one esports titles, he found himself with a group of players who to this day are still struggling to make it out of tier two. It was not a pretty sight for an organisation that has been involved in the Counter-Strike franchise since 2004 and that had been home to some of the game's brightest talents, including the Astralis trio of Nicolai "device" Reedtz, Peter "dupreeh" Rasmussen and Andreas "Xyp9x" Højsleth.
Dignitas quickly dispensed with the services of that squad and entered a period of hiatus which lasted until that September night. It was a time of fierce competition as 100 Thieves and Complexity were also looking to make moves, but Dignitas were not intimidated: four months later, they brought back the legendary 87-0 and Major-winning NiP roster, with Robin "Fifflaren" Johansson combining the roles of General Manager and coach, and rising talent Håkon "hallzerk" Fjærli taking up the AWP. The model draws inspiration from Vitality's old approach, with a young sniper dictating the tempo in the server and opening spaces for the veterans.
Just a few years ago, it would have been unthinkable to picture players like Patrik "f0rest" Lindberg and Christopher "GeT_RiGhT" Alesund in a jersey other than NiP’s. But perhaps just as strange was seeing Dignitas embark on its most ambitious project in Counter-Strike after Prindiville had complained about the high costs of running a top team. During their time away from the game, prices had continued to rise, so what prompted Dignitas to throw their hat into the ring once more?
The answer is simple: Flashpoint happened.
"When I made the announcement that we were coming back, it was based upon the B Site, or now Flashpoint, and the model that had been developed," Prindiville tells HLTV.org. "We really believed in this particular model, and at that point we were absolutely convinced that we wanted to go out and get a top team that could compete in this league, that could play at the highest level and, quite frankly, that could entertain."
Prindiville has always been an advocate of the franchise model in esports. Earlier this year, Dignitas returned to Riot Games' League Championship Series (LCS), the top North American competition in League of Legends, following a merger with Clutch Gaming. Flashpoint, where partner teams have to pay a $2 million entry fee but take a portion of the revenue in return, offered Dignitas an appealing way back into CS:GO, at a time when sustainability was the Holy Grail for teams and tournament organisers across the globe.
"For the last few years, since the PEA [Professional Esports Association] tried to put together something like this, the brightest minds in esports have been working together to try to figure out a league that is sustainable for esports organisations and we believe that this is the league that has done that," the Dignitas CEO explains.
"The fact that we came up with the model and now have executed upon that is incredibly exciting. I know we would not be in the CS space if it weren't for this league."
But if the "brightest minds in esports", as he puts it, have been involved in Flashpoint since its conception, why were the top organisations in Counter-Strike so reluctant to embrace the project? "I think people always have allegiances," he explains when asked about some teams' preference for the ESL Pro League, insisting that Flashpoint is playing the long game and that, over time, the best players in the game will be convinced by a product that will be "second to none".
"We always knew, going into this, that in the opening seasons there might be teams we would like in the league that would not join," he says. "But our goal is to put out the most entertaining product possible and to put out a model that players realize is sustainable in terms of revenue, their health and wellness, and I believe that will be proved over the first two seasons.
"Players will see it and will come to this league one way or the other in future seasons. In the meantime, the teams we have in this league, with the rosters that people are putting together, I think they make for fantastic narratives. There are fantastic players and we have the best talent and the best production team."
As far as storytelling is concerned, Dignitas are blazing a trail in Flashpoint. Some of the organisations in the league have made little to no effort to fit in (I’m looking at you, c0ntact), but Dignitas seem to be fully invested in the project. The organisation has been hard at working creating video content about the team, including a docuseries called 'Off The Record’, and launched a limited-edition "Icons" t-shirt to celebrate the legacy that these players created. The plan is to appeal to the hardcore followers of the old NiP squad but also to connect to Dignitas' own fans who may have lost touch with the organisation over the years.
"Everybody's psyched, right?," asks Prindiville. "We think it's a really good story to be telling. These guys had an incredible run back in the day, and their fans are over the moon as they want to watch these guys together again. The response has been very positive.
“I think that we're telling the most exciting story in CS:GO. People might look at these guys and say they are veterans, but I think these guys have got something to prove and will surprise a lot of people."
It’s safe to say that the early signs are encouraging. Dignitas navigated through the harrowing qualifiers for the Europe Minor, where Counter-Strike purists will purr over the prospect of a clash between the old and the new versions of NiP. And if there were questions about hallzerk’s ability to perform as the tip of Dignitas’s spear, those were quickly dispelled: he is averaging a team-high 1.24 rating and has at times stolen the show, like in the overtime victories against GamerLegion and fnatic.
This Sunday, Dignitas will play their first match on LAN, albeit without the Norwegian AWPer, who will be missing due to visa issues. He will be replaced in the lineup by Ladislav "GuardiaN" Kovács, a player who, just like his temporary Swedish teammates, has a point to prove, adding an extra layer of intrigue and excitement to the team's LAN debut.
Is this the right team to build a dynasty like Prindiville mentioned in September? Doubtful. The Swedish quartet have their best years behind them and haven’t won a Big Event title in years, while hallzerk still has to show that he can consistently put up the kind of numbers to rescue the team from trouble. But let’s not debate on that for now. Instead, let’s just rejoice at the reunion of the old NiP gang and at the sight of legends like GeT_RiGhT once again playing with a smile on their faces.
"What I saw [in this team] was championship-caliber players who previously told an incredible story and were looking to expand that story," the Dignitas chief says. "We were convinced that was the story we could tell, a comeback story, a story of veterans who had been here, who know the landscape and know how to win together.
"Quite frankly, I still think that this team is incredibly hungry, so I go back to my words in September. They are hungry to get back together, to compete at the highest level and to win titles."