In-depth Q&A with Splyce owner Marty Strenczewilk: Worlds, WESA, player rights and the future

Splyce became one of the stories of the summer in League of Legends, going from the relegation tournament in the spring to finishing second place and earning a world championship berth in the summer split. Splyce’s Call of Duty team is also coming off a runner up finish at the Call of Duty World League.

Slingshot’s Vince Nairn had the chance to catch up with Splyce owner Marty Strenczewilk to talk about all of his teams and the direction League of Legends, Counter-Strike and the rest of esports is heading,

Vince Nairn: First of all, from an owner’s standpoint, how would you sum up the last few months for your organization?

Marty Strenczewilk: Extraordinary, I guess, is the word I would use. When we first started our pro team, it was very much a venture in doing something different to help get our name out there. We thought we were a web application. And we didn’t have very big aspirations. It was just to get known. And when we figured it out with Call of Duty in January that we could get a team that was really good — it was the first time we were able to get a team that was very top tier to begin with, not just working its way up — it was like, “Oh, maybe we could really make this a thing.” And we started going forward, whether it was how we focused on LCS, getting Yamato as coach. Whether it was changes we made in CS:GO to really push it to a top level of talent. We were like, “We can really compete and not just be in the middle of the pack.” And to have the run that we did leading up to the end of kind of all the seasons (is great). I was saying the other day when we started our “10 days til worlds” series. I’m still a little flabbergasted that (this week) I’m gonna go to San Francisco and see our guys play at worlds. Mind blowing. I still watch the opening ceremony to worlds 2014 just for fun and have seen it 20 times. That’s the kind of worlds fanboy I am.

VN: It was funny because when we talked (in April), you felt pretty confident the League team was moving in the right direction. But did you have any ideas the guys were gonna make the leaps that they did during the summer?

MS: I don’t think it was leaps as much as people think it was. If you look at the tail end of spring, you’ll note a lot of games where we were close and just couldn’t finish it out. The G2 game is a great example. They were the No. 1 in spring, and in our last game against them, it came down to one play. And most other teams were getting stomped by them. Then of course we had our almost perfect game against Fnatic when Fnatic was doing really well back then. So there were those glimmers, and our mantra was always to just get better each week. Not massively, but just get better each week. In some small but tangible way. And we were seeing that happen each week, whether that was better CS numbers, or our leads were in better places. We were not getting caught out that often. The best example is Mikyx, right? In the beginning of the season, his number of deaths per game was astronomical because of the amount of risks he would take. And then those risks became more and more calculated. I think it was more gradual than people think it was, because that was always the plan, but i think it just looks extraordinary because it kind of coincided with a lot of flipping the 50/50s over into full wins.

VN: With Call of Duty, as you said, you knew you had one of the better teams in the world. But did it surprise you they got as far as they did?

MS: It’s one of the rare times I’d say no. Because most times I am surprised at success of that level, just in teams I support in general, whether it’s traditional sports or just teams that I like. Maybe it’s because I was a Miami Dolphins fan most of my life and they didn’t exactly have a lot of success. But ultimately, I came in really confident because the guys were really confident. I call Bance LeBron James because I really mean it. He is. And that’s why I’m building around him for the future. Do you think the Cleveland Cavaliers go in thinking, “If we get to the semifinals, we’ll be surprised.” They don’t think that way, and neither do I, I guess I would say.

VN: With your guys’ Counter-Strike team, it seems like their difficulties have been about stability and just having the whole roster together. What are you looking for out of them as far as the end of this year pushing into 2017?

MS: I actually was just talking to our general manager last night about them. They played last night against Cloud9, for example. Undefeated, (now 23-1 in ESL Pro League). Our first game, we were very close to beating them. We’ve had games like that against Immortals. So we have the capability, but the roster has been together two weeks, and it’s a team game. It doesn’t matter if you’re missing just one guy. You might as well have no guys at that point. For us, it’s no different than the LCS where we’ve got the roster, now the goal is just get better over time. They’re settled in the house. They’re getting into regular practice routines. I would say the goal is as simple as improve every week, get ourselves in position to compete for 2017 and whatever’s left in 2016. But it’s not about short-term gains. Yamato famously talks about the process. And I love that because the process yields results. As long as you have the right people in place, the right resources, the result will come. I don’t need to rush and say “We need to make a major right now!” or ‘We need to win a LAN right now!” I just want to make sure we get better every week.

VN: And it seems like some pieces are there and you can see the talent. Is it really just a matter of letting them all get together and seeing how it all works together?

MS: It’s a little bit of that. It’s a little of what type of style their team is going to be. Because as you know, in any game there ends up being a style a team ends up having. Whether it’s League of football or basketball or Counter-Strike. They have two really brilliant minds of the game in Acilion and Arya. What’s really great about that is you have them together figuring out what type of identity the team’s going to have, and there are very few things that are set in stone. Like yes, Cruc1al is going to hold the AWP. But most things are going to be shaped as you figure out how you want to play Counter-Strike. And I think the beauty of esports is basketball’s been around for 80 years in its professional form and they’re still figuring out new ways to play the game. Counter-Strike’s been around 10 years! We’re gonna be figuring out new strategies for that game for decades to come. I’m a big League of Legends fan and I go back to the example there. How often, we have things like the European lane swap being invented this year. A whole new way to play the game invented this year. So there’s a period of time where that’s going to happen

VN: Exactly, just like the NBA. Who would’ve thought five years ago teams would be taking hundreds of 3-pointers?

MS: Oh my god, yeah. I was listening to Bill Simmons talk to Michael Rapaport on an old podcast the other day, and they were talking about the older generation of players. The Oscar Robertsons and stuff like that. They played against an entirely different field of players because the style of basketball was so different. How can you compare 10 blocks per game then to 10 blocks per game now? It’s so different. It’s all based on who you’re playing against how the game works. It’s really fascinating topic of conversation I could debate for hours: How games evolve over years as strategies evolve.

VN: You know the two titles you have gotten into in the past few months are Gears of War and Overwatch. I think we asked you all the way back in February the process you went through just in terms of evaluating what games you wanted to expand into. So how did you guys get to the point where those were the two titles you wanted to get teams in?

MS: They were different. Overwatch was a process of watching the game develop through the community. Seeing things like an incredible adoption of community tournaments right away. People going “I’ll watch a GosuGamers tournament.” How many people watched Go4 StarCraft, Go4 League of Legends, right? But Overwatch, anything that gets on as a tournament is getting great viewership, no matter the production quality. Secondly, it’s a Blizzard game, so it gets a higher level of attention, but it isn’t automatic. For instance, we didn’t get a Heroes of the Storm team, for example. I never quite saw it jump over the level that made me want to go for it. Finally, it was about the fact that some of the teams getting in the game and the pace they were doing so, and kind of evaluating if this market is going to (grow). The attention from some of the big orgs — Cloud9, EnVyUs, etc — early on, and that I knew could have an impact combined with those other things. With Gears of War, it was much more opportunistic. I love the game. I’ve played it since the very beginning. I think it’s a gorgeous video game just as a player. When the new league was announced — I don’t get excited by $1 million leagues. They happen every day it feels like now — but what got me excited was hearing the publisher support and the way they engage with the community and the way they talk about the game. For example, we have the best Latin American team, and they were playing in their weekly $2,000 event, and they decided to do a community stream with a popular Latin streamer. And the channel wasn’t huge. A couple hundred viewers, right? But the coalition still put the resources in to be there, talk to the community, to see how they liked it and were getting engaged. It wasn’t about the fact there were only a couple hundred viewers. It was a good experience for them to find out how the Latin American community engages with Gears esports. They didn’t go “It’s not as popular a market right now.” The Latin American market is really interesting to me, too, because we don’t have access to that market yet as a brand. It goes back to that philosophy of wanting to win now. That’s a team that is absolutely super dominant and hungry to win, These guys play non-stop, and that really fits the identity of what we want to do with Splyce.

VN: Overwatch has been interesting because there was so much hype about it before it came out, to the point that people have wondered about League of Legends’ future simply because of Overwatch’s presence. I don’t think it’s that simple at all, but just from the standpoint of seeing a game with so much fanfare come out, what has been you impression of Overwatch and the potential for that pro scene?

MS: So Overwatch is super interesting because the publisher has been historically hands off but recently more hands on with Heroes of the Storm. They show that they’re willing to, when they see a game that has potential, drive a lot of it from their side in what I say is a proper fashion. Some publishers, and I’m not gonna pick any of them, it’s not about any specific one. But some of the publishers whose games haven’t succeeded, it’s sometimes because they go “Oh, we’re gonna make it an esport” and they pushed, pushed, and then it never worked. We’ve seen this a handful of times. Blizzard has found a way to support it at a high level without forcing it down your throat. It’s a little over the top with Heroes, but it never was saying “This is going to be an esport whether you like it or not.” So that’s very different. But also, like I said, the amount of people who are right now playing and watching the game is astronomical. And that’s what’s going to drive a lot of it. That’s what drove Hearthstone to be so successful is just the people watching the game is tremendous. The problem with Hearthstone is it didn’t really lend itself to strong tournaments. It’s a single-player game, heavily random elements that can draw away from people achieving success over long periods of time. But you saw this exact model with Hearthstone. I think it can have that same trajectory again, only more sustainable.

VN: There have been so many topics of conversation come up in the League of Legends world during this year, and I definitely think it’s just part of the ever-evolving scene. From your standpoint as an owner, whether it’s issues of relegation vs. franchising or sponsorships and players rights and all that, how have you tried to navigate all the stuff that has been out there recently?

MS: You know, it’s funny because I remember early on, we got to six teams (in our org) really fast. It’s like, whoa, we’ve got a ton of teams. But we didn’t feel overwhelmed at first, and that’s probably because we weren’t in a lot of high-level leagues outside of LCS. Now all of the sudden, it feels like not only are we in a lot of high-level leagues across all games, but also, the ecosystem is shaking itself up with topics of franchising, etc. I would say it’s a delicate balance in the day-to-day operations. They’re important conversations to have. But at the same time, day to day, I have to make sure my players are set for attending tournaments, make sure we’re putting out content to help grow their presence. It’s not really a direct answer because I don’t think there is one right now, unless you’re a massive organization with a massive staff. It’s almost like a highwire act where you’re balancing a stick with three plates while you’re walking a tightrope.

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VN: Is it a different kind of game you’re playing as a smaller organization when it comes to dealing with all these issues?

MS: Yes and no. There are certainly some battles that are easier to fight when you’re a big organization, or become more important to you when you’re really strong and sound from a few points. You’ve got a really strong staff that’s experienced. And we’ve got a good chunk of that, too, right, but we also have young folks that are learning. There’s also an advantage to being, not a small organization, but a Tier 2, right below the top tier size. What’s nice about that is obviously we get to be a little more selective in what battles we fight. If you’re TSM or Cloud9 or EnVyUs, and a big item is happening in the press, it’s hard for you not to have a position on it and not to be at the forefront of it. If you’re Splyce or Echo Fox or NRG, it’s a little easier to go, look, we can’t battle that right now. It’s not a primary concern for us. It’s important, but we have to pick which ones we’re going to battle for. We’re able to do that because I feel people understand we’re still getting our feet underneath us.

VN: That makes a lot of sense. You’re also in a unique position because you’re an owner based in North America and have a handful of teams all over the place, but your League of Legends team is in Europe. That means an entire different staff and level of communication you’re dealing with in Riot. I know you’ve tried to push for more exposure for the EU scene, but what has it been like trying to balance that relationship dynamic?

MS: There definitely are conversations around what’s different in Europe as far as their expectations — and by their I mean the fans — vs. North America because they’re different cultures. And even more so, it’s multiple different cultures because every country is so different. So anything from how content is done to the way broadcast is done to how they present players, etc. are very, very different. I think a great example that is the size of the fan base you’ll get around an individual player tends to be larger in North America, not because the viewership is larger — because traditionally, Europe’s had bigger viewership — but because the language barriers. So you get a large number of people watching the French stream, the German stream etc, and in North America there is one stream. So that certainly affects things. I’d say it was more challenging early on as we were getting our footing. I think we’re more comfortable in the European scene now and understand the way things go. I like a lot of the owners out there. I have really a great relationship with them, and that’s fantastic. So I get a more global view of esports as the industry evolves. But it does present its challenges because I’m not in the studio every week. I don’t get to sit down with Riot or Activision the same way I do in America a little more commonly. For example, I see the MLG guys all the time at events. And yet we’re not in a league in MLG. And we are in a league in Activision and Riot but they’re European ones. Most of the North American owners, they’re there every week. It’s a different dynamic.

VN: In the Counter-Strike realm, there have been so many associations popping up now. We have WESA, PEA, all this stuff is coming now. What do you make of these organizations and the way they’re shaping the professional Counter-Strike scene?

MS: I am cautiously optimistic that we’re on the right track. I don’t have any allegiance to anybody at this point. We’re not a part of any of them, but I am glad these steps are being taken. As for what’s going to be successful, who knows? But we need more consistency across rule sets. We need more standardized ways of revenue. Right now, your tournament producers are consistently able to take all of the revenue streams, mostly. Prize money is not a revenue stream. Prize money is a player perk, if you will. And things like broadcast rights, sponsorship, appearance fees, merchandising. All those things that in traditional sports are a big way of how people make their money. They have to be thought about with sustainability to the team ecosystem. I think PEA, having WESA, having these organizations out there, beginning these conversations, moving the needle forward is really important. And in the end, team brands are getting stronger. It’s gonna matter because you’re gonna want to make sure you have the right team brands in your league. So if you’re gonna do that, you have to make sure you’re taking good care of your teams.

VN: Along the same lines, all of this stuff has been popping up so quickly. At the same time, is there a sense that this is happening because of the speed of the growth? What do you think has launched all these conversations in such a short amount of time?

MS: Sustainability. I think that’s the key word to esports as a whole right now, at least one the team side. We’re all looking for a way to get more sustainable. The last thing you want is to be at the mercy of a single revenue stream, which obviously is sponsorship for almost everybody right now. Even more so, at the mercy of a single sponsor. You’ll notice across the ecosystem the way people shape their company is based on what sponsorship dollars they’re able to do. They can be competing at a very high level, very successful, and still have to shape the way their organization is built on a single revenue stream. And that to me is not the sign of sustainability. So I think all of these conversations are happening because we all wanna go, I want to shape my organization based on my ability to have success winning games, like traditional sports. My ability to build a fanbase like traditional sports. Not on my ability to sell mice, keyboards, monitors, you name it. It’s a nice extra revenue stream. That’s great. I want to continue to have those. But we want those to be a portion of what’s coming in the door.

VN: Is this an area where it helps to have people who have been through this in another realm? Obviously, with people like Rick Fox and other NBA or traditional sports people who have seen this kind of structure and professional environment looks like. Does it help having people with experience in those situations now entering the scene?

MS: 100 percent. I remember when NRG first formed, I believe Andy Miller said it but I could be mistaken on who said it. But he said things like merchandise options, that kind of stuff. That’s everyday hat for them in the NBA. That’s very poorly done in esports, comparatively as far as how much we can monetize on merchandise. Those are easy paths to just learn from what they already do well in traditional sports. Broadcast rights negotiations. League setup. Structure around how we manage player contracts. Having those parties means as these conversations are going on, you have people who — and it’s not just the leverage because they’re big and strong and powerful from where they come from — but the knowledge of the right conversations to have. Who are the right partners to be talking to? When is the right time to make a deal and when is the right time to stick it out and wait for the right one to come along?

VN: What else needs to happen for the players’ rights to come to the surface as well? Because for the most part, for better or worse, they’ve been kind of the passive bystanders in a lot of these conversations about sustainability and the future

MS: The challenge right now of course is the fact that so few players have longevity in their careers, so there’s not a ton of veterans, per say. A veteran’s a guy in his third year. Compare that to the NBA. That’s a guy who’s still on his rookie contract. So that’s helping shape us into more leadership in esports. You’re able to get more vocal kind of veteran voices. Counter-Strike, you’re starting to get that because some of the guys have been around longer, and maybe Starcraft. But obviously that’s not as big a scene anymore. But you don’t have that yet in the other games at a mass level. So that’s, I think, an evolution of the scene as careers get longer. No. 2 is going to be how these groups include players. You saw WESA just created its player council. As you know from when PEA came out, they talked very much about their interaction with players. I think that’s a big part of it: Actively engaging players by going directly to them vs. the vice versa. That’s not what this needs to be. How are these groups going to by themselves include the players because they are such a large voice. They are the celebrities in esports. We’ll have no choice — and I don’t mean that negatively — but it will push to have that conversation. And you can’t even make a decision without a player voice as players become more and more the visible face of esports, you know? What is League of Legends without Bjergsen, for example? What’s North American Counter-Strike without Hiko? Which I would say if you’re a couple years back, it was more these Cloud9, TSM, big organizations that were so much more prominent to the casual fan. Now we’ve got these juggernaut style players who fans can look at and see what they can become because careers are longer now too. It all full circles eventually.

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VN: Looking ahead to worlds for your League of Legends team, how did you feel that the draw shaped out for you guys, and what are you looking forward to most from group play?

MS: My answer for the draw is always going to be the same, and that is to beat the best, you gotta beat the best. Draw doesn’t matter. Yeah, players might think one way or another. I don’t know. I haven’t asked them. End of the day, if you want to win a championship, you’ve gotta beat a lot of big teams, right? Expectations going in are just to go in and play our game. To go in and play that to the best we can. I think we have a shot to beat anybody on our days that we execute properly. Expectation is one game at a time. Ask Yamato and he’ll tell you the same thing. What’s the expectation right now? Win Game 1. That will take it from there. I think I’m just really excited because I have (a really young team). They’re all young guys. I expect them to have very long careers. This is an important step for them in having the longevity to win many championships, not just about one in the near term. I don’t ever worry about the near term. It’s all about the long term where legends are born, if you will.

VN: We’ve talked about this in the past, too, but you guys seem to take a bit of a different path than a lot of teams. It seems like a lot of motivation is very much results based. And not to say that you aren’t, but you definitely take a more holistic approach to it. How did that philosophy kind of come to be?

MS: As a basketball fan, you’ll understand this. I’m a massive Spurs fan. So Gregg Popovich is like my grandfather. So philosophically, the Spurs have had the same identity for 20 years now. And the reason they have that is because it’s Gregg Popovich’s team. And you have different styles for different teams. Like I mentioned with the Cavaliers’ style is it’s LeBron’s team, so Call of Duty it’s Bance’s team. But our League of Legends team is very much Yamato’s team. My philosophy stems from how I grew up in sports. I’m a small guy, and most people laugh at this, but I played football for four years because I’m from a small town and that’s what you do. I wasn’t very good, but we were a very good team. We were known as a contender for the area tournaments and stuff, and part of that is because we had a very clear identity for the team, and it was built around play style of what was called the Cadets. What Cadet football was like. We were a running team. We hit very hard. Specific styles of defense. That identity shaped that, the Spurs, etc. helped me go into “What is Splyce’s identity?” Not, let’s get five good players, slap them together and hope they win. People do that all the time in sports and in esports. It doesn’t always work. You can’t all be the Miami Heat and rip off a couple championships that way. The Lakers certainly didn’t do it very well. So that’s kind of how the pillar kind of came about, and I think esports has to go that direction for longevity and championships at some point because you can’t rely on getting five good guys and hoping they don’t fight with one another, hoping nobody sprains a wrist or whatever. Because that’s too unreliable for more than one lucky stretch of period of time. I want to win five championships over people’s careers, not one.

VN: The last thing I wanted to ask about was your decision to get rid of the content section. What kind of led you in that direction?

MS: I’m an entrepreneur in every sense of the word in that I went and built this not as a fan, but understanding that people have built many great companies before me and many crappy ones. Some have failed for really silly reasons because they didn’t see things coming. I have read and watched everything on great entrepreneurs. One of the things you learn early on is you have to be constantly assessing your business and constantly seeing if you’re on the right track. And it became very clear to us that we had this terrific team with a great brand and awesome presence and awesome fans, and we only have certain numbers of resources. And we could continue to split our resources, but that’s only going to harm us in the long term. So we really decided to push more and more of our resources into the team, and yes that meant shutting down the content section, but that means we can do even better on the team side and get into games like Gears of War. Open our team house out in California for Counter-Strike and Smash. That, to me, is of much bigger of value: The proposition of being awesome at one thing instead of being very good at two things.

Photos courtesy of Riot Games

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