Barry Lee, Director of Esports at Evolved Talent, gives us his insights on the recent report by Graham Ashton of The Esports Observer which suggests that Valorant teams are already dropping up to $25,000 a month on player salaries, putting it on par with the Overwatch League’s base rate. Of course, there have been some outlier superstar deals, most notably San Francisco Shock’s Jay “Sinatraa” Won who moved over to Sentinels. It was reported by ESPN that Sinatraa was making $150,000 a year in the Overwatch League. Evolved Talent, which represents Sinatraa, couldn’t confirm the exact amount that he would be making with Sentinels. But Lee did say the deal was “very good.”
Later in the show, Jason Lake, founder and CEO of Complexity Gaming, answered some difficult questions in running a major esports organization in 2020. From the coronavirus pandemic that has forced his players to compete remotely, to an instance where he had to temper his anger following what a player might have said (but didn’t ultimately say) during a scrim, it’s been challenging trying to keep everything in check. There was light discussion of the PPP loan that Complexity Gaming took out, but Lake couldn’t say much on the matter.
A full transcript of the podcast can be found below:
Mon, 7/13 5:41PM • 25:11
SPEAKERS: Imad Khan, Barry Lee, Jason Lake
Imad Khan 00:04
What’s up everybody, this is FTW with Imad Khan. I’m your host Imad Khan. And joining me today is Barry Lee, Director of Esports at Evolved Talent.
Barry Lee 00:11
Hey, thanks for having me on.
Imad Khan 00:12
And later on, we’ll be joined by Complexity Gaming founder and CEO Jason Lake. On today’s show, we’ll talk about the struggle space esports teams in 2020 with Coronavirus, Black Lives Matter protests canceled events and the ongoing claims of sexual harassment and discrimination in gaming. But first Valorant. A new report by Graham Ashton of The Esports Observer claims that Valorant teams are spending between 15 to 25,000 on five team player salaries per month, meaning that on the high end players will be making up to $5,000 a month. While these aren’t Counter Strike numbers by any means. It does put it on par with the Overwatch league salary base of $50,000 a year. It is well below the salary base of LCS at $75,000 a year. So Barry as someone who’s negotiated salary for players across a wide variety of games. Do you think the reported salary average for valid rent is appropriate?
Barry Lee 00:57
That actually sounds about right to me, we’ve been seeing a lot of salaries at the agency side, between $3k a month to about $5k a month, which equates about 36,000 to 60,000 a year and really just depends on how much the team is willing to spend how good they feel the players for their brand. Obviously, we’ve seen some superstar deals on our end as well. But those were like kind of the big outliers the bulk of the players seem to be signing contracts where where it’s mostly $3-5k.
Imad Khan 01:28
And the players that are getting these superstar deals. Are they the ones that were former Counter Strike players, or maybe in one instance a former Overwatch League player?
Barry Lee 01:35
Well, I mean, like some of them were former Overwatch players. I don’t know if any former Counter-Strike players have signed like a superstar deal just because I don’t know what’s going on with on the hunter t side of things. But yeah, like these are players that have already some sort of brand exposure and some sort of like kind of following before they kind of signed on to Valorant or switched over to Valorant.
Imad Khan 01:57
Hmm, you know, I think the one that everyone was paying attention to his Sinatraa, right? Because he was already one of the highest paid players in the Overwatch League. And then when you decided to leave the San Francisco Shock and go over to Sentinels there, I mean, how much do you think? Like, do you think you’d be getting a pay bump?
Barry Lee 02:12
So Sinatraa is signed with our agency, and we did that deal. So I can’t really say the details of that deal. But it was, it was it was a good deal. That’s the most I can say.
Imad Khan 02:24
So then, you know, we also get some of the viewership numbers that Valorant is getting obviously, its initial beta launch had crazy numbers. And some people attributed that to like the artificial inflation because they were given beta keys based on people who were watching, but now that we’ve seen some kind of unofficial events, the viewership has kind of hovered around Overwatch numbers a little less in the 50,000 viewership. Mark, do you think that it’s still too early to be playing armchair analysts and say that you know this game has no future?
Barry Lee 02:52
Yeah, I think it’s way too early because because I think when you look at the T1 Invitational like did actually quite well viewership, one From what I recall, a lot of the kind of people are saying that like, Oh yeah, Valorant viewership is already dead and the game isn’t been out for quite a month now. So it’s like, I think it’s way too soon. And it’s also like a lot of these tournaments are like no name companies with no name players playing for like $2-3,000 you can’t really put too much stock in these numbers. I think what you really need to see is if if there’s any, like big content creators at the moment that are going to kind of like make a living off of Valorant. I think the game it’s only been out a month, I think it’s gonna take some time for the scene to kind of establish itself because the thing is, even though numbers like you said, were great during the beta initial beta launch, that was also because everyone had a key and you know, have the clout of being into beta. So like, yeah, it was definitely inflated but I think we’re starting to see it level off and the kind of stabilize um, in terms of like the esports I think we just have to wait and see until there’s like a real esports scene because no matter what people say like that, haven’t been any real esports circuits and competitions to be honest with you.
Imad Khan 04:05
When competition does kind of ramp up and when there is kind of like an official League, have you guys started projecting? What do you think viewership would be like? Like, would it be on par with an Overwatch League? Or would it be more on par with like an NBA 2K League or maybe even Counter Strike?
Barry Lee 04:19
I think it really comes down to how the viewership experience ends up being four Valorant, right. We don’t do projections like that. on our end from the agency side, we just look at what the teams are paying, really, for players like that. But if I had to kind of guess I would say, I mean, beating Overwatch numbers doesn’t seem like a huge challenge right now, anyways. I mean, I would say like, you know, once there’s like a regular circuit, like some sort of like even like Counter Strike style open tournament circuit, rather than a specific league type circuit, I would expect it to at least like you know, pull in Overwatch-ish numbers and then see where it goes. Like I think there’s gonna be enough interest the game is fairly easy enough to follow like the biggest complaint about Overwatch was how unwatchable it was for the spectator and because Valorant is a lot more slow paced than Overwatch is is not as much crazy movement as long as it get the spectator client working a lot better than it is I think it should be fine.
Imad Khan 05:17
So you know, assuming they do adopt, like a franchise league model similar to like the LCS and you know, they have rules in place. What do you think the starting salary base would be? Do you think it would be similar to the Overwatch League at 60,000?
Barry Lee 05:30
No clue, I would imagine it’s gonna be at the very least 40,000 to 50,000 somewhere in that range just because of legal issues. Like regarding minimum wage and all that stuff, especially if the team’s bring on players as W2 employees but as what alee mandated or like a competition for me to manage the events of being like a kind of open circuit like Counter Strike is like just tournaments here and they’re like there’s not gonna be a minimum salary in my opinion, but if ends up being a more more structured League-type format like how League of Legends and Overwatch is, then the league can mandate one, but will there be a set minimum salary and what will it be? It’s like way too early to say.
Imad Khan 06:12
So when it comes to the actual you know league itself so, you know, we’ve seen the tournament series that was between T1 and Nerd Street Gamers, you know, and you said that you know, overall the viewership was good. What areas do you think other than just you know, the overall viewership experienced that like tournament organizers will need to do to create a more compelling product that might end up on a television like an ESPN or TBS.
Barry Lee 06:36
Well, story is always the big thing right? When you have these competitions, you need to build a story around the competitors teams. Like I said, it’s too early for anything like that to have really happened beyond like, Oh yeah, this player came from you know, Overwatch this player came from Counter Strike and they look really good. And beyond that you’re not gonna really have any good storylines right now. So I think initially while everything’s still being set up like you got a lot of players kind of feel it out trying to be the first first to market try to be the biggest name first so we’ll see where it goes. It seems like there’s a lot of good teams but also like nobody’s really figured out Valorant quite yet and I also think like even though the official release has happened, it’s still gonna be a ways off from being in its final esports form.
Imad Khan 07:23
You know, while I have you and before I let you go, I do want to talk to you about Ninja and the whole situation with Mixer so you know earlier this week ninja jumped on YouTube. It did not make a specific announcement that he was going to start streaming on YouTube exclusively Rod “Slasher” Breslau did say that, you know, he is currently still negotiating with different streaming platforms and whatnot. You know, I do want to ask you is kind of the era of streaming platforms trying to buy up high volume streamers is is that kind of flirtation completely over now?
Barry Lee 07:51
No, I mean, you still got YouTube with a healthy viewer base you still got Twitch was still number one live stream on YouTube has been growing significantly the past couple of years so they’re a real threat so like is you know his the whole thing about platforms giving high viewership content creators exclusive deals a thing of the past? No. Like you still got competition between two players, right? What the scene really needs is a third or fourth like platform to come in to really shake things up and really create some fierce competition because at the end it’s only better for the content creators and it’s only better for the viewers that that kind of happens. You know, you saw the whole thing with mixer where they threw in a bunch of money like it took YouTube like years like it at least like three years of just kind of building their like live streaming platform in order to get to the point where they are now and Mixer try to do that in six months to go back to your question like I don’t think these platform deals are dead I think in fact with just you know too competitive going head to head am I even get more fierce to be honest with you.
Imad Khan 08:54
Interesting, interesting. So and from what you’re suggesting you’re saying that like that third platform probably will not be Facebook Gaming.
Barry Lee 09:00
The thing is Facebook Live Streaming is funny because it’s more like Instagram, right? I mean, Instagram is owned by Facebook, well like it. To me it feels more that way because Instagram is about documenting your life Facebook is about documenting and sharing your life, right? So it’s not the thing that people go to right off the bat in order to kind of say, I’m gonna game and stream on here, but that’s just not the audience for it. When people want to YouTube, they’re there for a bunch of different content, but there’s a hefty gaming, you know, section to YouTube, right? So it is a natural progression to go from watching Ninjas video youtube videos to watching Ninja live stream on YouTube, right? That’s not too big of a jump. None of that kind of base level content exists on Facebook because I don’t think a lot of streamers curate their Facebook communities quite as thoroughly as they do as are Twitch and YouTube communities. So it’s just a matter of like kind of where the what the platform is being used. If I think if Facebook encourages that kind of community engagement and stuff like that around gaming first, then they can start to see a real uptick in kind of like the live streaming component, but as it is right now, it’s like it’s a platform. I’ll say that.
Imad Khan 10:18
And with that, Barry, thank you so much.
Barry Lee 10:20
No, no, thanks for having me on.
Imad Khan 10:21
And now I’m joined by Jason Lake, founder and CEO of complexity gaming in 2017. It’s a major investment from Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, which put it under the Cowboys family and moved operations to Frisco, Texas. Clearly 2020 has been a tumultuous year for being on the brink of armed conflict with Iran to the Coronavirus to nationwide Black Lives Matter protests. And it’s also an election year, running a major esports organization in the hotspot of a global pandemic must not be easy. So Jason, with all that said, What has been the most challenging part of 2020 in regards to running Complexity?
Jason Lake 10:51
You know, it’s a great question and I I chuckle a little bit because it’s almost like well, what week are we talking about? Right? It feels like almost every week, there’s a new challenge. It started With us, in our Counter Strike, which is our primary division, ending up kind of stranded in Europe. We went over to play a tournament, and we’re planning on coming back. And then we kind of had to make the decision, are they going to stay there? Are they going to come back to America, and it’s pandemic everywhere. And it was, you know, blowing up in Italy, and we are Madrid and that started blowing up of Madrid. So they went to Copenhagen. So we had a lot of logistics issues, as many companies like ours probably had in the beginning, the airlines are changing everything else. And then, of course, the laundry list of things that that you rattled off since that time, this is a really challenging time, I think, for our country. And there’s been a lot of conversations and I think there’s been a lot of frustration. We had the protests, and some of them took a more violent turn. And it’s, it’s been difficult. I’m the kind of person I try to look at the world through a cup half full lens. And, you know, I think it’s good to have these conversations. I think it’s important that we’re always seeking to improve and to stand up for all all different people and you know, in the gaming world specifically, it’s been challenging where there’s been a lot of allegations, and just a lot of cleaning of the gaming house, I guess you could say. I think we’ve all done a little bit of soul searching and looked at our ecosystem and asked ourselves, how can we improve this? How can we stand up for the voices that might not be the loudest? And how can we stand together to make things better? You know, gaming is meant to be a fun place, a place of joy, a place a community, a place of common experience in these video digital titles that we love. So how can we improve that? So I do think it’s healthy and despite the pandemic, you know, you hate to gloat, but despite the pandemic esports specifically has really been doing very well in that we can still compete or traditional sports or have been sidelined. So we’ve seen record viewership across streams and, and gameplay time and other things. So, you know, like I said, you hate to gloat during such a time when so many people suffering, but I like to look for the positive, I like to look for the good and there is good to be found in gaming and esports, despite the challenges.
Imad Khan 13:07
So in regards to the social movements that have been happening, especially the one a few weeks back, talking about sexual harassment and assaults happening within the video game space, I mean, what are some of these conversations you’ve been having with your players and your team?
Jason Lake 13:19
You know, it goes back for us to our core values. And we certainly don’t hold ourselves out to be perfect. But the core values of Complexity for many, many years now at 17 years old, have been integrity, and fairness and goodness and treating people like you want to be treated, you know, like any group of people in a corporate environment and in stressful, competitive environment. You know, we make mistakes like everybody else, and we try to own up to those mistakes. But I think what we’ve always tried to get across to the people that join our gaming family even before recent events is a certain ways to conduct yourself in the ecosystem and we have a low tolerance for any acts of racism or misogyny or anything like that. And that’s going back well before this. So more than like trying to rewrite our core ethos. I think we’ve tried to reinforce it and really stamp at home and have internal conversations about these important matters. I certainly don’t pretend to have all the answers. There’s been just a confluence of a painful, heartbreaking stories. But I think it’s important that we have these conversations. I think gaming has always tried to stand up in some way for minority communities and four different communities that that mainly ignored in the mainstream. I think gaming has always kind of been on that cutting edge like let’s do it better. Like let’s have a let’s give these people a voice.
Imad Khan 14:48
You know, this might be a tough question asked but like let’s roll back to 2017 with some of the Kaepernick kneeling protests that are happening in the NFL now the NFL is completely done like this huge about face wear. Much like NASCAR, they’re saying, like, hey, we need to really reevaluate how we were approaching this. Jerry Jones, he kind of took this interesting approach where he did kneel before like the the anthem, but also was pretty strict and saying that, like his players should probably stand for, well, while the anthem is being said, which did cause some controversy, so I mean, what were some of like these internal conversations going on over at Complexity,
Jason Lake 15:25
these issues are complex and definitely worth discussing. Like we talked about before the show, it might be difficult to really dive into them, given our time constraints. But I think it’s important that that we as a culture, we as a nation, and even more specifically the gaming community, we have these conversations. We need to work on our empathy, we need to work on a compassion, we can’t stand idly by why any subset is treated unfairly or treated lesser because of qualities, like their skin or their sex or whatever it might be, that have nothing thing to do with the content of their character. So I think these conversations are healthy. I’m an optimist. And I believe on the other side of this painful time, we’re going to come out better, we’re going to come out stronger. I hope we’ve opened the eyes of a lot of people. Yeah. And I think when this is all behind us, we’re going to look back and this will be remembered as a transformational time in our history.
Imad Khan 16:21
Can you recall a situation in which maybe a player or team member came up to you saying that, hey, you know, I feel that something that’s happened to me isn’t fair isn’t right. You know, obviously, don’t go into the specifics, but kind of what was like the internal mechanisms happening, Complexity that tried to deal with that situation if such a situation has ever occurred.
Jason Lake 16:41
I mean, over the years, we’ve had different situations arise when you go through, you know, hundreds of gamers and support staff over 17 years, one that jumps to my mind was not too long ago, we had a very young, fairly inexperienced, but extremely talented player in Southeast Asia. That was In a server, it was joking with some of his other Asian friends with the words he was using to joke or considered in that region to be very offensive. You know, it was not well received, rightfully so. And we immediately needed to terminate his contract because of the mistake he had made. Because what it said was completely unacceptable even if you are quote unquote, joking. And this contract was terminated and his career, you know, was pretty sidetracked by that. But it was a painful lesson for young people that you are responsible for the words you use and the things that you say and, and those types of actions do have repercussions.
Imad Khan 17:35
Team owners generally have to come from an era of like being the responsible person in the room being the adult in the room. Whenever you do have an instance of a younger player who does say things or act in a certain way, is there that tension between saying that oh, we should terminate this person or that we should try to, you know, teach this person try to help them become better.
Jason Lake 17:55
There absolutely is because any leader worth his or her salt understands that we all make mistakes. We’ve all said things we wish we could take back. And anyone who says they haven’t is not being honest. Or they’re, you know, they’re just diluted. So when you have especially like younger players that don’t have that experience in the public eye, make those mistakes you try to teach, take each incident and weigh the sum of its parts. And, yeah, hate to just drop the axe and be like, I’m sorry, we need to let you go. But there’s so many different factors that go into each instance and exactly what happened and what went on. It is difficult. And I think also, as leaders, we need to be honest with ourselves that we’ve made mistakes, most of the good leaders I know, have probably made more mistakes than the people they lead because the wisdom gained through those mistakes is a reason they’re an effective leader. So you know, I think we have to have empathy and we have to have understanding sometimes you know, and you running a company, you just have to do what you have to do. But I would hope that a leader would take that person aside on the way out and be like, hey, you know, I believe in you, and I believe in your future, like you made this mistake, and there are consequences, but you can do better and you can resurrect, you know, your career, whatever was affected and move forward. We shouldn’t just toss people to the side, you know, I think, maybe rehabilitates a strong word. But, you know, we should try to help them improve, despite whatever corporate decisions need to be made at the time.
Imad Khan 19:30
So, I mean, I know with like the case of Al Franken, when he had to resign from the Senate following allegations are made against him. And, you know, he was arguing that, you know, instead of forcing me to resign, let’s just have an investigation. And then now in 2019-2020, you know, some of the senators that really pushed from design say that they felt that they acted too quickly or too in haste. Have you ever had, you know, in those instances where you’ve had to tell a player to you know, that we’re canceling contracts or you have to step down etc. I mean, years later, were there those feelings of regret?
Jason Lake 20:04
You know, I just had an incident like that yesterday. So you’re lucky. We had an incident where someone tweeted that our in game leader in our Counter-Strike team had called them a very inappropriate word. I don’t even know how to say it, but you know, and but the audio in on the twitch clip was muffled. So I went to him, and I was pretty irate. And I was like, look, I got, I think I know what this says. And this is a big, big issue. And I’m like, I’m gonna take a deep breath, and we’re gonna weigh what’s going on, and try to get more evidence here. But this is a big problem. And I was pretty upset. And then, thank goodness, he actually had a recording of the exact same moment it during this scrim match and his audio was better. And he did not say what the original audio sounded like and what the person was tweeting on Twitch that he had or on Twitter that he had said, so I had to kind of eat crow go back to him and say like, hey, I’m really sorry, I came off a little heavy handed. You know, you didn’t say it. And I’m sorry. Right. So sometimes I do think there are incidents where it pays to take a deep breath, not just knee jerk reaction, try to give people the benefit of the doubt and gather evidence. I almost made and said some drastic things based on iffy evidence. And that would have been a mistake. So I’m glad that I didn’t take it further. Because when the real evidence came out, we got better audio is like, oh, that’s not at all ways. So yeah, that was just yesterday. So welcome to the world of management and esports.
Imad Khan 21:42
Well, I will try to finish it off on this last question. You know, ESPN on the Washington Post put out a report earlier this week about you know, the teams that took out some of the PPP loans, you know, they reached out to eUnited they reached out to Sentinels. And I think when people hear that oh x team took out a certain or asked for a loan during the have a global pandemic. It’s disingenuous what they’re doing. But then when you listen to kind of what sentinels are saying is like, you know, we had all these sponsorship deals lined up. And guess what, like, all these events were canceled or pushed back. So these deals just didn’t go through. And it’s actually a lot more complex than maybe what the media is making it out to be. So in regards to the the loans, that was we’re talking about Complexity, do you think that it is being too simplified and that there is on the management side that there’s a lot more to consider when you know, slobbing criticism?
Jason Lake 22:32
Yeah, absolutely. It’s a good question. It’s a fair question. But it is complex, even for Complexity. Get it? Yeah, I mean, as publicly released, you know, we did participate in the program. I really don’t have any comment beyond that. But I do think these situations are complex, and like we just discussed, I think it’s dangerous to take knee jerk reactions when you when you don’t know the whole story, but for this case, you know, I don’t really have any more to say on it, but I think it’s the fair an interesting topic.
Imad Khan 23:02
What do you think like, you know, once maybe the pandemic is over and rolled back to normal, there could be more honest conversations about, you know, the companies that are, you know, looking for these programs and you know, just trying to have that more honest conversation about, hey, this is how it kind of the business is run. And maybe for some companies, maybe criticism should be lauded for others, like, we should take a step back and try to consider you know, exactly everything that’s going on.
Jason Lake 23:26
Yeah, possibly, I think there’s gonna be a lot of interesting discussions. When the dust settles from this surreal year, it feels like we’re living in a movie and people are doing the best they can to make the best decisions they can and in a type of situation that none of us have lived there before. And we’re gonna all have hindsight, 2020 vision looking back on this year, for the rest of time, we’re on this, this green earth of ours, but I think it’ll be interesting when we all can look back and I just wish everyone the very best. While we all get through this together, and while we are do our best to treat each other well and and survive the craziness that is 2020.
Imad Khan 24:05
Yeah, you know I missed the the Tiger King portion of this pandemic where it was a bit lighter.
Jason Lake 24:11
Right? It started out kind of funny, right and it’s just got got tough.
Imad Khan 24:16
Well, Jason, I look forward to when that time comes where you and I can meet once again at a competition and just have you know, just let things be normal again.
Jason Lake 24:25
Imad Khan 24:27
With that, thank you so much.
Jason Lake 24:28
Imad Khan 24:30
And that was FTW with Imad Khan. If you like the show, please rate, share and subscribe. Your support will help the show continue to grow. If you’d like to follow Barry on Twitter, he can you find that Edelweiss that’s E-D-E-L-W-E-I-S-S. If you’d like to follow Jason and everything going on with Complexity Gaming, he can be found on twitter at JasonBWLake. If you’d like to follow me and my writing over the New York Times, the Washington Post and elsewhere, I’m at Imad on Twitter. Annie Pei is our producer. Any questions about the show can be directed to her at Pei_Annie on Twitter. Our Outreach Manager is Joe Domeq and our researcher is Ron Lyons. With that, we’ll catch you guys next week.
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