Michau, Warding off the Offensives

KarY 2020-10-14 02:56:05
  He hates talking about himself. He was never good at it. But for someone who doesn’t like to speak about himself, he’s one of the most important individuals working behind the scenes in the Counter Strike: Global Offensive industry. If you prefer the Q&A-version of this interview, please find it here. A charismatic referee warding off the offensives for the longest time - Today, we introduce you to the life of Michal "Michau" Slowinski. Having a normal life growing up, focusing on studies, playing a lot of football and video games has been the norm of Michau’s life. On the education front, he holds a degree in Computer Science and has never had a “proper” job in a non-esports company, apart from a few internships, and moved to Cologne in Germany to start working full time for ESL as part of their League Operations team soon after finishing his degree. Currently residing in Poland with his girlfriend, the now 27 year old grown up man, started playing video games as a kid, first on Pegasus then Playstation and then finally on a PC. Not knowing what really glued him to video games, Michau found them entertaining and said, “When I was 9, my neighbour showed me Counter-Strike 1.5, but back then I didn't really like it too much, simply because there were other games that I thought had better graphics, campaigns etc. I guess at that point, I was simply looking at some sort of entertainment to kill some free time and I thought single player games are better for that.” It wasn’t until his neighbour took him to a nearby LAN tournament where his opinion changed. There it dawned upon him that Counter Strike is more than just a game. A proper competition -- the chance to constantly compete against friends and other players and try to beat them --  became a major factor in Michau enjoying CS.  “I tried to become a pro player - that was the aim from the very beginning, but I wasn't good enough and that's because I was never really fully committed.”, he continues, “I never thought esports could grow as much as it did and I had other priorities.” Michau prioritized education over gaming as it was more important to him and his family. He tried going pro when CS:GO came out and did get to a decent level in Poland -- playing in the top division of ESL Polish Championships -- but then university started and he ultimately picked university over continuing his CS:GO career as he couldn’t juggle both things at once at the highest level. However, Michau’s decision to stick with university did not change his love for the game and he continued being involved as a voluntary admin for ESL Play. As the voluntary work was all out of passion, Michau never thought that a day would come where his passion would soon transform into a job. “I was doing voluntary work for 4 years before I got my first "payment". Why referee? I think there was a big demand for admins/referees back then. I also thought this is something I would like to do, I think I have a very good sense of fairness and that's probably why I thought I could go for it and be good at it.”, he says. Referees are responsible for running the actual competition and have to carry out different sets of tasks depending on the game, tournament organiser or even the type of tournament. However, the common factor binding referees is to ensure that the rules of the game are followed and the integrity of the matches is maintained. On top of that, referees are the first point of contact for teams and players during the tournament by offering their assistance in various ways such as answering queries, resolving problems or helping set up. This is just the tip of the iceberg as they also work on the rulebooks which constantly need improving, create and implement anti-cheat measures as well as prepare the playing field (server/lobby) among other things. Tedious yet integral, right? For Michau, a most fascinating aspect to being a referee is the fact that he gets to be in the middle of the whole show and experience the tournament from the inside. Being one of the best referees, he gets taken to every single event, no matter where it is hosted and has the privilege of travelling around the world which has always been his dream. He is of the opinion that being a referee is a good starting point for anyone’s esports journey since it’s essentially a first step up the ladder to be even more involved with esports, for example, by becoming a product manager or team manager.

(Image credit: ESEA)

Every job comes along with its own set of negative aspects and being a referee is no exception. Michau says, “Look, I think this job is not really rewarding. You don't get paid much (or at all), you don't get much credit for what you do - if you do a good job, nobody will thank you, if you make a mistake - you will be crucified by the community.”  According to him, it’s a position that not many people manage to turn into a full time job and that’s why for most, this is just a stepping stone to simply start off their esports career, make contacts, etc. He hopes that esports would finally get to the point where being a referee can be well compensated in the future. He continues, “It's also a very hard job - there is a lot of pressure and stress involved, you have to deal with players who can be very hard to work with and it’s a job where you cannot really learn how to do it properly beforehand - you simply get better with experience.” In CS, when joining ESL full time -- Michau was the first person who started working on some training guides for referees and so on -- to share his vast experience with them so they understand what sort of problems they can expect. In recent times, CS:GO has been plagued by a huge scandal which has implicated well known coaches for exploiting the coach feature. To the uninitiated, the coach feature allowed coaches to spectate their own players during the game, but this bug made it possible for them to gain an overview of any position on the map. Coaches were able to pick any spot on the map they wanted, but it was not possible to switch to a different spot midway through the match. Once stuck in this view - you stay in it, or you switch to a normal "coach view" (spectating one of the players). Once you switch to a normal coach view, you wouldn't be able to go back to the overview camera. This bug was abused in several different ways; some coaches used it to gain an overview of enemies spawn - to find out what their buy is, to see where they are going and so on. Some others picked a more strategic position on the map, like Banana on Inferno where there is action happening basically every round. The initial exposé led to some other instances of this bug with different activation methods and basically opened Pandora's box. Michau played an important role in exposing these elements and put in countless hours of his personal time to get closer to the truth. He adds, “I realize that unfortunately I opened a Pandora's box and this is going to be one of the biggest scandals in CSGO history and it’s going to hurt our scene a lot. Obviously it was never my intention to hurt the scene, for money or followers or whatever. I do believe that competitive integrity is something we must protect at all costs and in my eyes, this is exactly what I was doing.” While going through demos, he wasn’t expecting to find anyone abusing this bug but was completely taken aback when HUNDEN was found guilty. He says, "Obviously HUNDEN’s case was a huge surprise to me - after all he was the person who reported this bug to me in the first place, so I would never suspect him of abusing it.” Even though it’s disappointing, he doesn’t feel bad about investigating this event as it was the need of the hour. To put it into perspective, the sheer amount of effort put into this investigation is nothing short of climbing Mount Everest. Let’s not forget that the investigation is still ongoing and the work is not even halfway through to completion. Along with Steve, Michau essentially worked 12 hour shifts, basically every day albeit with an unconventional workflow. He would start working while Steve was asleep and vice versa to keep the process going for 24/7, as they reside in Europe and US, respectively. This process was carried out for at least a month before the first wave of findings. He adds, “Once ESIC opened up an inquiry into historical spectator bug exploitation, I basically worked 16 hours per day (for the first three weeks) on this to try and get as much done as it was only possible.” He didn’t want to drag this out for 8 months as he felt it was important for the scene to close this negative chapter as quickly as possible, so everybody can move on and talk about great Counter-Strike games, instead of playing coach bingo. Michau advocates for transparency in esports in general so as to mitigate any unforeseen damages to the scene, however, he has mixed feelings about the punishments meted out. He believes that ESIC are experts in this field and one should trust them, and that it’s difficult to find a middle ground that pleases every single member of the community. As for Valve, he thinks it’s unreasonable that people blame them based on Pita’s tweet and claiming that the former was aware of the bug. To elaborate further, he cites an example of how Pita reported this bug via DMs on Twitter back in 2017, and how there was absolutely no guarantee that Valve even read the message. Having almost a million followers and getting spammed every single day with all sorts of messages on Twitter, how can anyone really believe whether Valve read every single message? “There are proper communication channels for people to use, Twitter DMs is definitely not one of them. So I don't blame Valve, people within our community simply failed to report it to them via proper communication channels.” He continues, “Let’s not forget that when I reported this bug to Valve, it got fixed in two weeks’ time and I used the same email that Valve has communicated for public use. Prior to 2017, opinions about ESL events in the eye of the public were not that great although the perception started to change from 2017 onwards. When Michau joined ESL, the CS league operations were a bit of a mess, but while he was leaving - ESL’s admin team was considered as the best one in CS with minimal delays, not many technical issues, best format, great event standard for players, and with every passing year it just gets better. He played an instrumental role in bringing forth these changes in collaboration with other departments such as IT and player management teams, and together they set a new standard for CS:GO events. A while later, he left ESL to explore other options and to satiate his curiosity as to how different TO’s like DreamHack, BLAST, FACEIT, etc operate in a bid to constantly improve and develop his skills further. Although he loved what he was doing, there were several reasons for his departure from ESL. He says, “I was overworked and underpaid and because of that I kept losing my motivation. I was overworked for a very long time and I pushed for changes that would enable me to get some rest between events, but unfortunately that never happened.” At some point, Michau had 8 months of overtime accumulated and on the other hand, he had a chance to freelance, an option we all know comes with an enthralling yet challenging risk-to-reward ratio. Not long ago, a heated debate on the topic of TO’s not providing long term contracts to talents were making rounds. As a freelancer, Michau’s point of view was quite interesting to observe. He believes that there are no guarantees as a freelancer in esports regardless of the position that person holds. He adds, “Of course, but we have to be realistic and work with what we have. It sucks, because as an example - I have no idea how much work or if at all I will have any work next year.” According to him, this applies to everyone and the referees are not the only ones affected. Talent, IT, content creators, photographers -- to name a few, are all riding the same boat. He adds, “We discuss this topic between ourselves a lot, but there isn’t really anything we can do to improve our situation, it has to come from TOs. At the end of the day, it’s just business for TOs and they will obviously try and save money at every single opportunity.” COVID has brought everything to a standstill, and while everything around us is opening up slow and steady, the tremendous impact it has left imprinted in our lives cannot be discarded. While Michau does miss attending events as well as the normal pre-covid life, being caged inside his own house hasn’t had that much effect on him. Although he is doleful on not being able to socialize with friends outside, the amount of work has literally kept him sane that it hasn’t even crossed his mind to think about socializing. With more to deliver, he spiels all the knowledge and advice that he has accumulated over the years, and shares it with those aspiring to dip their toes in this particular field. He highly recommends starting off and getting some experience on platforms like ESL Play, FACEIT and ESEA as they are always on the lookout for voluntary admins. He adds, “What I will say though is - you have to be prepared to invest some time and money to become a referee. I spent quite a big chunk of my student loan on my first few events. I had to pay for my own flight tickets, I had to pay for accommodation, I had to pay for my own food - all that to be able to work my first few events and I wouldn't get a single penny for this work - it was all voluntary.” Unfortunately, even though the scene is now a lot bigger than before, not much has changed and newcomers still have to invest some of their own money to get their first chance. With great power comes great responsibility though, and as Michau shows, if you put the work in, then you're up to the task—even if things panned out differently than you would have expected.  Embrace the twists and turns and you too will find yourself warding off the offensives.
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