Player Contracts, Salaries, and Professionalism in South African esports | A Sinister Response

A Sinister Response

On the 19th of June 2017, Tech Girl (Facebook | Twitter) published an article introducing Goliath Gaming, which I highly recommend you read here. The MGO reveal was fairly significant for a few reasons, most notable of which was the focus on a more professional business model and structure (with specific attention paid to implementing player salaries in the very near future).

Photo by Goliath Gaming

This is more great news for South African esports, there’s really no denying that. But what got me interested was the response from various parties in the local scene. Most were calling this a first for South Africa, especially considering the announcement of player salaries across multiple titles. I realized that much about how MGOs in the country are run remains obscured, because the proposed implemented changes have already been in place in the scene since as early as December 2016. Kaameel Chicktay recently did an interview with two of the Sin5 players, but that focused more on gameplay and less on the MGO. We highly recommend you read that interview here, as it’s not half bad! We knew all this because we pay very close attention to the local DotA2 scene here at Zombiegamer (Eds: He doesn’t talk about anything else at a braai either…). But even we underestimated how deep the rabbit hole went.

A Sinister Tale | Introducing Sinister5

The tale of Sinister5 reads broadly the same as the tale of Mythic Gaming. To know one is, essentially, to know them both. Both DotA2 teams started out in 2nd Division in Jan this year. Both enjoyed meteoric rises through the ranks, ultimately qualifying for major tournaments like the VS Gaming Masters LAN (Mythic) and the Mega 8 Winter Cup (Mythic and Sin5) alongside the best DotA2 teams in the country. By the time the Winter Cup ended, both teams had gone from 2nd Div to top 10 in the country within a matter of months.

But if Mythic Gaming’s rise embodied the Cinderella Story, then the Sin5 rise is something else entirely. But their story has gone relatively unsung by the industry. I decided to sit down with Sin5 Management this weekend to get some of the details on how they run things over there (there were four of the management team/owners keen to meet us as well as Sin5 stalwart MrBeckerling). We met at 10h00 early Saturday morning (24 June 2017) at Tasha’s in the V&A Waterfront. Sin5 had flown down to Cape Town on business (they’re based in JHB) and made time in an incredibly busy schedule just to have a chat with us. They also picked up the tab for lunch (Eds: Wait… where is ours?), so expect this interview to be exceptionally biased!

Trust me, you want to read this interview. The ramifications for everything esports in South Africa are frankly mind blowing.

A Sinister Interview

@SargonDotA2: Hey Sin5. Fancy meeting you here.

Sin5: Thanks for meeting with us.

Pleasure is all ours. Listen, let’s get things going quickly here. Give me the Sin5 story. Can you start with giving our readers some background?

Sin5 actually started three years ago. We were hanging around 2nd Div/1st Div. That’s as far as we got. Us, in our 30s now, we wanted to kind of retire and give some younger guys a real opportunity.

Wait, so the owners/management used to play?

Haha, yes, but our current players are much better than we were.

So when did you guys stop playing and start, essentially, running an MGO?

About a year ago. After we retired we really wanted to take Sinister5 forward, so we went into a management role. That’s when the professional Sinister5 started. We started looking for more professional players to help take that dream forward, like Alex “F3arBender” Burger for instance, who is still with us in the main team today. We used to have two teams, Valhalla and Reborn. We went through a few stages of development in that early phase, refining the team and getting the best players to fit into the team. We eventually found ourselves beating established Premier Division teams, and we really saw potential in the team we had put together.

Awesome. I’ve heard a rumour that you guys are very hands on?

Haha, yes. Our players seem to like it. But we’re always giving our input. We actually get together, the management team, and we watch every single game. We got everyone together for a boot camp very early in Johannesburg and we were a part of that, helping them.

Okay. So then what happened with Sin5?

Eventually bigger challenges came up. The VS Gaming Community Shield 1 to be exact, so around early April earlier this year. Our first game against Pulse Gaming, their 2nd team, we actually lost. We fell to the lower bracket. Immediately at that point we decided we had reached a place where normal practice wasn’t going to get us to the next level. I felt I needed to do something. It was at night, around 01:00 a.m. straight after the Pulse Gaming loss, and I decided we needed a proper professional coach.

You’re saying you actually went out and hired a coach?

Yes, his name is Danny (aka ImmortalFaith) and he is a Romanian player with a lot of experience. He has over 7k MMR. He was one of the first 20 in EU to get to 7k MMR. He’s played with a lot of teams and some big names. He was the first and best choice. I contacted him and negotiated a package. A luxury like this is very expensive, but it was a decision on management side to do it. We needed to give our side a boost to carry on growing. It’s very expensive, but it’s paying off. It paid off immediately.

Wow. That’s amazing. How often does he coach the Sin5 DotA2 team?

Officially 20 hours a week, six days a week, because players are practicing six days a week. But he really puts in much more time than he bills, watching the games, personal coaching, and giving feedback to players and management. You could call it a semi-full time coach. Haha. We want to be the best team in South Africa, and to do that we need such investment of skills and experience.

Couldn’t agree more. So you just got knocked to the lower bracket in the VS Gaming Community Shield 1. What happened then? Did coach start immediately?

Straight after we lost, the next day after we lost to Pulse, he immediately started helping the team. We then went through all the teams in the lower bracket. We saw immediate improvement, but then we ultimately lost to Mythic Gaming who went through.

A bitter loss to your rivals, I’m sure.

We didn’t play well against you guys (Eds: Mythic Gaming), but we saw improvement and our spirit was up. We knew it would be hugely beneficial to the team in the long run, so that’s where our focus has been.

What happened next?

A few more team changes as we became more professional. We demanded players scrim more regularly, commit to practice hours, and really commit to this dream. That included lots more ranked EU scrims, solo practice, and a lot more coaching sessions. Only the most committed remained, and we’re always searching for those key players. We don’t just want players who have beaten huge teams, we want players who have the time to play and who have a good attitude. That’s key. We got Traxion and dgP in and synergy just kept getting better and better. Now with Aghanim the team is look strong, and we have an exciting new player on the way.  

That’s a huge ask in this scene, to commit that much to a non-Masters team.

Well we knew that, and to help we’ve been paying our players a monthly salary. This is true for our DotA2 team, our newly acquired CSGO team, and our Hearthstone player. We also have incentives for achieving goals we set them, like winning Premier Division. Even coach has incentives for achieving goals. He’s already gotten a few bonuses, like for qualifying for Orena. Haha.

So millions of dollars?

Look, it’s not something that is sustainable to live a lifestyle on. But for now it’s something that ties them down with us and also gives them something back each month for putting in all the hard work, which benefits both them and us. What we’re doing from our side is just to give them every chance possible to get a bigger sustainable revenue.

Wait a minute. Wait a minute. You’re telling me that besides your DotA2 team having a full-time coach, you also pay your players?

Yes, we’ve actually been paying them when they joined the team, from day one. Since the beginning, around December 2016, we had already instituted professional contracts and salaries for all our players. We want them to succeed and have the best opportunity, and we do what we can to help them do that. We also don’t take any winnings from them. Their 2017 contracts stipulate they keep 100% of any winnings. In 2018 that might change for the DotA2 team, since we’re going to be giving them a gaming house where food and accommodation is covered. So we might need to defray some of those costs. We want to take care of everything for our players, and as long as they give 110% commitment and hunger to be the best, we will support them. They must take DotA2 as seriously as a swimmer would take training to go to the Olympics. Right now an esports person has the potential to make more than a swimmer. So they need to have that hunger.

Hold on. I just need a few minutes. I’m pretty sure you just said you’ve been paying players for months now, you have a full time coach, and now you just hit me with a gaming house!?

Haha, yes. As we’ve said, we want to be the best and we’re serious about giving the players the best opportunity to be the best. We have a plan for our gaming house in Johannesburg or Bloemfontein from January. That’s when it starts to become sustainable for the players, as the gaming house will cover expenses in terms of food and accommodation, and we are going to increase the salaries as well. They will be professional players, doing this as a full time job.

That’s all really interesting and really amazing. Alright, briefly tell us about the culture at Sin5.

We’re very hands on and passionate in management. If someone could record us in TeamSpeak, we throw chairs around in the room if we lose the match. The players don’t even know, we’re all together watching the games. I have a huge projector at home and we watch all the matches. Sometimes I think we care more if the team wins or loses. Haha. The coach is also a major part of our culture, and the organization structure is tiered with the coach between management and the team. If he speaks, the team listens. And we meet with the coach on a regular basis to get updates on the team.

This really sounds like you guys have modelled Sin5 on a team like Chelsea in the Premier League.

Haha. It’s not dissimilar, and with the amount of investment we want to see results. But we’re totally new to this, so we’re trying to be innovative and learn the way things work internationally. It’s all about best practice and one of our goals is to make esports in South Africa much better. We’re very open to working together with others in the scene to make it grow. We don’t want people to take advantage of this scene. We must all grow it.

Some strong words which I entirely agree with. Any final thoughts?

We want to thank our players and everybody who has been a part of Sinister5, separated and current. All players, past and present, have been a part of Sinister5 and they’re all a part of our history. We also want to thank all our current players for their dedication, they make us proud every day, and they’re really a nice bunch. We’re proud to support them in Sinister5. We also want to thank coach for all his achievements already. We also want to thank MrBeckerling, he played a really big part in getting those early players when we all retired and took the MGO to the next level.

Alright. Final curveball before I let you go. What are your aims for 2018?

The goal will be to become a challenge to WRG and xTc Gaming. Also, with the CSGO and Hearthstone players that we acquired in the beginning of the year we’re hoping to become even more relevant in the local scene. We have confidence that these players will be able to carry Sin5 to even greater heights in those respective titles, as they share the Sin5 ambition and culture.

I believe you’ll be a force to reckon with. (Eds: So do we!)

TL;DR A Roman Abramovich/Chelsea style story; Sin5 are bringing the investment into the local scene that it so desperately needs, and a level of professionalism that stands out. We’re really excited to see how Sin5 does in the coming years. Follow them on Facebook or Twitter or head over to their Website.

About @SargonDotA2

Chris “@SargonDotA2” House started writing about competitive local esports in 2016, focused primarily on DotA2 since he played competitively around that time as well. Since then we keep him locked up, churning out DotA2 articles as often as we can make him do it.
@SargonDotA2 is sometimes referred to as the Batpanda…