In a recent interview with Slingshot, Ninjas in Pyjamas CEO Hicham Chahine said, “For us the brand goes first. The players know that, management know that. NiP is an organization of rank comes first, not the player first. So if it needs to be a change — I hear a lot of people screaming Friberg, but it can be Get_RighT and F0rest — okay. So if there’s something that’s not working, no player is at peace at NiP at any point. Just so the fans are clear of that. Even Get_RiGhT and f0rest and Xizt can go.”
This may be one of the funniest statements I’ve ever heard from an esports CEO. It’s so perfect that the first time I read it, I thought it was a parody. I had to check the date to make sure it wasn’t April 1 again.
I suppose we’ll start with the phrase “if there’s something that’s not working, no player is at peace at NiP at any point.” We have to question what NiP means by something that’s not working. Fundamentally, the main priority of esports teams is to make enough profit to stay afloat. In practice, many of the top teams are competitive out of necessity. They lack the cultural cache and resources to survive on mediocrity, and the nature of CS demands a high level of dedication simply to stick around. Obviously they want to win tournaments and defeat rival orgs — but they also want to escape that feast-or-famine paradigm. Because of that, many orgs strive to tread the line between financial and competitive success and ask themselves important questions: Can I get away with buying out this superstar player without threatening our liquidity? Can I get rid of this legacy player, knowing the team will take a hit in brand recognition, followers and money, for the potential to get better results? How much can we invest into the future without dooming our present?
Once an esports organization reaches the top of the pyramid, it receives way more opportunities than its rivals. The organization seemingly acquires along with it a strong brand value recognized by tournaments and players (not necessarily true, but I’ll get to that in a later point). Tournaments want those teams to attend. Players want to join those teams to find success. NiP was the strongest team in the early era of CS:GO and catapulted that success to build an empire. Yet somehow, NiP slowly squandered it all away until reaching the rut in which it currently sits.
When Astralis went to Heroic and asked for Lukas “gla1ve” Rossander, he went up and joined. When Luminosity hit a rut at the end of 2015, it added Epitacio “TACO” de Melo and Lincoln “fnx” Lau. When Fnatic “failed” by exiting a tournament in the quarterfinals with Markus “pronax” Wallsten, the team immediately dropped him to get Dennis “dennis” Edman from G2. Throughout the years, other organizations and teams made high-profile moves for the sake of being the best. Meanwhile, NiP just kept switching its fifth player. So I’ll agree with Chahine’s statement if we add a second part. No player is at peace at NiP at any point — so long as it’s the fifth player.
What makes it even funnier is that NiP had numerous chances to pick up great talent but failed to capitalize on any of them. NiP got none of the four stars of LGB. Freddy “KRiMZ” Johannson and Olof “olofmeister” Kajbjer were acquired by Fnatic, dennis joined Kinguin, and Simon “twist” Eliasson ended up on Flipsid3; over the years, twist would consistently turn them down whenever NiP went searching for a fifth. NiP couldn’t get Jesper “JW” Wecksell to leave Fnatic despite JW really wanting to join. They missed all of their chances on non-Swedish players open to joining mixed teams, including Rain, Jkaem, RUBINO or any of the Danes. They lost their chance to get pronax after Fnatic booted him. Hell, NiP had more than one chance to get anyone involved in the insane Fnatic/Godsent split of 2016 that left NiP as the best Swedish team by default. Even Joakim “disco doplan” Gidetun, a player who stood in for NiP with success, ended up joining Fnatic before the Ninjas.
It’s even funnier considering that NiP did make changes — to the parts that were working. Maikel “Maikelele” Bill added an aggressive playmaking element that the team needed. Despite striking in five tournament finals, Aleksi “allu” Jalli was a great AWPer who could have been a legitimate star on the team. Jacob “Pyth” Mourujärvi performed his roles fairly well, and though he didn’t light the world on fire, he wasn’t even close to the primary problem. When Maikelele returned, NiP did well again, only to boot him again. At that point, Maikelele would rather place his bets on an unproven Dignitas lineup than stick around in NiP.
At the height of its success, Ninjas in Pyjamas was the dream goal of almost every aspiring champion. Now those players look at NiP and likely think of it as a pitstop. Get a paycheck, get some experience and wait till a spot opens up in a better team. Whether it’s clear skies or a rainy day, somehow the fifth man will find himself kicked out into the street. Is this the type of brand impression they think is a success?
The only thing even more ludicrous is Chahine’s “brand goes first” line. The NiP brand’s biggest value right now is in CS:GO, as it have retained a favorable legacy stretching back to the early days of 1.6. Naturally, they had the most success and history in that area.
A simplistic way of understanding the scenario is that teams implicitly work as marketing agencies. They parlay their players’ success and image to get sponsorships, which then gets them money to stay afloat and reinvest into bigger and better things. Esports teams don’t inherently have brands in the beginning. They have to build public recognition through their players, creating strong associations with their rosters that cultivate fan loyalty. This is a double-edged sword as your presence in the scene can collapse as soon as roster changes happen. That’s why there aren’t a million Dignitas CS:GO fans still rooting for the organization; now that their vaunted five man roster became North, the brand lacks the resilience to retain their fanbase. A team can establish lasting brand recognition, but it takes prolonged success across multiple games. This is the ideal for any business. Those names create a set of public expectations and an established culture that unites the fanbase. Even if talented/popular players leave, the organization will preserve without lasting damage to its popularity. The current Fnatic League of Legends lineup is like this to an extent (they still have a few superstar names though).
The NiP organization hasn’t done anything substantial to cement brand loyalty outside of the core four players. CS:GO fans buy their stickers because GeT_RiGhT, f0rest, friberg and Xizt are hugely beloved figures in the scene, not because they are frantic supporters of NiP. The players are the brand, and if they go, NiP doesn’t have a leg on which to stand. Even in terms of attractiveness among competitive players, most of the best prospects would have them as a low choice. Other top organizations have at least shown they are willing to do whatever it takes to make a strong lineup. This at least presents an image of meritocratic advancement, and pickups feel like they have a fair shake at becoming valued, trusted members. Recent history shows that hasn’t been the case with NiP. I’ll make a prediction: if GeT_RiGhT, f0rest and Xizt go, so does NiP’s future as a CS:GO team.