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FaceIt co-founder on ECS Season 2, over-saturation and future seasons

Slingshot’s Vince Nairn had the chance to talk to FaceIt co-founder Michele Attisani about wrapping up the recent ECS LAN Finals, future seasons of ECS and what to make of all this over-saturation mess.

Vince Nairn: How would you sum up Season 2 of ECS and what you thought went well?

Michele Attisani: I think it was a very interesting season. We’ve seen a lot more even playing field for a lot of teams, especially Europe. I’m sure you know we had a six team tie for the last slot in the LAN finals, which is kind of unheard of. It was very tight situation between all the teams until the last match. It was very exciting to watch and follow that. When it comes to the LAN finals, I think we had a really great showing from all the teams that came to Anaheim. Overall we were super happy with the event. We were able to implement a lot of new features and things that were proposed by the governing committee of ECS. We’re actually able to implement quite a lot of the feedback, probably all of the feedback we got, including using the player booths. Using the Valve coaching rules. Having 24/7 practice rooms for the players. So overall we got a very useful feedback from everyone, and we’re very happy with how Season 2 went. I think maybe another point to add is the resurgence of American teams. I think we’ve seen it clearly at the finals again where we had in the top four teams, we have two North American teams and then in the final, Optic with a rematch with the ELEAGUE finals.

VN: What appealed to you about picking Anaheim for the Season 2 site?

MA: First of all, you know that ECS is an international league. So we put the same focus and attention on supporting both the European and North American region. It was kind of a natural fit for us to do one final in Europe and the second in NA. When we started looking, we looked at a lot of different venues and states and also the concentration of CSGO fans, and people that play on FaceIt and watched ECS. Obviously we realized that California has a really high concentration of CSGO fans and ECS fans, therefore we kind of focused on California. It was on the short list of potential regions. Looking at California at itself, we looked at a bunch of different venues. We really liked Anaheim for a number of reasons. It’s very accessible and cheap in terms of travel and accommodations for fans to come in and watch. The arena is pretty spectacular. It already has a name when it comes to esports because, obviously, Blizzcon is there, and MLG has run a number of very successful esports events from Anaheim. We wanted to kind of leverage the success of other events as well.

VN: Living in this state of over-saturation we’re in now with all these events and tournaments that have popped up in the last year — yours being one of them, of course — what can you do stick out among the field that is getting continuously more crowded?

MA: For us, I think we’ve been one of the first organizers in Counter-Strike. We started even with like small tournaments. We started with tournaments that were $1,500 in prize money and we had all the top teams in the world participating, which is quite funny if you look back. And it even wasn’t that long ago to be honest. We really built it from there, and for us it’s always been about the integrity of the competition. Having the best possible format and schedule and respecting all the feedback we receive from the players and teams. So that always worked really well for us because even if we were, when we started we were a very small company in esports. Now we’re definitely a lot bigger. What really gave us an opportunity to keep going is we were putting in a lot of love in the products and trying to make it fun and entertaining and community focused. We were putting a lot of love into how we dealt with players and respecting their feedback and opinions. And that went a long way for us. We got a lot back and it paid off for us. That’s why still today, if you look at Reddit posts and tweets and so on, all the players are saying ECS and ELEAGUE are setting the standards in terms of esports tournaments. Obviously, that’s really humbling, and that’s where we want to put most of our focus in, getting them to love us and continue to participate. And on top of that with ECS, comes also a very professional structure from a financial and commercial standpoint. All the teams have a vested interest in the long-term success of the league because they’re a shareholder as well. They have a revenue share. In terms of prize money and participation fees and so on, ECS is currently the largest league in Counter-Strike with over $3 million per year. Put all those components together on top of the fact that the teams have multi-year participation agreements signed with us, we can keep ECS a premium event for Counter-Strike for years to come.

With over-saturation, I’ve been asked that question a lot lately. Something I’d like to say is yes, I think there was over-saturation this year, and to a certain degree there will probably be next year as well. At the same time, I feel the problem comes from not the fact that there are too many tournaments, but everyone still needs to find their own space in the ecosystem. A lot of tournaments is not a bad thing. As long as the players, teams and organizers all decide how to focus on different specific areas. For example, some tournaments are more regional or have special meaning for some teams. Maybe you have a French tournament for the best teams that are French. Some tournaments could be European only. Some are international. I feel like there is space for everyone. It’s just a matter of finding the right spots for every competition to work in.

VN: I heard a lot of good things from people about ECS Season 2, but if there was one thing I heard from people that they didn’t like was the timing of some of the things, whether it was the announcement of the LAN or even things like prize pool distribution not being known. What are you guys planning to do in the future to address those things?

MA: There were a couple of separate topics in this. The announcement itself was about two months before the event. I don’t think that’s enough. Next year we definitely want to do it earlier, but it wasn’t that last minute by esports standards. But definitely from that standpoint, we already have a schedule locked for 2017 that has been agreed with the teams and players. We’re still finalizing on the venues, so those announcements will come a bit later, but definitely a lot before what we did this year. We are gonna announce the venues 4-5 months before the events. Have a bit more time for fans to buy their tickets, arrange travels and so on. When it comes to distribution side, and I think that was the most controversial topic. I don’t think we’ve ever been hiding how the prize money works and the distribution and how the financials of ECS work. We’ve always been very open with anyone that asked. Sometimes I find it quite funny that people don’t even ask for things then complain about us not being transparent. Just ask. There’s nothing secret here. It’s just a matter of asking. Especially when it comes to people I know very well personally and they have my personal cell phone number. It’s not that hard. The reason why it wasn’t communicated broadly a lot of time before is, as you know, we have a governing committee that makes certain decisions. We elected to change prize money distribution from Season 1 to Season 2. That was an agreement with the teams and the players, and it took everyone a couple months to get on the same page. And that’s why the distribution for Season 2 was defined (late). But it definitely wasn’t a matter of not willing to be transparent. It’s just a matter of getting everyone on the same page.

VN: How do you evaluate success for ECS? Likewise, from some of your other answers it seems there will definitely be another season of ECS. So how do you evaluate success, and what are the things you’ve taken from the first seasons that you look to apply in the future?

MA: That’ a great question. We have a number of key values that drive ECS. Definitely the first is how seriously the players and teams take this competition, and how well they regard this competition. From that standpoint, we always have gone the extra mile in going to make sure they had the highest regard for ECS or any of our competitions outside ECS that we organize and run. I think that’s the most important key value for us. That activates some other very beneficial effects, that the fans are also following and watching and they get engaged with the content, which is an important factor. From that standpoint, we are very happy. We had a great viewership. I know a lot of people don’t like to talk about it, but the reality is after Valve changed the rules on skins gambling and betting, viewership went down pretty dramatically. I know a lot of people are still in denial when it comes to talking about this topic. I think we should all be realistic and not hide. But for us, we’ve seen that viewership was actually in line with Season 1, which is quite incredible. We didn’t expect that. Comparing overall CSGO viewership, which went down pretty drastically. On top of that, we’ve also seen some pretty positive signals in terms of new growth in CSGO viewership. Obviously the commercial success is important as well because that’s what makes the entire thing sustainable in the long run. Obviously, for us, ECS is a huge investment and we’re here to run this for the next 10, 20, 30 years. That’s how we structured and how we built it. From that, I can be very happy because in terms of sponsorship and content distribution, we had some incredible results this year, some revenues generated that were unprecedented in esports. It’s been a great year for everyone, but it was a fantastic year for ECS. Just to give you an idea, this year we distributed our content on TV as well in over 35 countries, and we had really huge wins from a commercial standpoint. And still this is just the ground floor. What you’re looking at for next year is pretty incredible. I think it’s pretty clear to everyone now, for example, what we’ve seen with the BAMTech and Riot Games deal with League of Legends rights. This is definitely the direction the market is taking.

VN: Do you as a tournament organizer feel any more pressure to produce the best events given the rising stakes? Whether that’s aiming for the best production or talent team — and not that you don’t already strive for that, but is there even more pressure now that the market and competitors are growing?

MA: Absolutely, and we love it. Because we feel that’s what pushes the industry forward and pushes everyone to do better, improve. We see it as a positive force. People, for example, we work with Turner on ELEAGUE as well, and we’ve been learning so much from them in terms of production, how to tell the stories of the players behind the game, if you look at all the content we produced in and around Anaheim. I like to think they also learned from us in certain aspects as well, maybe the technical esports side on how you follow the game and spectate the game and tell the stories in game. So I think having more companies in the space doing this and trying to — everyone’s striving to get to the highest possible level of quality. I think it’s great for the industry. We’re not in an industry where we could receive a monopoly in a positive way. We’re not mature enough yet. We need to grow up, we need to advance, and competition is great.

VN: One of the main things when ECS started was the players having an ownership stake. How has that worked out? Is that enough of an incentive for players to stick with ECS in the future?

MA: I think it’s not the only element, for sure, but it’s part of the bigger picture. Obviously, equity for them means having a long-term vested interest in success of the product. For them it’s not just to participate and get the money available for that season, but it’s helping us build something that is here to last and for them to strive in. Equity comes through voting rights as well and the opportunity to actually have a say in the future of the league. On top of that, there are financial incentives as well. It’s not just equity and play for charity, we’re also the largest in terms of payout. That’s a relevant component as well. I’d love to be able to say they just joined because they love us but obviously it’s the full picture. They have a long-term vested interest. They have a say. The best possible outcome in terms of financially as well. I feel they also have a fun time when they come to our events. We make sure the integrity of the competition is the highest as well. That’s how we want to keep it.

Cover photo courtesy of FaceIt/ECS