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 2 of the conversation, Strenczewilk talks about community fears of Overwatch League, Counter-Strike over-saturation and the Dota 2 scene. Make sure to check out Part 1. (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 Phoenix1 managing partner Michael Moore and a two–part interview with compLexity founder Jason Lake).
Vince Nairn: Regarding Overwatch and Overwatch League, I don’t know if it’s been explicitly stated anywhere (Note: The interview was conducted before Richard Lewis’ video about this topic), but this idea has very much pervaded that endemic esports owners are worried about Blizzard leaving them out of Overwatch League. Have you felt that at all?
Marty Strenczewilk: I don’t like to guess what Blizzard’s thinking because I don’t know what they’re thinking. One of the earliest things Blizzard said to me once, and I think it’s fine to say, is “Hey, we’re still working on things, but we don’t want to rush anything because we want to get it right.” And that’s good to hear because a lot of guys they rush, rush, rush to get it out there, and there’s another publisher recently saying something they’re going to do, and it was a super rushed timeline. And I was like, “Wow. I don’t know how you think you would be able to do that because I would rather see you take the time to do it right.” And it’s a game we’re not gonna get into and I think part of the reason we’re not gonna get into it is the timeline.
So (Blizzard’s patience) is really encouraging to me, and I know that in running my own business, you can set all the deadlines in the world, but things out of your control — or even in your control — can set it back. No matter what Blizzard said they were gonna do with the launch, maybe it is going to happen and maybe it isn’t. For me to guess what the inner workings around that are and why that is, why all these endemic teams haven’t been signed and ready to go. It could simply be they’re just not there. It could simply be, if all the rumors are true about them talking to sports teams, then maybe that’s where they wanted to start because they already know where they are with the endemic teams. I often say this: We are at a point in esports where we’re never short of opportunities. We’re short hours in the day. And if you’re Bobby Kotick, CEO of one of the biggest organizations in the world, I imagine his hours are extremely valuable.
So if I have to use those hours to build this league, I’m probably very selective about what I do with them. And right now, I know what I’m getting with the endemics, so I’m gonna spend this time working with the non-endemics. And maybe not. Maybe it is what everyone thinks. Maybe they’re ditching all the endemics and going for football teams. But at the end of the day we don’t know, so the best I can do is run my business the best I can with the knowledge I have, and keep my ear to the ground.
VN: You brought up an interesting point about them telling you they wanted to take time to do it right. But is there a time where that patience becomes worry about it ever materializing? Are we close to reaching that point?
MS: I’ll say this: Nobody gets it perfect, and I’m a critical person, so I’ll criticize a little bit and one of the things I thought they could have done better. For example, I think there was a great example to do more events in the meantime that would have helped us all understand the scope of the game. Can the viewership the Overwatch World Cup had be done again? Or was that a one-time anomaly? It had phenomenal viewership. Can the hype of Vegas continue to happen? Or was it because it was a one-time thing, tied to Call of Duty, and in Vegas. And it’s not even like (Blizzard) would have to do it because there are a ton of partners out there who would kill to do Overwatch tournaments if they were supported.
So I think that was a very big missed opportunity because sometimes you can have your eyes so much on the ball that you forget the world around the ball. I think that happened a little bit in this case. That’s a common mistake. I don’t fault them for it. Simply put, I think that, to me, is the biggest missing piece of the puzzle: I don’t know if people will watch Overwatch en masse. I know they’ll play it. You know what other game people play a ton of but don’t watch? World of Tanks. World of Tanks has a massive global player base and does not have a viewer base. It does in Russia, but not the West. Just because people will play your game does not mean people will watch it. And I want to know that. I truly do. At the end of the day, I’m 38 years old. I’m not the target demographic, so I’m not the guy who can say “Oh, it works for sure, because I like this” or not.
VN: You guys entered into a partnership with the Bruins and (Delaware North), and we hear so much about the value of traditional sports teams and such. What kind of impacts has that had on your organization in a way that people don’t hear about?
MS: I think anecdotes is probably the good way to do this because I can give you examples of things that I wouldn’t even have expected. So we were working on our merchandise deal with ESL, who does our merch right now. And just being able to toss specific key terms I wasn’t sure about over to their head of revenue for the Garden and the Bruins, and him being able to talk to me about “I’d like to see this and this. This part is really good. This part is solid enough, I’d take it” because he just does this for a living for the past 20 years, is amazing.
That’s the stuff I never could have even thought about. Right now we’re working on the ability to activate at the arena. For instance, we announced our Filipino Champ signing in the arena playing Street Fighter on the jumbotron. That’s a high impact, low resource play from their end. They just gave us a couple of dudes to run the jumbotron and set things up in an arena that was empty anyway. And we got plenty of hype from being there and people seeing Splyce’s logo all over the arena. And then outside of the sports side, remember Delaware North is a Fortune 500 company that has a ton of resources. We put our Overwatch team in one of their hotels to bootcamp. And we had, I’d say unequivocally, the best bootcamp ever done in esports. They overlooked the ocean and ate downstairs at the restaurant for all their meals. Someone cleaned their room every day. That was something I couldn’t have ever afforded if it wasn’t our own properties.
The final one I’ll say is that I believe that this is not just true of esports but sports teams, too. We’re no longer just teams; we’re media enterprises because content is everything and your IP is everything. And we’re already working on different activations across Delaware North properties that are about saying it’s not always about competition. We have these great celebrity athletes and this great IP. How can we use that to drive people to come to the hotel? Let’s use that for example, like we did an activation at their hotel where we did the bootcamp. Working at their casinos, trying to drive people to the casinos. It’s not a one-way street, which is exciting. We add a lot of value right back to them as well beyond being just a team that makes them money.
VN: When dealing with Delaware North, how do you go about communicating with them all of the big-picture things in esports? How do you convey the inner workings and terms of esports with a non-endemic?
MS: Well I have an unfair advantage in that the CMO of Delaware North happens to be a massive Dota fan. He goes to the Majors, for example. So he not only gets it, but he’s one of us. So we just talk shop all the time because he’s a passionate fan and he translates. But beyond that, we’ve done a ton of education. I’ve spent a lot of time in Boston. There was a day I was there for five hours, hour after hour and I was just teaching. This is esports. This is what Splyce is. This is how we’re integrating. This is why it’s important, etc. Even the sales team, it was a big challenge figuring out what are they selling exactly. Because it’s not a board on the side of the hockey rink. It’s not a digital board up in the air where they get certain number of seconds. It’s very different. It’s no different when I raised money here in Rochester a couple years ago and had to educate the investment community in Rochester. It’s the same process. Once they learn it, they ask questions and want to see how your business runs. Then they eventually see it’s similar enough to their own media enterprise and sports team that we now, very much when I send a message to any of these people I work with at Delaware North, their responses are quick and efficient because now they really understand our business.
VN: You mentioned earlier about Counter-Strike’s over-saturation, and obviously it’s seen the most the larger scale, but what is it like in the lower tier?
MS: You know how bad it is? We couldn’t play at the Major qualifiers because we had another tournament and we couldn’t skip it. We had the Mountain Dew League. We literally can’t play in the Major. That’s the level of saturation that the biggest tournament of the year, we cannot try to qualify for it.
VN: How does a problem like that get solved?
MS: Some things, for our example, MDL was part of us being in Pro League. So we did have to play that because we were in Premier and we just qualified for Pro to get back up again after a season down. So we had that commitment and we fulfilled that. And unfortunately PGL was very inflexible about this. They overlapped the schedule and said “tough.” It’s just unfortunate that organizers kind of act that way. It is their business, though, and they can do what they want.
I think there’s this idea of fairness that we all have that doesn’t exist. This is business. Ethics have to exist but there’s no such thing as fair outside of the game. Hearthstone is a notorious example where people say “Oh that’s unfair those eight guys got invited.” There’s nothing that’s supposed to be fair about it. They run an event. They get the viewers and have the say to pick these eight famous people. In fact, I’d probably do the same thing if I was in their shoes sometimes. Get over it.
But as far as Counter-Strike, part of me goes, this is capitalism. Market forces will fix it. At some point the companies that aren’t making money because nobody is watching their events will fall out. If you look at it, some events don’t even exist anymore for that reason. Teams stop playing those events. I do think it will take some time, but that will have to happen. I forget who said it, but whoever said it (Olof “Olofmeister” Kajbjer) was right: I can’t get excited when Fnatic plays Na’Vi because I know they’re probably meeting again next week in another league. When Fnatic and Na’Vi play each other, it should be a big deal because these are two world class teams, but it’s not. So it goes back to our earlier conversation about storylines. Counter-Strike struggles because it has the NFL, AFL and CFL right now. What we really need is if not just the NFL, then we need an NFL with a bunch of teams and an AFL with a bunch of different teams. It’s not just working this way. It’s not my job to fix it, but my job is to make sure my team gets the right number of events, which I think we’re doing pretty well right now. Pro League mixed with different LANs works well right now.
But I imagine if you’re at the top of the invite list, with a Cloud9 or Fnatic, there is a tough decision of “Do we skip this event event if it is $250,000 because we’re on the road so much and need practice time or, heaven forbid, off time?” Yeah, I don’t know that there’s a simple answer, but I know as a fan perspective, I care less about casually watching Counter-Strike than I did a year ago because there’s too much of it. It’s on every day.
VN: When it comes to over-saturation, are there different levels between the tiers? Is it more exacerbated at the top?
MS: What’s interesting to me is this idea that prize pool dictates how excited we should be about a match. People go “Oh, it’s the Major, it’s $1 million. That’s exciting!” Is it, though? Or is it great Counter-Strike? At the end of the day, I care about seeing high stakes, so I want there to be some kind of stakes to it. That’s the challenge of league play in everything. The NFL struggles with that, too. If it’s a Week 4 game, how are anyone except Bills fans gonna care about the Bills game? Because the stakes aren’t very high.
I think the amount of online play is actually lower than it used to be, at least for pro teams. It used to be EPL and Cevo and FaceIt and let’s throw in like CounterPit. It was a ton of online play. There were points we played online every night. Five days per week. That doesn’t really happen (anymore). It’s more there’s an event every weekend. That’s the issue. When is the week off to build my hunger? My wife came in the room last week and I was watching MSI. And she didn’t know what MSI was, but she had the awareness to know I hadn’t watched League of Legends in three weeks. Her awareness of the fact that there was time off made it surprising I was watching, whereas Counter-Strike, it’s on every night. I was excited to watch MSI because I missed watching League of Legends.
I kind of dodged your question a little bit because I think it’s not a simple answer, but in a perfect world there is less of everything in Counter-Strike right now. Less offline, less leagues. It’s just less. Because I want hungry fans. I want fans who cannot wait for game day.
VN: I talked to Jason Lake from compLexity a couple weeks ago, and he mentioned he couldn’t quite get why a lot of people didn’t want to get into the Dota scene. And we talked about your apprehension with it a year ago. Has that changed at all? What is your take on Dota and where you see that game at today?
MS: I have a couple answers for this because it’s not a straightforward for us. Because we’re in nine titles, that affects me. So any game right now, whether it’s Dota at the top end or something at the bottom end, is treated the same in that we already struggle with the fact that we have so many different titles and try to tell our story and divide resources. So that affects anything. But let’s pretend we didn’t. Let’s say we have five and are looking at Dota. My challenges with Dota right now are one, lacking a clear idea of “this is what the industry will look like.” There’s no clear league. No clear structure. That doesn’t mean that’s not surmountable, but it’s a challenge.
Two, I believe you don’t have to be in all the top games, but you have to be in more than one of them. Rarely do you have an Astralis, which is a single game team, but that’s never gonna have the power of a TSM. I don’t believe that’s possible because they only have a single game and a single type of audience and fan. But typically if you have at least two of the top four games — and I include Call of Duty there — then you can do this. OpTic: CSGO, CoD. Cloud9 is in three of the four. So you can be in some level of those, and I think have that top-tier power by being in those titles. For us right now, we’re in three of the four. And two of our four are at the very top tier, and Counter-Strike’s on its way back there as we rebuilt the roster in the last year.
So what is the impact of joining a top tier game? Because top tier games cost a lot of money. And if you’re not going to significantly drive revenue — because adding a Dota 2 team isn’t going to add that incremental amount of sponsorship. It isn’t gonna add the incremental amount of revenue, so it’s hard for me to justify, not only to spend money on it and tax my cash flow, but also as a resource strain. I only have so many content creators. So much in social media and on the sports management side. If I have 10 resource units, and I can either use them on my current teams or get another team, I’m going to use that on my teams because I know they need it.
Cover photo courtesy of Splyce/illustration by Slingshot