Interview by Kary
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. A charismatic referee warding off the offensives for the longest time - Today, we introduce you to the life of Michal "Michau
If you prefer the feature-version of this interview, please find it here.
First thing’s first - Tell us a little about yourself.
I hate talking about myself, I was never good at it, but let’s see. I am 27 years old, I live in Poland with my girlfriend, I have a Computer Science degree. I never had a “proper” job in a non-esports company (apart from some internships), as soon as I finished my degree, I moved to Cologne in Germany to start working for ESL full time as part of their League Operations team. My life growing up was pretty normal I would say. I paid a lot of attention to education. I played a lot of football and I played a lot of video games. Is that
What was it that got you glued to video games, particularly Counter-Strike?
I started playing video games when I was a kid, first on Pegasus then PlayStation and then finally on a PC. I don't really know what it was that glued me to video games, I guess I just found them entertaining. 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. But then he took me to some LAN tournament that was happening nearby and I realised that Counter-Strike is more than just a game, it's a proper competition. You cannot really "get better" at single player games - you play it, finish it and then move to the next one. I am a very competitive person and with Counter-Strike I would get a chance to constantly compete against friends and other players and try to beat them - and I think that was the major factor of me enjoying CS so much.
Most people aspiring to get into esports are those who want to become pro players or on-screen talents, but rarely do people want to become a referee. Why did you choose to become one? Was it by chance or is there any other story to it?
I also 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. I never thought esports could grow as much as it did and I had other priorities. Education was very important to me and my family, so I prioritized it more than CS. When CSGO came out, I tried going pro once again and I did get to a decent level in Poland - played in the top division of ESL Polish Championships, but then university started and I basically felt I cannot do both things at the same time at the highest level and I picked university over continuing my CSGO career.
My choice to stick with University did not change my opinion about CS, I loved it - it was a big part of my life from a very young age and I wanted to continue being involved in it. So I continued working as a voluntary admin for ESL Play. I never really thought I could turn this into like some sort of paid job - it was all out of passion, 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, we had a lot of big platforms like ESL Play and ClanBase (and few polish ones too) and they were always looking for new admins/referees. 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.
What all goes into refereeing? What is the role of a referee? Perks, pros, cons? Where does difficulty arise in being one?
Referees / admins / officials or whatever people call us - we are the people responsible for running the actual competition. There are a lot of different tasks - depending on the game, tournament organizer or even the type of the tournament, but I think if there is one task that is common for all of these - it would be ensuring that the rules of the game are followed. We are responsible for the integrity of the matches and for making judgments on every match-related issue. On top of that, we are the first point of contact for teams and players during the tournament - we answer their questions, we help them resolve problems, we help them set up. Again this is just the tip of the iceberg - we work on the rulebooks which constantly need improving, we create and implement anti-cheating measures, we have to prepare the "playing field" (server / lobby) etc. etc.
I think the coolest thing of being a referee is the fact that you get to be in the middle of this whole show and you get to experience the tournament from the inside. It's a very good starting point for your esports journey as well, 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). The best referees are also taken to every single event, no matter where it is hosted so I myself have a privilege of travelling around the world which was always a dream of mine.
As for negative aspects of the job - 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. 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. I wish we would finally get to the point in esports where being a referee can be well compensated in the future.
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. I think in CS, when I joined ESL full time - I was the first person who started working on some training guides for referees and so on - to share my vast experience with them so they understand what sort of problems they can expect etc. This is still a very much undeveloped aspect of this job, something I was hoping to work on in my free time eventually.
Being an observant referee also has its own advantage; spotting out things related to cheating or bug exploitation among other things. Recently, you played an instrumental role in outing several well known coaches from renowned teams that were guilty of said exploit. Tell us in detail what exactly the bug was about. And the ways through which one could gain an unfair advantage?
I wouldn't really call it an advantage, it's simply what the job entails.
As for the coach bug you are asking about - the coach feature allows 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 mid way through the match. Once you get stuck in this view - you stay in it, or you switch to a normal "coach view" (so 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.
As we found out later on, there were some other instances of this bug with different activation methods.
It must certainly be heartbreaking in exposing such elements since you may have known many of them in person. What was the feeling like when you found out these individuals were involved in such a thing, especially when one exploit opened up a Pandora’s box that just kept on giving?
It's obviously disappointing to find out that we did have some people trying to gain an unfair advantage during professional matches in our scene. For me, it doesn't really matter if I knew them or not - I've been in this scene for so long that I probably knew 90% of that list anyway.
I realise 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. So I don’t really feel bad about doing this whole investigation, it was needed. I might've handled it differently, for example it could've been all handled behind the closed doors, but in the end - I did what I thought was best at the time.
Which outing hit you the hardest, one that you did not expect at all?
Look, when I started going through demos I honestly didn't expect to find anyone abusing this bug. So I think what surprises me the most is the sheer number of incidents found. 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.
It must have been a helluva workload untangling this entire mess. How many hours did you put in along with your colleagues/friends?
It was indeed a lot of work and it still is (let's not forget the investigation is ongoing). Along with my friend Steve, we essentially worked 12 hour shifts on this, basically every day. Our workflow was a bit unconventional I guess, as I would start working while he was still asleep and we would basically switch as soon as I was going to sleep, so we can keep this process going for 24/7. He is in the US and I am in Europe, so I would go to sleep and leave him a short report of what was done and what still needs to be done and then I would wake up and see him working on stuff, we would talk about what we found, he would go to sleep and I would continue working. It was like that for at least a month.
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. I didn't want this to drag out for 8 months, I felt it was important for our scene to close this negative chapter as quickly as it was only possible, so we can move on and talk about great Counter-Strike games, instead of playing coach bingo. I felt personally responsible to get this done.
Do you believe this situation could have been dealt in a better way by the authorities involved? Do you feel that the punishment meted out is justifiable? Do you believe that Valve should have fixed this bug a long time back since this was a known bug?
I thought about this a lot and I don't think there is a perfect way to deal with such a shitty situation (I am talking about the way it was handled when it was discovered in August). I think no matter how this would've been announced - there would be a lot of criticism anyway, simply because a lot of big names were involved and these names have a huge following behind them. Of course there are always things we all could've done differently - possibly better. I always push for transparency and I think we need more of it in esports in general.
I have mixed feelings about the punishments, but I think it's very hard to find a middle ground that pleases every single member of our community. ESIC are experts in this field and we have to trust them.
As for Valve - well, people claim they knew based on a tweet that pita made, but that's the thing - they didn't know. One coach reported this bug via DMs on Twitter back in 2017, but there is absolutely no guarantee they even read his message. They have almost a million followers and I am sure they get spammed every single day with all sorts of messages on Twitter - does anyone really believe they 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.
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.
That said, you were previously head referee at ESLCS, IEM, ESL ONE, and now you’re a freelancer. Why the change? To chase other opportunities? Explain.
There were several different reasons for my departure from ESL. In some way, I felt like my time had come to an end - in my eyes I accomplished everything I possibly could with them in my previous position. When I joined ESL, CS league operations were a bit of a mess really, but when I was leaving - ESL's admin team was considered as the best one in CS. Minimal delay, not many technical issues, best format, great event standard for players and so on. Go ahead and check out the opinions of ESL events before 2017 and see how the public perception has changed from 2017 onwards. With every year it gets better and better. Obviously it was not all thanks to me, I worked with - among others - great IT and player management teams and together we set a new standard for CSGO events.
Don't get me wrong, I loved what I was doing and I would have probably kept going, but 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. I think at some point I had 8 months of overtime accumulated... On the other hand, I had a chance to freelance - which meant less work and more pay.
I was also very curious about how other TOs operate as I want to constantly improve. I knew that if I left, I would get a chance to work with DH, BLAST, FACEIT and so on and that would give me a chance to develop my skills even further.
Okay, let’s talk about contracts, or lack thereof, being offered by TO’s on a long term basis. As a freelancer, what is your take on this?
Well, it’s just how it is - I think that’s how freelancing works in general, no? You don’t have any guarantees as a freelancer in esports no matter what position you have. Would I prefer this to change? 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.
But it’s the same for everyone - not only referees are affected. Talent, IT, content people, photographers - we are all in the same boat. 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
Moving on, how have you dealt with being caged inside your house in this COVID pandemic? Relieved that you can work from the comfort of your home and not travel to events like you used to for the majority of the year?
I know that sounds crazy, but I don’t think being caged inside my own house had that much effect on me. Yeah, it sucks to not be able to socialize with friends outside, but we stay in touch online. Work has kept me sane in a way (I have so much work that it doesn’t even cross my mind to think about socializing - a bit sad, I know).
I definitely miss events and normal - pre-covid - life. Luckily for me, I still have some work and this work has kept me busy, but I would definitely prefer to go back to offline events. Yes - with offline events I would spend many more days away from home, but by going freelance I do have a choice of skipping some events to get proper rest, a choice I didn't really have before when I was full time.
So not much has changed in terms of my work schedule really, I still do basically the same number of events, but their duration is simply longer. You have to remember that most online events are longer compared to offline events, meaning I actually end up working more in this covid era. Even though I am working from home, I am essentially stuck in front of my PC for 12 hours per day on average, so not much I can do between work and sleep anyway.
To those aspiring to become referees in the future, what is your advice to them?
I would recommend starting off by getting some experience on platforms like ESL Play, FACEIT, ESEA. These platforms are always looking for voluntary admins and it's a really good starting point.
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, not much has changed in that department and newcomers still have to invest some of their own money to get their first chance.
Alright, that’s a wrap. Leave us with a quote that you take inspiration from in life.
I don't really have a quote like that. I believe in hard work.
If you enjoyed this interview, follow the author on Twitter at @Karyb4u.
Cover image credit: ESL