Tracing the Lineage of Esports Royalty (Part I)
The stories of Fnatic and Team Liquid. By Michael Oliver.
With the League of Legends World Championship well underway, I’m sure most viewers have seen the same teams popping up across almost every single esport that exists in our virtual world; Fnatic and Team Liquid. These teams seem to be as old as esports itself, both showcasing an impressive roster of teams and players that have suceeded in tournaments across the globe. Not only have they become dominant forces within a plethora of game titles, they both have excelled as businesses; Fnatic has released their own line of exclusive PC hardware, and Liquid have made various successful business deals that have benefitted the industry itself. So, I bet you’re asking yourself the question: how did this happen?
Fnatic was the brainchild of a management science student at University of Southampton. Sam Mathews was an avid player of Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory (2003), the freeware FPS title that featured a tactical team orientated play loop. He was on one of the top teams at the time, Korea Truth, and it was the logistics of participating in a hoax $1 million tournament in Vegas that drove him to start his own team organisation. He told Jack Stewart from Mail Online that his thought process was, “how do I get them over there(?) Well we need sponsorships so I started hitting up brands and realised at that point it was really hard to do that with a name like that, with no backstory and it wasn’t my team.”Mathews then speaks about his revelation to create his own organisation: “So I thought, why don’t I do all of this but with a fresh start and all of the best players I can muster and convince to join, that’s how Fnatic was formed.” With some financial help from his mother and splitting the business down the middle with her, Fnatic was formed.
Even though the tournament was ultimately a hoax, it marked the beginnings of something massive. The foundational traits of Fnatic’s business model is to sign the best tier of player to their respective esport teams and treat them with the respect that a pro-player deserves. Mathews reminisces on how he entered the esports business at the perfect time, noting that this allowed him to sign the best players because, “there wasn’t much money on the table so it wasn’t like I had to throw around tons of cash. I just had to promise to send them to a few events, I sold my car to do that.” After signing, Fnatic offered a steady salary to players that were used to living from tournament to tournament, allowing them to focus more directly on their gameplay: “we were probably the first team to professionalise; treat the players fairly, pay them on time and always delivered on promises.” It’s because of this that they now have an impressive track record of $15 million in winnings across almost 30 different games.
Through the 2000s Fnatic sought out teams in almost every prominent esport: World of Warcraft (2004), DotA (2003), HoN (2010), Counter-Strike (2000), just to name some of the initial ones. Fnatic’s Counter-Strike: Source (2004) team was especially successful, with prominent names like cArn and f0rest sparking the legacy of the most dominant team in CS from 2006 to 2008. Since then, almost every single Fnatic CS roster has been in the top bracket of play, with multiple years of winning almost every single S-tier tournament. The medals and trophies in Fnatic’s cabinet are proof of the value that comes with respect for skill and dedication; the key features that explain why esports is as big as it is now. Fnatic have grown symbiotically with the industry, a trait that is shared by another organisation with similar leadership: Team Liquid.
Where the story of Fnatic began in Enemy Territory, Liquid’s began in StarCraft (1998). Victor Goossens was around 15 when he created the Team Liquid clan on Battle.net, and 17 when he began the Team Liquid website in 2000. It was a dedicated community website for people to discuss their love, news, and anything related to StarCraft. Goossens was in the top tier of the western competitive scene for the title, but the real esports for the game was found on the other side of the globe in South Korea. A lot of western players relied on TeamLiquid.net for information about the Korean scene of StarCraft, with many hours being put in by volunteers to create content and moderate discussions. Goossens stated, “that community site, between 2002 and 2010, was actually the way the Team Liquid name built and grew.” He goes on to say, “all of those years they were entirely voluntary, hobby, passion.”
Goossens himself went to South Korea to pursue his dream of professional gaming in 2002, as the country represented the true home of StarCraft esports. For six months Victor stayed and played in South Korea, even featuring on national television, but unfortunately could not survive on the meagre earnings of professional gaming at that time. Ultimately, Goossens returned to his home of the Netherlands to continue running his website, using a successful poker career to sustain himself. Moving into 2010, the release of StarCraft II reignited the competitive passion within Victor, and he re-entered the western professional scene with a roster of players as a part of Team Liquid. It was here that he realised that it wasn’t western esports that was behind, unfortunately it was StarCraft itself: “even those first few years, 2010 to 2012, of ‘StarCraft II,’ there was not much money involved there.”
In 2012, Goossens made the decision to make Team Liquid a multi-title organisation by signing a DotA 2 team. In the following years, other titles like League of Legends (2009), Street Fighter, and Smash Bros had their own Liquid roster, accompanied by business partnerships like Team Curse. Liquid followed a similar model to Fnatic by treating its players with the respect they deserve, with this sentiment likely a product of Goossens own experience and struggle of trying to make it as a professional gamer. In 2016, Team Liquid had more than 50 players in 10 different game titles and have partnered up with esport event company aXiomatic. Since then, Liquid has maintained their spot as the top earning esports team, currently with a total of more than $35 million.
Respect for the Player
With everything considered there is clearly a key ingredient to the success of both of these organizations: structure and respect for professional players. Fnatic and Liquid share their perspective of valuing their players, and both mirror each other by having regular salaries and infrastructure for the players to be at their best possible game. With both CEOs experiencing first-hand the hardships of being a professional player, it is clear why they place such a heavy emphasis on it. They have both helped set the playing field for the modern professional gamer, and now almost every successful organisation follows the same emphasis on respect for the player. Now only one question remains: who will come out on top? Will it be Fnatic or Team Liquid? Or, will it maybe be someone else? Get ready to learn about some new challengers in Part II of this series.