Who are M80 and why did the organization choose now to invest in NA Counter-Strike?
M80 realize they are not likely to do well in their upcoming international debut at ESL Pro League, but the new North American organization's roadmap extends beyond the immediate.
"We want to be an organization that wins, we're not just in esports to be in the conversation," Donald "Syyko" Muir, M80's Vice President of Esports, told HLTV regarding the organization's entry into Counter-Strike.
It's a bold statement to make as an organization only just getting off the ground, especially for a team formed around North American players in this day and age, but the explanation of what Syyko and former Complexity member Rory "dephh" Jackson are aiming for offers the promise of a new NA team that just might be doing it right.
The region has been in the doldrums for years, a plethora of notable organizations have either pulled out of NA or out of Counter-Strike entirely, and Liquid's recent transition to a majority-European roster was yet another, and significant, nail in the coffin. So, who exactly are M80, and why are they choosing to invest in an NA CS team of all things right now?
"We just feel like it is a good time," Syyko says. "There's a lot of excitement surrounding Counter-Strike 2. We heard the murmurings of the changes in the partnership system from Valve, and it just seemed like the perfect storm for someone to come into this space and really give North American Counter-Strike fans something that they've been lacking for quite a long time.
"There's a lack of diversity and teams and organizations contributing to and investing in the space, and we wanted to be one of the first to come back and say, look, this game, it's not like it's fallen off, maybe in terms of competition in North America, but in terms of player count it's been higher than ever these past few months and with Counter-Strike 2, those numbers are only going to go up.
"We see Counter-Strike as an example of a very pure esport, something where the best of the best go against each other on the biggest stages and win the biggest titles with the biggest crowds, and that's something that we want to be a part of. We want to build teams that are going to win big matches and big games and Counter-Strike is one of those big games that we feel strongly about building a team that's going to be successful."
M80 as an organization soft-launched in December 2022 with the signing of a Valorant roster — which recently fell just short of qualifying for the franchised Americas League — and has since signed Rocket League and Rainbow Six: Siege teams. The organization's CEO, Marco Mareu, was previously the COO at XSET. It is there that he connected with dephh and Syyko, who were playing and coaching, respectively, for XSET's Valorant team.
"I was really torn because it [playing CS] was something I still wanted to do," dephh explained of transitioning away from the game. "CS was my life at the time, and I remember feeling... pretty disappointed that I had to feel like I was walking away from it. Obviously, at that time Valorant was coming out, it was picking up in popularity and teams were forming very rapidly, so for me, at that time, it just seemed like the best decision.
"But there were definitely moments, even in the first year of Valorant, where I was like, why the hell am I playing Valorant? I should be playing CS."
A game you spend seven years with isn't one that is easy to just leave in the past, and dephh explained how, during the time he was away, he continued to follow competitive CS:GO. When the chance arose to create a team alongside his former head coach, Syyko, the Brit says it was a no-brainer to seize the opportunity.
"I like the fact that I left as a player and I'm returning as a coach," dephh continued. "For me, that's quite a turning point in my career. I've been very lucky to be able to work under some coaches that I really respect and they've taught me a lot. I definitely think the in-game leader and coach duo has to be a strong partnership, so for me getting into CS again, I really wanted to make sure that the caller was someone that I respected and I can trust and we can work together moving forward."
dephh added that Syyko was adamant early on in the process of forming the roster that they should get a European caller, and the pair quickly settled on Marcus "maNkz" Kjeldsen from ECSTATIC. The Dane immediately stood out to them, and dephh says he is reminded of himself in regards to how maNkz runs teams and the vision he has, something which he considered important when trying to offer NA players the experience that they can no longer gain solely from domestic play.
Leadership in NA has fatigued over the years. "You've seen some of the more respected NA players either leave [for other] games or remain on the top two teams in NA and never moved from them. So I think the grassroots guys never got the chance to learn, and I saw the same in the UK scene back when even I was playing. The players that actually might have an impact on the players that are coming up had left, or they're on teams that are kind of gatekept, so, for me it was about getting an IGL that we feel that could teach the NA guys the European style and the tier-one approach."
Michael "Swisher" Schmid was the next piece of the puzzle, who dephh and Syyko say was recommended to them in nearly every conversation, while Ethan "reck" Serrano and Adam "WolfY" Andersson were picked up in part due to their experience previously playing together with Swisher and with maNkz. In an interview with Mike "DarfMike" Winnick, Swisher also revealed that the team tried to consider other European options as their AWP, but they were too expensive and WolfY's experience with the rest of the roster made him a decent fit. Former TeamOne and 00NATION rifler Mario "malbsMd" Samayoa was the final pick for the roster, providing the star rifle power alongside Swisher.
Looking at the roster as a whole, it doesn't quite live up to Syyko's remarks that M80 wants to be an organization that fight for championships, and not one that is just in the conversation. That's no disrespect to the players, either — if the organization is taking aim at international trophies in such a densely talented landscape, these players could take years to reach the level needed to dethrone the world's best teams, if at all.
But that's just what M80 are interested in and willing to do. They want to give talent the chance to develop and gain experience, and have set their sights on winning trophies in the distant future as they work to develop and iterate on the roster they have. The organization is already taking steps toward this and plans to have the team practice in Europe for six months out of the year, and aren't in a rush to reach the top.
"We know championship teams aren't built overnight, I've seen it myself firsthand. I've seen it in other games, I've seen it in Counter-Strike. This is going to be something that takes time and we're willing to put in the time, effort, and investment to make sure that it happens."
Two issues that organizations often experience with this approach are sustaining the investment and capital needed for funding these teams — be it for lengthy bootcamps in Europe, support staff, or salaries — and players often getting poached by larger organizations when they make a name for themselves.
"That's definitely one of the challenges of coming into Counter-Strike, especially in North America," Syyko admitted. "It's an expensive venture. Obviously, you need to compete with the salaries of tier one if that's what your aspirations are, as well as the travel expenses of bringing teams to Europe to get the best possible practice, which is something we're committed to.
"It's definitely not a cheap thing to do, and I see why a lot of organizations have pulled out or have gotten into it and then pulled out pretty quickly. However, M80 is trying to do things a bit differently. We're not just an esports organization. We have a lot of exciting things coming up in the Web3 space, but I'm not sure exactly what I can talk about publicly right now."
Syyko also touched on the prospect of players being poached from their lineup, saying it's something he's dealt with before and firmly stated that being a feeder team selling off players isn't what M80 intends to be.
"We've never lost a player to poaching before, and a lot of that comes down to keeping the players happy, making sure that they're treated as family and given an actual home and not just treated as a number within a system like a lot of these other orgs are doing.
"Our players are given the proper support, they're compensated well, they're given everything that they need to succeed. If a team comes in and wants to poach them away, then they would be hard-pressed to convince these players that this new org would be a better home than what we were providing them at M80, right?
"A lot of orgs operate under a business model of selling players. It's just not something we're interested in. We're not looking to make money off of selling players that we've developed. We're looking to develop these players and compete with them. It is inevitable, it's just a part of esports, people are going to try and do it, but we're experienced with that kind of tactic. We'll deal with it as it comes."
So far, M80 have been true to their word. Their players had an extended bootcamp from the organization's team house in the US while competing in ESL Challenger League and the IEM Sydney qualifiers. They notably beat Evil Geniuses, Nouns, and Forsaken in the Challenger League before falling just short of a trip to Australia following a loss to Complexity.
Soon after, they packed their bags and flew to Endpoint's facilities in the United Kingdom to bootcamp ahead of ESL Pro League Season 18, where they are slated to make their first international appearance. The fledging lineup doesn't have a ton of experience under their belt, with only 33 maps recorded on HLTV, but as they see it, they're just getting started in what they hope is a long journey to the top.
"I'm sure we're going to go to Europe and get absolutely spanked," dephh said. "We expect it, and we're welcoming it at this point."