Slingshot’s Vince Nairn had the chance to catch up with Christina Alejandre, vice president and general manager of ELEAGUE, during Group B play at the beginning of November. They talked about this season’s changes, viability of non-endemic sponsors and preparations for hosting a Major in January.
Vince Nairn: Obviously there have been some changes to the format this season. What kind of led you to the tweaks you made?
Christina Alejandre: Yeah, I think that we looked at Season 1, and Season 1 was a really long season. And it was a lot of content. We were pumping out about 30 hours of content per week. And looking back at the format, I think at the time the format made sense with the amount of teams that we had and kind of the structure. But Tuesday and Wednesday, very candidly, the matches mattered, but they didn’t really matter. We wanted to make a format this season where every match matters. So every one of these best-of-ones the guys are playing right now matter. It depends on their placement and whether or not they’re going to make it to our playoffs. And then (Saturday), every match matters because it is elimination day, essentially. There will be two teams going home and one additional team going (to the playoffs). So that, we felt, was the format that made the most sense. In addition, the amount of content, there’s just a lot of fatigue. There’s fatigue of the viewers because there’s a lot of Counter-Strike content out there. There’s fatigue of the players and teams because they have a lot of different competitions to play. They’re long weeks. So we wanted to mitigate that as much as possible. That’s kind of how we went into thinking about what the format changes were as we went into Season 2.
VN: Did you get much feedback from the teams? I wouldn’t say they were complaints, but speaking to the players at the Season 1 playoffs, it seemed like the length of the season was something they wanted to be addressed. How much did any of that feedback play into your decisions, if at all?
CA: It’s kind of funny that you asked this because I just went to the Group B team dinner. We do a dinner with all the teams every week, and I like to go and just talk and sit with all the teams. I was actually talking to the Virtus.pro guys, and I was like, “How does it feel to be back in Atlanta?” and they were like, “Atlanta is the city we’ve spent the most time in the United States in.” Because they basically spent a month here (at the end of Season 1). And you have VP, one of them just had a baby. One of them has a baby on the way. So they spend a lot of time away from their families. So they weren’t complaining because I think they really like being here. I don’t want to speak on behalf of them. But that’s a long time to be away for a tournament. We weren’t getting complaints, per se. But even for us, it was a little (much). We had people switching teams, and then they have to kind of hold and not switch teams. It was over 10 weeks. I think it’s just how we look at it. We are never as good as our last production. We always want to be better and we always want to find ways to improve. So it’s us doing active listening and paying attention to things and seeing, experimenting. And this is what we came up with for Season 2.
VN: With the Overwatch Open happening over the summer, how did that opportunity arise? And what made this the right time to get involved with that game?
CA: We have active conversations with all kinds of different publishers. I can’t speak on behalf of Blizzard. They went and did RFP process for this Overwatch tournament that was gonna be their pinnacle. They had a couple smaller tournaments, but this was going to be their big, featured tournament. We went in and kind of put a bid in with FaceIt, our partner, for the Overwatch Open, and they chose us. So we went in and we did a really great, kind of early stages online tournament with FaceIt, one of the premier online tournament platforms out there. So they ran that part, and then they came and kind of did a championship week with us. And it was great. For us, it was a little bit of proof of concept that we could do games that weren’t just Counter-Strike. And I think that we really did well. The team really understands (Overwatch). They came in, they learned about it if they didn’t understand it, and we were able to put together a really good product we were all pretty proud of.
VN: Likewise, you mention proof of concept. Do you feel any sort of validation to see the work you have done so far be rewarded with the next CSGO major? Especially to have that happen so quickly after getting on the scene?
CA: When I look back at Season 1, just because it’s me running the business or whatever, but I look back at Season 1 and think of all the things we could do better. I’m extremely proud of the team, and at the end of Season 1 I teared up just because I was so happy and so proud of the team that we were able to kind of accomplish this feat on television that hadn’t been done before. The finals went great, and it was such a great experience. But for me, I’m always thinking, “What did we do wrong? We’ve gotta fix this and gotta fix that.” And we put our hats in for the Major knowing that we had kind of elevated the production level of esports. We felt like the players were happy and the talent was happy, but we just didn’t know what Valve knew or recognized because they choose very established, amazing esports organizations. You have MLG, who did an amazing Major (in April). You have ESL, PGL, CEVO — all of them have done amazing things with the Major and they have long, storied histories in esports. So when we put our hat in the ring, it’s like, “Well, I hope we really get it.” We all really, really wanted it. But you always kind of wait with bated breath, right? Because you really want it, but you start looking back at Season 1 and the things you could have done differently, and also we had (only) one season under our belt. And then when we were granted the Major, I had such an immense feeling of happiness and pride for the team because what we were able to actually pull off for Season 1 showed we really got esports and understood it. We weren’t just some TV network coming in and TV-i-fying esports and making it all about us. We were trying to stay as authentic to the space as possible. And our big mantra is what’s good for esports is good for us. So when we got the Major, it was a little validation for the hard work we had done for Season 1.
VN: I think the only real question anyone had with y’all about the Major was the size of the venue. How do you look at that obstacle, I guess, for lack of a better term?
CA: We’re always authentic to ELEAGUE and authentic to Turner Sports and WME | IMG. For us, it wasn’t that we had to fill this huge, gigantic arena because ‘that’s gonna validate how awesome our Major is.’ If you look at some of the early international tournaments or some of the earlier tournaments that take place, some of the best tournaments happened in a smaller venue. It also makes the feeling of it being more exclusive if it’s a smaller venue. So we looked at the Fox Theater, and Atlanta is a really important location to us. We have our ELEAGUE Arena here at Turner Studios. We’ve been flying all these teams into Atlanta. We’ve been granted one of the biggest esports events. It would have broken my heart if we had taken it out of Atlanta. And we went and we toured the Fox and there was just something magical about the Fox Theater. You walk in and you just feel like you’ve stepped into another era. And there’s something I really love about walking into the Fox Theater. It’s one of the oldest venues in the United States and also in Georgia. And you have this very old school place, and then you’re bringing in this amazing new thing called esports. It’s a little bit of old school meets new school, and for me it’s just something magical that’s transformative. If you haven’t’ seen the pictures of the Fox Theater or walked in there, it has a very dessert kind of feel. And for me, it kind of reminded me of Mirage. So the experience people are going to encounter when they come to our Major — again, because it’s such a small venue — will be such a more intimate, exclusive setting. For me, we got some flack on the internet for how small the venue is, but for me it’s all about the experience. And I think the Fox Theater is really going to accommodate an amazing experience for this Major.
VN: To your point, I was recently at the quarterfinals of the League of Legends World Championship in Chicago, and that was at the Chicago Theater, which was a pretty small venue. And that had much of the same environment you’re talking about trying to create.
CA: You feel like you’re there. I love big stadium events. I love them. I went to ESL One in Barclays, and I’ve been to events in Cologne, and they’re great. The feeling is palpable. But I think you can also get that in a smaller venue as well. In the first season during one of the post-game interviews, I think it was Olofmeister, and he was like “It’s really weird. There are only a couple hundred people in here, but I feel like there are thousands.” And that was because of the magic of our arena and the crowd that we had. I’m looking at the Dota Major that is happening, that PGL is running up in Boston. That’s where I lived before I came here, so I’m super stoked. But that was at the Wang in Boston. I’ve gone to the Wang. It’s all about the environment and just that feeling that you’re able to create when you’re there.
VN: What, if anything, are you going to have to do different — or even if it’s just ramping things up — as it comes to getting prepared for the Major?
CA: I won’t lie. We have Season 2 and we have the Major championship qualifier. We also are doing the Americas qualifier for the Major qualifier. Lot of qualifiers. And then we have the Major next year. So for us, it’s all about making sure people know as much as they can about ELEAGUE. So we’re trying to get as much out there as possible. One of the things I was joking around with our marketing guy. There are a lot of broadcasts that are fantastic broadcasts, and they do online broadcasts and they broadcast regularly and it’s in their small studio. For us, we always do things at the Turner Sports standard of production no matter what, whether it’s a small, tiny online tournament or a live LAN tournament with teams here. So I was talking to my marketing guy, and I was like, “There is no difference this time in production, right?” It’s not like we’re going to completely elevate what we’ve already been doing because we’ve already kind of elevated it. So I told him good luck marketing that (laughs). But it’s the same crowd. The same people you’re marketing to, I think we have done a decent job at building the ELEAGUE brand. People know when they come to our events and watch our broadcasts that they’re going to get a best-in-class experience no matter what. That’s what we’re gonna focus on. And it’s only gonna be elevated more because it’s the Major.
VN: Snickers, of course, is the new sponsor this season. As you say, authenticity is key, but what does that say about your ability to reach non-endemic sponsors?
CA: I use Arby’s a lot as an example, but they’re a great example. Arby’s came in and said “We don’t want to be the guys who weren’t invited to the party but showed up anyway.” Because they know this community, and they know this community could feasibly just eat you up and spit you out. Especially, they have a BS detector. They will sniff it out if they think it is, and if it’s just this non-endemic brand coming in and slapping their name on it and not really kind of getting it. Arby’s didn’t want to put themselves in that situation, and none of our sponsors wanted to put themselves in that situation. I remember our first night and something we did and the Arby’s logo popped up. I remember looking at the Twitch chat, and the Twitch chat was like “Sellout! Sellout! Sellout!” And then they saw the commercial because that came up right after. And the commercials were catered to Counter-Strike, and then all of the sudden, you saw the Twitch chat (change). You saw people tweeting about the Arby’s commercial. How often in stick and ball sports do you see people tweeting about a commercial outside of the Super Bowl? You had people in the ELEAGUE Arena, who were here for the live event, chanting Arby’s. I have never been to a stick and ball sporting event where people are chanting the name of a sponsor. They came in and they really thought about it and they wanted to show the community they got it. And we did a study after the season was over, and Arby’s saw double-digit increases in brand likability, brand awareness and, most importantly, purchase intent. And also they didn’t get any flack or backlash for it being esports. And I think other non-endemic sponsors were seeing that Arby’s literally went all in. And instead of dancing around it, maybe we should go all in as well. Let’s work with Turner and the team to figure out how we can integrate in a smart way, and I think that’s how we were able to get Snickers because they were able to see for us it’s not about slapping a label on something. We really wanna be thoughtful about how it’s integrated.
VN: Is there something to the idea that esports fans actually might crave non-endemic sponsors? They’re so used to being bombarded with the same couple types of products. If non-endemics can do it smartly, is the community open to that? We just published an interview about Dota 2, and the owner of a hot sauce company has sponsored a team. The community has automatically taken to it because they’re intrigued with a fresh industry. Do you see that kind of continued opportunity?
CA: Yes. Absolutely. I think that these are people just like anybody else. If you have any pro athlete, pro athletes endorsing stuff all the time because they use them. While they might not be endemic to making yourself play better esports, they are endemic to them as human beings. Brands are catching on to that. It’s not just esports. These are human beings playing a game. Human beings like hot sauce. They like eating Snickers. They have to have car insurance. They order pizza from Domino’s Pizza. They go to Buffalo Wild Wings with their friends. They go eat Arby’s roast beef sandwiches. They do all that stuff. Just like us. I think more non-endemic brands need to realize that and jump all in because I think dipping your toe in does kind of pose that risk of you not really getting integrated. So again, we’re seeing that brands that are going all in are the ones being received the best.
Cover photo courtesy of Turner Sports/ELEAGUE