Founding Extra Salt: How two software engineers created an NA brand in the middle of a pandemic
We spoke to the co-founders of Extra Salt for some insight on what it takes to build a fresh North American CS:GO organisation.
The past 18 months have not been kind to North American Counter-Strike.
A scene that was once the target of derision, the butt of the "NA CS" joke when situations went awry in matches to its "EU CS" counterpart, had blossomed from a fledgling state into one that boasted a multitude of hyper-competitive lineups over the course of five years. From the odd team that made it to an international event only to go out in last place, to having three or more teams among the top 20 in the world, an Intel Grand Slam victory, and a Major title, North America had finally become a robust region that could stand on its own in global Counter-Strike.
And then most of it came crumbling down.
A global pandemic. ESL Pro League slots cut. No Majors. VALORANT. A host of circumstantial issues created a perfect storm as players and teams quickly found themselves without an organisation to call home in the region. Teams that had hit their stride just prior to play being moved online — Gen.G winning DreamHack Anaheim, ATK impressing at ESL Pro League Season 10 Finals and subsequently being signed to Cloud9 — began to falter, and with funding drying up, salaries too high to make any return, and little support from Valve, organisations began to flock to VALORANT, where they hoped to get lucky in the market early on.
The effect wasn’t immediate — relatively few top North American players made an instant switch — but with almost no organisations looking to sign teams over the course of 2020, more and more pros began to take their leave from CS:GO, some more out of necessity for a salary than true love for the new title, at least at the time.
Enter, Extra Salt.
Why then, with seemingly every established organisation not already housing a top team retreating from Counter-Strike, or looking towards teams in Europe, did Extra Salt co-founders Daniel van Flymen and David Alson believe that it was the right time to invest in a North American lineup and create an entirely new brand heading into 2021? What actually goes into creating and running a new organisation in the current climate? Who actually are these founders, who picked up a team just when the subtop of North American Counter-Strike seemed set to fade away, and what made them do it?
The pair of software engineers, based out of New York, have had their eye on the scene for quite a while, and are firm in stating that their foray into CS:GO was not an impulsive decision by any means. Van Flymen’s history with Counter-Strike dates as far back as 2001, when he founded Damage Control in CS 1.6, with whom he went on to represent South Africa at the World Cyber Games and a handful of international tournaments. In 2008, he moved abroad to New York to pursue a career in software engineering, where he would eventually meet Alson at a startup company.
"In high school, esports weren't that big, but video games were really the reason I got into programming and into tech in the first place," Alson explains to HLTV.org. "I think that's true for a lot of engineers I've met who play video games." The shared passion over video games, and esports as a whole, drew the two engineers closer together, and they decided that they would look to enter esports when the opportunity presented itself.
That moment came toward the end of 2020, when Cloud9 announced that the contracts of Johnny "JT" Theodosiou, Ian "motm" Hardy, Aran "Sonic" Groesbeek, and coach Tiaan "T.c" Coertzen had been terminated due to a violation of protocols relating to COVID-19 at the organisation’s team house. Josh "oSee" Ohm, who did not live at the residence, remained on contract with Cloud9 , but was firm in wanting to continue playing with the lineup, while Ricky "floppy" Kemery made the decision to join Cloud9’s now-defunct European 'Colossus' roster.
Van Flymen, who remains a household name in South African Counter-Strike to this day, was familiar with some of the players already, had a connection with T.c, and had been keeping a close eye on the space for potential places to dive in with Alson. "When we caught wind of [the players’] departure from Cloud9, we decided to jump in and build a brand off the back of it," he says. "That was the beginning of Extra Salt.
"We came into the scene because we believe that the future of esports is bright, and CS is going to be a major part of that as it evolves. We picked up this roster because we think they have a ton of potential under the leadership of T.c. We also understand how to build and grow teams, and the ingredients necessary for a team to succeed. Acquiring an EU tier 1 team would've been extremely expensive, and even prohibitive, to a point."
When pressed further on pursuing a North American lineup over a European one, van Flymen and Alson explained that being based in North America hasn’t precluded the team from participating in international events, and even went so far as to say that from a marketability standpoint, it may even be easier to grow the brand of a North American team at the moment, away from the claustrophobic environment of the European circuit. "Good brands don't happen by accident," van Flymen states. "We've spoken with a bunch of other orgs who are very invested in CSGO, and still believe that CSGO is the most engaging esport to watch. So with the return of LAN, I think we'll see more engagement."
Building a brand from scratch also doesn’t come easy, and both van Flymen and Alson spent large portions of their early days familiarizing themselves and establishing relationships with other brands, tournament organisers, media, and other players, as well as producing high-quality content that goes largely unnoticed, such as Twitter banners for matches, in order to give the brand a strong presence and image.
Right now, the two co-founders are entirely focused on growing their partnerships and applying a players-first mentality to help incrementally attain success, operating the organisation much like they would a tech startup. "We try to apply different tactics that we've seen in terms of creating an environment where people can thrive, focusing on creating a team-first mindset," Alson asserts. "Which means that people feel like they are working for each other as opposed to working for the org or working for the boss.
"There's a lot more freedom, there's a lot more flexibility for experimenting and trying new things, and just in terms of how we operate on a day-to-day basis, we put in things that we've seen succeed at startups. Easier communication, open lines between players and us as owners, and so far we've seen it work very well."
This approach seems to be reflected in all aspects of the way the duo run Extra Salt. To ensure they aren’t repeating the mistakes of those that have come before, van Flymen and Alson have touched base with other organisations, and keep a constant ear to the ground to stay in line with what their players need at any moment.
"What we've heard and what we've seen is that the best way to approach this is by taking feedback from the people who are actually in the game, the players, the coach, the analysts, everybody who's doing work for the matches, and implementing that throughout practices and upcoming matches," Alson says.
"What we've heard from other orgs is that the org may take direction from people who are not actually playing the game, or are not actually in the changing environment, so for esports in particular — which holds true in tech as well — things change very quickly, so when the meta changes, when tactics change, when strategies change in different regions, we need to be able to take that feedback, learn, and react to it very quickly. So it's important that the players and the coach feel empowered to learn, make decisions in real time, and be able to adjust, as opposed to a top-down ‘this is how we do things’ approach. It works much better and allows us to operate in a rapidly changing environment."
One example of such feedback that Alson and van Flymen acted upon was entirely giving control of scheduling matters to the team — whether it be practices, travel, or bootcamps. The co-owners also heeded advice from players and organisations in regards to lodging, opting to set players up in their own apartments with access to amenities and team budgets for healthy food, rather than prescribe anything from the top-down or force them into shared accommodations.
The player-focused strategy paid off for Extra Salt in the first half of 2021, where they secured wins in a majority of domestic events to qualify for a gamut of European tournaments. However, although they fared well in their FunSpark ULTI Europe Finals appearance, managing a runner-up finish to BIG with Justin "FaNg" Coakley securing an MVP medal, their other tournament bids were less than ideal, including last place finishes at DreamHack Masters Spring and IEM Summer.
The early exits, combined with a second place finish back home in ESEA Premier Season 37, left the team out of contention for ESL Pro League Season 14, and staring down another stretch of domestic events to start the second part of the year. So what do van Flymen and Alson consider acceptable results now, as the tournament break comes to an end and the next portion of the calendar kicks off?
"I don't like the word acceptable — we're treating lifting trophies and doing well as a technical problem," van Flymen counters. "We're grinding, we're putting in the hours, we're putting in the work, and we're establishing structures in the team that set us up for success. If we get disappointing results, we adapt and we change quickly. We listen to our players, we listen to our coach, and we figure out how to iterate in a more efficient way. I think that's a key difference between maybe the way that we're doing things and the way that other teams have done things in the past.
"We want to develop this iterative strategy to help us learn very quickly where things are not working, and help us adapt very quickly with a solution. Obviously not making EPL was a disappointment, but we're back on the grind, practice starts again, players are well rested and we think that we've got some of the best players in the scene. These ingredients are going to set us up for success and in the near future, it's going to come together.
"The players' happiness is very important to us. We want to build an organisation that players love working with and being a part of. I think it would be kind of bad if we had an organisation that players hated working for but lifted trophies, so we think the two go hand in hand. From an individual point of view, I want to see more recognition for some of the players that we have. Some of them are such talents, and we think that they've just scratched their potential. In terms of lifting trophies, obviously we want to make it to [PGL Major] Stockholm and surprise everybody there, and just keep growing, doing it slowly and steadily, and building something that lasts in the esports space."
The two co-founders put firm faith in the talent of the players under their banner, and believe that results will come, given time. Both are also quick to show appreciation for the reception the organisation has received from the community thus far. "One of the big things that has been consistent since we started the org is that we've gotten a lot of support from the NA CS scene, and even the global CS scene, but in particular NA CS," Alson says. "When we first started this, there was obviously a lot of hype around us picking up the ex-Cloud9 roster, and the support we've gotten has been tremendous — we really appreciate it."