Jack Etienne: "Even after winning the Major, there were players that were upset. There was already a huge cloud over the future of the team" (Part 1)
In the first part of our interview with Jack Etienne, the Cloud9 founder and CEO delves deep into his CS:GO division's issue-riddled modern history following the triumph at the ELEAGUE Major and sheds light on each move the organization has made in the last two and a half years.
From the opening question, it was clear that Jack had been wishing to share the story of his organization's struggles in CS:GO for a while. I had told him that we would have to go back through the last two to three years to put the latest overhaul the organization has undertaken with the signing of Henry "HenryG" Greer in the proper context. However, I never imagined the level of detail the CEO would want to go to when it came to shedding light on the neverending problems Cloud9 has faced since their iconic triumph at the ELEAGUE Major at the beginning of 2018.
The latest American Major is exactly where we began our talk with Jack Etienne, and we went on to discuss nearly every change that has happened within Cloud9's CS:GO division to this date and more. In part one of the in-depth interview, you will learn about why the ELEAGUE Major-winning lineup disintegrated within months despite its earthshaking success and about how the organization dealt with countless changes and three separate revamps amid troublesome circumstances over the next two years — all from the point of view of the boss who eventually had to sign off on each move.
To start, I'd like you to take a look at this picture and take us back there. What did that moment mean to you and the organization?
That was a wonderful moment.
We had our fair share of struggles even approaching this event. We knew we were a good team, we were improving as a team through this event, but there were also these underlying issues and fractures I saw in the team already before this event. But it was really cool, it was one of those moments where we peaked at the exact right time that we needed to peak to come and take this event. It was super special because the Major happened to be in the United States, and there aren't a lot of Majors here in the United States, so we had a huge home crowd behind us. The entire stadium was just full of energy and they clearly all had our back, so it was super exciting. I think Skadoodle was already looking to take a bit of a break, so for him to reach that pinnacle right as he was looking to take a break was really well timed, and for him to perform so well was also really special. It felt really good to see these guys come together and win such an epic event in such an incredible way, but quickly after, and I'm talking from the moment we took this picture to the time we got to the shuttle to head back to the hotel, the fractures were evident.
Wow, that quickly?
Even after winning, there were players that were upset. They didn't feel like they were getting the recognition they should, and there was already a huge cloud over the future of the team. I knew that there were going to be requests for change pretty shortly after it. I think the fact that we lasted just a few months after this event was really just because we won the event. Had we not won, it would have been an immediate change. Because we won we tried to hold it together, but the problems that we had faced before this event continued to happen right after the event. That coupled with that opportunity — I wasn't in the room, but apparently, from what I've been told, autimatic and Stewie were both offered opportunities to go to MIBR. autimatic wanted to stick with Cloud9 and what we were working on and Stewie was interested, because these players, if you go back to 2018, SK, which became MIBR, were like the most dominant team we'd seen. He hugely respected the players who were part of MIBR, he wanted to see what it was like to play in a system with FalleN.
Even though we had just signed a three-year contract, Stewie just said: "Jack, this is such a really cool opportunity. I've enjoyed playing here, but my teammates here, we needed to change a lot of things, some of them are looking to take a break, and it's just a really cool opportunity to play with FalleN. I got you the Major and we've done everything that we'd set out to do in building this team. Would you please consider letting me pursue this?" And, for me, I was just thinking that this is a kid who worked so incredibly hard to get us to this height, and he'd been with me since we negotiated a contract when he was 17, and we were waiting until he was 18 to sign it. There had been a lot of ups and downs and I felt like I owed it to him to pursue something that he thought was going to be really exciting for him. The request came to me and it wasn't like an instant "I'm just going to let you out," it was more like "okay, okay, I really respect your ask here, let me go talk to the rest of the team and see what they think." And tarik was just like "it's just one person, I've got some ideas of who we could pick up. I think we'll be fine, and I'm still looking to continue on with what we are doing." autimatic was also saying "I'm going to stick it out, we're going to keep rebuilding this team." So with everybody still on board to continue building and everyone in agreement that we should let Stewie pursue this thing, I released him from his contract and we looked to move forward without him. In hindsight, you could say that "oh, that was such a stupid decision, I should have never let him go." If I just held onto him, we probably could have rebuilt the team much easier, but I also feel like robbing him of that opportunity to pursue it probably would have also damaged our relationship, so it was a tough call and I felt like what we did was the right thing at the time.
There were rumblings that there had been some problems already before the Major, but not to the extent where it was already evident at the Major that changes were going to happen. That's shocking. One would think the win would reinvigorate the team.
The thing is, there was no lack of effort. And they're still phenomenal players, but there were some players who weren't in sync with how they wanted to work together in the future. Even though you got a Major win — which was awesome, they really came together —, the underlying issues were still there. I think we all hoped, all the players, all the staff, everybody hoped that the Major win would get us beyond that, and we had a couple of events after that we still performed really well at, but those cracks became more and more apparent as the excitement of the Major win wore off.
Where do you see Cloud9's legacy in the context of the Major victory? Where do you think the organization should be on the CS:GO map?
We are the first and only North American team ever to win a Major. And I think rightly we should be really proud of that. I am incredibly grateful to the players that made that happen. That experience for me is to this day the pinnacle of my professional experience in running an esports team. So across all games, it was the highlight when I think of "what is the best thing you've done in your entire career?" Outside of family, obviously, that's a completely different category for me. But that is a highlight of my entire professional career, that will look to be the thing that I'm most proud of in my life. And I'm incredibly grateful to the players and the staff that were a part of that. So that's huge for me and it's huge for Cloud9.
In Counter-Strike we have a massive fan base that I know has been disappointed with our results for the last two years. We fought for years for relevance. We were constantly in the top 10, we actually got our Major win and there was a lot of pride there and then it just fell away from us. I still grapple with "Should I have ever let Stewie go?" because Stewie was such an integral part of that, but I keep coming back to that I thought it would have been super unfair not to let him go. That was something he really wanted to pursue. So, we are not living up to the Cloud9 standard of where we should be in Counter-Strike as one of the top teams in the world. And we haven't for a while. It's very important to me that we get back to where we should be.
You mentioned that autimatic was also approached. I'm curious as to why that didn't work out, as well. Why didn't he follow Stewie into SK, later MIBR, after more problems emerged in Cloud9, and instead it ended up being tarik who followed him there?
autimatic was very loyal to his team, he wasn't really excited about a potentially mixed-language team. I think he still wanted to work on this project and see what he could build with it, and so the opportunity just wasn't really attractive to him to go do that. Here at Cloud9, they were a big part of the decisions that were being made, but if they were to go to MIBR, you recognize that you are the expendable piece that's being brought on, you're not really an essential part of the decision making that happens. You give up a lot of your seniority on the team if you go join another team like that, especially if there is a language difference, so I think he just didn't think it was worth it. He would have to comment on that, but that's my guess on what he was thinking. He didn't tell me that explicitly.
With tarik, that is a bit of a fast-forward, because there was a bit of a process for tarik to leave. What happened is, when we were looking to rebuild, we made a decision to buy FNS out of his contract [with compLexity], which was pretty expensive, actually...
You Tweeted out the $200,000 buyout at the time that some people didn't exactly believe...
Oh yeah, oh yeah. I think it was 200k or slightly a bit more. It was very expensive. But tarik had played with FNS, there was a lot of history, they felt like this is the guy that they could rely on to get the team going again. I think because it didn't work out, that experiment didn't work out, I think it was just so disappointing and it wasn't going to be a quick fix to get this thing going, tarik felt like his best chance to be on a winning team again was to actually join MIBR. It was more likely that they'd go on to win than try to find a replacement for Stewie that was going to work. And the other thing that we could clearly see was that Skadoodle was just really interested in taking some time off. And so he's like "okay, Stewie's gone, FNS didn't work out, Skadoodle is thinking about taking time off, I have this opportunity to go to MIBR, I should just take it and go."
Several months after the Major the core of that team is gone with Stewie, tarik, and eventually Skadoodle leaving, and Cloud9 are just unable to keep a stable roster for more than a few weeks at a time. What was it like to manage the division during that time and facilitate change after change?
The first change was Stewie leaving and FNS coming in, and the system that FNS was looking to run across the team, that just didn't align with the players and the way they wanted to play. I think that unfortunately he really had a short time window to actually put something together and that's really tough because you have a guy who's coming in who hasn't really reached the same heights as the existing team, and he's coming in to be an IGL and tell them how to play the game. Using a system that they were not really bought into, it fell apart real fast. It fell apart real fast. And I had bought FNS basically on the insistence of these players saying "we know this guy, we've worked with this guy, this is the guy, let's go and do it." So I took the financial risk, and it blew up in our faces. And that really sucked, which led to tarik also leaving. So now, we've got two holes to fill instead of one, and we still have Skadoodle looking to take a break but holding on. He doesn't want to leave too and leave us in a real bad shape, so he's holding on while we're trying to get this thing together.
I think the next pickup was Golden at this point. We had really high expectations out of Golden. He's a brilliant player, works really hard, and the guys liked him. Around that time wee also picked up STYKO, and he's also a hard-working, highly skilled player. What we got with STYKO was a loan, it wasn't a buyout. I had learned from the FNS situation, it was just like "guys, let's be really careful about the next roster moves to make sure that before we go all in, let's do a loan." With Golden, it was also a loan for a short period of time, and STYKO was also a loan to try out these parts before we go all in. And we really liked what we saw out of Golden. STYKO was great, too, but as a little bit of time went on flusha became available, and if flusha becomes available, you find a spot for him. He's not the kind of guy you miss out on, he's a god-tier player. And also there's history between flusha and Golden, they really wanted to play together. So we pick up flusha and STYKO's loan is canceled, which has no reflection on STYKO at all, it's really more of a "hey, flusha is available and we've just got to go with it." And we're getting really excited about the team that we're starting to build at this point.
And then tragedy hits in that Golden starts having some really serious health issues where he cannot actually play anymore. He has to take some time off and really focus on his health for a while. In fact, he has to go back to Sweden to be treated, and it's something that you can recover from but have to take really seriously and make sure you fix that problem. At that point, things get really dicey because there are so many changes. Our new IGL that we really believed in is suddenly sick to the point where he can't play and flusha who has come to join the team has suddenly found himself to be in an IGL position. We go out and pick up kioShiMa to come and stand-in for another open spot, and I think we play the Major with that team...
There was Zellsis, too, and there was the loophole that you had to use by swapping Golden into a coaching position to be able to play with this lineup.
We had to go into this event with no coach, oh my god, that was just tragedy after tragedy. And everyone knows that flusha's mom died while we were at the Major, and he needed to take some time off to deal with that.
At that point, there has been so much turnover with the team that it's essentially a completely new team just trying to find itself. We've now lost Stewie, our IGL, FNS, the replacement IGL, Golden, the replacement IGL, and flusha, the replacement IGL. So we've gone through four IGLs in a very short period of time. Stewie leaving was something that we allowed, FNS was just a failed experiment, Golden got sick, and flusha's mother died. That really was heartbreaking because we had seen Golden and flusha working together really well at fnatic, and if Golden had been able to stay healthy and flusha didn't have his tragedy, I think by the third quarter of 2018 we actually would have gone into the next Major in really strong fashion and been back on track. But two tragedies happened back-to-back that really threw us.
After that, we essentially needed to completely rebuild the team. The team that we had was just not functioning at all. autimatic had put in so much of his heart in trying to rebuild this team several times, and all the constant issues just exhausted him, I think. He really wasn't ready to carry on. I made the decision to just completely restart this team. I think daps had just got released by NRG and we got connected and we talked about what rebuilding a team would look like, what pieces he'd want to work with. And we got pretty excited about that. My expectation was to basically build a whole new roster of five with that team that daps had envisioned building. And through that process, autimatic got really excited by the project that I was working on with daps and he wanted to be a part of it. We changed our plan to include autimatic to be a part of that and we started grinding away on trying to build that team. We had mixed results on how the team was performing, but there were some positive progress that was happening, some really good synergy that was happening between daps and Tim and koosta, and they felt like they could build a core that would function really well.
I just realized, daps just announced that he is leaving. How poetic is that?
So how did that fall apart so quickly, as well, with the core then leaving for Gen.G five months in just to seemingly switch a couple of players?
I needed to see a really big mentality shift in how we were going to work, and I didn't like what I saw with the coaches and the relationship in the players. I wanted to make some changes and they weren't really happy about making coaching changes or moving on from valens. At that point, we just had different visions of how the team should work. There was no bad blood or anything, it was just that these guys wanted to work with this coaching staff in this specific way, and we just didn't come to any sort of agreement on how that would work. Essentially, they really wanted to have control over the coaching staff, the data analyst staff and data scientist staff that we had, and I wanted to go in a different direction. I don't hold it against them to have a really strong idea of what they wanted to do, it just didn't align with mine.
So I said "hey, if you guys want to do that, that's awesome, I'll support you do it, but I'm going to find another team to finance it." That gave them an opportunity because they felt like they had some synergy in this core here. So I thought "I will go sell this team, you guys can renegotiate contracts to whatever you think is fair, and best of luck to you." And I found a buyer for them within like 48 hours. I think they were all really excited to go over to Gen.G and I was excited to try something completely new with ATK.
The former ATK roster was a bit of a new direction for you. This time you signed an entire, established team. What were your expectations going into that partnership? Were you just hoping that they would go on to do big things under your banner after ending the previous year with a promising showing at EPL?
Yeah. If you look at it, they had very limited support. The owners were in South Africa, so they didn't have a lot of infrastructural support to provide to this team. And the thinking was that we'd bring them over, we have our infrastructure, our sports psychologists, our strength trainers, the systems that we have in place in how we support the teams. And if they're ranked 20th now, how far can they go? They had a lot of really strong up-and-coming North American talent, so it was exciting, I thought it was a really cool project. I think after having so much instability, having a team that has already been playing for a long time together and are really happy with each other was attractive to me. We brought them on and they've continued to be really happy working with each other, which is awesome to see, and they actually went from rank 20 to I think 16 was the best they got.
It was pretty cool to see them start growing in that direction, and then things kind of paused out. I'm sure the COVID stuff did not help, but I didn't see the hunger that I was hoping to see out of them to improve and I didn't feel like they were benefitting from the things that Cloud9 brought to them in infrastructure in the way that we were all hoping. I was not really looking to move away from that, I was hoping there was going to be some improvement, and I was patient. I wasn't expecting the results to drastically improve through COVID, but Henry came to me and that was totally unexpected, sort of like when flusha showed up, it was like "whoa, we've got to pay attention to someone like this."
In the second part of the interview, which will be released on Monday, we will pick up where we left off in the first. You'll find out more about Cloud9's decision to sign HenryG as their new General Manager and see Jack Etienne's views on the Brit's unusual, hype-generating approach to the job.
You can see an extract from part two below:
Within minutes of ALEX's contract details coming out, I had CEOs going "What the fuck, dude? How much are you actually paying him? Oh, that's even worse than I thought. Wait, that's not in dollars, that's in euros? What the fuck."