MonteCristo: "I can promise that we will have on Flashpoint the best features that have been made during this pandemic"
The Flashpoint Commissioner talks about changing things on the fly during a pandemic, the plans for the upcoming season and how he hopes that in the future the partner teams will be more involved in the project.
Flashpoint will return in early November after more than a six-month break, this time with a Europe-based online tournament that will be covered by an on-air team working out of a studio in London.
The new-look Cloud9 roster headlines the lineup of partner teams for the league, which will also feature two big-name qualified sides coming from the CIS — Virtus.pro and forZe — and three top-20 invitees — OG, BIG and fnatic.
With a more stacked lineup of teams and the lessons learned from the first edition, Christopher "MonteCristo" Mykles, who was named Flashpoint Commissioner in June, is hopeful that this upcoming tournament will be more attractive to casual and hardcore fans alike. He and the rest of his crew have been hard at work in the last months trying to put together an online tournament that he believes will still feel special after the initial plans for Flashpoint 1 were scrapped because of the global health crisis.
In this interview, the veteran broadcaster shares some of the content plans that he thinks will take Flashpoint to the next level from a storytelling perspective and explains why the fines system has been put on hold for the time being. He also agrees with the notion that some of the partner teams have not been as involved as they should in the scene, and rules out a return to a LAN setting for this season's playoffs.
You've just announced OG, BIG and fnatic as the final teams for Flashpoint 2. To get that kind of teams, especially a Louvre Agreement team like fnatic, a household name in Counter-Strike — is that a winning move in your eyes?
Yeah, I think that we're really excited about having OG, BIG, and fnatic wanting to compete. It raises the level of competition that we're going to see in Flashpoint 2, and we have always been interested in having new teams able to participate. That's why we operate a qualifier system, to cycle new blood in, and I think it's an exciting chance to have those teams experience what it's like to play in one of our tournaments.
Going back to Flashpoint 1 — what are your thoughts on it? Was it a success in your eyes?
(laughs) It was obviously very challenging because when we started the event, we were planning on having the LAN competition, and something like three or four days in we had to suddenly switch to creating an online tournament. We had all of the teams in Los Angeles, but we had to move them all into their own Airbnbs, separate them, we had to cut our production staff on site dramatically to limit contact and make sure that we were safe in the studio environment. For us especially, I think it was very difficult because, conceptually, Flashpoint is so much about trash-talking, banter and player interaction. Creatively, it made it really hard for us in particular because of how reliant our format and everything is on having access in person to those players, and also our entire content plan was based around that so we had to make adjustments and figure that out as we went. The first and most important thing was in the emerging pandemic situation, where nobody really knew what was going on at the time — and how could you, globally? —, to make sure that the players and teams were safe and that we were continuing to operate the tournament in a responsible fashion that still had a lot of competitive integrity. I think we achieved that, and FACEIT was extraordinary in terms of making sure that the logistics around that happened quickly so we only had to stop our event for three days, I think, we had to delay things but it wasn't that big of a deal. They did it very fast and it ended up being not the event we had hoped for, obviously, but it was a testament to our nimbleness that we finished it at all, frankly, given the circumstances.
What are some of the changes that you're going to be implementing for Flashpoint 2? How are you going to make this tournament special during a pandemic?
It's a lot easier when we know the circumstances, so we can plan around that. We've already started the process of filming a large amount of content that we think is going to be pretty unique to the Counter-Strike space, including some mini-documentaries about various players. I'm sure you've already seen players like ALEX and friberg tweeting some pictures from their interview setups. We've been sending camera crews all over the world to capture this footage, and we're employing a producer who, in my opinion, is the best in the world at creating this kind of content within esports. He's a freelancer now and operates his own production company in Los Angeles, his name is Zac Whinnem, and he was formerly the features producer at Riot Games for the last seven years. So if you've seen any of the DRIVE features or any of the Worlds features, they've all been his creations, so he is excellent. He's working with us directly to help us produce those documentaries for our sponsor, Pinnacle, so they're involved in that as well. Also, we've been working on a bunch of other content to help hype up the season. Thorin has selected fragmovie makers from the community that are some of the fan's favourites to help us in terms of creating cool fragvideos that should be pretty unique to us. We're working on a variety of other features for Flashpoint 2 that I think will be quite fun in terms of implementing large green screens on sets. We are currently working on another hype video, I don't know if you remember the one we made for Flashpoint 1...?
The one with the clock? Yes.
Yeah, with the clock. Because we're not going to have access to players, we're going to be fully animating that video, we have an artist on board who's working on that. We've already licensed the track that we wanted, so we're all on track for that to be released before our playoffs. It won't be there for our group stage but it will be there for our playoffs, so we're working on that kind of features as well and it should be really cool with it being fully animated because we can do a lot of stuff that we couldn't do if we were using physical cameras or the actual players, so we're really excited about that. We're doing some pretty heavy art integration into the overall designs, so we're trying to feature the same artist who's doing our hype opener throughout the broadcast and really give a unique visual aesthetic to Flashpoint 2. Now that we know, that we've had some time to plan around the pandemic, we can build our content plan around those limitations, but it also opens up a lot of opportunities that we wouldn't have had, or wouldn't have chosen to do otherwise, like fully animating the hype video.
What is the format going to be like? Given that you won't have that energy with everyone in the same location, are you going for a more traditional format?
Based on the time window that we have, we'll only be able to run one phase play per group. We'll be splitting the 12 teams into three different groups of four and running GSL brackets, and we will be doing a group selection. We're still working on whether that will be broadcast or not because it's hard to get the energy and banter between the players, but we will still have the teams selecting each other, it's just how we broadcast it that we're still working on.
Flashpoint was built as a project that can be sustainable for teams, for players and for the tournament organiser itself. Since the start of the year, we've seen players complain about burnout, and Flashpoint was also supposed to be an answer to that, with only two tournaments a year, giving room for storylines to develop. However, we still see teams struggle to put together rosters for this league. Why are players still not buying into it? Do you believe that things would be different if you had had the chance to show what Flashpoint is all about during the first season?
Hopefully, when we're out of this next year, we can run our full proposed format, which is the three phases, have all the players there in person so we can do the cool group selections, and we can really do the full event that we've been wanting to do but haven't been able to due to the ongoing global situation. I think there are a bunch of issues right now with any esports signing players during the pandemic, which is that travel and visas are very hard right now. The US government, in particular, many of our partner teams are US-based, they have basically frozen even the player visas that are coming through, so it's very difficult to sign a player and then know exactly when they are going to be able to come and train in your facilities, or be able to participate in North American events, so that's been a pretty big problem across the entire industry, not really limited to CS:GO. Also, as we are all well aware, the runaway cost of player buyouts is another factor. A lot of the time, every team across the Counter-Strike landscape is opting to wait, whether they're a Flashpoint partner team or not, rather than engage in ridiculous player buyouts. There's also the uncertainty that we have at the moment with not knowing what the circuit is going to be like next year, when the Majors are going to be. A lot of these teams have accrued RMR points, and if you change your roster significantly then you have to drop all of those points. So if the situation lightens up and it's possible to have the Major early next year, then a lot of teams don't want to reset their RMR points, they want to be able to compete in those events, so there are a lot of factors right now that are complicating things due to the pandemic.
Thorin has been very critical of some of the partners' efforts when it comes to building and monetising teams. You see the defending champions, MAD Lions, their roster is a bit underwhelming compared to the previous one. c0ntact have barely made any efforts to produce content around their team or build a fanbase. Are you disappointed with the lack of commitment from the partner teams? Is there a dialogue with them?
We're starting to work more and be integrated more into our partner teams, and as DKC [Editor's Note: DKC News is the public relations company that works with Flashpoint] on this call can attest, they are starting to work more with the PR people on those teams in order to improve that area that you note is somewhat lacking. I also think it's important to remember that we didn't have any full-time people at B Site, the parent company, until after Flashpoint 1, and I only joined full-time in June or early July. So frankly, we haven't had a lot of time with people who are full-time within B Site because what happened was: I was working full-time on Cloud9, but I was also spending a ton of my time on behalf of Cloud9, one of the partner teams, working on Flashpoint. But I wasn't the commissioner, I wasn't overseeing many of these partner teams at that point in time, so we're trying to build out B Site, the parent company, so we can help our partner teams more with this kind of activities and build structures that will enable them to present themselves better, that will give them better opportunities to sign players, that will give them better opportunities to identify how they can improve, and these are all things that we have been working on. It's just going to take a little bit of time.
So will we see an improvement in this area going forward?
Well, that would be the goal, yes. (laughs) Yeah, I hope so. You know, at the end of the day, I can't control everything that our partner teams do, but I'm here to help them and facilitate them as much as we can, and we're trying, as I said, to use our resources in terms of PR and coordination to assist them in doing that and to make them look as good as we can.
Cloud9 is obviously the team everyone is excited to see the most. They've spent a lot of money putting together a roster that on paper looks very strong. Is this the kind of moves that you want to see from the other partners?
Oh yeah, I think what Cloud9 is doing in terms of presenting a very interesting way of introducing the team to the community has been wonderful. I love what HenryG has been doing, I think he and kassad have nailed it. They signed a bunch of really exciting players, I think we all expect this team to be competitive within the top ten globally when it comes to Counter-Strike, and I think the promotion around it has been fabulous and obviously we're going to be assisting them with that by doing features around the team and really introducing the audience to them as best as we can. We have ongoing conversations internally about whether we want to make it standard practice for Flashpoint partner teams to announce player salaries. That is a choice Cloud9 made, and it may not be a choice that we make collectively, but it is something that is under consideration as part of our approach as an organisation.
One of the biggest talking points during Season 1 was the fines system. You were supposed to fine teams who were ranked outside the top 20 as a way to force them to build competitive rosters. I know that this idea was abandoned for Season 1. Has it been dropped altogether?
It has not been dropped. So, basically, the fines system is currently not active because it has been difficult for the reasons we talked about before for teams to sign players during the pandemic and get them the appropriate legal paperwork to get them to play. Also, as a result of that, it's been hard for us to accurately gauge how good teams are in an online era, and trying to encourage our partner teams to sign online teams that may not perform on LAN doesn't seem like a great idea for the long-term viability of not being fined. It changes your strategy about which players and which teams potentially that you sign, or it makes you commit to players who look good online but may crack under the pressure of LAN, so it kind of presented us a very difficult decision. We do have every intention of going forward with those fines once we return to a more normal world, that's 100 percent part of the plan and part of what our partner teams bought into and what they believe in. We're not just going to drop that entirely. There are also other issues that we wanted to consider. The initial model of the fine was to have a blanket fee that you pay per month if you were outside of the top 20, but we wanted to be more nuanced than that because we didn't want to penalise teams. Like for example: we didn't want a situation to develop where a team wanted to take a risk on an unknown player, or a rising player, and their short-term results might suffer, but if they saw a lot of potential and were accurate in their scouting, the long-term results of having that player on the roster would be a dramatic improvement in the core. We didn't want teams to sort of commit to old players while they slowly fell out of the rankings because the risk of the fine was there, so we're trying to generate a model that will allow teams to claw back some of the fines that they pay. For example, if your team did poorly in the short-term but did very well in the long-term as a result of a roster change, we think that that team deserves to have some of that fine money back, as it were. So we want to make it more nuanced so that we give our teams the ability to take risks and then be rewarded for them, rather than just blanket fining them, as it were. It needs to be more nuanced.
I know that you were considering the possibility of doing at least a portion of Flashpoint 2 on LAN. Is this still on the table?
No. So we were looking at a variety of options in terms of having the entire tournament on LAN, or just having our playoffs on LAN, but basically what happened was that the cases in Europe of Covid-19 have been spiking very heavily. How that's affected us is that more and more countries keep getting added to the United Kingdom's two-week quarantine list. When we were making our initial plans, there were not that many European countries, most countries were exempt and travel was possible, but now Denmark has been added to that list, Sweden may be added to that list soon, so with the number of countries that are now requiring a two-week quarantine, we only have one week between our group stages and our playoffs, so it just wouldn't be possible to bring them out just for the week of playoffs.
There is still a lot of people who are skeptical about Flashpoint. If you had to try to convince them to tune in for Season 2, what would you say?
(laughs) Well I think, first and foremost, the quality of the competition is going to be higher this season than it was during Flashpoint 1, and I think we're going to have a lot of exciting matches among top teams, so that's a great reason to watch. I would also just encourage you, I think we have the best content, and you're going to see that very fully, I think the post-show that we do with The Blind Spot is a really fun and unique viewing experience for fans, and we're just going to keep bringing people the best content in CS:GO because that's what we like to do and that's our goal when it comes to building out the broadcast. I can promise you right now that we will have the best features that have been made during this pandemic on Flashpoint because we've spent months working on them already and we're very ready and prepared for this event to occur. It should be a very dynamic broadcast, it'll be fun that we'll have a ton of talent on-site, so it'll give a lot of good variety. We'll have multiple different looks at the studio to make things more dynamic, it'll be a very professionally-produced broadcast. Unfortunately, we won't have the players there, but I think it'll still be impressive and refreshing to people.
So it's not going to be just you and Thorin in the studio, right?
(laughs) No, there'll be a ton of people. We'll do a talent announcement, but there will be a lot of people there.