No Counter-Strike team has had a better start to 2017 than Astralis.
The Danish team won the ELEAGUE Major, followed that up with a win at IEM Katowice at the beginning of the month and is the undisputer No.1 team in the world.
Astralis has been one of the most intriguing teams in the world since the ex-Team SoloMid roster formed this new organization. Slingshot’s Vince Nairn conducted an interview with Astralis CEO Frederik Byskov (via email) to talk about Astralis forming, the team’s recent success and a lot of the big-picture issues facing Counter-Strike teams in 2017.
Editor’s note: The interview was conducted before RFRSH Entertainment, which represents Astralis, released a statement about its model that included a part about potential multiple team ownership. Slingshot has reached out to RFRSH for another Q&A about that topic.)
Everything I’ve learned in researching you is that you really started at the bottom and worked your way up the esports ladder. How did you first get started? What motivated you to stay with it, eventually in the earlier (and probably less successful) times?
I started like most of us did, playing. When Counter-Strike came out in 1999, I was 12 years old. I tried it in a local club where I grew up and immediately fell in love with the game. I played for five-six years but never reached the global elite level, and therefore I started focusing more on my school and career. I was hooked in the community surrounding the game, though, and loved being a part of it, so I wasn’t prepared to let it go.
I began as a news writer for a Danish website, XplayN, while I became a volunteer at Danish LAN events working as an admin. After a couple of years, I was promoted at XplayN and was in charge of the news section surrounding CS 1.6 and CS: Source. My admin career took me places as well, as I was promoted to head admin and running all the big LAN events in Denmark; SLAP, HKLAN, TheBlast, Copenhagen Games. Through that, DreamHack found me, and I started working at DreamHack Summer (and) Winter events. I also ran different Swedish events before being highjacked by Gaming.dk to run their website.
I was in charge of the first CS:GO Major at DHW 2013 (repeated that at DHW 2014, the famous olofmeister boost). Before that, I started taking care of Danish players. I managed teams back in CS: Source (HLV becoming fnatic), then Xaya/Reason Gaming/Epsilon for a few years, paying some of the expenses out of my own pocket. It’s not to sound like a saint or anything; it wasn’t big money like nowadays, but back then a couple thousand DKK made the difference going to an event or not, and some players couldn’t afford it, while I could (thanks poker!) – so I helped out.
So yes, I started from the bottom and worked various places within the community, from volunteer work until where I am today running the Astralis business.
How did the idea of Astralis — the first real player-owned org in esports — come together? What were those initial conversations like? How did you think you would be able to make it work?
Back in December (2014) I helped the then-Dignitas squad with their move to TSM. I got another job offer at Copenhagen Wolves so I couldn’t go with them, but when that didn’t work out I joined up with karrigan, cajunb, Xyp9x, dupreeh, & dev1ce in TSM. Six months later it was time to renegotiate and that fell apart. TSM let me go, the players hired me as their agent and paid me out of their own pocket for a month.
It gave me the option to negotiate with other organizations, including looking at the player-owned angle for real. We spoke about it a few times on the team; how it’d be to know everything and be in charge/could control why and when we did things. Transparency was a big issue back then.
In the end, we had two really good offers from established organizations and investors willing to put money into our project. The players and I spoke lengthy about it and they chose a lesser salary (though still a very good one) to get co-ownership of the company.
How we ended up with Sunstone Capital was a bit of luck and hard work. Astralis’ co-founder Jakob Kristensen had connections to different investors, which we pitched our ideas to and well, in the end Nikolaj Nyholm (now RFRSH Entertainment) believed in us and that esports was a viable business.
How did you even end up in this industry? It didn’t really exist when you first got into it. What was life like before esports for you?
As said previously I enjoyed being a part of the community, and while I stopped playing computer games around the age of 18, I never stopped being a part of the community. While I was a volunteer in the Danish scene I spend my time on my poker career, which I later skipped to get “a real job.”
I completed a two-year Multimedia Designer education, then a BSc in Economics with Marketing and Strategic Communications as the main focus back in June (2015). During my degree at the University, I worked as marketing coordinator for a small Danish company selling turf care equipment to golf courses and sport fields for around four years.
After completing my education, I decided to go all-in on esports since I thought I could live off it. I was going to test that thesis with my own esports consultant business. That was during the TSM days and I had the company for around five months before shutting it down and creating Astralis.
Life wasn’t that different before esports became a full-time job. It didn’t exist in the beginning, sure, but I spend just as much time on it as I do now. The only difference now is that I can make a living out of it; I work with my hobby and passion. That’s an amazing feeling and I’m truly lucky to do that.
What’s one development or advancement — separate from the influx of investments in recent years — that has surprised you about the growth of this industry?
I was there when CGS (Championship Gaming Series) was created and failed. The difference today is that people coming in respect what we as a community have built over the years, that’s not something you just change into a TV product. I think that’s the big difference. People realize they have to take us seriously and that we have established and refined CS:GO as a product; they need to learn from those within the scene to get a real understanding of what’s going on.
Obviously there are a few people coming in, trying to do the CGS way (just look at PEA), but in general I’m surprised with how much respect is shown towards those of us who’ve worked within the scene for…decades, I was about to say. A long time at least.
With that goes the vocal voice of the community as well. They sure do tell their opinion, which I think is nothing but great. It helps everyone to stay on their toes and push the growth of the industry in the right direction.
How do you balance the idea of branding vs. team success? Obviously, there are many sports businesses that are profitable without necessarily winning championships. Likewise, you definitely want to succeed. What’s the key to managing both of those ideas at the same time?
Last year, we spent close-to-all of our focus on building the team the right way. We changed a lot of things surrounding being “a professional esports athlete.” For instance, adding a sports psychologist, the back office, which RFRSH Entertainment provides, and giving the coach the power as a director of sports, setting the team and enabling him to bench players.
Now, we made this work and your question is quite interesting because it’s a fine balance. You can, if you’re a big brand, live off the branding alone and not winning titles. However, Astralis wasn’t a big brand from the beginning. We had to build that from scratch. We had to win titles, yet we didn’t. It took 11 months before we finally succeeded, winning ECS Season 2.
In the meantime, in less than eight months’ time, our organization grew the social following from 0 to 250,000 fans on social media (I owe a thanks to Phillip and Matthew for reaching that target so quick) but were stuck around that number for months afterwards. It was clear we needed more to gain a certain level of engagement in the fan base, and the most effective way is always a winning roster. That conclusion led to a big reconstruction of the team in late August.
So, to narrow it down I don’t think the question is that simple. How do we balance branding vs. team success? I’d say it’s closely linked and they work in co-operation with each other. To realize that managing team success (and) branding is closely linked is the key; you won’t have one without the other when you’re a new company like we were.
Things have changed now with our recent victories and our involvement with RFRSH Entertainment. It is an extremely dedicated and professional organization combining a group of people with deep roots in and love for esports with people coming from the pro-sports scene, bringing their experience and views to the table. The Audi and the Microsoft partnerships with Astralis, the team winning the ELEAGUE Major and being No. 1 in the world has a lot to do with the way we work as a group and by being a part of the RFRSH setup.
Peter (“dupreeh” Rothmann) said something interesting to me about the players taking designated vacations and restructuring the schedule so that they only prioritize certain events. How did that conversation go within the organization? How does the decision-making process in general work with Astralis?
We spoke about it back in early (2016): attending lesser events. Now that didn’t go as planned as the guys still had 148 travel days away from home last year. Going into this season we made a clean cut, deciding we’ll only play one event each month, and that we have to know those events three months prior so we can plan the calendar. Time for practice, time to do PR obligations and time for official matches online as well.
I fully understand the players’ wish to be more at home instead of traveling all the time, and then we have the whole practice issue combined with over-saturation – it made perfect sense to take this route.
In general, especially when it comes to game related topics, the players can always voice their opinion – and be heard! They can ask and get insights since they’re co-owners of Astralis. They don’t always do that as they focus on their main priority: being a top contender within Counter-Strike. The team decides which events they want to attend and Danny, our coach, plan their calendar alongside me so we’re sure (practice) and obligations toward partners/media are aligned.
Likewise, what are some other topics you deem important to the health of the CSGO ecosystem, and how do they need to be addressed (if at all) this year?
Event quality is a big focus of mine and I know RFRSH is also sharing that view. There are a lot of different stakeholders within our industry but we should all have the same goal: to produce the best matches for the fans. There is a lot of great events out there and a lot to build on, but the competition is only getting stronger and the continuous development of the streaming and arena experience is something we’re voicing our concern to with different organizers. We ask a lot of the fans when having them in an arena for 12 hours in a row; it’s hard for them to book their trip if they’re not sure their favorite team is playing in the arena; it’s hard for sponsors and partners to invest money if they don’t know what size of exposure they get. All this is something we work with to improve – for the benefit of the whole CS:GO scene.
Besides that, we like the idea of a player’s association and them being heard. I think SirScoots is doing a great job there. I’d also love for Valve to announce their major circle for the whole year so it’d be possible to plan accordingly.
What do you think about the state of Danish CSGO? It was kind of a meme for a while, but you, North and even what Karrigan has done with FaZe has really flipped the narrative. What’s it like having someone like Anders so strongly in your corner?
We’re doing great. Danish CSGO is one hell of a drug, that’s for sure. Recently we also saw Heroic entering the world top 10, and you feel the esports buzz wherever you go these days in Denmark.
The talent pool, in all sorts of areas within esport, is very big. We’ve some of the best Danish League of Legends players, Dota 2 players, Counter-Strike players, LoL, CS:GO and Dota 2 commentators. Danes working at DH, ESL, and more, organizers. Different organizations. We’re well represented as a country considering how few people live here. With RFRSH entering as well I’m very confident we’ll see the state of Danish CS:GO improving further over the next years.
For Anders, I mean he kept supporting us even though we went down in rankings, kept believing and always voiced his belief “this is yours.” He’s a great friend of the team, and I’m for one very humble about him “betting” a pie in the face vs. Moses. Anders took Astralis to win the EL Major, if we did, he’d win. If any of the other 15 teams won, Moses would win. That’s belief and we’re grateful for it.
Likewise, how is Astralis (and really esports in general) received in Denmark, specifically compared to other sports clubs? For instance, as big as esports is getting in America, it’s still pretty niche in comparison to a lot of things in the country. Is esports’ platform bigger in Denmark?
Esports in general and Astralis as a brand is getting more and more attention from the politicians and mainstream medias. We worked really hard towards this together with the PR team of RFRSH, and the players getting recognized for their talents. I believe what they’re capable of is comparable to what athletes in sport clubs are. However, there’s still a long road ahead of us and even though we have moved miles in Danish media over the past months. We’re nowhere near the same level of recognition as other sports. I do think that’s pretty common for all countries, perhaps except for Sweden. Heaton/NiP/DH did a solid job progressing esports in their country.
However, I’d like to state that for us Astralis isn’t equal to Denmark. Yes, our base is Danish and we’re all Danes (well, close to all at least) in the company, but we’re building a global brand and our fans are from all over the world. If we only looked at the Danish angle, partnerships like Audi and Microsoft wouldn’t have happened. And that’s good. If we didn’t aim for the global brand, we wouldn’t be able to help the grassroots in Denmark. Astralis partnering with Audi, Microsoft, winning the ELEAGUE Major is doing a lot, like NiP did for Sweden, for the grassroots and hopefully that’ll lead to the platform for esports growing in Denmark as a whole.
From what you’ve seen, how has monetization in esports from the business end kept up with VC and other outside investments? It seems like we’re in a state of a lot of investments, money pouring in and not necessarily having any return just yet. Do you agree with that? If so, what would it take to get to that point?
Right now, the players earn all the money. It’s not a secret and I don’t think anyone disagrees with me on that. They earn a nice salary, get most (if not all) of prize money & stickers, while organizations and event organizers pay for travel, accommodation, food, reimbursements while at tournaments ,etc.
It’s VCs, angel investors and companies providing the investments and funds. At some point, they have to earn their money back, else they’ll withdraw and then none of us will earn a dime. So, for all of us involved in esports, it is extremely important to work together in creating sustainable business models, so that we, like other big pro sports and entertainment industries, can have a long and prosperous future. Everybody — players, orgs and tournament operators — has to work towards the long goal to make the cake bigger, instead of trying to grab the biggest part of the relatively small cake we have on the table now.
Things are moving in the right direction, though. We see large generic non-endemic partners moving in and if we continue that trend. We will succeed, no doubt in my mind about that. CS:GO is a fantastic game with huge entertainment potential!
Astralis is one of the few organizations in esports that doesn’t have teams in any other games. Has that always been a core idea? Do you have any ambitions of eventually expanding to other games?
We love CS:GO, but it hasn’t always been the core idea to only be involved in Counter-Strike, and we’re not yet sure what the next step is. It might very well be an academy CS team to start off with. However, the idea behind Astralis was to learn and get a do-over of how other organisations have done. Learn from the best, avoid stuff the worst have done. Take a new approach on how to run a team and see what we could accomplish with that — and I don’t think I’m in the wrong stating that what we’ve done is working.
Yes, we have ambitions of building something bigger than what we are today. But if that includes expanding to other genres within esports, I can’t say yet. We’re always looking at our options but we won’t just jump on the train because other organizations are doing so, i.e. Overwatch, for instance.
We’ll evaluate and see what makes sense before taking our next step.
Cover photo courtesy of Turner Sports/ELEAGUE