Esports is the Wild West: Money changes everything

Dylan Walker

My first job in esports was with LunatiK esports, an amateur CS:GO team. When I say job, I mean I was a volunteer. At the time, LunatiK esports had no money coming in or going out. All of their players played for free. The owners would take turns paying fees for the team to compete in CEVO and ESEA leagues.

The roster in mid-2014 included names like Shazam, Fugly, daps, and Naf-Fly. The team was actually quite good for being unpaid, playing in the CEVO Professional league as well as ESEA Premier.

But it was all for naught. After a few months, another gaming organization, Denial Esports, offered to pay the players money to play under their brand. They jumped at the chance. As soon as success had come around for Lunatik esports, it left for greener pastures.

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Shazam, after leaving LunatiK (Photo: Dylan Walker)

So LunatiK looked for another team. They found it in Relyks, valens, automatic, Flowsick, and Slemmy. If you follow NA CS:GO, you’ll recognize all these names.

By the end of the year, the rumor was that another org, Team Liquid, was getting into Counter-Strike. That turned out to be true when Liquid picked up the Denial roster. So Denial, in a repeat performance, looked to LunatiK to replenish. Once again, talent was lost to the promise of money. Twice in a row LunatiK lost their team to Denial. Twice in a row they had to start over from scratch.

Team poaching is not unusual, especially in a game like Counter-Strike where there are no rules outside of loose contracts. If your team’s players are good, they’ll leave when money is offered from another organization. If they’re bad, you won’t likely find investors. If you don’t incentivize good players, you won’t keep them around. During the brief window in which an organization might have a good team “volunteering” for them, they need to work fast to acquire real monetary sponsorship. And trust me, that’s incredibly hard to do. Esports is not about who you know - it’s about who you know that has money.

Finding a financial partner for a gaming org is like finding a unicorn. Finding a paying sponsor for an individual team, however, is much more likely. And that means sticking with a unit of players rather than working on your own brand. As tumultuous as it may be with roster changes, hard losses, and the inevitable heartbreaks that comes with cutting your teeth, staying with a unit yields better results in the long run. It’s far easier to develop value on a group of unpaid players with the intention of getting sponsored than it is developing a brand with the goal of obtaining financial endorsement.

I had no idea what I was doing, but I desperately wanted LunatiK to work. I spent every day obsessing over our results, our public outreach, and our image. I once bought an expensive in-game CS:GO knife to give away on Twitter because I thought boosting our analytics would help secure a real sponsor. I spent days drafting a partnership deck based around the team’s results. I even commissioned an illustration of the team logo from Brock Hofer, the artist behind the HyperBeast skins. I was only recently able to pay Brock for this, because I couldn’t afford it when I was volunteering.

(Image: Brock Hofer)

I quickly realized that I was not meant to help grow the LunatiK brand, although I’m grateful for all the things I learned when I was a part of that team. I floated around to other orgs, trying my hand at everything and assuming a lot of different roles. But at the end of the day, I knew that following the players and the talent was what was going to open up more doors for me. Having felt the sting of losing your team to a bigger org, I knew that homegrown esports wasn’t something I could continue to undertake.

Which isn’t to say it’s impossible. If you’re building a new gaming org and you want to transcend irrelevance, you’ll need funding. Find it and perhaps you’ll be able to keep a unit together. But if you opt to grow organically, know that it’s only a matter of time before someone can offer your players something you probably can’t: cold, hard cash.

Dylan Walker is on Twitter at @Dyluuxx

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