Our Past and Heritage - Interview with Jason Lake Part One
In the world of eSports, very few teams have survived as long as compLexity has, and even fewer have been as successful. So when we wanted to address the slight disconnect between the "old guard" and today's newer audience we were thrilled to get Jason Lake to help paint a picture of what it was like in the early days. For those of you unfamiliar with who he is, Jason Lake is the founder and CEO of compLexity gaming and has done his fair share of heavy lifting on behalf of eSports throughout the years . He made his presence known by establishing compLexity as one of the most well recognized brands in the business as well as through his enthusiastic coaching.
In this two-part interview, Jason Lake will today journey down memory lane with us and revel in a little bit of nostalgia while still acknowledging the not-so-glamorous beginnings of eSports. And tomorrow for part two we will probe his thoughts on the future and where we are heading as a whole.
Part One, Our Past and our Heritage.
WellPlayed - You’ve spent many years in the eSports industry, having been there in the beginning when the sky was the limit, and then seeing the sky fall down, and now seeing things really pick up and expand again. How would you describe the industry of eSports having lived through it all so far?
Jason Lake - First off, thanks very much for the interview. I can tell by the lengthy wall of text I'm staring at that it's pretty in-depth so I'll do my best to give concise answers and not ramble on (too much) like old timers are known to do.
Describing eSports in the early days is not the easiest of tasks but I would equate the industry with the wild west of the 1800s in some ways. There was a sense of adventure, a hungry and excited atmosphere and an abundance of gunslingers (both good and bad) that left their marks on the emerging "sport." The rise of the Internet provided a way for gamers to leave the solitary world of single player and venture out into the digital expanse that offered each player a chance to truly display his or her skills. This gave meaning and context to the LAN events that popped up to see who could really bring the game when the wires weren't providing the dreaded latency of a dial-up or early-DSL era. Games like Quake and Counter-Strike were rapidly acquiring a near cult status, and websites were quickly popping up to harvest the tsunami of readers wanting to learn more about newly rising stars. There were virtually (pardon the pun) no rules and, as such, many gamers were taken advantage of by unruly vultures who were only in the space to make a quick buck or secure their share of the new phenomenon known as "e-Fame."
However, the underlying theme of this digital gold rush was the reality that video game competitions were incredibly competitive and entertaining. This drove many pioneers to invest their lives into the concept of a new sport.. an evolution of sports.. and the idea that the games we loved in our mom's basement could mean more in the greater social structure: they could mobilize the youth of the day into creating something bigger than all of us- eSports for a new digital generation. This was an activity where you didn't have to be 6'7" tall to be a starter. You didn't have to run the 40 yard dash in so many seconds. It was a level playing field that catered to the mindset of Generation X and beyond. We all felt something new in the air and it wasn't the musty smell of old miners in the hills. It was the sweet aura of being a part of something we all felt could change the world.
WP: What qualities would you say has made compLexity a survivor in the eSports world? What made you and your team so successful in navigating the tough times while so many others failed and have fallen along the way?
JL: From the beginning, compLexity was born of a spirit of excellence. I was a devoted Counter-Strike player who was constantly annoyed by the lack of dedication of my teammates so I started my own team. Soon my own play wasn't good enough, so I began hiring players, staff, advisors, etc. to take the organization to the next level. That concept of excellence has pervaded our organization since day one, and anyone who doesn't share that dedication usually isn't with us for very long. Perseverance isn't something that's popular in today's "TL;DR" culture, but it's something we believe in. Throughout the past 8+ years we've had more challenges, disappointments, and heartbreaks than I care to recall, but through it all we've managed to rise above and stay the course. We're very thankful and blessed to be here and hope to continue moving the compLexity dream forward into the future.
WP: One can argue about the true origin of eSports at length, be it Doom, Quake or the old-school arcade competitions that preceded them all. But would you agree that Counter-Strike did something above and beyond what had been done before in terms of competitive gaming? How significant of an impact did CS have when it came to growing eSports in the west?
JL: I think if you asked ten people where/when eSports began you'd probably get ten different answers. However, it's my opinion that the Quake/CS era really marked the beginning of professional gaming. Quake highlighted the fact that skilled gamers in organized competitions could create extremely exciting entertainment while winning Ferrari's and buckets of cash. Counter-Strike took that concept and added the whole team dynamic, thus merging raw skill with the ability to work with others to achieve a common goal. Thus, both Quake and Counter-Strike played instrumental roles in launching eSports as we know them today. Although my friends Slasher and djWheat will throw things at me for this, I personally believe Counter-Strike was the bigger of the two. I say that primarily because large events like CPL and ESWC focused more on CS, so it had a greater impact on the larger pro scene. Also, before my beloved brothers at r/StarCraft pick up their pitch forks, let me note that StarCraft obviously had a big impact on the growth of pro gaming, but its impact on the Western world was negligible until recently.
WP: After some initial years of a strong eSports boom in the early 2000s, would you agree that a few years of a steady decline followed, wherein eSports (at least in North America) struggled? If so, to what would you attribute those tough times? Is it something concrete that we can try to avoid in the future, or will it happen again?
JL: I agree that a decline most definitely occurred, and I'd say 2000-2005 was a boom for gaming. Large teams were fairly stable, smaller organizations were developing, and there were plenty of quality events to attend. In my opinion, the failed experiment of the CGS combined with the decline of Counter-Strike, the lack of compelling replacements, and a global economic slump created the perfect shit storm that plunged eSports into the dark times of near obscurity circa 2007-8.
I honestly don't know if there is a real answer about avoiding a similar crash in the future. It's a combination of different aspects that makes eSports boom or bust: the games available, the fan base, financial stability, etc. Everyone involved at a high level is cautiously optimistic that this boom is more of a steady upward curve and not a bubble but history will be the judge of that. Can we continue to inspire new fans and attract the corporate support necessary to float this boat? Let's hope so.
WP: What are the principal lessons that tournament organizers should learn from the failures/successes of the past? What did the CGS or the CPL do right and and what did they get wrong?
JL: I wouldn't call myself an expert at tournament organization, but I do have a few pieces of advice for anyone wanting to get into that business: 1) Be humble and listen to the demographic (players and fans). You'll never be able to please them all, but you need to respect them and take their thoughts into consideration at all times. 2) Don't bite off more than you can chew. Start small and be damn good at what you're doing rather than screwing up a plethora of things. 3) Pay the damn players immediately, none of this 3,6,9+ month crap that has you robbing Peter to pay Paul. 4) Take very good care of your sponsors because most of them are very apprehensive and need to prove a solid ROI to remain in such a speculative space. 5) Refer to #1.
WP: On the subject of old tournaments, can you give us an anecdote or vivid memory from a tournament that you still cherish to this day? Perhaps one that speaks to the differences or similarities between the tournaments back then and the ones played today?
JL: This is a really obscure reference but since it popped into my head first, I'm going to use it. Back in 2004 I was at CPL Summer in Dallas, Texas. The events were held in the basement of the Hyatt. (Fond smiles now arise on all the old timers' faces.) It had a cement floor, rows of computers, and some small tourney areas for players. Pretty basic compared to today's big screens, large stages, and flat-screen TVs. I was in the audience (which meant a large group of people standing around a projector screen) watching Mason Dickens (brother of coL.Warden) playing against a top Euro team in Counter-Strike. He was on CT (defense) on de_inferno, and everyone on his team was dead, so all five of the Euro stars proceeded to hunt him down. One by one he picked them off with the AWP sniper rifle as the audience screamed louder and louder. He killed all of them single-handedly and the place went crazy. It was then I truly realized this could be a live spectator experience. It was no different than cheering a touchdown or -pointer. It was electric, and I was sold on eSports as a true sports environment.
WP: Complexity has long had a reputation of requiring high standards of professionalism from your players, more so then many other organisations. Why is that, and has it helped? If so, in what ways?
JL: Professionalism can be a difficult thing to demand from the age group that comprises most professional gamers. It's a rebellious age that is more interested in flipping someone the middle finger than shaking their hand after a loss. Hey, I was 17-23 before. I'd much rather tell the other team to piss off than to shake their hands. However, it's my ardent opinion that at the highest levels of any professional activity, a certain level of behavior must be insisted upon. Of course, in reality it's not always going to happen, but if the goal is at least agreed upon, we can attempt to hold ourselves to a higher standard. Not only is it the right thing to do, it's the smart thing to do if you want to attract the corporate support needed to move eSports forward. Many corporations are scared to death to place their logo next to anyone or anything that may get dirt on it. (See the Tiger Woods exodus of companies, etc) Let's face it, the traditional reputation of the gaming age person isn't the best in corporate board rooms. The more professionalism we can exude as an industry, the better for our collective future.
WP: You’ve previously said that you once worked your ass off trying to bring eSports to the mainstream, but subsequently changed your tune, and now believe we are exactly where we should be. Could you expand on that a bit, specifically as to what led you to change your mind, and how eSports is better off not becoming mainstream?
JL: It's quite a long story but I'll say this: to bring something to the "mainstream" and have it be accepted, you usually need to change the spirit of that thing. I'd much rather we stay true to the spirit of what we're creating and have something special. If we ever become "mainstream" it should be on our terms and not rules dictated by the blind masses.
WP: Back in the day when tournaments and teams alike had to improvise and to some extent invent the business as they went along, there were naturally plenty of pitfalls around with false promises, questionable events, and so forth. Could you give some examples of the job hazards of that time? How far along in improving these issues has eSports come (if at all)?
JL: There were obviously many tech issues as the industry learned to throw large scale live events, but innovators like the famous Laurent "Larry" Genin (yeah, that's right, you got a shout out Larry!) quickly made events more stable. Of course, there is rarely a major LAN that has zero tech issues, but it was worse back then. The prime example of a LAN gone wrong was CXG# back in early 2004. It's usually pointed to as the birth of flaky tourney organizers, shady dealers, and unpaid prizes. Even as recently as this month we saw the debacle that was PPSL. As a team owner, if I'm going to spend $10,000+ to send my team to an event, I want to have confidence that it will be run properly and my players will receive their prize money. Unfortunately, some negative things about this business haven't changed and remain "job hazards."
WP: Is it possible to make sure that legendary players of a game retain respect for their efforts and accomplishments when five years from now that game may be abandoned due to the steady march of technology? Are we doomed to hold eSports history lessons every few years to educate the by then “new” audience over what great feats were accomplished in games long since outdated?
JL: Haha, what a great question. We need a digital "Hall of Fame" or something. I'm often frustrated that each new generation knows little about the heritage of eSports (and it's not a long heritage!) Unfortunately, with the steady march of technology and the general lack of interest in the past, I think the majority of eSports fans will not have a solid grasp on our history.
That concludes part one of this two-part interview with Jason Lake. Check in tomorrow for the final part, wherein we discuss his thoughts on the future of eSports and the importance of supporting the companies that sponsor eSports.