BLAST's Nicolas Estrup: "Our commitment to Counter-Strike is unwavering"
The tournament organiser's Director of Product and Experience discusses the company's plans for 2021, the impact of the pandemic and the possibility of running a Major.
As Nicolas Estrup hops on a video call to talk about BLAST's vision for the future of the BLAST Premier Championship, it's been days since the player protest that threatened the start of the BLAST Premier Fall Finals. It's still a hot topic in the scene, so much so that he believes it's not yet the time to discuss it, even though he gives his input when asked if the company should have fostered a better dialogue with players, who have complained about not having a say in the important decisions pertaining to the circuit.
For BLAST, everything has been trial and error since the first event in 2017. It started off as an exclusive tournament series for eight partner teams, but in 2021 it could have as many as 32 different sides competing in the seven events that are planned, with qualifiers set to be held all over the world as the company aims to create the "most inclusive format" in the Counter-Strike scene.
BLAST will be dipping their toes into the Asian scene in an effort to promote the development of this region, which has been disregarded by most tournament organisers in this online era caused by the coronavirus pandemic. This is part of BLAST's push towards the sustainability of the ecosystem, which sees an increase in the participation fees that organisations will receive at the expense of the prize pool.
In a wide-ranging interview, Nicolas Estrup, an esports veteran who has been at BLAST since late 2016, spoke about next year's circuit and when fans can expect a return to a LAN setting, the impact of 100 Thieves' departure from Counter-Strike, the criticism from players regarding the lack of communication, and the possibility of the company finally hosting a Major.
You've released more information about your Counter-Strike plans for 2021. This year, you've also hosted Dota 2 and Valorant competitions. Just how important is CS to BLAST?
I think our commitment to Counter-Strike is obviously unwavering and it remains at the core when it comes to the games that we work with. I don't see that changing at any point in the future, definitely not as long as I'm here. It will remain as one of the primary games for us as a company, if not the primary game. I think if you look at how we approached the other games, going into Dota first then Valorant, it took us 3-3.5 years to even do that, right? That was because we wanted to make sure that we and our Counter-Strike product, with Pro Series then Premier, reached the point where we were happy with everything that we were doing. And it was at that point, where we felt we had the production capabilities, the manpower capabilities, that we were finally able to look at some of these other titles because I think Counter-Strike is not going anywhere for us, but we are, however, also interested in figuring out which other games could give us similar things to what we feel we've built in Counter-Strike, and that's kind of why we're dipping our toes into various projects.
How much of the circuit will be held on LAN? Do you have an estimate already?
This is something we take very seriously. When I say we take seriously, I mean it both from a 'we don't want to put anyone at risk' kind of perspective and also as an obligation towards the fans. We don't want to fill people with empty hopes and pipe dreams of arenas next month, etc., if it's not realistic. So that's why you've not seen us be very vocal about when the next arena will be because, to be frank, we just don't know. But what we do know is — what we're doing behind the scenes — is constantly working on when could we return to something that maybe resembles something normal. And I think next year we'll look at that positively, as in, we feel fairly confident we'll be able to return to something that resembles a LAN environment — but does that mean similar to what we did in London earlier this year, or does it mean a full-scale arena event? That's probably where the big unknown comes in, right? Because I think we've seen plenty of sports do successful bubbles with players on-site, so that's obviously something that works to some degree, with the NBA doing the best one. So there's plenty of inspiration, but I think the commitment from us is the same. It needs to be safe for everyone involved and we want to say that we'll be doing it when we know that we'll be doing it and not just doing it for likes online.
When you started hosting tournaments, it was the exclusive Pro Series with only the partner teams. Now, you've announced that there will be qualifiers in almost every region. How do you explain this evolution in your approach?
Well, I think it's also based on learning, right? When we looked at BLAST Pro Series in its inception, it was meant to be small, if you will, because that allowed us to play around with shorter arena days, shorter events as a whole, and back then I just don't think we had the capacity to do something that was big, vast and open. I think we've kind of leaned into that more and more as our company grew, and I think people often forget that a lot of these competitors in our space have 300 plus employees. We're 50 people combined in two different offices, in two different countries. We're not that many people. So I think making sure that we grow our circuit, both in terms of production value and format, has been at the core of what we've always wanted to try to achieve. With Pro Series, we rustled some feathers, I think [laughs], with the way the format was, with it being as exclusive as it was, and I think looking back on it, it served what we wanted to try to do back then. But also just looking at how the ecosystem has evolved, we've had to figure out our place in that. With Flashpoint entering the scene doing what they do, I think they've found their niche, it seems like, at least in the style of production and what they're trying to achieve. And of course, you have the big ones like ESL, etc., and I think when you're looking at that ecosystem, for us it just became more and more clear that we just needed to lean in heavier in being this 'Champions League' type structure that kind of floats above, because the ecosystem doesn't need more leagues, that's pretty clear, and we don't need more rankings either... [laughs]
When looking at both of those facts, I think trying to do something where we still create value for the partner teams we have on board, which hopefully will always be some of the best in the world, has been the goal since day one. But then also begin opening it up so we can try to help the grassroots; there's a lot of talk going around about North America right now and I think we have a commitment to that community, but also to that market, to try to help keep it relevant and make it a bigger part of what we do, and that goes for all the different regions where we're now trying to get involved with. I think it's back to the point around timing, right? Now we're at a place where we can do this more comfortably because we've grown as a company and it just feels good to be able to have this level of inclusiveness on a global scale because we feel, and I feel, that our product is global. It's the best of the best. Hopefully, when people tune in they feel like they're seeing, you know, the cream of the crop and that's how it will always be, but we want to get those underdog stories in and we want the million waiting at the end to be open to anyone.
Will you be running the qualifiers yourselves, or will you be establishing partnerships with local entities, like you did this year with FiReSPORTS and Elisa?
We normally want to take a very all-in approach to the different products and sub-products that we make. But I think with the qualifiers, and you mentioned it as well, we've had some success in finding partners that can deliver to our ambition level and do it in a way where we feel like it complements what we do but it doesn't have to necessarily include everything we deliver in our big shows. So we're definitely looking at an approach where we will be finding production partners that can live up to the standards that we set because we want it to feel special when a player takes part in a BLAST tournament, and that should also go through any qualifiers that we do. It should feel extraordinary compared to what happens elsewhere. That's what we've been reviewing from 2020 going into 2021 and how we set up local partners when we're not doing it ourselves in the best way possible to be able to give the players and fans that.
It's clear that there will be a focus on the Asian scene in 2021. This region has been neglected by almost every tournament organiser in the Counter-Strike scene in 2020. Why the sudden interest?
Well, I think it's back to the same point around North America. It's just a big market with big opportunities, and I really see Asia as the same, with all the countries in it. I think one thing it's important to know as well around how we've structured these qualifiers and regions is that when we say Asia, that doesn't hold the teams from Australia back from joining that. It has a much wider grasp on that region and also the connected ones, so that's one bit. But I think to your question, that region is important but that's also because we try to see the majority of the world as an important region. And I think we've rightly, as you say, neglected it, not we per se, but the community as a whole, and I honestly believe that a lot of what makes regions great is that there has to be opportunities to play, from the lowest to the highest level. We need to try to build that because it makes no sense why anyone would want to invest their lives in a game if there are no opportunities to play. So I would hope all other tournament organisers begin looking at the same regions that need, not a helping hand, but at least just a foundation so that the players coming in and interacting with the game can see a competitive route to take if they want to try to play on the highest level should they become good enough. We're fully committed to that because we feel that there's a player base that is underserved and a player base that can grow because it's not just a matter of what exists there already, it's also about what we could build or what we should try to focus on growing.
When 100 Thieves left Counter-Strike, you lost one of your partners. Are you looking to replace them?
Of course [laughs]. We're looking hard at who will be the best replacement for them, and I think it's difficult shoes to fill when you just look at the scale of the organisation that is leaving. But I think the partners we are looking at now, we feel confident we'll be able to fill those shoes, especially competitively. And I think that has to be at the core of what we're trying to achieve, working with partners that are on the same page as us when it comes to ambitions and aspirations, from a financial and business point of view, but also very much from a human and competitive point of view. We will look to bring in that last team and fill that slot before the new season kicks off in 2021.
How did you react to 100 Thieves' decision?
It's always a shame when someone like 100 Thieves leaves, but I think, when you look at the context of why and how it happened, it kind of just made sense. You have a North American, West Coast organisation, extremely focused on creators, brand, lifestyle... very much like FaZe, who we still have [with us], but FaZe is still leaning a bit more heavily into the competitive side, whereas 100 Thieves is just down the path primarily around creators, influencers, merchandise, and then esports as an addition to it, but it definitely doesn't feel like it's the be-all and end-all of that organisation. And I think when you have an organisation with a fabric like that, it makes sense as to why you would probably then begin looking at your esports properties and figure out which ones fit into the overall narrative of the company. When looking at those factors, it wasn't the biggest surprise, and I think it's better to just pull the plug now instead of going through the work of making that team less of a priority, which would then indirectly devalue our product. So I think the way it was handled was the right way even though it's probably rough for the players, but I think long term it was probably the best outcome for everyone.
Next year, the winners of ESL Pro League and Flashpoint will qualify for the BLAST Premier World Finals. This is, in a way, the next step in what you were doing this year, when four teams could qualify via the BLAST leaderboard by playing in a series of high-level tournaments. Were you actively in discussions with other tournament organisers?
Well, there is always a joint effort in trying to schedule a tournament or not on top of each other. It's no secret that the calendar can be quite the mess to try to operate, and we are all individually trying to make it as little a mess as possible. So on the calendar side of things, it's always an open dialogue. When it came to this, which as you said is just a build-on to what we were trying to do this year, I think the reason for making it clearer as we are doing now is actually to help the fans and the viewers understand how this actually works because I think, when reflecting on this year and the format we made, this was one of the pieces that often got the most overlooked. The same goes for our leaderboard: It's not a ranking, it's a leaderboard where we can look to decide who has competed in what way and how they can then qualify into our bigger system. So I think when looking at how we needed to elevate that and make it a bit more front and centre of what we're trying to do, this just became a good way of doing it. Because I feel that we have some well-established leagues now with Flashpoint and Pro League, so it only makes sense for us, with the mindset and the approach that we have, to try not to take up too much space, because you know, quality over quantity, but also because we have two leagues already, we don't need a third league to create a more confusing narrative for the ecosystem. So by doing, this people can enjoy their leagues, but they can also see something that lives on top of that, which is then a new and third entity that they will hopefully find exciting to watch. And I think the change also comes from trying to figure out how we essentially get the best teams in the world to compete in what has now been renamed as the World Final at the end of the road because that is what we're trying to make this all build up to. It all points towards that as the pinnacle waiting at the end of the year, but without doing it in a way like [Dota's] TI, where you completely ruin an entire ecosystem.
In September, BLAST announced that it would lower the prize pool while offering more money to organisations. This was done after years in which BLAST was one of the tournament organisers involved in the race to see who would have the biggest prize pool. Now, you're looking at building a more sustainable model for the industry, but players have been very critical. What is your take?
We at least see it as more than just a partnership with the teams, we also try to look holistically at the impact we are having on the ecosystem right now and the changes we could make to potentially help that improve. And I think when looking at the prize pool historically within our company, it's been a tool. It's a narrative tool that can drive interest, it can drive a willingness to want to win it from a player point of view. But to my point before around TI, we can also see the downside, in that, if you grow it too big, you completely ruin an entire ecosystem because then that is the only entity that players will ultimately care about, right? So I think there was that aspect of it, which is very much a narrative, in terms of how we create relevance for that end of year event. And we feel like we're doing that with the $1 million prize pool that it has now, but there's also the question of whether we're getting out of that prize money what we're expecting. And I think, when we looked at the narrative, that we were not really getting what we had hoped for. Yes, it was a large amount of money, but it didn't really give us that legacy and hype that we would hope for the Global Final in the same way that we think that this new structure will help the overarching narrative of the season.
When you then look at it from the teams' perspective, I think it goes back to the stability of the entire ecosystem as well. Yes, you can look at it from a Covid-19 angle, you can also just look at it from a classic ecosystem angle. I firmly believe that players need to have a good and safe environment to operate as well as possible, and we also have to look at the same for everyone else. And that goes for the teams and for the tournament organisers because it is especially with those two where large risks are taken and large amounts of money are spent. What we do, and what I think every respectful business should do, is to try to revisit the money you spend and figure out if it is achieving what you want for the company. And I think when looking at the prize money structure and at how much the weight scale is off in regards to risk versus reward, this was an attempt to try to get to a place where we have this pool of money and the players need to win something because that's how the ecosystem is; we can then, like a lever, change how much they should win, and that can always go up or down as we've seen now. But what about the entity that is actually paying their salaries? I still look forward to seeing breakdowns where it looks like organisations are beginning to take some of this prize money, because we're seeing players take a hefty salary and in a lot of cases take all the prize money, and a team is left fighting to try to create value for their property.
So, when we look at it, it's the team paying salaries to these players, the players were in a good spot when we just looked at it monetarily. Let's leave all the other aspects of that out of the equation right now, then we just need to do the same for us as TOs and for the teams that are paying the salaries, and in essence, try to create some brand value around being a team in the ecosystem. And I think doing this exercise with the prize money was important to help the weight scale even out more. It's impossible to say how that weight scale is going to look in ten years, but now it feels like the right thing to do. I would hope other tournament organisers look at this method of trying to create stability rather than just trying to create the biggest pile of bait monetarily or [for the sake of] headlines, as you say. I wish others would take that approach and we would welcome that, for sure.
Given the criticism over the prize pool reduction and what happened this week (player protest before the Fall Finals), do you think that BLAST should put more emphasis on communicating with players?
When we make our tournaments and we work with the partners that we have, our immediate partners for this are the teams. And it is the teams that have players on contracts that play for them. It's always been a priority since day one that our competitive space is as good as possible, and that goes down to basic needs, such as tables that can go up and down, and living standards. We are one of the only TOs to give players their own individual hotel rooms and not put them in rooms of two like they're on a school excursion. Things like that, which elevate the living quality for the players and the competitive qualities for the players and indirectly the teams, are always high on our agenda and are something we've been transparent about since day one. What I also believe is that we are one of the only TOs before each event, and any TO please correct me if you're also doing this, that does a team briefing and a talent briefing. And that's usually someone like me explaining the overarching idea of what we're trying to create this event for, what the purpose of it is and which new elements we may be bringing in, whether that be content, broadcast features, whatever it is, for them to get the lay of the land of what they've arrived into. The same goes for talent: they're obviously on broadcast and need to do as good a job as possible to convey what we're trying to achieve. In the team briefings, we've worked through various versions of what that meeting could be. In the beginning, when we had big things, and that's very much still the norm, and we have big-ticket items that we really need the players to understand, we invite both coaches and players. But in respect to the feedback we've gotten from players and the coaches at past events, unless there's something new that's really, really interesting, please don't invite the players because they're better off preparing for the matches they're playing later on. And we of course respect that. That's kind of where that format has ended when it comes to what we discuss, what for, and what goes on at the event. That's something we've diligently done for all the events in 2020 and pretty much what we did for all of the events before that as well, and we've only leaned more and more towards that to make sure this line of communication is open.
That's why, whatever may happen in our tournament circuit, we have these very clear ways of resolving issues, and that can even be about bigger philosophical talks. I've been in team meetings where we were discussing things like prize pool or other big items that we weren't really going to tweak at that given moment, but we're always open to the feedback. I would expect all the teams and the players competing in our tournaments to know that. The odd ones out can be teams that maybe have qualified and for whom this is their first interaction with BLAST. If they end up in a place where it's one of those events where the coaches are the ones representing the team in that meeting, rather than the players, then we just hope the coaches relay the information well enough and we kind of have to assume that based on this relationship that we've built together. The way I see this is that we have a clear structure in place to be able to manage whatever challenge there may be, whether that be team-related, player-related, talent-related, whatever it is. From day one we've instilled very clear ways to communicate, and we've always felt very good about the approach. It seems like the players have felt good and the teams have felt good with that approach. It even goes all the way back to 2017 at our first-ever event [in Copenhagen]. Everything is on fire, the broadcast is not live, and everyone is saying, 'Why aren't the teams going mental? Why aren't the players outraged on Twitter?' Because we told them! We told them every step of the way what was going on, why nothing was happening, what we were working on to fix it, etc. We've done this ever since then, and I think that's why in a lot of instances you'll probably see that not a lot of fuss is kicked up about some something because we manage it behind the curtains, as we should. And that is what I would expect if I were a player, a team, a coach, or tournament organiser in anything I would attend. So that's kind of the structure we have and why we would expect anyone within that ecosystem to follow those paths if they have issues. And then we'll address them and handle them accordingly. But of course, some things are bigger and take longer. That's just the way of the business.
How has BLAST as a company been affected by the pandemic?
I think just like with everyone else, it was obviously a huge blow to the organisation on the level you'd expect when something of this magnitude hits. And when I say blow, it's also just an emotional and mental blow for everyone working because it's hard to, like we are right now, just sit in your home working all day without seeing anyone. From a business point of view, we actually ended up being in this weird situation where — and I'm sure other TOs and other production companies are in a similar world — all of a sudden the entire 'normal world' of entertainment looked at esports for help. Because they could see, 'Well, hang on, they're managing to fully produce their circuit. It's online, but it's going on'. And we just saw an astronomical increase in requests for content, live events and tournaments in various games. That amount of inbound work was overwhelming, we've tried to cherry-pick some of the things that we've felt we could do the best job at. But something we feel very proud of is that we haven't asked employees to take salary cuts while we get through this, there haven't been massive layoffs due to this. There are rings in the water, which are impacts that we can't control. The more obvious ones are like, we're going to an arena in X country, but the event is not happening anymore. Then, of course, there was a lot of people and things lined up to make that happen, and that's not possible anymore. And we obviously can't go throwing money in all directions where our intentions lay and I don't think any company in the world would or could do that. So I think on just a base level, making sure that we take good care of our employees, sending work kits home to whoever needed them, upgrading their entire living situation so that they can work as best as possible from home, was a crucial part of that.
When you look at it from a commercial point of view, it's challenging. You're going from having a lot of sponsors on the table, which luckily for us are still on our table and we're thankful for that. But of course, they would turn to us and say: 'Hang on, you don't have X event in X city where we were expecting this level of exposure'. So what we had to do was to scramble and try to restructure, rebuild what a product is for our partners. That's also why you saw a big increase in the types of content we did, some of which got praised a lot on Twitter. That was our reshuffling to make sure we add value for our partners, but also for our viewers. We can't just slap more logos everywhere like a race car driver's suit because then the fans would be up in arms. So what we could do was find these more elegant ways of elevating the broadcast, bringing in pieces that the fans would hopefully think are fun and engaging, like it seemed they did, and we had happy partners because all of a sudden they've gotten something that made up for the empty space somewhere else in our arrangement. So I think that's what mostly happened... I have family working in theatre and other businesses, they obviously just had to go home and didn't know when they would return. We were in the exact opposite situation, all of a sudden we were in sixth gear, all cylinders were firing to try and manage all of the inbound requests, try to manage all of our current IP and make sure that lives on and works better in this Covid world. Yeah, we're just in a good place. I mean, we managed to close a funding round, I'm still blown away by the fact that our CEO managed to do that during Covid, and I think that's a testament to what we do and how we do it.
ESL and DreamHack have announced that their English language broadcasts will be streamed exclusively on Twitch in 2021 and 2022. And while you have reached agreements with local broadcast partners, like the BBC in the UK, you're still streaming on all platforms. Is an exclusivity deal with a streaming platform something that you're considering?
We can probably split that into two. We have the more traditional broadcast like you highlighted, the BBC deal that came in, which I think was very exciting. And then the more core world, if we can call it that, with Twitch or YouTube, where the more native audience watches. I think when touching on broadcasters in the more traditional sense, that remains very much one of our biggest commitments to what we try to do from a distribution point of view. I feel pretty confident saying that I think we have hands-down the best broadcast distribution team anywhere in esports, if you look at the amount of output we're doing; we're being broadcast in 120 countries and territories, what we're delivering those countries and territories is up to par with what they are used to receiving, like the Olympics, World Cups, Superbowls, and that's because we take that delivery seriously. And I think what that helps us with is the legitimacy, the stamp of approval in the more mainstream world, which is great because that helps with that narrative when talking to partners, when fans see it on Twitch but their mum notices it on the BBC...all of that just ties it all together.
When we then look at Youtube and Twitch, and thinking about exclusive partnerships, etc., our approach there is just to make sure that we want it to be accessible in the places where our audience is, and we can see that on both platforms. I don't want to rule out the thought of us maybe being exclusive on one of them, but what remains the same is that, whatever platform we're on, we're trying to maximise how we can replicate what we do in the normal broadcast world there. I think Gaules is one of our big success stories in how close we've worked with him almost since our day one and what that has grown into. We obviously take zero credit for the number of people he manages to get on his broadcast, that's all his work. But allowing us to be a platform for him to engage with his audience, it's stuff like that which is crucial, and I think going into next year and what comes next, that is something we will be exploring even more. I think for most people tuning in they'll probably see that there is most likely already a broadcast in their native tongue on Twitch or on YouTube, and that is also due to our broadcast distribution team's effort. So that will continue and what we will do is lean in heavier on trying to figure out, 'We have Gaules in Brazil, how do we create a more meaningful connection between him and our broadcast, and tie it all together?' That's kind of the focus of what comes next for us, not just with him but everyone on that side of things.
At the end of 2018, I spoke with Steen [Laursen] (then the Vice President of Communications and Brand at RFRSH, the company that owned BLAST at the time) about the possibility of running a Major. He said that "it would be natural at some point" for BLAST to do a Major. Since then, the company has grown quite a lot and you're running events that are much bigger and have a lot more teams involved. Is that still a dream of yours? Are you in talks with Valve?
Well, I think when you look at the Majors, no one can take away the prestige that they (Valve) have managed to instil in the community, and I love that and respect that fully. I think that's where we—back to the point around narrative over a season, we look at how everything can tie together nicely, and with Majors they're a bit more one-off, they come in and take a lot of space, but also give a ton of prestige to the ecosystem, so it's just something we're naturally looking at as well. I don't want to rule out that we may host one at some point in the future. If we're talking to Valve or not, I'll let you speculate on that [laughs], just to see how the community reacts. But I mean, for me, as someone who goes back to the early 2000s sleeping under my table at LAN events for my keyboard and mouse not to get stolen, you know, it would be an incredible honour to do a Major, and I honestly believe that we would be able to do the best one to date — I feel confident about that. So that's my personal take. From a company perspective, we take it seriously. It is in our mind that we would like to do it, but it would have to fit in, not necessarily with our narrative for the season, but at least with what we are as a company and what we're trying to achieve in that given year. That's kind of how we approach it. It's in our minds, our own circuit is obviously at the front of our minds when it comes to that, but yeah, doing a Major would be incredible and I feel like we would knock it out of the park. I hope that fans would agree.