It’s crunch time.
The clock is ticking down, the score is all wrong and the majority of the 16,000-strong crowd starts to cheer against them.
The world’s best team is up against it.
Led by the world’s best player, they somehow pull off a comeback — of course, they do — and defeat the challengers on their way to victory and another trophy. Sound familiar? Not quite.
The game is “Counter Strike.” The team, Fnatic. Welcome to the world of eSports.
Origins of an eSports juggernaut
Sam Mathews is one of the major players in this digital realm, which has a global audience of more than 290 million people — more than the NHL, according to research firm Newzoo.
He set up Fnatic in 2004, having sold his car and invested £5,000 ($7,200) in sending the team to an eSports event in Las Vegas.
“It was thought upon as odd the first time I did it,” he recalls. “But when they won £20,000 ($29,000) it was thought of as not odd and suddenly like, ‘Whoa, how did they win?'”
Mathews (left) – pictured at the 2004 World Cyber Games in San Francisco – founded Fnatic to represent the eSports community.
An avid gamer, Mathews was an early believer in eSports — an industry where players compete in everything from video games to drone racing.
He played under-21 rugby for professional English club Harlequins, but also competed on an eSports team as a teenager.
His attempts to fund a trip to a tournament offering “millions in prize money” taught him some early business lessons, and with some help from his mom, Anne — who dealt with finances — he turned his attention to founding his own team.
The name Fnatic reflected his desire to “represent this audience, this community of fanatical people who see eSports as a movement.”
Becoming a brand
Mathews’ faith in the future of the industry paid off. Fnatic moved from earning thousands of dollars in prize money playing “Quake” and “Painkiller” in 2004 to playing for millions in games such as “Counter Strike,” “Dota 2” and “League of Legends” in front of tens of thousands of fans in packed arenas.
“He early on saw the potential of eSports and the potential of Fnatic as a brand,” the team’s CEO Wouter Sleijffers — wearing one of its branded hoodies — says at the Intel Extreme Masters in Katowice, Poland.
“We have our HQ in London. We also have operations in San Francisco, Berlin, Belgrade and in Kuala Lumpur. We’ve grown out from 2004 as, maybe, passionate and in a clan to today a fairly big operation in eSports, doing apparel and other activities which are all about the Fnatic brand.”
Fnatic is now one of the biggest teams in the world, along with the likes of Evil Geniuses, Natus Vincere and SK Telecom T1, but these are more than just groups of people competing for prize money.
ESports teams are increasingly becoming brands — and for good reason. The global eSports market in 2016 is worth roughly $463 million and is set to become a billion-dollar industry by 2019, according to Newzoo.
Fnatic has grown exponentially from its early days as a gaming team. It’s now a global brand with gaming hardware and apparel.
Fnatic is already a household name. Attend any large tournament and its apparel is omnipresent. The team’s players — no matter which game — are mobbed by fans wherever they go.
Its media department produces content that’s consumed millions of times. Capitalizing on the excitement and passion around eSports is key to any team wanting to become a brand.
“We’re the only team designing, manufacturing and distributing their very own gaming hardware,” says Sleijffers, who became CEO at the start of 2015.
“What we see in the future is not only having teams and not only working with sponsors, but to actually launch our own ventures, using the Fnatic brand and excitement — not only for Fnatic fans, but for anyone that’s passionate about eSports.”
Patrik Sättermon is a busy man, but Fnatic’s chief gaming officer is happy to reminisce about his first console — an early ’90s Nintendo.
“I kind of got mesmerized from moment one. I had access to that kind of world, obviously not in the physical space, but being able to compete — that was super fascinating to me.”
A former professional Counter Strike player, known as cArn, the 31-year-old is now dubbed the “Alex Ferguson of Fnatic” by Mathews.
Like the legendary former Manchester United manager, it’s Sättermon’s job to keep his teams at a championship level.
“I am more or less responsible for our gaming department … ensuring that we are relevant. That is highest priority on my list of tasks,” says the Swede, who has been with Fnatic for 10 years.
“It’s very important we use our expertise and knowledge, the context that we have built up over and accumulated over this decade. We’re setting up an entire framework, how we can help our players reach the next tier.”
The players train “up to 10 hours a day, five or six days a week,” while Fnatic plans their diets, gives its Korean contingent English lessons and encourages physical fitness for all members.
“The connection between your physical performance and your mental performance is definitely there,” Sättermon says, “so although eSports and competitive gaming is the sport of your mind, surely you can add hand and eye coordination to that.
“We do see our players being as fit as any other average kid, sometimes even more so.”
Olof “olofmeister” Kajbjer: “It’s weird. You walk around and people want to take pictures and you don’t really understand it.”
Looking around from the top of the stage in Katowice after Fnatic’s victory, Olof Kajbjer appears justifiably pleased — but a bit astonished.
Known as “Olofmeister,” the Swede is widely thought of as the world’s best Counter Strike player, yet he still can’t quite believe what’s going on.
“When you play, you’re just so focused on playing, so you block everything out,” the 24-year-old says.
“But when you win, and see everyone, like the whole arena full, it’s unreal. It’s hard for me to understand how big it is right now.
“It’s weird. You walk around and people want to take pictures and you don’t really understand it because, for me, I’m a normal person, but for other people, I guess I’m not.”
Players of Olof’s caliber can win big money.
American Dota 2 player Syed Sumail Hassan — or “Suma1L” as he’s known in-game — has landed over $1.7 million in prizes despite being only 17 years old.
However, it may be a while before eSports stars can rival the earning power of top footballers such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
“I don’t see why not in maybe 30-50 years,” Kajbjer says, “but they make way too much money!”
He regularly practices 10-12 hours a day and only has roughly one week of “offseason” time, usually around Christmas and New Year.
His tough schedule has resulted in a wrist injury that has sidelined him for almost two months, leading to regularly postings on his Twitter account about his frustration at not being able to play — though Kajbjer is now on the comeback trail.
The future of Fnatic
The eSports industry is growing quickly — with revenue up 239% since 2014, according to Newzoo — and shows no signs of abating. In such a rapidly changing sport, what do the teams do next?
“(People have) never seen a new ecosystem come to life as eSports and that is what makes it so unique,” Sleijffers says. “That’s why we need to stay open-minded and that’s where we’ll figure out where we’ll be in 10 years’ time.”
Sättermon aims to keep Fnatic at the top.
“I’d like us to be more engaging with our fan base,” he adds. “It’s hard to predict where the future is taking us, but we want to be super proactive and we want to change this space, be in the forefront.”
Fnatic chief gaming officer Patrik Sättermon says that more fan engagement is one of the goals of the team in the future.
For founder Mathews, the goal is to help eSports stars break out of their online niche.
“Since day one, we’ve always been about representing this audience in the most genuine, authentic way,” he says. “I want us to be one of the catalysts that helps drive eSports into the mainstream.”
CEO Sleijffers dreams of the day eSports will dominate water-cooler talk in offices after the weekend, not the exploits of Real Madrid, Manchester United or Barcelona.
“My vision is that on Mondays, people go to work and they don’t talk about football,” he says, “but that they talk about eSports and Fnatic. I truly believe in that.”
After eSports’ dramatic growth and history, who’s to say otherwise?