This week, I had the honor of sitting down with the owner and founder of the 2019 MSI champions, G2 Esports. Carlos “ocelote” Rodríguez Santiago has created an esports dynasty in a few short years, and it’s showing no signs of stopping any time soon.
First of all, Congratulations on MSI, that’s a huge accomplishment!
Thank you very much!
In your mind, is this an indication of the East vs West talent gap closing? Or is G2 just that good?
I do think that if you take the best teams from each region, the gap has officially closed. However, I think that if you take League by League, I think North America is kind of below China, South Korea, and Europe. If you take all the teams from each league, I think China and South Korea are still kind of ahead of Europe and North America, but that is just my guess. The last place LCK team would beat the shit out of the last place LEC team.
When Wunder picked Pyke top against SKT, was that a surprise to you, or did you know that was coming?
We knew that was coming. They were practicing Pyke, they were practicing other weird stuff. A lot of stuff was practiced that you haven’t seen. It’s scary, I don’t know if my heart can take that, but the guys like to play their own stuff. They create their own league of legends, you know? Whatever is standard…I mean we play it, right? And we play it well. But we don’t believe there is stuff that just can’t be played against. So as a result, we tend to be very solution focused, and we end up finding counter picks to picks that are considered to be standard and comfortable. Not a single counter, but a setup type of counter. Like Pyke, which is a very ‘Go and get kills’ type of champion.
MSI is huge, but I know your eyes are on Worlds. Who do you see your biggest threats on your road to the World Championship?
Honestly, a combination of ourselves, and of course IG and SKT. I say ourselves because when we have the mindset and the preparation that we had at MSI, I think that we are more often than not going to win these events. But of course keeping that level of aggression, keeping that level of diligence, keeping that level of tension throughout the year is of course very complicated.
And yes, we’re already thinking about worlds, but already we’re seeing people saying “Don’t get ahead of yourselves.” But it’s the same thing I always say, which is that when we put this team together, we already said we wanted to win the LEC, we wanted to win MSI, we wanted to win Worlds. And people said we were getting ahead of ourselves, you know? Putting unnecessary pressure on the team. But I disagree. I think it’s healthy pressure. We are holding ourselves to very high standards. Not winning Worlds, for the vast majority of people, would be acceptable, right? For us, not winning worlds would be a disappointment. And I think that’s a beautiful goal to have – to be in a position where mentally, you’re ready to be disappointed if you don’t win Worlds. And that means you’re closer than ever to that goal.
G2 started strong when they first joined the EULCS and have stayed near the top since then. Other than the player talent, what is it about G2 that makes you so consistently competitive?
Honestly, I mean the players are insane, right? I think these players together are a really good bunch of people, and I think half the job is putting them together. Which is already hard enough, I can tell you. That’s why no “Super Team” ever worked in League of Legends, and that’s why nobody has super teams anymore. They’re ridiculously expensive, and it’s just not possible. You’re always going to have to sacrifice on a couple of roles if you want to have good players on the rest. And that’s not what we have. We have a perfect, well-rounded lineup.
So the first question is, what makes us have this team in the first place, right? Because many people would not comprehend about putting this team together. And that’s called ambition right? Having very high expectations about what our goals should be. If you want to win the Spanish league, then that’s fair – good for you. No seriously, that’s a fair goal, that’s a hard goal to accomplish! But you hire a different type of player to accomplish that goal. You would never think about hiring Faker to win the Spanish League. You can’t get him if that’s your goal. So if you want to get the likes of Faker or Caps, you need to have the goal to win Worlds. Not just talk about the goal, which is what many people thought we were doing, but actually doing things that get you closer to that goal.
And that’s the one thing that I have always tried to instill in the culture, not only when it comes to League of Legends and winning Worlds, but everything else. We want to revolutionize the way that people are entertained. I want you to watch our movie in Hollywood one day, and I want you to read our comics about the G2 Samurai, and how he grew up and what his story is, you know?
And I see that you’re planning to open a gaming facility as well?
Exactly. Everything we’re doing, we’re aiming to the highest possible goals. Imagine it as an archer. The higher you aim, the further it will go. It’s pretty much the same concept here.
As a former player, what do you think has changed most about the game since you transitioned to your current role?
The level of professionalism among support staff has changed a lot. The fact that agents are now part of the mix sometimes makes things more expensive, but I think as time passes, it will all balance out. We can also now plan ahead of time when and where the events are happening, not just in League of Legends but in general. There’s a certain amount of reliability on certain dates and certain schedules that we haven’t seen before, so I think that’s good. Also, the mainstream media’s approval is there. Not that I give a shit about it, but it’s there (laughs). A number of factors.
When I was a player, when I was flirting, and I would tell a woman that I was a professional player, they would think that was funny. Sometimes I would tell them I’m an astronaut instead, so for what it’s worth I don’t think it mattered. But the cool thing is that nowadays players will say that and they will be looked at as “Oh shit, I saw this thing on CNBC” or “I saw this thing on TV – oh my god you’re one of these guys? These guys make a lot of money” you know? There’s a lot of fans, stadiums get filled, and it’s a different perspective. When I was a player it was more like skating and hip hop culture in the 90’s. Now it’s getting more mainstream, and there will be a point where gaming and video game competition, in general, will be as mainstream as hip hop is today. And that will be the peak.
As an owner, what are your thoughts on the LEC franchising?
I love it! I love it because first of all, everything has to be sustainable to work. If something is not sustainable, at some point the rope breaks. If salaries are too high for players, at some point they have to come down, otherwise the rope breaks – teams go bankrupt, and the rope just breaks. So I believe in ropes that don’t break, and I think the creation of the LEC was a step in that direction. Now is it perfect? I don’t think so. We’re in the very early stages, and the ownership group of the LEC acknowledges this and is constantly working to fix these challenges that honestly we never faced before, but we have the right setup now, which is what matters.
From your reaction on twitter I can tell that you’re not a fan of the theory that esports is a ‘bubble’ that’s about to burst. What do you have to say about that?
It’s hard to say… Ok ok. I hate when people make absolute statements like those, because what is a bubble? Nobody really knows. People have an understanding of what it is, but a bubble can be a large bubble, or it can be a small one. A bubble can be worth a billion dollars, a trillion dollars like some of the ones we’ve seen in the world before, a bubble can be a million dollars. So when somebody says “there’s a bubble!” and then stops there, chances are they don’t even really understand what they’re talking about.
And the second, while it is undeniable that many of the organizations that have raised money have not deployed that capital as intelligently as they should have, this is no different than with any other industry in the world. Sometimes you take bets and those bets end up not working out. And sometimes you have to have a higher risk profile because you have no market share whatsoever. So in other words, when someone like OpTic Gaming’s new owners come into esports – I’m not talking about OpTic Gaming, I’m talking about OpTic Gaming’s new owners – come into the industry with the expectations to be relevant, and with the expectation to be the kings, come in and buy the company you also deploy a lot of capital ensuring that is the case. Now what happens is that your risk profile is very high because unlike G2 who grew organically from zero and understood the industry really really well, they get into a place where most of the team owners that are around are running circles around them. They’re trying to apply the lessons that they learned from traditional sports and other industries into this industry, and it doesn’t work. So, you put all those things combined and you have a really high risk profile, with potentially a very high payout. And the majority of these don’t pay out! Because it’s a very high risk and that’s the nature of investing. So it’s undeniable that many of these teams and owners made wrong choices in regards to how they deploy the money. And I think there may be a part of the other valued assets out there that leads to this being the case. But this is normal in a growing industry. In a growing industry, at some point in time – and it will happen in esports – people will realize “Hang on, you mean to say that I can’t just deploy $20 million randomly and expect to win?” Well yeah, that’s exactly the case. Welcome to life, ya know?
So I think that’s the realization that people are coming to now. And when that happens, there will be a market, maybe not a downturn, but deceleration where people are going to be a little less hyped to invest in esports and see how things play out, and that’s when the likes of G2 and other teams that are really well structured will succeed. There’s “war time CEO” and “peace time CEO” right? Peace time CEO is when everyone wants to invest in your company, everything’s great, you overpay for everything, everyone overpays you for everything, so why not? But then comes the war time CEO, and what do you do when shit hits the fan, and you’re essentially forced to adapt and be good in everything you do. Well, then we see who are those that remain on top.
So to answer your question, it could be that there is a bubble. I don’t know how big or how small, but if anyone wants to have a conversation about whether this is a serious bubble, you can’t just throw that statement and leave. You have to stay and talk about why you think its a bubble, talk about numbers, and the revenue growing proportional to the number of fans – and by the way, that looks pretty good for esports. You would argue that every fan is under leveraged. The dollar per fan is actually very, very low. Which means that there is a lot of room for growth. Are we in a bubble or not? It’s very complex! I live and breathe this industry, and I don’t know the answer to that question.
Do you work mainly with the G2 League of Legends team? How do you split your time with the other teams that G2 has?
I work with all of them. I am not as close with every team as many people might think. I only work closely with them when I think that my presence can be used, or is needed. I’m always there reactively, but I don’t want to always be there proactively. So if they need something from me, I’ll be there, and if I feel that I need to help them in any way, I’ll be there. But I sort of measure the amount of time I spend with each team and each player so that it has the most amount of impact. That’s maybe 10% of my job talking about the brand, talking about investor relations, talking about structure, vision, strategy of the team, all of these things are very important.
What do you want people to know about you and your organization moving forward?
The biggest takeaway is that whatever we do, we try to be super entertaining and that sometimes comes across wrong. We’re looking to find the sweet spot of how to not make it come across wrong more often than not. I think we’ve been doing a pretty good job of finding that middle ground of fun and respect. It’s a really hard wave to surf, because the easy thing is to do what every other team does. “Yeah, well done! You guys are great players!” “Yeah, we played worse this time around!” “Yeah, we play at 7PM this Thursday – be there!” That’s boring, man. That doesn’t stand for anything, and honestly is just so homogeneous that it’s not good, it’s just not fun. We don’t want to be that, we are our own unique brand that people look up to when building a brand from zero. And this brand was built remotely, bootstrapping, and was built with love and dedication and many many hours. So first of all we always look to entertain – that’s our number one brand attribute.
Second, is ambition. We are super, super, super ambitious and things that may not look as bad for the public eye or even the internal eye we have to stop and say “Hold on, this is actually pretty bad. It has to improve.” A seven out of ten is just not good enough. A constant culture of improvement and growth is what you’ll find if you work for G2, or if you’re a fan of G2, a partner with G2 or an investor in G2. If you’re embedded with G2 in any capacity that’s the one thing you’ll find at all times.
And then number three is empathy. The word empathy is super important for us. We want to make sure that even if things are not smiling on our end, we understand that the fans are ultimately what makes us or breaks us, you know? When things go wrong, spend time with fans. When things go right, spend time with fans. When our content is considered to be bad, spend time with fans and try to understand what they want. When content is considered to be good, spend time with fans, and find out how to keep that up. When people hate our brand, spend time with fans and learn what they like, what they don’t like, and figure out how to shift. When people like our brand, spend time with fans, and figure out how to improve and keep ahead of the curve. Just spend time with fans. Listen, read what they say. On Reddit, on Twitter, on Youtube comments, on Instagram comments, mention them, talk to them in private. If I showed you my Twitter DMs, you’d be like “How is that even possible?” I have probably 1000 conversations open with fans in the last 20 or 30 days, easily. And that’s because I actually care, and caring is halfway there. If somebody comes to me and says “This merch item is not good” I’ll send an email to the COO of our merchandise provider and speak to him about it. That’s what makes a difference at the end of the day.