Amid the multimillion-dollar deals and packed arenas of esports in 2019 remains a selection of teams that remember leaner times without sponsors and stadiums. While esports is currently booming, the field has also seen declines and crashes during its history. As we reach a new age of investment and interest in global esports, some of esports’ biggest brands have to make smart choices about how to make that success sustainable.
Fnatic is one of the most well-known organizations currently in esports; its League of Legends team, in particular, has been the pride of Western esports at multiple points. Fnatic has a strong highlight reel: In 2015, the EU LCS team both ended a historic 18-0 undefeated split and took Korean titans SK Telecom T1 to a five-series game at MSI. In 2018, Fnatic made it to the finals in Incheon, South Korea. While it fell to Invictus Gaming, Fnatic made a stalwart effort in a game where the West has historically lagged behind Asian rivals.
Fnatic is also an organization in 10 different teams, constantly reassessing the current state of esports, and even maintains a hardware business. Polygon had the opportunity to sit down with Sam Mathews, founder and chairman of Fnatic. Mathews’ history in esports gives him a unique perspective on rebuilding, restructuring, and remaining calm as the field continues to grow and evolve.
Fnatic has been struggling during the Spring Split in League of Legends’ franchised European league, the LEC. Its roster has changed once again, with veterans like Paul “sOAZ” Boyer and Rasmus “Caps” Winther leaving to join other teams.
This isn’t the first time Fnatic has changed its roster, and Mathews isn’t concerned about the low Spring ranking. “We didn’t go into this year expecting to rebuild from scratch again. Sometimes you have to rebuild mentally.”
Fnatic, as a business, is built to survive tough periods in esports — and part of that means never relying too heavily on one player to serve as a pillar. While players like Martin “Rekkles” Larsson are a powerful part of Fnatic’s branding, Fnatic has survived fine throughout multiple iterations of rosters.
“One of the hardest things to measure is the value of experience,” says Mathews. “You don’t always know, especially in esports, when the micro play is more important than the macro experience, which comes to people after a really long time in the game.”
This means keeping veterans around is important; they lead the way and lend value. But careers in esports are short enough to make building the foundation of a team around long-term talent risky. Fnatic has to consistently refresh its talent pool — not just in League of Legends, but in all competitive titles.
“We’ve been pretty good at picking up academy teams in the past,” notes Mathews. Academy teams often compete at a lower tier of pro play and allow organizations to train and refine talent without risking their standings on the big stage. “Not youth-youth, but the 16-to-17-year-old range of players.” Mathews also says there are complications — those players need to focus on school and maintain their personal obligations, after all. The parents also need to be on board with such an initiative.
There’s an economic bonus for Fnatic in consistently scouting new talent as well; young, high-potential players are always in demand. “We make selective bets [on players] when we believe the long-term value is there,” says Mathews, but Fnatic often accepts high bids for competitors who go after players under its banner. In short, the team has a practiced system for bringing in talent, and that means it can afford to sell rookies out for a bump to the war chest — which boosts infrastructure.
Some of this is based around player needs — a training facility, player apartments, a sports psychologist, etc. — but Fnatic also branches out into merchandising and esports equipment, such as keyboards. The organization has 50 players but 80 staff, split between departments that include legal, finance, marketing, product development, and research and development.
Another part of finding success in esports is being ready to leap into new games. Every game has a lifespan; even phenomenal titles like StarCraft, which ruled the esports scene, eventually fade into the background. While League of Legends has turned into a global phenomenon, there are a host of contenders building off its success too. Mathews noted that there are multiple criteria for picking a title to expand into, including audience, prestige, competition, and prize money. Every time Fnatic expands into a new competitive title, that takes time, money, and effort — but, hopefully, it pays dividends toward the Fnatic brand in the long run.
Still, this makes moving into franchises like the Overwatch League or the upcoming Call of Duty World League, which have multi-million dollar buy-ins and rebranding requirements, extremely risky for Fnatic.
On the other hand, “Tier 3” titles like Rainbow Six Siege are low-risk to enter, and grow organically over time. Fnatic approaches greener esports games on a case-by-case basis, including titles like Paladins and Clash Royale. Some of those titles survive; others — like Heroes of the Storm — go under. The risk of a game failing is outweighed by the potential reward of a game taking off and creating a successful ecosystem.
Overall, Fnatic is in 10 competitive titles, while also maintaining its hardware team. That’s a lot of irons in the fire, but that variety is what it takes for an esports brand to continue to accumulate fans and interest once an existing game’s growth plateaus.
Franchised leagues and competitive standings are one thing, but titles like Epic Games’ Fortnite are starting to push a kind of esports focused on the spectacle of play and personality. Theirs is a format closer to the UFC or WWE than what you might expect from more traditional esports. When I ask Mathews about this new kind of pro gaming, he makes sure to stress that Fnatic’s goal remains competitive, but he also sees the merit in exploring new ground.
“Games like Fortnite are amazing, but not given the chance to be a good esports title,” says Mathews. “But they’re obviously a good entertainment vehicle right now.”
While Fnatic’s core is competitive, Mathews notes that the organization is also focused on the brand aspect of the team, and that means bringing in influencers, streamers, academy programs, onboarding programs for marginalized groups, and so on. He also notes that Fortnite has broken down barriers, bringing in both new talent and fans for esports organizations.
Overall, Mathews has a positive view of esports in 2019. He mentions great viewership growth and brands entering LEC, CS: GO’s popularity and recent decision to go free to play, and higher viewership numbers on platforms like Twitch and YouTube. Mathews also unusually notes that Minecraft has been an exciting onboarding opportunity for esports, getting young players online and involved in the greater esports ecosystem.
There are more avenues in which esports can grow. Mobile games are creating their own space in the esports market, like Supercell’s Clash Royale and Brawl Stars. As the field continues to develop over time, and games like Fortnite blur the boundary between professional gaming as entertainment and esports, organizations are going to need to make tough decisions on which routes to take and their priorities. For Fnatic, the key to success is sustainable and careful growth, with a keen eye on economics.