2018 has been a long, strange year for esports. In many ways, the industry has enjoyed a long period of growth and investment; in others, signs of strife for esports: player burnout, increased competition in other games, fluctuating viewership numbers, and concerns for player welfare suggest there’s much more work to be done.
There are few people more aware of those ups and downs than Jack Etienne, the founder and CEO of major teams Cloud9 and the London Spitfire. On paper, Cloud9 and the Spitfire had a fantastic year, racking up acclaim and championships. In practice, there were long stretches of uncertainty, doubt, and upsets. Now that the stretch of trials is over, Etienne has the chance to reflect on the industry and speak about his experiences. Polygon talked to Etienne about his wild year, and how he sees the future of Cloud9 and esports unfolding.
From the good, to the bad, to the ugly
From the Boston Major in CS:GO in February, to claiming the Overwatch League season one championship in July, to representing North America in the quarterfinals in League of Legends’ Worlds in October, there’s no denying Cloud9 had a banner year. But in the middle of those victories were harsh setbacks.
In OWL, the Spitfire’s strong start sputtered out. “Our entire road there wasn’t perfect,” says Etienne. “We won Stage 1, but it wasn’t clean as I had hoped. Then we had troubles in Stages 2, 3, and 4.” The Spitfire struggled, lagging behind the New York Excalibur and Los Angeles Valiant. In May, the Spitfire designated four players as inactive and focused on their core roster — a move that drew criticism from the community.
Cloud9’s CS:GO roster saw dramatic changes in March, after the Boston Major win, and were unable to make another run at glory for the year.
In June, Cloud9’s League of Legends team benched Nicolaj “Jensen” Jensen, Zachary “Sneaky” Scuderi, and Andy “Smoothie” Ta, an action that some in the community called shortsighted, even spiteful.
The eye of the storm
Cloud9 responded to this by hunkering down.
“When things were at their worst, in those times, you kind of develop a little bit of toughness with your players and staff,” Etienne says of the firestorm. “You develop this mentality of ‘it’s us against the world’. They don’t believe in us? We’re going to prove them wrong.” He pauses and laughs. “It’s like a buff you get.”
Etienne rattles off a list of perks that his players get access to: other pros, coaches, managers, stream consultants, social media consultants, chefs, physical trainers, sports psychologists, and so on. He estimates that Cloud9 employs one support personnel for every two players. (He also notes that’s a fluctuating number.) The reason for that ratio is Cloud9’s access to the Red Bull athlete program, thanks to a sponsorship. I ask if those perks and health benefits apply to just players, or staff as well. Etienne is quick to stress that they apply to everyone at Cloud9 — including community-facing staff, like social media managers.
While the internal mood was mostly unaffected, there were moments of doubt. Etienne describes going out to dinner with coach Bok “Reapered” Han-gyu months ago, after a long night of going through scrims. While the social media firestorm raged on, the two of them felt like their controversial efforts were on the right path.
“Jack, this is going to end up fine ... right?” Reapered asked.
“Yep,” Etienne said. “This is going to be fine.”
It was a statement of faith, but it wasn’t easily come by. “I am very close to my fans, and during the darkest days of our League of Legends roster there, people were very personal in going after me and telling me to retire, leave, that I had lost it,” Etienne says. “There were times […] I tell my players when it becomes no longer a positive experience to read Reddit, put it down. Leave social media. And I had to do that for a few days there.”
He follows that up by noting: “I don’t hold anything against the fans who are upset. I get it — we’re a team we followed for years.” Etienne notes that for many fans, social media interactions are the only way they can give input, especially while frustrated. “I understand they have a very limited view into how they operate. I don’t hold anything against them. I’m glad they’re happy. I’m glad they’re excited about the way the year ended.”
But Etienne is quick to note that there were fans who reached out with support and wrote to him during the dark period. “They’re very rare,” he says, and he becomes audibly emotional. “They’re very special. To those fans who wrote us — thank you so much.”
Looking back on the wins
Despite those low moments, overall Etienne is pleased with his 2018 and the state of esports. Cloud9 is a multi-game community. Etienne tells me that the organization runs 15 teams in 11 different games, including academy teams that serve as second string rosters to develop. Some of the teams are in Korea, others are in LA. “I don’t see a limit to the amount of teams we can get involved in,” says Etienne. “I only see a limit in interest and viewership. If you asked me four years ago, how many games would I be involved in, I’d say three or four. DOTA, League, Hearthstone, and CS:GO.”
Overwatch is one game he’s pleased with the growth of so far. According to numbers from The Esports Observer, the Overwatch League’s viewing numbers ranged from around 73,000 average concurrent viewers in Stage 3, to 216,000 for the Stage 2 finals — more than five times what Etienne says he expected.
Overwatch is also a market that boasts a higher amount of female and LGBT fans than most esports. Things will only get more diverse from here, he says.
“I think that’s a general progression of all esports — folks who didn’t necessarily feel like they got to be a part of it realize they’re a core part of our audience,” says Etienne. “I’m hoping we can continue to see that trend across other games. In League of Legends, I certainly see it. In CounterStrike, I’m starting to see it.”
When it comes to League of Legends, he’s looking forward to seeing how the new roster — bolstered by two long-time veterans — enters 2019. With those players entering the Spring Split with international experience under their belt, Etienne is excited to see them compete.
He not sure he can top his 2018 — “How can you do that, dude?” he laughs — but he’s eager to see the experience of his players compound. His philosophy is that a rising tide lifts all boats, and Cloud9 is happy to capitalize on the bigger harbor.