May 14, 2019

Management with chaos: from esportsman to CEO

At the tail end of the 2000s, Alexey xaoc (chaos — WJ) Kucherov was a professional Counter-Strike athlete. Today, he is a COO of the Danish organization Heroic. In between, he worked as an investor, later becoming the CEO of HellRaisers. Wallhack Journal talked to him about his career, the intricacies of management work and some other topics.

— Alexey, you are one of the few professional esportsmen who graduated from the university and got a job that lined up with your degree. How did you balance gaming with studying?

— Back then, Counter-Strike was in its infancy, and 6-7 hour gaming sessions in the evening were enough to stay competitive.

The classes were not that difficult and didn’t require much time, so that helped, too. Attending seminars was more than enough for me. Don’t get me wrong, I always found time if I had to prepare for an exam or hand in an assignment, but otherwise time was rarely an issue.

Covering for my absence was more of a problem, because sometimes I had to skip for a few weeks straight. But still, it was manageable. I could always call in sick or buy a doctor’s note. Plus, the university cared more about our results than attendance, and I could score enough points by attending five out of ten classes. Although it did mean that I had to work harder at those lessons. Overall, for me it was not that difficult to balance studying and gaming.

— Why did you choose finance?

— Having an analytical mind, I was always fond of numbers. They came easier for me than any humanities. That’s why I decided to grow in that direction.

— There is a lot of hype surrounding financial markets, but they’re also dangerous. Tell us about your experience.

— Financial markets are indeed full of risks, but not just due to participants’ skills or lack thereof. There are also external factors, the so-called non-trading risks, which include brokers, infrastructure and so on.

Again, you have to understand that there are different financial markets with their own intricacies. Equity markets, for instance, are regulated by the government and are hence safer. The foreign exchange market however — the one I worked on — is characterized by much higher exposure to non-trading risks. I started trading while still a university student and spent seven years on it in total. There came a point when one of the non-trading risks materialized and my broker went bankrupt, resulting in me losing a major part of my savings and disposable funds — something around USD 50,000.

— How did you take it?

— Sat down, played some Dota to get myself distracted, went to asleep (laughs). Got over it and kept moving forward.

Today, I just keep my eye on the markets. I had to leave investing since most of my funds were gone, and what remained was not enough to cover the risks.

Later on, I simply didn’t have enough time for that. If you do something, you have to do it well, and you cannot really combine trading with a full-time job, especially a management position.

— How did you become the CFO of HellRaisers?

— Maxim Bednarskiy, the then-CEO of the organization, and Kirill ANGE1 Karasyov offered me the position. We had known each other for some time, and they knew of my occupation. They needed someone to ensure transparent accounting, as well as control and optimize cash flows. Those were my first tasks.

— When you stepped in as the CEO of HellRaisers, you knew about the state of organization and the esports market as a whole. What were your primary goals back then?

— Every organization has a number of key business lines, and in this case, I identified three: media relations, esports itself, and systematization of business processes, which became my main objectives at the time. I tried to reach results as fast as I could based on the organization’s resources.

Plus, you have to understand that the list of the CEO’s responsibilities depends on the structure of a company, and I had to in some ways cover for other positions. For instance, we didn’t have an HR specialist, so that responsibility partially rested on my shoulders.

Moreover, if we, say, needed a YouTube channel manager, I had to go ahead and learn about the basics of the job myself in order to find a fitting candidate. Even once we found the specialist, we had to control and coordinate the work of the department together.

That is why I ended up learning law, marketing, sales, and much more.

— Speaking of hiring, it’s common for positions that are not directly connected to esports to be occupied by ex-esportsmen or people who are friends with an organization’s management. How important is friendship in getting a job? What were the key factors that you looked at?

— Friendship is important, but not a key factor. It simply provides an employer with a better understanding of the strong and weak sides of a candidate. Plus, we obviously trust a person we know more.

Though you have to understand that a decision to offer a job is based on many factors. First, it is necessary to understand the resources of the organization. You can hire an experienced professional who will tell you exactly what needs to be done, and it will be done perfectly. However, they will be expensive. Another option is to hire a person who will evolve alongside you, and for a lesser salary. Everything needs to be balanced. There are no ready-made solutions. Things need to be considered in context and compared.

It is also very important that a candidate is easy to communicate with. Based on my experience, I can tell you that driven and easygoing people make better employees. They don’t need any additional motivation. They already want to develop and are seeking ways and mentors.

— Can you talk us through the process of the CEO’s communication with the coach and players during reshuffles? For example, what would happen if the players are performing at their best and are satisfied with it, yet the organization has goals that are more ambitious?

— The situation when the players are satisfied and the organization is not is close to impossible. Athletes always want more. If we assume that situation to be true, it just means that the players lack ambition and will never reach the level of any top-20 team in the world.

As for arguments with coaches and captains about reshuffles, you have to understand that for them it’s about maximizing the team’s performance. CEOs look at a bigger picture — they need to take into the account the players’ media presence, their salaries and the price for their transfer. The CEO also has to think about what is relevant and appealing to the partners of the organization. These things don’t even enter the players’ minds.

Even if we forget about these things, there are still reasons for arguments as there is no objective yardstick by which to measure players’ performance. We could look at the rating on hltv. org, at the results of the matches, but these only account for 40-50% of success. The other 50% is the ability to work in a team, etc. That is why there will always grounds for arguments, but this is normal.

For instance, before me stepping in as the CEO, HellRaisers were thinking about signing Magisk. There was a chance for reshuffles, so it was possible. Some people wanted to get him onboard, others had doubts, thinking he was only good online. At that point, Magisk had little LAN experience, and therefore he hadn’t proven himself as good in LAN as he was online. He did it a bit later. (laughs)

— You have touched upon a very important topic — players’ media presence. Many of them do not like giving interviews. How did you go about this as the CEO?

— If a player doesn’t want to do it, there is not much you can do. It’s better to focus on those who like it and provide them with more opportunities. With others, it is better to reach an agreement, so they at least fulfill sponsorship obligations. For that, you create a simple content plan that takes into account the interests of both player types. If managers stick to these simple rules, they will get along with players just fine.

— Do you have any regrets from your time at HellRaisers? How did you understand that it was time to move on?

— Can’t say I regret any particular thing, because I think regret is useless. It’s not something I do. There were certain situations that led to certain decisions, and these decisions might have been wrong — but who could’ve known in advance? There’s no point in regretting something.

I decided to leave HR when realized I stopped growing. The organization was for the most part functioning as a well-oiled machine, and my duties turned into routine tasks that stunted my further development. To break free from it, I had to leave my comfort zone, so I decided to work somewhere else.

— How did you look for a new job? This is not exactly an industry where you can put a CV on a website and await response.

— There aren’t too many top managers in esports, so most of us know each other. When you are looking for a new job, you can just ask around and someone might recommend you. That’s how I found my new job — I was recommended. When I received an offer to become the COO of Heroic, we had a conversation with the management of the organization. Turned out we had similar views on the current state and further development of Heroic, so I accepted the offer.

Moreover, Denmark is home to many top Counter-Strike teams, and the level of competition there is quite high. It is a big challenge for me, which also contributed to my decision.

A large number of strong teams also allows organizations to use many different business models. For example, we have Astralis here, which might need strong players, and for us that represents a great opportunity. Right now though I am not sure if we would go for these opportunities, it is too early to tell.

— What are your responsibilities at Heroic?

— Similar to the ones I had at HellRaisers. We are streamlining processes, figuring out what they should be like to effectively work in the framework we have. We’re also setting long-term plans. One of our primary goals is to get into top-8 of the hltv. org rating. It would give the team an opportunity to participate in almost every tournament skipping qualifications, which are very time consuming. That time is better spent preparing for a new event. Our second goals is to become more attractive for new partners. We also need to work on our media presence and interactions with fans.

— “Streamlining processes” is an ambiguous phrase. Can you specify what these processes are?

— There are a number of them. First, a content plan. You can create any content you like, but if there is no consistency — it cannot be scaled. You cannot tell what works and what doesn’t, and adjust the production accordingly. That is why a content plan is important.

Second, esports. We need to set up a good bootcamp for the team, so our players could focus exclusively on the game and training.

Third, we need to establish transparent communication within the organization. Everybody should be on the same page, everyone should understand the areas of their responsibilities, and deadlines should be met consistently.

Fourth, setting up a transparent financial system. It is not an easy task, since esports is an international phenomenon. Money can come from different parts of the world, but paperwork should be logical and transparent for everybody in the company.

Fifth, merchandise. I’ve been working on it for the last couple of weeks. We set a goal to create our merchandise in the shortest period possible. Therefore, we had to come up with a plan that would set out the timing for creating the designs, finding a manufacturer, and working out financial matters, client service, distribution, etc.

— Do you work remotely?

— Yes, there is no need for me to be in Denmark all the time. I will be going there occasionally to solve some issues more effectively. In esports, many things can be dealt with remotely, which is good because organizations are not limited to local experts only.

— What is the difference between working at CIS and Scandinavian organizations?

— The structure is a bit different, plus there’s a few peculiarities with taxation and players’ contracts. In general, it is all the same, just some things here and there that you have to keep in mind.

For instance, communication with players. In the CIS, players don’t usually have agents. That means you can just come to the office (if you have a bootcamp), sit down with them and discuss something. Convenient, fast, and effective. In Scandinavia, we have to communicate with players through agents: first, we must speak with them, and the agents then relay the message to players. It takes a lot of time. In the end, these discussions can last a month and still result in some misunderstandings. Of course, a lot of it depends on the agent’s professionalism, but it definitely complicates things.

— What’s the reason behind the rapid growth of Counter-Strike’s popularity in Denmark?

— The reason for the ramp-up is quite simple, and we’ve already seen it with Poland and Brazil. When a team reaches success, it becomes a goal to strive towards for others. Players and teams view them as role models, so the team becomes the driver behind the region’s development.

The question of why they reached that success in the first place is more difficult to answer. It may be that Scandinavia is a comfortable place to live, which allows players to spend more time training. This could be why the first successful and talented players were able to thrive there, blazing a trail for others.

— Name the three main problems of esports or Counter-Strike in particular.

— I can’t name three, but I will name one. It’s the unevenness of esports in terms of audiences and conditions for players. It is difficult to compete with the budgets of North American teams when you work with the CIS, even Europe sometimes struggles.

Purchasing power in the CIS is lower, hence sponsors’ advertising campaigns are less effective compared to other regions. This means smaller advertising budgets, which makes it difficult to get a sponsorship in the CIS. Therefore, organizations make less money and have trouble keeping players in their roster.

But, again, this is a problem only for the CIS, for North America it’s an opportunity.

— What would you recommend to those who want to work in esports, but not as an athlete?

— First of all, do what you love, and you will have less trouble succeeding. And you’ll enjoy doing it, too.

Second, you have to understand that progress is a gradual process. In fields like SMM or copywriting, you can hone your skills through regular practice. With top management positions like COO or CEO, however, you have to possess expertise in many areas. It’s not enough to know one field well. You need to understand management, finance, law, media, marketing, etc. You don’t need to have a degree in each, but you do need to have a certain understanding. Without that knowledge, you’ll have a tough time. For example, how could you hire the right person for a particular position if you don’t understand anything about it? It can turn out to be a real problem. Obviously, you need to understand esports, because you’ll need to communicate with the team.

You need to love what you do and work at it every day, seize every opportunity that comes your way, and never be afraid of tackling new challenges.