Splyce co-owner Marty Strenczewilk embraces the ever-changing nature of running an esports organization.
As the industry continues to shape itself, Strenczewilk said he’s happy to be one of the people who will help do that. There are many lingering questions among many top esports — franchising in League of Legends, over-saturation in Counter-Strike, uncertainty in Overwatch — and Strenczewilk says it’s all part of forming this industry into what each individual game will look like in the future.
Slingshot’s Vince Nairn talked to Strenczewilk at length about many of the big-picture issues in esports. In Part 1 of a two-part conversation, Strenczewilk talks about League of Legends franchising, Overwatch League and why it’s valuable to have dissenting opinions on major topics. (Editor’s note: This is the third in a string of interviews with executives of esports organizations looking at the future of the industry and major topics within. Check out previous editions with Phoenix1 managing partner Michael Moore and a two–part interview with compLexity founder Jason Lake).
Vince Nairn: First, the last time we checked in was before worlds in September, and a lot happened in all your team’s titles since then. How would you sum up the last seven months or so?
Marty Strenczewilk: I think no different than I say about the industry itself. 2016 was the “Hey, we’re here” year. 2017 is the really establishing roots year and 2018 will be the massive growth year. I think that’s true across the board. I don’t think that’s just us, but it’s clear that was our path as well.
2016 was “Hey, we matter.” 2017 is firmly establishing ourselves as top tier Call of Duty, League of Legends, building it back up in CS:GO as our three premier divisions. Expanding into a couple of new games with Street Fighter and Halo. Then 2018 will be I think the real massive growth that everyone is expecting. I can’t tell you who, but I can tell you we have a big name non-endemic sponsor we’ll be announcing in a couple weeks, and that kind of stuff wasn’t possible six months ago. And it’s not about a dollar growth partnership. That’s just a shift in the industry.
VN: Obviously in League of Legends, you were coming off the berth in worlds last year, and you made the playoffs in the spring split but didn’t have the results maybe you were expecting. You made the coaching change and such. What didn’t necessarily work for the League team this spring?
MS: So think about the fact that our League team, three of our players are 18 years old and the fourth one has the same length of pro career. He joined at the same time as the 18 year olds. And the fifth has a whopping extra split on them. Trashy, he’s the senior guy with an extra whole split. So when they came in 2016, a big part of what Yamato (former coach Jakob Mebdi) brought to the table was literally teaching them how to play League of Legends. Imagine breaking down the game to the roots and really teaching it. They’re all really smart, talented kids with incredibly high technical skill at the game. But teaching them basic ideals around how to play the game, once that was done, you have the fundamental. It all goes back to the (San Antonio) Spurs and Tim Duncan: Once you have the fundamentals, they stick with you. You just have to keep working on them.
Now they’re at the point of: How do we get to the next levels of team identity, ability to adapt, expanding our game play, things like that. The players grew to a point where they weren’t taking as much from practice anymore. They were out-growing the coach, and that’s OK. Everyone has different strengths. Every coach in every sport has different strengths. Some are offensive geniuses and terrible at defense, for instance. And this was (Yamato’s) particular strength: really setting foundation and infrastructure. But we thought the next logical step was for us to get somebody with a more advanced micro approach to the game, and also expanding the staff. Yamato is notoriously a one-man show, and that’s kind of his thing. It works really well for him. But I believe very much that the diversity of opinions and the ability to bring extra — there are only 24 hours in the day. So by adding someone we are literally adding more hours to the day, and I can tell you from being in our Slack channels just seeing Guysake and Gevous work together already, it’s kind of beautiful to see because the amount they’re able to accomplish in the same amount of time, because they’re two people who are passionate about something instead of just one.
VN: The League atmosphere is a weird one to begin with at the moment. It’s been widely reported that franchising is coming to North America, but to the best of my knowledge it won’t in Europe until 2019. How have you tried to navigate this weird cloud, for lack of a better term, with how that’s concerned and how the league’s going to look going forward?
MS: At the end of the day, esports as a whole, not just League of Legends, is still figuring itself out. I’ll draw a parallel to Call of Duty where the World League didn’t exist two years ago, and this year it looked very different, and I’m sure next year it will look very different. They’re figuring out what that game is. My best way to tackle that is to best position myself to be a partner, which means help figure out the best way to (solve these problems): Offer my input and make sure I can get the best system to play in I can while also keeping a firm, close grasp on what’s going on. I don’t have any dissolution that I’m this all powerful force for publishers and tournament organizers, which I think maybe there are some teams that do. “We’re gonna tell them how to do it and they’re gonna listen to us.” At the same time, I don’t think I’m some patsy who goes “Oh, thank you for letting us play. That’s so nice of you.” I think there’s a nice middle ground where we’re partners and we work together because at the end, doesn’t everyone have the same goal?
Whatever esport we’re talking about, the goal is for it to grow tremendously and make everybody a lot of money. At the end of the day, it’s a business, and those are the two goals of any business: to remain relevant and make revenue. None of it really scares me because there are so many good opportunities to make it better across all of the titles. CS:GO has over-saturation, League of Legends has infrastructure questions. Overwatch is a complete black hole. I don’t think there’s any game we can point to and say “I’m happy with how this is. Don’t adjust anything.”
VN: Franchising strikes a chord with a lot of people in League of Legends, and one person I talked to was Michael Moore of Phoenix1, who said stability was really the big thing for him. Is that any different in Europe? How much would the idea of franchising help from that standpoint?
MS: Let’s keep in mind, and I think it’s an important point, that we don’t all have the same opinion, even within a region. We all have very differing opinions about what this, whatever it is, should look like. I just had a call yesterday with a few team owners where we were just talking about that. What “X” should look like, and we had three different opinions on the same call. Which is great, too. That’s how you get to good stuff, by having different opinions, not one mindset. So I think that for me personally to speak about what I believe, I don’t think relegation is necessarily a bad thing. What I do think is relegation doesn’t work when it’s such a fall off to the next level. A death sentence, if you will. The old version of relegation made sense when you were trying to weed out really poor organizations, but it wasn’t because of massive VC money pushing it out without real revenue. So if it was a Dignitas or Cloud9 or somebody like that who was actually making revenue, and that’s why they’re increasing their salaries, then that’s OK. That’s good to push them to become better and to maybe push others out to get relegated.
But if it’s because you’re Team Ember and get a crap ton of money, and run your organization really poorly and collapse, that’s not good. I don’t know that there’s a perfect way to do relegation right now, and that’s why people immediately jump and say franchising. It’s the safest, if you will. There is part of me that remembers what someone pointed out to me once: The Cleveland Browns exist, where they make millions of dollars every year without investing in their team because why should they? They’re going to get a lot of money from the Dallas Cowboys and New England Patriots every year because of revenue sharing.
So that’s a real fear people have. What happens if the 10th team out of 10 goes “Screw it, we’re making money. Why do we care? Let’s just sign whoever and play.” So I understand both sides of the coin. I think that European football somehow has figured it out and somehow made it super exciting. Does that mean there aren’t flaws in it? No. Like the super teams are always the super teams. They always have the most money because they get most revenue sharing, etc. But it does make dream scenarios…The best part about all this is there are lots of ways to do it and we get to be the ones — we meaning those of us working in esports now, not any specific we — to shape what it’s going to look like in the future. And that’s fun to me. That’s what I love about esports: that we’re creating as we go.
VN: I think I have one more League of Legends question: how did you like the format for the spring split? It’s the second split in a row Europe has kind of been the guinea pig, more or less, with the best-of-twos last split and now this one. What did you make of it for this spring?
MS: What’s funny is everyone thinks we’re experimental, but all we’re doing is copying other regions. Groups are in China. Best-of-two is in China, so this isn’t really a new format. But because it’s different and everyone goes “NA first, EU second,” it must mean we’re experimenting. So your opinion is not unlike most people’s, so I don’t fault you for it. But I say that because I don’t think this was for experimentation. I think it was done because “this is what might work.” This group format specifically has challenges because in a perfect world it’s like the divisions in American football. What’s great about that is because they don’t change, you have great rivalries. The Dolphins and Bills hate each other. Been that way for decades. And part of that is they play each other so much every year and they’re both fighting for the same playoff seed. The Dolphins could care less about the Seattle seahawks because it just doesn’t affect them. And one of the things we lack in esports is really good rivalries.
G2 and us started building up one a bit last year at the end, and guess what? We don’t play them (as much) this year because we’re not in the same group. So how do you continue building that same rivalry that culminated in us meeting in the European finals when we play each other once over the course of the split and it maybe doesn’t have the weight because G2 at that point, their record was so far ahead it wasn’t an important game? For us it was, but if it’s not for both sides, it’s not nearly as exciting a game.
So I think that’s a big problem because at the end of the day esports and sports is storytelling and (the current format) kills a lot of that. It could be done right. Group format could be really cool. I think it’s all about how you build up the storytelling. I think permanent groups make a lot of sense. I think a lot of people will disagree with me because they’ll go “Oh, what if one group is loaded like the Eastern and Western Conference (in the NBA).” You know what makes basketball exciting? The Western Conference. At the end of the day I’m a fan of League of Legends. And what I love about basketball is at the end of the day, the Western Conference is so much fun to watch. The first round games are scary. And the first round games in the East are kind of a joke. So the format again isn’t perfect, but I like that we’re playing with it because the current format of “play each other a couple times every split,” a lot of the games don’t matter from a storyline. They obviously matter to the teams’ win-loss record, but not from the storylines.
In my opinion what has made the NFL one of the most successful sports leagues in the world is this rarity of (certain teams) facing each other. All of the sudden the Dallas Cowboys are gonna face for 49ers, which is a matchup for decades now, and it’s gonna be on Monday Night Football. People plan their schedules ahead to be there. That’s TSM/CLG. And when TSM and CLG play, it has that power. It has that weight because of the history there. You wanna have that same weight a lot of different times because this one time they meet will have a lot of effect on something, on their placement.
VN: I know you guys dropped your Overwatch roster last week. You said at the time you’re still interested in the game and Overwatch League. How would you sum up the Overwatch scene right now?
MS: Very expensive with little monetization. And the reason I say that is not — whenever a game gets hyped, the salaries go up, right? Teams coming in, everyone going after players, and the salaries rise. The problem is there’s no competitions for the players to play in. When the biggest event in a month is the Alienware Monthly, with a ($10,000 prize, $6,000 for first place)? That’s the state of the scene. The last major offline tournament was Vegas in December, and there’s nothing in the foreseeable future. For me, the biggest turning point was when DreamHack said they weren’t gonna do it.
Hell, DreamHack is the most economical event anywhere in the world to do a tournament because they already have the infrastructure and audience. Literally all they have to do is put up a stage and do it. And if they’re not gonna do it, then what is the future outside of Overwatch League for Overwatch esports? And the answer is not much. And I think that once Overwatch League is there, that’s a thing. Who knows, right?
But simply put, all nine of my current divisions have specific purposes. From the very top with League of Legends or Call of Duty, where it’s a flagship franchise, brings visibility or monetization, down to our really small franchises like Halo. But there’s a purpose for all of those. Halo for us was about getting into a game that has potential with an incredible — the LeBron James, so to speak, with 15-year-old Shotzzy. There has to be that type of a thing for us to want to invest in a game, and if Overwatch thing is just sit and wait for Overwatch League, I can do that without paying a squad every month.
Cover photo courtesy of Splyce/illustration by Slingshot