Nouns Esports made considerable noise in The International 12 by finishing 7-8th and being able to play in the Climate Pledge Arena in front of thousands of fans. Despite coming into the event as a team expected to finish at the bottom of the standings, the North American-based side would manufacture an impressive run that saw them stand toe-to-toe with pro-Dota’s finest squads.
They would tie with Gaimin Gladiators, Virtus.pro and Beastcoast in the group stage (thus progressing them to the playoffs) before defeating Tundra Esports in the seeding match to start off their Main Event journey in the upper bracket. Even though nouns lost their upper bracket series to Azure Ray, they would rebound by defeating TSM in the lower bracket to clinch a spot in the final weekend of the event. While nouns did eventually fall to GG in the third round of the lower bracket, they didn’t depart from the event completely disappointed. As a team that absorbed a roster change at the tail end of the DPC, they persevered to finish as one of the eight best teams in the world in one of esports’ most celebrated events.
That said, with all the attention revolving around Nouns Esports, given the fact that it was formed less than two years ago from an NFT background, what is Nouns Esports exactly?
The team first came to be in April 2022 as Proposition #68, which was submitted to the Nouns DAO (Decentralized Autonomous Organization), which stands for a company whose control is spread out across the participants as opposed to usually having it be centralized. Under the proposition, which was voted on by people who own nouns (an Ethereum NFT), the org officially sponsored the 4 Zoomers roster while also “proliferating” their brand through this esports initiative.
Backed by the collaborative effort of a five-man administrative multisig (multi-signature; where a transaction needs two or more signatures to be executed), in essence, the Noun Esports organization would not operate with a boss. Instead, it would work as an open collective, with everyone having a voice as to how it will be run. Not only that, all of their budget, salaries and other aspects are disclosed for the public to see. While there have been instances where organizations have been transparent in showing Xs and Os of their inner work, none have done so to the same effect as nouns have done.
And with this project firmly in place, nouns would go on to enjoy plenty of success in their esports team. Besides their TI 12 achievement, they also qualified for the Last Chance Qualifier at TI 11 and the Bali Major. Although there was initial uncertainty revolving around nouns and their attachment to NFTs, they eventually established themselves as a notable esports team in less than two years, and with an eye toward building off their success for 2024 and beyond, they look to strengthen their presence to an even higher level in due time.
Following the end of nouns’ participation in TI 12, BLIX talked to the org’s founder, Gage “Sasquatch” DuBose, about the creation of the team, being with them in Seattle, why they pursued Dota 2 as the base esport title, how they’ve distinguished themselves from other NFT/Blockchain projects in esports and much more.
The formation of Nouns Esports
Pedro Romero, BLIX: Thank you so much for taking the time, Sasquatch, and congrats on nouns reaching the Top 8 in TI 12. Starting off the conversation about your work in nouns, what did you do before starting there and what were some of the avenues that you traversed?
Gage "Sasquatch" DuBose: I actually dropped out of high school to play Starcraft II professionally. There's a team called Complexity, which I'm sure many Dota fans are familiar with, and they wanted to sign me and have me move into a team house. Being 16 to 17 years old, it was a no-brainer. It was like, "See ya school. I'll go back to college later, but for now, I'm gonna focus on Starcraft," and I did my pro gamer run.
I was at MLGs, I had some notable moments beating some pro players like IdrA, playing in some team leagues and having some good results or playing Koreans who were the most dominant in Starcraft. After StarCraft, I went back to college, and then I played Dota casually. I was always a Warcraft 3 player, so I played Dota 1. It was Dota 2 where I was playing on a college team, but I also saw the opportunity to bring some capital into esports and particularly Dota. You know, in NA, there were unsigned teams. I made a connection with nouns and they were very eager to try esports. After a three-month pilot, things took off nicely.
BLIX: This nouns Esports concept started off as an idea and it was then manufactured into a proposition, which was then sent, with the help of a few individuals, to the Nouns DAO. How did that proposal come together on a logistical level? I say that because, in the proposal, the team already agreed to join the org, but it only depended on the DAO to accept it. So, how did that work out in the initial phase?
Sasquatch: I was very early to nouns. I found the project before it officially launched and as it progressed and it was raising lots of money, it was clear that they needed more eyeballs on the projects (as in viewers) who would see what was going on. Before esports, there wasn't really too much marketing going on for nouns, but they did get a commercial on the Super Bowl with Bud Light and from there, it was clear that they did want to bring attention to the project through marketing and that's inherently how I do treat esports. “Even though I'm a fan, how is it used for business?” Well, it's used to bring eyeballs and attention and also to endear people to a brand to make them fans of that brand. If you treat players well and if you do things right, gamers do notice that.
I pitched to this guy named Neph, who is a person that was actually one of my managers in an amateur Dota team and then he connected me with Brax [Braxton Paulson]. Brax knows about crypto and he knows about nouns enough to say, "Hey, this is a legitimate project. I can go contact 4 Zoomers with my ex-pro status and connect the dots." I literally talked to the 4 Zoomers manager and said, "Hey, what kind of salary expectations will the players have?" They then gave me a quote and we then shipped a three-month proposal with that quote--we didn't change any of the deals, we just did what they wanted--and it passed.
And with that three-month proposal, which was really closing out the DPC season going into the Arlington Major, we beat EG and TSM, we lost to Quincy crew, and then we lost in the tiebreakers but beating EG and TSM--and TSM, at the time, was sponsored by FTX, which is now a notorious crypto thing that has a pretty bad reputation--and even back then before the big blow up that it had, nouns really didn't like them. So when we beat TSM FTX, the centralized crypto exchange, as this decentralized crypto project--that was almost our sponsorship rival--they really loved that. They loved how much viewership the matches brought. They loved that fans and chat would spam the noggles, which are the nouns glasses, and just a combination of those factors got them really excited to continue the project. And that allowed us to go all the way to Singapore where we played in the Last Chance Qualifiers.
We know we had a good run there, but we didn't make it through; it worked out really well, so they said, "Let's go ahead and do 2023 with Dota." We also added Counter-Strike as a full roster in 2023. We gave them boot camps, a salary, wellness support. We didn't skip on anything. We tried to provide them literally the best possible support as a team. We paid a lot for our wellness support, we paid a lot for our boot camps, and we just made sure they had the best ping to the EU by putting them on the east coast of the US.
If you look at the majority of the year we had, I wouldn't say the best overall year, but obviously, the way it culminated at TI was nothing short of magical, and I think that really makes the year. And that's kind of how Dota has always been, where it all leads to TI. TI is everything for the players, and even with the crowd-funding change, it is still something really special for the players and obviously for the fans, too. And just getting Top 8 here, which I think is the first North American team to do it in, I don't know, four years, I can't be more happy than that.
BLIX: There have been so many options that you could have gone with when it came to founding nouns, but why Dota 2 specifically?
Sasquatch: So it's Dota for a few reasons. One, Valve is very laissez-faire with how they allow teams to operate in the ecosystem. There are not too many guide rails. You don't have to apply and get a franchise slot and do all this extra stuff, so it's pretty straightforward to operate. Additionally, one huge element was that we could literally get a team and then get the nouns glasses, which are called noggles, in the game. If you look at our team flag, it's literally our noggles turned sideways flying in the air and the nouns community loved that. So that was just like, "Oh man, what other games can you get immediate branding in?" It's not very many, you know? That's really a key innovation from Valve there, in my opinion.
Also, personally, I'm just a huge Dota fan and player. I'm an Immortal-level Dota player. I've played on some amateur NA teams trying to play in tournaments and do well. I know the scene very well. I think it was a shame that only two teams in North America at the time were sponsored and these other teams, or have players who are playing full-time, getting a huge viewership and have a huge audience.
4 Zoomers, in particular, was full of all these veterans who are well-established and are good people. They're trustworthy, they're wholesome and easy to work with. So it's really a combination of those factors of Dota just being a great ecosystem to work in and not being too expensive compared to a franchised League of Legends slot or something. It just made perfect sense to enter there with a three-month trial and get the reception from nouns, and thankfully, that was really positive, and it allowed us to keep going.
Why is Nouns so transparent with their operations?
BLIX: One of the things that stood out to me when it came to looking at nouns and how they go about their business was the level of transparency that was shown. You've made it a point to show exactly how much you spend, how much money goes into which part of the business, what the salaries are going to be looking like for the players and the coach and how that's going to affect the team's performance and their logistical work. What made the level of transparency that you showed such an emphasis in your work on the nouns org?
Sasquatch: So, first of all, nouns is a very transparent organization. It comes from the technology. Just the blockchain itself is literally anybody can go and check it and read it and see what transactions are occurring. You can't hide anything. It's all there, the entire history of the blockchain, so every single transaction is recorded. Nouns have that element where they make a lot of social contracts where they'll give money to people, but it's based on their reputation and what they promise to do. You're not writing a document down where it's going to legally hang you up. It's more like just reputation, and we can trust each other out there, and transparency just makes it that much cleaner. That's because other people can follow along and see how an operator is supposed to perform.
In the case of Dota, they can see that our players are supposed to wear their jerseys, wear noggles and do some social media work. Those kinds of details are included in the proposal and that way a fan knows what to expect as well. Our players weren't contracted this year. It was all social contracts. So the fact that we're working with reputable players who have an established career makes all the difference in saying, "We can trust you to do X, Y and Z." And we'll follow through on the payment because we're putting it up online so all the fans can see and they'll know exactly what the players are supposed to receive, and that way, if we're not holding up our end of the bargain, fans can hold us to that as well.
It lets the entire community really reflect on how the relationship is proceeding and then make a judgment. And you know that esports is just ripe with drama about teams holding money or contracts. There are all these big disputes and I think transparency solves a lot of that. That's because we commit to our bargain and we publish it, and it's there forever; everyone can go and look at it. And like I said, if we're not upholding it, then they can call us out on it. And hopefully, on the other end, imagine if the players started repping another team because they're under a social contract and they could kind of get away with it. Well, we said we were going to work with them for the full year and the players obviously agreed with that at the start, so the community can hold them accountable, too.
BLIX: And as for those social contracts, are they essentially verbal agreements?
Sasquatch: We do write down terms and we try to make it as clear as possible for them so they really understand what's expected, but at the end of the day, it is a trust arrangement. It's not something that we're going to hold them legally accountable for or anything. So, to that end, for us, it was always about us needing to work with trusted operators. And from the player's perspective, when we first sponsored them, they were like, "Who are these guys? nouns? Where did they come from? They don't have a team before." So what we did to come across that gap was--and of course, Brax was vouching for us--we paid them their first month salary upfront because we know they're good guys and we know they're reputable. They've been around in the scene for years so we have no problem just paying them right away rather than holding it to the end of the month. And then they were like, "Oh, these guys are serious. They got it.”
BLIX: A lot of the work, it seems, when it comes to working with the players and everyone within the org, is bound by trust. How much of that has also been taken into emphasis when it comes to doing your business?
Sasquatch: A big part of that is that the budgets that come to us from nouns are written on paper and everyone can see the exact money so they can reverse engineer exactly how we operate to a large degree. The other thing we do is host Discord calls on our server every Friday. We've done that every single week. Actually, this is the first week we've missed it because we're all here. We just host this Discord call where people can ask us any questions about the status of the team or what's going on. There's just that level of accountability where we're not hiding anything.
I think transparency and trust go hand-in-hand because, inherently, we're trying to make it as trustless as possible. Because of the blockchain, you can literally see the money moved from point A to point B. It's not like going through a bank where you can only access it if you sign in. Anyone can see that the players are being paid. So, actually, we're creating trust by making it trustless. There's no need for trust because it's programmatically there. I really want to encourage that as much as possible and also share as much that you can share that is provably accurate because it gives the community more context on the elements of your team.
Inherently, most people in the ecosystem are fans of players and not of teams, but if you show your intentions and how you operate in an esports context, then you can endear people to the team. And this is probably something we haven't really talked about, or maybe it's a little underrated, but we said no to a betting sponsor this year. If you look at most of the jerseys here, you don't see the team logos front and center. It's mostly betting sponsors.
Go look at Talon jerseys at the store. It's just Pari [sic] (Talon are sponsored by 1xBet), you know what I mean? And of course, Pari came knocking on our door and they offered us a six-figure sum of money to do that too, but we turned it down. We're already fighting a narrative that there's a percent of the population that doesn't like crypto, and there's plenty of pump and dumps and scams and rugs in crypto, but nouns is just something that's funds cool s**t and does it transparently. We're not trying to sell anything. You've never heard our players say go buy a noun. That's very intentional.
We're not trying to do that because--well, first of all, most people can't afford that. Nouns are upwards of $40,000, so it's not for everyone, of course, but we just want to do cool s**t and have that reflect on the brand. We're not just in it for the money. And this is kind of alpha, but we'll probably incorporate it as a non-profit. I personally haven't taken any salary in the last year and a half. It's literally just been all the money going through to the players. And the managers get paid as in the people who are traveling with the teams, but the core operational group is just really hardcore passionate esports fans. So I think we're a very pure team and I want to only work with operational partners that exceed our level or meet it.
For example, Adidas was a huge grab for us and a huge partner for us and I'm proud of that partnership because we said no to the gambling sponsors and we said yes to something that elevates the scene hopefully. And because Adidas saw a lot of success here and are so happy, we're gonna have the opportunity to sell our jerseys with them. I think that collaboration can keep extending, and maybe, in the future, Adidas will sponsor another team. I don't know; they're not very into esports, so it's actually a big grab to bring them back into esports. So, hopefully, we can keep that kind of momentum going where we're bringing in new brands into the scene, and we're showing them that there's an interesting way to participate.
Standing out from other NFT and Blockchain ventures in esports
BLIX: We've seen other teams that almost went about the same sort of road that nouns have taken. An obvious example is Gaimin and their Gaimin Gladiators team and how they're doing so well right now, in addition to nouns' progression from literally starting from zero in NA DPC to now being the best NA Dota team in TI. What makes the companies and organizations such as Gaimin and nouns different from other NFT and Blockchain ventures that we have seen throughout recent memory?
Sasquatch: I can't speak directly to Gaimin because I don't know all their inner workings, but certainly, they have a very performance-oriented mindset. The team they signed at the start of the year had some notoriety, but nobody was looking at that roster as the roster that's just gonna win every Major. And as it turns out, they were just a great roster, and I would commend whoever's doing their scouting there.
I would say, in our camp, we're very performance-oriented, so a large portion of our budget goes to Mind Body Esports, which is our performance staff, and they work on Counter-Strike and Dota for us. Edward [Cleland] has been with us the entire progression of TI. He was at our boot camp all the way through to here. He was also with us in Bali, so we've been working with him a while and the players love working with him. After a rough loss, he's the guy who can reset them and get them back into a winning mindset. I like to call it a clear runway. The players should have a clear runway for takeoff for success and it's on you as an org to make that runway as clear as possible by providing good boot camps, a stable salary and the support they need around their competitive aspect.
BLIX: Looking at it on the other side of the coin, there's been a stigma on crypto and how they go about it. An obvious example is, as you mentioned, FTX and how they were a partner with TSM and how they ultimately bombed out. How difficult was it in the initial stages to get out of that picture of just being known as another NFT project that would inevitably go down like its predecessors?
Sasquatch: When we entered the scene, people were like, "Oh, it's just another crypto sponsor. What is this?" But hopefully, I think we've endeared a lot of people to our brand. Some of the content we've produced kind of explains the story of how this happened. There's a lengthy video that we've had pinned on our Twitter where it involves me, one of the co-founders and also the players and we just talked about how nouns treat you. For sure one element that definitely helps against that narrative is the transparency because, again, if you're just supporting players really well, what is there to get mad about?
You can be like, "Oh, they're a crypto thing," but wow, they treat the players really well. There's a lot of non-crypto things that treat players really s***tily in esports. I would just remove that element and look at how we operate as a team. Nouns is also not just esports. It's kind of like a small segment, but there's also an animated movie coming out with former Pixar team members. If you're familiar with Robot Chicken, which is a show on Adult Swim, there's a full-length documentary being made by that team. It's called Stoopid Buddy Stoodios, and they also made parade floats and put parade floats in the Rose Parade, which is the biggest parade in LA. And that documentary might end up on Netflix or Apple or similar streaming platforms because they definitely have the reach. Stoopid Buddy works with Adult Swim, Disney, Nickelodeon and all these different big brands. If you just look at what nouns is doing, it's not things that we're trying to do to make money. It's trying to build a brand and actually make interesting things happen in the world.
Read part two of the interview here.