Eugene Shepelev, WePlay: "In the future I want 32 teams and a worldwide [academy] league"
WePlay Esports' Lead Esports Manager sat down with HLTV to talk about the Ukrainian tournament organizer's plans as well as their involvement in the academy league.
WePlay Esports, the Ukrainian tournament organizer based out of Kyiv, put together the first-ever academy league, which had the online group stage run during the summer player break before concluding with a four-team LAN at the WePlay Esports Arena.
To celebrate the momentous occasion, we sat down with Eugene Shepelev, WePlay's Lead Esports Manager, to learn more about the inner workings of the league, his thoughts about how the first season went, and what the hopes for the future are for both WePlay in the Counter-Strike space as well as for the academy league in particular.
(Photo courtesy of WePlay Holding)
WePlay Esports made headlines again after announcing that they will be running a second season of the academy league. The tournament will have the same eight teams as the inaugural season, featuring the likes of mouz NXT, fnatic Rising and Young Ninjas, but will have a different group stage, with the best-of-one round-robin being changed to two GSL-style groups from which the LAN finalists will emerge.
Read more about Mr. Shepelev's ideas for the academy league, such as expanding it to different regions around the world and adding more teams, to perhaps running it all on LAN if possible, as well as what he hopes WePlay will be able to achieve in Counter-Strike, such as one day hosting top tier events and perhaps even a Major.
Where did the idea to create an academy league come from?
The idea has been on the surface for a long time, we had a league called Forge of Masters and my idea was to get the academy teams into this "Forge of Masters" circuit. Teams and organizations like NAVI and Astralis were thinking the same thing, our desires aligned, so we agreed and here we are now, making history with the world’s first CS:GO Academy League and it honestly just feels great to have made it happen. From seeing how excited these young players were during the event, what it means to them, to seeing the future CS:GO pros develop themselves in the WePlay Academy League.
So did the idea start with Forge of Masters?
The idea was to create a large ecosystem to take the teams from amateurs through the Forge of Masters to bigger tournaments. Sadly, tier 2 Counter-Strike is a very unstable environment that is hard to work with, maybe one day we can tackle that challenge as well.
So you’re talking about creating a youth system going through to the second tier. Is your idea to have WePlay end up doing premier events and becoming a tournament organizer at the top level of Counter-Strike, as well?
We really want to do this, but let’s be realistic, it's very hard. The reason is very simple, the calendar is saturated because of a market monopoly. As soon as an opportunity presents itself, we will 100% do a tier 1 tournament, maybe even a Major like we did in Dota 2. We know that we can put on one of, if not the best, tier 1 CS:GO tournament there has ever been and we are up to the challenge.
What plans did you have for the Academy League initially? Did you just plan the first one or did you have a bigger road map?
All of our ideas are discussed with the teams. We want to experiment. We propose ideas to the teams, they review, vote, and it is either implemented or not. We really want to do something new, we want to do more content around young players, introduce them to the public, tell them who the next s1mple is, and we want to grow the number of teams so that as many organizations as possible from around the world can join us and benefit from the academy league. We would love to introduce teams from America, China and Oceania, we will make this happen eventually, this is just the start!
How did you go about selecting the first teams?
The team organizations themselves came to us with a ready pool of teams. A group of organizations that wanted to create this league, all eight of them. They were the ones who decided who would run the league and they believed in what we could do in making this a monumental moment within the CS:GO scene.
We really wanted the academies to join the Forge of Masters, it already seemed like a very interesting idea so that the teams would have experience in LAN tournaments. But around the same time, they wanted to create the league. With what we agreed, we have found the perfect balance and hence the WePlay Academy League was born.
So is this Academy League something that will stay with WePlay?
We agreed with the teams that we’ll run the first six seasons, one per quarter, but we won’t be stopping there. You can see with the success of Season 1 that this is something needed for the entire scene and I believe we will continue to improve on everything we did with the first season.
I am pleased with this opportunity and very optimistic about the future of it. We have the right teams, talent and people involved behind the scenes. I can’t wait to see what it looks like when we get to say season 3 or 4, that’s when we will see the fruits of our labour.
An Academy League isn’t something that will get you the biggest metrics, but the people who do enjoy it seem to have given really great feedback regarding production and so on, do you see this as a good way to showcase your brand?
We want to show that we can do more than just Dota 2 and host the Majors when it comes to tier 1 events. We are a very talented company that is getting stronger and more professional every day, but we are not satisfied yet and want to take things to the next level every time. We really want to keep going with projects like this Academy League and will continue to work on them, but also with CS:GO. We want to start putting on tier 1 tournaments that the community really wants to see from us, as well as RMR events, Majors, etc.
Can you share anything about WePlay’s plans for Counter-Strike outside of the Academy League?
This year is no longer available to us. We are ready to host tier 1 tournaments, including in other countries, in big arenas, but we need slots in the calendar. The two giants [ESL and BLAST] are now negotiating with each other and it is important for us to understand what the calendar will be like as a result of this. We already have some agreements in place, but we can't do anything without that.
Personally, I love how different WePlay events are. Forge of Masters 2 was probably my all-time favorite event in regards to production with the train-themed stage design, the talent’s costumes, the jazz band… It really had a lot of personality and went beyond the kind of basic, cheesy esports branding. It was really fun and fresh. WePlay really has this feeling for innovation and not just following the patterns of other organizers, is that something you plan to keep moving forward?
We love that, it's our ideology. Whenever we put together a tier 1 tournament we’ll come up with new themes in the WePlay style, that's 100% sure. We chose a more understated style for the Academy League, which will remain that way for the rest of the league’s seasons as we don't want to bore the viewer, but it will still remain in our style.
How did the inaugural Academy League season go, now that it’s behind you?
The first challenge was to finish the Dota 2 Major, the whole team was at an intense pace and that affected some of our plans. Other than that and some problems with finding talent, things went smoothly for us. If we didn't have time to prepare something for the first season, it will be fixed for the second season.
And how about the future, what would you like to see?
In the future I want 32 teams and a worldwide league. We just need time to showcase everything we have planned.
How would you go about that expansion?
If we want to invite a new team, all founding members of the league have the right to vote. This way we make sure we keep everyone involved and happy. Transparency is key in a new project like this and so far working with all of the partnered Academy League teams has been great. We have the same vision and only want to see a brighter future for CS:GO that helps improve the overall community and ecosystem.
Is the idea to move the whole league to LAN?
If the teams want to. It's all about the money. Maybe we'll develop something similar to ESL Pro League and sooner or later we'll be able to afford to run the whole league on LAN.