Although OG didn’t qualify for The International 12, the team made their presence behind the scenes throughout the competition. From the group stage to the end of the "Road to TI" phase, they held a watch party with Johan "n0tail" Sundstein, Sébastien "Ceb" Debs and other fellow players and content creators. As for the finals weekend, they created a main hub for fans and talent alike to discuss anything and everything about Dota in the present and also the future.
Amidst the TI 12 finals weekend, BLIX talked to Mike Schwartz, OG’s Head of Esports, about his management of the team from his role, how he views Dota’s place within the "esports winter", what pro Dota will look like in 2024 and beyond, the difference between managing different titles and much more.
Being in Seattle for TI
Pedro Romero, BLIX: Thanks for taking the time, Mark. To start this off, who are you and what do you do at OG?
My name is Mike Schwartz. I am the Head of Esports at OG. What I deal with on most days is our Dota 2 and Counter-Strike rosters, evaluating the roster moves and looking at basically everything that surrounds the esports ecosystem at OG. So it's signing players looking at content creation, talent development, general management, revenue, budgeting, so anything that touches esports is generally my responsibility and that includes expanding into other titles as well. I started in December of 2021 so this would be just about two years.
BLIX: And Immortals is an org that centers itself more so around League of Legends for one aspect. With OG, their big kahuna is the Dota team for obvious reasons. And so for you to be here in Seattle and taking care of all the businesses with the Hub and the Monkey Business shows, how have you been managing that?
Mike Schwartz: We have a great team that puts on the events like at the OG Hub and stuff. That's been a work in progress ever since we really got the show started in Stockholm last year after we won at the Major. It was a great show of what OG could be as a global media brand. Our teams are hard at work doing that for the whole year and trying to iterate on that. So now we have the Monkey Business Show, we've done the Lisbon hub, which we just finished up where everyone's at Johan's [n0tail] house and then we're able to bring it here. So it's really cool to see what the team can do.
I'm not as involved with that, I do the esports side of things, but obviously, all hands go on deck to try to help these things out. I'm proud of what OG can stand for and what we can execute on. Especially with us not being physically present here with a roster, our brand presence is still tangible.
BLIX: We've been seeing some good things about OG in recent years not just from the time you joined but even before that with their success in TI and their branding. You highlighted the good parts but what has been the most difficult parts behind this role for you?
Schwartz: I think the difficulty is just always that esports gets more competitive every year. Especially in the CS side, we see a lot of teams, especially at the Paris Major with GamerLegion and Monte Esports, these guys weren't around. They were grinding up in the tier-two tournaments, and they showed up and ended up retaining their spots. So I think right now, even with the roster mania that's happening like FaZe getting acquired by GameSquare, it's just getting more competitive in the ecosystem and that's coupled with the current sponsorship and economic climate with the esports winter that's been going on.
So between revenues kind of consolidating teams to try to get the best rosters available, everything counts so these margins are razor thin to be competitive. And if you look back to OG Dota Tour 1 this year, a 4-3 record and a triple-round tiebreaker with Gaimin Gladiators and Tundra ended at three in the morning when I was watching and that was the difference between going to Lima and not going to Lima. You can just see how one change or one match can have so much impact across the rest of the season.
Dota amd OG’s place within the esports winter
BLIX: It's interesting you brought up the esports winter because that's an era right now in which many organizations are trying to wade through it. Some have been able to do exactly but some of them have not so I'm interested on your perspective as to how OG has been able to go through it as an org being based in Dota. How have you guys been able to manage through this difficult period in esports?
Schwartz: A lot of people are attached to the OG story and it's something that really gives us a lot of power as a legacy brand in the space. With the winter, a lot of teams, I think, got into a lot of different ventures when VC a few years ago really just impacted the development. Everyone tried to scale with their growth as soon as possible. Valuations were maybe a bit high for what people were actually gonna be able to get out in three to five years and we're seeing that retraction now, I think, for OG, we are a Dota team, we have a CS team and we did explore Valorant a little bit, obviously.
Unfortunately, we didn't make the franchising spot but I think it was a good experiment and a good learning process for us but we keep things very deliberate. We're very intentional with the games that we want to be involved in and if we don't see a proper opportunity, whether it's competitively or economically, we will stay out of it. I think that allows us to make sure we're making the best choices and that's a lot to sustain compared to other teams that have had some of those difficulties.
BLIX: What's the difference in difficulty managing other esports compared to Dota? It might be fair to assume that once you stepped foot into OG, it had already established itself within the Dota atmosphere, but how has that been difficult when it comes to trying to build a base in other titles such as Counter Strike and Valorant?
Schwartz: The hardest thing is that a lot of people understand the legacy of OG and its impact in Dota where we won back-to-back TIs and we've won majors consistently and that's ingrained in people's minds and that it's expected to translate into other titles, which are very different, right? There's, obviously, the learnings you get from Dota that you can bring to CS, Valorant and other games, but they are all different. You need to have the ability to execute and do those things.
Just because we won TI doesn't mean we're going to win a major in CSGO. I would obviously love that to be the case but I think we have to understand that the expectation and the pressure of "OG has won so we need to continue winning." And that is important to us, we want to make sure that we are doing that and we take the steps to do it, but I think the way we go about it is going to be different via title and I think that's just what we see mostly with, like, the CS side of it.
We've been able to see some success, but obviously recently, it hasn't been the case that has manifested that way so we want to make sure we're doing the appropriate things to get OG to be a premier esports brand like it has been in Dota. And the same with the Dota side, right? There has to be a premier esports experience that we're offering to the community. That's what OG was built upon and that's what needs to be continuing.
BLIX: And if it's possible for you to talk about the financials part of it, how have you been able to work around that given that, as you mentioned, money's getting tight and orgs are trying to be much more smarter with their money as opposed to back then?
Schwartz: I don't think we've ever been an organization that's thrown around money, so to speak. I can't give any specific comments where we are financially, but I think we have a healthy business. I'm very comfortable with what we've been able to do and accomplish. When you make Majors in CSGO, that's obviously been a big help to the CSGO budgeting side of things and with our brand presence across Dota and as an organization and what we've been able to do, I think we've seen a good reception from our partners and potential partners.
So overall, again, it goes back to that deliberate intentional management of what do we have? How can we capitalize on it? And how do we build those relationships? But I think our current financial situation is something that's reflective of the work that the team has put in over the past couple of years.
Looking at competitive Dota beyond TI 12
BLIX: I want to cover your opinions as to what happens after TI 12 because, of course, the DPC is not going to continue and then there's ESL trying to do their own consolidated circuit compared to past years with DreamLeague and Riyadh Masters. And then the same goes for CS as well what with the eventual stoppage of the partnered leagues. That said, what's your opinion of what the Dota scene is going to look like after TI and what the CS scene will be like when those league contracts are finished?
Schwartz: I think the DPC experiment was obviously something that didn't pan out super well because, in the regional leagues, you never got to see the competition that makes esports great, which are these qualifiers for LAN events where you get to bring the best teams together on a repeated basis. Going into next year, having those events or more of those events will be something that's welcomed. Organizers want to get back into that and be involved. There's a great opportunity in the calendar to actually execute those.
With the Riyadh Masters coming out this year with a bigger prize pool than TI, I think there'll be a lot of opportunities to show on a global scale with these types of events. And similar to CS, the majors are still gonna be the focal point of the scene but hopefully we're gonna see an expansion of more of these tournaments and more people saying, "the ecosystem is open so let's build a calendar that we can work around." Hopefully, it doesn't burn the players out. It's a big concern of ours as well because so many teams might be jumping in whether there used to be DPC or another tournament.
Well, if we have played that one, we have to play a Dream League, or you have to play something else, how is that going to impact the players' welfare and mental health at that point? So I think it'll be something that's good but it'll just take some time to iron out the details where people are gonna fight for the calendar space and people are gonna have to dictate that these are the events that we think are the best ones. So hopefully that pushes TOs to actually operate in a way that's healthy and they put on the best quality events and we don't over saturate the calendar.
BLIX: Taking a bigger focus on the Riyadh Masters, it is now a tournament that has a bigger prize pool than TI and I'm curious about what the org's focus is nowadays with that difference in mind. When it comes to back then in which teams and players were focusing towards winning at TI and the corresponding prize pool and moving to now with Valve working to shrink the prize pool and adjust amidst this landscape, how do you view the difference in prize pool between TI nowadays and Riyadh Masters?
Schwartz: Overall, there's always prestige when you win a publisher event so it's the same with a CS major versus maybe a BLAST World Final or Pro League at ESL. There's always gonna be a value attached to lifting the Aegis and it's not necessarily a monetary one. It used to be synonymous. You get the most prize money and that's why people tuned in and then also you get to lift the Aegis and become the best team in the world.
I think now it becomes something where you have just two events in a year that will be that premier apex event where it's, "Hey, this is Riyadh Masters and this is going to have the biggest prize pool," but there's also a history that's attached to Dota with the Aegis at The International. And I think that's going to just be a coexistence that will happen where you're going to be able to say, "we were the best team based on these statistics and these qualifiers." And maybe it's the same team that wins TI and Riyadh Masters and it's some level like in League of Legends where you basically have what's called the "golden journey," I think, which sees you win MSI, your regional championships, Worlds.
Maybe that becomes something in Dota and then the same [can happen] with CS. Winning a Major is obviously great but also winning each of these premier events is great also. Winning IEM Cologne is just as significant in some cases because it's such a historic tournament. So I think each trophy has its own meaning to different participants.
BLIX: That being said, with OG being such a focal point within the scene, how do you view the future of Dota 2's esports scene? Is it good? Is it bad? Is it anything in between?
Schwartz: It's gonna face its challenges. You're gonna still see a continued consolidation across a lot of teams and a lot of titles. I think games and professional esports circuits will die and I don't think Dota is going to be one of them. Dota has such a long standing history that it will go through an evolution. It will go through bigger tournaments. Hopefully new TO's is coming in and building an interesting circuit and telling a different narrative.
Maybe it will be different than the regional DPCs going into Major events and then that'll be the story. It'll be event-to-event so I think it will go back a little bit to what it was in 2015 and 2016 where you started to see the Boston Major and there's a storyline built around those events as opposed to where it was about DPC going into this event. But overall, I do think there's a continued consolidation of esports. We're gonna see organizations and organizers and I think that's just a challenge which is: who's really going to be able to be left making the right decisions at the end of the day?
"There's always gonna be a value attached to lifting the Aegis and it's not necessarily a monetary one. It used to be synonymous. You get the most prize money and that's why people tuned in and then also you get to lift the Aegis and become the best team in the world."
Valorant, OG standing out vs other established orgs & the future
BLIX: You also touched upon Valorant. It was a chapter that the team had around in 2021 and a bit of 2022 and with the partnership leagues for 2023 and you guys not being accepted into the partnership, the project folded. What went wrong with the Valorant division?
Schwartz: I wouldn't say anything really went wrong. I think it was a very competitive applicant pool for what was brought into the PCT. Unfortunately, I think we had a good case for it, but ultimately, there were teams that really brought an aspect that maybe Riot wanted that we didn't personally bring. I don't know what that was, so to speak, but we gave it our all, we brought our best presentation that we could have and we felt that we would have been a good addition. But unfortunately, we weren't able to make it to the final cut which is unfortunate.
Ultimately, I don't think anything really went wrong with how we did everything. I think we had an interesting story and how we built the collaboration with OG and LDN UTD. That roster was a couple of games away from making it to Champions 2022 through the wildcard and those players and coaches made it into the VCT anyway, so I'm happy for them, obviously. But yeah, that wasn't our decision and we accepted that and we just moved on.
BLIX: It's interesting to see the rise of OG as an org compared to the other more established orgs such as Team Liquid and Fnatic and to see you guys go toe-to-toe with them in certain games and not just here in Dota, where do you see the level of establishment and popularity from OG to your peers and what makes OG stand out in order to make that distinction happen?
Schwartz: OG as an organization has always been focused on its core community and its core fan base and I guess that, with the expansion to other titles and Fnatic, Team Liquid FaZe and all these other bigger name brands that come up, they're involved in a lot of games and they have a touch with a lot of different communities and it's easy to activate when you have a focal point like that.
We've always been Dota, CS and Valorant for the most part so we have those touch points and we have a very good core fanbase that follows those religiously. And we've been involved in the scene so much with each of them. We give them a lot more of that family vibe. Our Discord is really active and I pop in there occasionally to talk to the fans and everything else as well. We focus on being a bit more focused on our fans but we have a dedicated fan base that we really try to nurture and bring out the best stuff.
BLIX: Are there any titles that OG is looking to get in at some time in the future?
Schwartz: I can't answer which ones they are but I definitely want to expand OG's game portfolio so that's where I'll leave it.
BLIX: I see what you mean. What's going to be the biggest focus that you're going to try to fulfill for 2024 and beyond with what we talked about with the DPC, CS and stuff like that?
Schwartz: My core philosophy for the OG Esports division is we want to be able to bring a premier gaming experience to all of our fans and the community. Even though winning, and obviously winning is the number one priority for us, but even through the challenges, we want to tell the story of OG and the players who come here. We want to be able to make our fans proud of the journey that they're on with us because that's what we're here for. We became an organization based on that story of "against all odds" from open qualifiers to winning TI and the greatest power that we have as a company is to be able to tell that narrative of every team that we get. Why is this team here? Who are the players? What are their aspirations? How does that match to OG's greater ones? So it's building something special that people can resonate with and hopefully resonate with that is really what we want to do.