A year later, Windigo still wait for their WESG prize
The Bulgarian team won $500,000 after topping the international tournament but have yet to see a dime; WESG claims bank regulations and coronavirus outbreak have delayed the payment process.
March 17, 2019 was the day that changed Bulgarian esports forever. Windigo, then ranked just 30th in the world, capped off a dream run at the WESG 2018 Finals with a 2-1 victory over Polish side AGO in the tournament final after previously upsetting MIBR (then world No.5) and G2 (No.17). It was a day that will forever be etched into the memories of those players, who won $500,000 — the third-largest prize in Counter-Strike history.
It was also the day when things began to fall apart.
Just seven months later, Windigo ceased all operations, citing cash-flow issues after not having received prize money from several tournaments, WESG included. It was a surprising announcement, though not because the team had been doing well: in the months that had followed that incredible run in Chongqing, Windigo had been unable to cement their status as a top 20 side, a victory at Moche XL Esports being the only positive as the team desperately attempted to challenge for a spot at the big boys’ table. As Windigo closed their doors, the team were 40th in the world rankings, 27 places down from their peak position, and had just three-fifths of the WESG-winning roster, with four different players having been tested as part of the organisation’s international experiment.
The $125,000 that the organisation is owed (25 per cent of the total prize) would have been enough to keep it afloat — or so claims Artur Yermolayev, one of the Windigo's founders and owners, who explains that, after winning the WESG event, the team demanded better conditions. With practically no sponsors to help ease the burden — their website, which has now been taken down, only shows one partner, a betting company — Windigo’s finances quickly deteriorated. "The players got a big confidence boost after the tournament, they understood that they were performing at a different level," Mr. Yermolayev tells HLTV.org. "In order to keep the squad, we had to increase their salaries. We were lacking cash flow, and the main reason for that was the [WESG] prize; it was the largest prize our organization had ever won. This would have been the cash flow that would have allowed us to stay in the game."
In the announcement of Windigo’s closure on Reddit, Maksym Bednarskyi, the other co-owner, had told the same tale: that the unpaid prize money had forced the organisation’s hand. However, he had also pointed the finger at two other tournament organisers, E2Tech, which ran Moche XL Esports, and ESL.
E2Tech was quick to reject Windigo's accusation and explained that the payment had been returned by the bank due to "unknown reasons". Similarly, a representative from Alibaba, the Chinese company that is behind WESG, told The Esports Observer that its payment had been "sent back multiple times". Both tournament organisers had run into the same problem: the bureaucratic nightmare caused by the fact that Windigo’s company registration, tax filing information and receiving bank were from different countries.
"These problems are pretty normal for the CIS region when the legal address of the organization is located in a different country, usually Hong Kong or Cyprus. In our case, it was Hong Kong," Mr. Yermolayev explains. "The management was working out of Ukraine, the players were based in Bulgaria and bootcamped in Ukraine, and the funds were supposed to be sent from China."
To overcome this hurdle, Windigo created a new bank account, one that they assure has no issues with overseas remittances. By then, the organisation had already closed their doors, so all expenses came out of the old management's pockets. But new obstacles continued to emerge. First, it was the daily protests of hundreds of thousands of people in Hong Kong, who demonstrated against the country's extradition bill. Mr. Yermolayev says that this delayed the prize money payment, though he claims WESG never really explained why. And then the novel coronavirus emerged in the city of Wuhan, bringing every sector of the Chinese economy to a halt. On January 22, WESG became the first tournament organiser to revise its strategy as a result of the ongoing health crisis as it postponed the Asia-Pacific Finals, scheduled for February 16-18 in Macau. The World Finals, which were due to be held in the first quarter of the year in China, have been postponed indefinitely, and there are doubts as to whether the event will ever take place as WESG remains tight-lipped about the future of the competition.
Communication with WESG wasn’t always easy or timely in the final months of 2019, but things got even worse after China entered a coronavirus lockdown. Windigo claim that they were promised that the wire transfer would go ahead after February 24 as banks in China were closed and staff members remained at home as part of the country’s social distancing measures. But since that deadline expired, WESG has remained evasive when asked about updates. Viane, an Alibaba employee who has been the primary contact with Windigo from the start, revealed in her latest email that she remains on sick leave with limited email access until May 15.
"We know that banks in China are open again and we understand that the company is functioning, even if some people are working remotely," Mr. Yermolayev says. He questions WESG’s continuous requests for information and documents, including team contracts and a player payment guarantee letter, even after other organisations had long received their prize money share, and insists that Windigo have never seen proof of a payment attempt from the Chinese tournament organiser. "It's a standard business practice to send a confirmation of payment. This way, even if there is some sort of a delay, we can approach our bank and explain to them the situation, and they can try to resolve the issue."
Tired of waiting, Windigo are considering taking action against WESG. "Unfortunately, yes," Mr. Yermolayev says when asked if a lawsuit is on the table. "We have an official contract, we have an official legal entity that WESG has obligations to. If we do not receive the money in the near future, we will be forced to seek legal assistance and go to court."
Mr. Yermolayev notes that all other tournament winnings have been paid and assures that the players, while "desperate" to receive their share of the WESG prize, continue to trust Windigo's handling of the situation. "Since the organisation has kept its words in terms of all financial obligations, we are still in touch all the time," he says. "There is no tension between me and the players because I am being as open as I can."
The players who lifted the trophy in Chongqing have experienced contrasting fortunes since the team came to an end; as such, they have been affected by this ordeal differently. Valentin "poizon" Vasilev and Georgi "SHiPZ" Grigorov have gone on to enjoy international success with Complexity and c0ntact, respectively, while Kamen "bubble" Kostadinov (SMASH) and Yanko "blocker" Panov (BLUEJAYS) are still trying to return to a top level. Viktor "v1c7oR" Dyankov seems to have pulled the short straw: he has been unable to find a stable team since Windigo and is currently living off savings.
"Of course it makes me feel frustrated because I still haven’t got what I won. But that’s the esports life," v1c7oR tells HLTV.org. "Meanwhile, everyone else has a team and a salary. It’s great that they all found a team. I still want to play in a team, the salary doesn’t matter. I play the game for prestige and name, not money.
"It doesn’t affect my life that much. I am mostly frustrated that everyone else has received their prize money from WESG and we haven’t. That makes me really wonder if they are ever going to pay it."
HLTV.org reached out to Viane with a set of questions regarding the prizes from the 2018 event, the current status of the 2019 Finals and whether the company is worried that the delayed payment might tarnish the image of the competition. Most of the questions were ignored in the following statement provided by the Alibaba employee:
"We have been in constant communication with Windigo to resolve the payment issues. Past issues were addressed in an announcement via Reddit on November 1, 2019, so I'll focus this email on giving an update on the process since that time.
"During the month of November, we tried to make the bank transfer but the payments did not pass the bank's compliance requirements. We received a request from Windigo to change the beneficiary bank account on December 4, 2019, which required additional paperwork to update bank details in agreements and invoices. WESG received all the updated information from Windigo on January 4, 2020. We followed up the payment immediately to re-submit all administrative work including tax declaration and bank documents. Before January was over, the combination of Chinese New Year and the coronavirus shut down did not allow for enough time to process the payments again.
"After we started returning to work, as team Windigo dissolved, the contract between the organization and the players has expired and became legally invalid. In order to safeguard the right of the players, we requested the organization's owner to provide a Letter of Commitment to ensure the players will be paid their prize money and we made this request on March 9, 2020. We received this Letter of Commitment in the mail on April 8, 2020.
"As the pandemic wears on, banks and corporations in China are not back to full operations yet in a mandated effort to reduce human contact and to avoid a second wave of infections. This has resulted in longer wait times to process payments but we are working on a daily basis to follow up with the banks."
Success in Counter-Strike can be fleeting, as Windigo came to learn. The victory at the WESG Finals is a distant memory by now, but the players and the old management are still clinging on to hope that the payment has indeed been delayed by a chain of misunderstandings and some unfortunate events, and that it now solely depends on some bureaucratic details. In a way, Windigo's biggest achievement was also the start of an inescapable downward spiral, creating unrealistic expectations that the team couldn’t live up to and bringing financial strain to the organisation. The WESG title ensured Windigo a name in the history books, but with nothing to show for it, Mr. Yermolayev can't help but struggle with mixed feelings.
"Emotionally, it was definitely positive," he says. "We were very happy, we saw the results that we had been looking to achieve, and the team's hard work paid off.
"Financially, it was obviously negative. The market value and the operation costs of the team increased, yet we have made zero dollars from the tournament. It was both positive and negative."