Starcraft Breaking: StarCraft’s Team Gravity closing operations. A look inside the closure of an esports organization

CyanEsportsCyanEsports 2016-09-17 18:06:08

Brought to life in 2013 by a desire to elevate the foreign SC2 scene as much as possible, Team Gravity is now at the end of their three year journey. Many StarCraft fans will recognize Gravity for their ‘Fight Night’ showmatch series, an effort that injected thousands of dollars into the SC2 esports scene and brought amazing matches to the fans.

‘Fight Night’ was only one aspect of the team though, who spent years supporting their players and helped their attempts to bridge the gaps between semi-professional StarCraft, and esports stardom. The accomplishments of Gravity can be solely credited to the passion of their backend staff. CEO Marten ‘BeaSt’ Medrano and his staff devoted huge amounts of time and effort to keep their project running for three years, a feat that cannot be marginalized.

Team Gravity has survived through the decline of SC2’s fan base post 2013, and they did so legitimately. Having seen the creation and demise of organizations such as LYGF, Quantic, Alloy, and Apocalypse, Gravity was a team who held themselves to a higher standard. Team Gravity did not fall victim to any scams, was not accused of stealing from their players, and is not leaving the scene under suspicious circumstances of any kind. As they come to the end of their story, Gravity should be proud that they never stooped to the level of many other esports startup teams.

I had the pleasure of talking to Team Gravity’s CEO, BeaSt, about what is forcing this decision and his thoughts on Team Gravity over the years. He provided a deeper look at what its like to run a team and what happens for an organization to make the tough choice to close down.

This is the end of quite a journey. Gravity started up in 2013, tell me how you started the team, and what your goals were.

After being a player on a small handful of different teams throughout the course of 2011-2013, I was rather unhappy with certain aspects of the way some of these teams were ran, and after somewhat jokingly talking about the idea of starting my own team for a while, I decided to give it a shot.

Being a somewhat decent player and active streamer at the time, I'd managed to make a good amount of friends that were willing to come on board and help me get Team Gravity off the ground. The goal we had was pretty simple; we just wanted to be a solid powerhouse in the NA scene, and provide a great environment for players to improve, and compete in tournaments and team leagues. I'd like to think that we ultimately accomplished this goal, and provided opportunities to some of our players that otherwise would not have been possible.

You guys started a weekly showmatch series, ‘Fight Night’, in 2013 right when the team opened up. What made you want to start a weekly tournament series as a team?

To be honest, I don't really remember exactly what sparked the idea of starting Fight Night. In 2013-2014, we ran a few Fight Night events, but they were self-funded so the production value, skill level of players, and frequency of events didn't match what we were able to provide in 2015.

In late 2014, our COO, Scott Clandinin, reached out to Hitbox and pitched the idea of moving Fight Night to their platform, where we would run weekly events. They agreed, and with the help of a couple other sponsors (Spawning Tool, Matcherino, and OFU), we made the switch and had our first event in January, 2015.

While we had some hiccups and frustrations towards the end of our contract with Hitbox, it was overall a great move for our team. Not only did it provide a ton of high level content and entertainment for the community, but through successful events week after week, we were able to leverage a new offer with Azubu in October of 2015. Again, this came with more headaches, but the increase in funding they provided allowed us to help support our players even better.

‘Fight Night’ really grew through the years, playing host to the biggest names in SC2, from Soulkey to Destiny. I that many weeks, I’d see the lineup of players for the next ‘Fight Night’ and think ‘wow this will be awesome’. How were you able to recruit so many high profile and topical figures for this series?

I think having a good reputation as both an organization, and well-run event was a huge deal for us. Sometimes as a new content creator or event organizer, I think it's hard for people to even get in touch with some of the top level players, let alone convince them to play in their new event.

It wasn't the easiest thing to do starting out, but as time progressed, we built a strong foundation and players trusted that we would do right by them. Paying players their prize winnings on time is obviously a high priority, but even just doing everything possible in advance to avoid any delays or downtime during the event makes the whole experience much more enjoyable for both the players and the fans watching.

Do you have any personal favourite matches from ‘Fight Night’?

There were so many good games week after week, it's impossible for me to pick a favorite. I think some of the most memorable events for me weren't always the ones where we had the top tier Korean players, but rather, some foreign fan favorites duking it out. Nathanias vs Destiny and Scarlett vs HuK come to mind. Those matches happened early on in our switch to Hitbox, and easily generated some of the best viewership Fight Night had seen. The gameplay, casting, and production value was always top notch, but what made the events the most exciting for me, was watching the viewer counts increase and seeing our hard work pay off. You could tell that there were people who were generally appreciative of the content that we were putting out on a regular basis.

Do you think that the exclusive deal with Hitbox ended up dealing more harm than good? Though they entered with high hopes, it seems unlikely that Hitbox will ever grow to a size that’s comparable with Twitch. Had ‘Fight Night’ been broadcast on the more mainstream website, do you believe that the team would have gained more traction?

I think without our contract with Hitbox, we wouldn't have been able to continue Fight Night. As I said before, while our relationship with Hitbox became a little rocky towards the end of 2015, they did provide stability to our event that we would not have been able to sustain if we remained self-funded.

We did eventually try moving back to Twitch in April, 2016, but surprisingly, the viewership noticeably declined. We expected the change to dramatically boost viewership, but that wasn't the case. We did only run two events on Twitch, so I guess we could have given it a little more time, but I was personally unable to continue scheduling players, casters, production, and handling administrative duties during the events week after week. It was like working a second full time job, and while it had been an overall success, it was just something I couldn't put any more of my time into.

Can you give any specifics on what happened with Hitbox? How the relationship went south?

Long story short, there were a lot of complications towards the end of our Hitbox contract. Final payouts from Hitbox were delayed for months (in some cases, never even paid out), and it was near impossible to get any sort of response from our Hitbox representative. When we finally did get some sort of reply it was always along the lines of, "Sorry I'm on vacation until next week. I'll look into it further then".

To complicate things even more, when we switched from Hitbox to Azubu, Azubu really dropped the ball on the transfer process. The Azubu representative that approached us, apparently didn't take the necessary steps when sending us our contract, because he never got approval from their legal department. Because of this, our payments which should have been sent weekly, got delayed for more than two months.

Our Azubu representative consequently was fired, and we were never notified or assigned a new point of contact. It then became a big ordeal to hunt down somebody who could help us. Finally we were able to get in touch with an account manager, but she was travelling/on vacation for entire weeks at a time, so it was very difficult to make any progress there. Finally, she directed us to somebody in their accounting department who didn't respond for a good 3-4 weeks. When she finally did, she directed us back to the original account manager.

Eventually, things mostly got worked out, but because of the failure on Azubu's end to properly approve and finalize the contract with us, they had to rescind their initial offer, and gave us a new one which was much lower than originally agreed upon. This also left us with a debt owed to Hitbox since in our initial contract Azubu agreed to pay our termination fees if we switched to them. After weeks of trying to get them to honor their original agreement, they basically just said "No. We won't be covering that anymore." Hitbox subsequently used money they owed us for months to cover the outstanding termination fee, leaving us to foot the bill.

After all was said and done, we still came out ahead with our Hitbox and Azubu deals, but it definitely wasn't a very smooth process.

You guys worked hard to support foreign SC2, recruiting many players who were high GM but hadn’t yet broken out in a tournament or risen to fame within the community. And not only NA players, but EU and KR as well. How did you scout players? What were you looking for when you added people to the team?

I think that in this aspect, I had a distinct advantage over the majority of team owners/management staff. I found it rather easy to find and recruit talented players, because I was generally playing at a similar level, and would match them on ladder on a daily basis.

I felt like this gave me a competitive edge over many other managers who might not necessarily know what to look for, or would simply judge their recruiting process based on the player being in GrandMaster.

Another thing that made this easy was that I didn't have to constantly bother my players about trying out new people. I was more or less the gatekeeper. If the player wanting to join was unable to beat me, it felt rather pointless having them tryout against the players who are actually on the roster. I think the players were appreciative of this, because it allowed them to focus more of their time and energy on practicing and improving.

Do you think, in the end, that recruiting lesser known players was the right decision? Or would it have been better to try and throw all your efforts behind one well known competitor?

Being a small team with no major sponsors makes it really hard to fully back a player who has already "broken out". The approach we took was to provide as much support as we could, and try to create an environment that fostered player growth. What we provided to players wasn't always monetary. We had a great group of management staff that was always around to help the players out with anything they needed - even the simple stuff like making sure they got signed up/checked in for tournaments, or set up graphics on their stream/social media. We did everything we could to make being a StarCraft 2 player as effortless as possible so they could focus on the important things, like improving their play.

That being said, we were able to provide some legitimate monetary support to some of our players while they were with us. Most notably would be flying Semper out to DreamHack Sweden earlier this year. It was his first international event, and we were very excited to be able to help him get out there to compete.

I think the approach that we took is the only one that makes sense when you don't have huge sponsors or legitimate investors. We've seen time and time again, teams promise the world to their players, only for their mysterious investor to disappear, or for some personal tragedy to occur, leading to broken promises and players/StarCraft fans having a sour taste in their mouth. Building a solid foundation and moving at a pace we could sustain really led to our success over the last few years.

You guys were consistently competing in team leagues. Your last competition as a team was the Dust Team league just last week where Gravity came out on top! I think it’s cool that even though EJK and longtime Gravity member Semper had already joined Cray Squad and Team Root respectively, they still played under the Gravity flag for the finals of the event. Did the players feel particularly close to each other? Was there a friendly environment on the team where people worked, practiced, and played together?

Just like real life, some of our players just naturally got along better than others. Our guys would practice with each other, but as with most players, they had a good amount of practice partners outside of the team. Sometimes real life commitments, or even time zones get in the way of consistently practicing with a specific person, so it's good to have options.

As far as them sticking around to fight for Gravity in the DuSt team league, I can't speak on their exact motives, but I'd like to think they had somewhat of a sense of commitment to the team and their former teammates. Everybody worked hard throughout the regular season of the team league, and allowed us to move into the playoffs as the #1 seed with an 8-0 (32-4) record.

The playoffs and finals were an all-day event, lasting around 8 hours. Our French players had to stay up until ~4:00 AM CET just to finish everything. I can't say how appreciative I am of everybody who showed up to play, tried their hardest, and ultimately brought us to one last team league championship to end our run in style. Knocking out the two-time champions, and favorites to win again this season - PSISTORM, was the icing on the cake.

When did you know that Gravity was going to have to close? What’s forcing this decision?

Players moving on to new teams, or going completely inactive is always a bit of a hurdle to overcome, but it's inevitable. The fact that nearly our entire roster did it within the course of 1-2 months made it a little tougher, but the main deciding factor is pretty simple - time. Just like with Fight Night, I personally don't have the time or energy to continue running the team properly, and I refuse to half-ass it.

I think now is as just about the best time possible. Semper finding success in his new home with ROOT.. EJK, Soulspirit, and Abbadon all playing for new teams, and Gravity having one final victory to add to our trophy shelf with the recent DuSt team league win, seems like a great way to end our story.

Economically, how hard has it been to recruit sponsors and gather funds to keep the team running? Has it become harder as time went on and SC2 declined more and more?

Finding sponsors proved rather difficult. We managed to gain support for our Fight Night events, but didn't have any luck finding a legitimate sponsor for our team.

We had more success finding sponsors as time went on due to our success with Fight Night as it gained traction, but I think we were in a rather unique situation that most teams don't find themselves in - our events were what was attracting sponsors, not our team or player results.

What do you think of the state of SC2 right now? Do you see a possibility of more semi-pro SC2 teams trying to break into the upper crust?

I generally don't get too caught up in the whole "alive game vs dead game" debate. I personally love Starcraft, and I don't plan to stop playing or watching it anytime soon. I don't have as much time to devote to playing as I used to, but I'd like to think I'll see myself involved in the scene in some way. Maybe a management role on a new team. Who knows?

It's not an easy task to start a new team and make it successful, but it's definitely not impossible, either. It's easy to give players all the credit when a team does good (and they do deserve recognition, it's not easy being a top level Starcraft player), but since nobody really gets a look at what goes on behind the scenes, it's very easy to overlook the importance of a solid management staff. Team Gravity definitely would not have become what it is today without an amazing group of people putting in countless hours day in and day out.

I hope there are new teams that find success in the scene, but to do it right, it takes a lot of hard work, dedication, and passion. Oh and money… money helps too.

In the end, despite the closure of Team Gravity, your team made its mark on the SC2 scene. You provided hours upon hours of entertainment content and you supported many StarCraft players, some of whom are looking down the sights at hopefully illustrious careers! What are you most proud of?

Beyond the obvious answer about winning multiple team leagues, I think what I'm most proud of is the individual growth of the players, inside and outside of the game. Some of these guys I have known for years and I'm grateful I could be a part of it all.

I think there's a certain level of trust or loyalty involved, as either a player or a manager, when you devote so much of your time and energy to a team, and although the Team Gravity chapter ends here, I'm very proud and appreciative that everybody stuck around for so long and gave it their all.

Some people, like our graphic designer, and general pain in the ass - Ciprian Teodorescu, have been around since day one. Others like my right hand man - Scott Clandinin, or our dedicated team caster - Droopy Li, came later, but they have all been invaluable. Even after leaving Gravity to join PSISTORM, our web designer - Jaclyn Sage still stuck around to help update our site and made sure it stayed running.

To our management staff, our players, and all the friends and fans who have supported us on this three year journey, I just want to say thank you for all the support and love you have given to Team Gravity. We had a great run, and if I had to do it all over again, I would. Farewell!


If you enjoyed this content, follow the author on Twitter at @CyanEsports.

Photos courtesy of Team Gravity.

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