Carmac on the media, moving to the US, and the constant need to 'evolve'
It’s hard to think of Michal “Carmac” Blicharz as anything other than the head of Intel Extreme Masters. Hired in early 2009 after a stint as the editor in chief of SK Gaming’s news division, he has since gone on to become one of the more recognizable corporate faces in esports—never far from the boardroom, but always within touching distance of the community.
After years based in ESL’s German headquarters, Blicharz is moving to the U.S.—a change announced with little fanfare. The news was also drowned out by more eye-grabbing headlines: ESL’s acquisition of the American based Esports Services; ESL’s new American studio; ESL’s partnership with ESEA; ESL’s work to launch a Counter-Strike super-league; and now, it seems, ESL’s (potential) acquisition by Swedish media company Modern Times Group. It’s been a year of unrelenting change and unprecedented growth for a company that only a few years ago was reportedly staring into the financial abyss.
Industry types have tried to contextualize what Blicharz's move means. Does it represent a shift in direction for ESL? Perhaps, like so many British boy-bands, ESL is hoping to finally crack the American market. Others wonder if, amid some stalling projects, Blicharz is heading out there to be a “fixer”—think Mike Ehrmantraut in Breaking Bad. And while it might be apparent that ESL isn't going to take any more half measures when it comes to esports, others are speculating that Blicharz’s move is intended to appease the Intel paymasters, bringing him closer to the source of the vast budget that makes IEM possible.
Blicharz cut his teeth as an esports journalist. He won two awards. He remains a vocal critic of the standard of esports journalism today, something we infrequently clash about. He is the perfect person to field questions from someone like me about a topic like this, presuming there is anything to answer in the first place. He has a force field that deflects leading questions and can evade linguistic traps. He answers questions with the measure of a career politician. ESL love him.
“It's been the plan for over a year,” he says of the move, "almost from the moment ESL acquired Esports Services and started the ESL America offices. The moment my daughter was born a timer was put on my stay in Germany. I want her to grow up in a country where I speak the language fluently.”
Come on Michal…
“I think people over-interpreted the news really,” he continues, acknowledging the perceived significance for the first time. “The main strategic benefits for ESL is my being able to meet with Intel more regularly. It makes sense since we're doing more business with Intel than before. This includes video production and some projects relating to Intel's diversity initiative.”
It’s hard to gauge whether that seemingly throwaway sentence is a teaser or a red herring. The Intel diversity initiative saw the company invest $300 million with the plan of helping improve access and under-representation of minority groups in the technology industry. One wonders what that could mean for esports, if indeed that is part of the plan at all. Rather than dig into the question, I seek some clarification about the relationship with Intel. Murmurings have already started to spread about the tech giant reviewing its options after ESL rivals DreamHack announced a partnership with them in March this year. Trouble in paradise? A notion easily dismissed as poor theorycrafting it seems.
“I don't think there's much placating that you could do after running the most-viewed Twitch event of all time [based on peak concurrency] together with Intel,” he scoffs. “The reality is that we're working with Intel on more levels than before and do more than ever with them. Intel CEO Brian Krzanich had the ESL logo up on the screen during his CES keynote as one of the companies that Intel's allying with to increase diversity in video games and technology. I don't see how a fire-fighting mission fits into this story.”
This segues nicely into some grandstanding, which Blicharz does well. His keen political sensibilities include an awareness of when to be a showman. I'm sure he'll take such accolades as an insult. He is undeniably, and justifiably, proud, however, and he does a poor job of hiding it whenever we talk business. As IEM's product manager, someone who has been instrumental in growing the brand from “just another esports competition” to one of the most prestigious events in the calendar, he is acutely aware of the finer points of the success story.
“We've done some mind-blowing things with some of our events, and they were more than I had ever hoped for. What happened in Katowice in the last three years has been nothing short of unbelievable” he says—although he acknowledges it hasn’t been perfect and needs to “evolve.”
“The truth is that we haven't managed to evolve every event of the season at the same pace as other events. It's moving in the right direction, but it could always move forward quicker. That is one of my focus areas for season 10. That, and making sure that we add an extra super IEM event to the calendar either this season or the next. The esports world changes constantly, and being able to adapt quickly depends on your success. For the most part, we haven't let the wheels fall off.”
Back to America and back down to Earth, I ask him about the American expansion and talk about some of the perceived failings that have happened in that region. ESL’s arrival and acquisition of the Esports Services (ESS) infrastructure was seen as giving it all it needed to take over a region devoid of investment. The announcement of a modern studio in Burbank Calif., including working alongside the talent that made NASL a spectacle, whet the appetites of the fans. As of today, it's reasonable to call it “a work in progress.” The NASL team are now working elsewhere, and what was announced with a fanfare is now barely talked about at all. Blicharz shifts gears effortlessly.
“Apparently we should stop sucking at tooting our own horn,” he jokes before qualifying some of the difficulties. “The U.S. office is growing at a frenetic pace. There are new hires every month and the size of the office is expanding. What was one office inside a cluster of buildings is quickly becoming the ESL village. That's obviously great, but it's also very challenging. ESL is a global company and we would like both sides of the Atlantic aligned as much as possible on pretty much everything so the manner in which we do things is the same everywhere. My moving over, along with Timo Karamustafa, another guy from the HQ, should help connect the offices more.”
But what happened with the studio? No-one spoke publicly about the changes in the staff, or if they did they didn’t do so very loudly. Blicharz says he’s not the person with all the answers.
“From what I know, it's the typical process where a lot of people need to be recruited quickly and at the same time. Some of them work out great and some of them are naturally not a perfect fit. It's not unlike building a good football team quickly where you have to change and adapt while going full speed forward.”
(He leaves that answer dangling. We're talking on the last day of the football season. He knows I’ll almost always happily talk sports, although it is easier to decline today. While his team's (Liverpool) season has petered out, making today little more than an acknowledgement of preempted disappointment, for me Newcastle’s season hangs in the balance, with a very real prospect of relegation staring me in the face. Liverpool are currently being thrashed by Stoke City. Let’s keep it esports for now.)
How does he feel about California becoming some sort of esports hub? All the tech start-ups are there, and the scene is quite incestuous; a constant stream of business dinners, competitor intelligence meetings, and media sessions where they try and show they are Zen-like gurus because they use beanbags instead of office chairs. Does esports belong there?
“Esports is in a peculiar situation” he says. “The vast majority of money in esports is in America, along with massive media interest and potential. And yet most of the talent, player-wise, is in Europe and Asia. That's the only big challenge for America. Otherwise, there's so much that I would be surprised if the US office didn't outgrow the Cologne office in terms of revenue within three years.”
I move on to tougher questions. Blicharz was vocal about coverage surrounding the ESL’s attempt to create a CS:GO “super-league,” something I was largely responsible for. While he tweeted that some of it was inaccurate, especially on the matter of exclusivity, it seems that later drafts clarified some points and didn’t portray ESL in too flattering a light. Even if ESL was not a proponent of exclusivity, something it insisted on, as the big name at the center of the controversy, the company came in for the bulk of the criticism from the community.
How did they deal with such harsh critique?
“The press will do what the press does," Blicharz says. "And I have no problem with that. It's important for the community to understand the difference between assumptions, speculation, and things that are actually going on. Unless we want to build an Orwellian society, this will be part and parcel of doing business in esports. The ESL is the leader in esports and a big target for news stories, speculation, and criticism. That just comes with the territory. If we can't stomach what the community has to say to us, then we're in the wrong place.”
That answer could be interpreted as stoical. They are the type of questions I hate asking. It feels like a torturer asking their victim “how did you feel when I pulled your fingernails out” over a cup of tea. Equally, Blicharz is somewhat painted into a corner. His background in journalism means that, while he can be critical of journalism quality, he can never really be annoyed at the intent, nor the hunger to uncover stones. He’s been there and done that. The unspoken downbeat turn makes me blurt out a question about whether or not he has any regrets about IEM to date. I surprise myself. He’s not leaving. It's a question with the tone of someone gathering information for a future obituary. He answers anyway.
“I don't have major regrets. Most of the major decisions we've taken were logical at the time and based on the same logic I think we'd have taken them again. My only regrets are around a bit of naivety surrounding how clean the qualification process was for IEM a few years back when StarCraft 2 was the main game. Everyone told us the system was the fairest, but we never seemed to get the big players. I wish we had gone for the system we have now from the start in that game.”
Keen to lighten the mood and with our time running out, I ask about any big changes that are coming, an opportunity to end on a high note and one that looks to the future. Sensing where I’m trying to lead him, Blicharz makes a joke.
“First off, I will have to start work at 8am every day, which is a massive blow to my lifestyle… Most likely the studios will need to be expanded and revamped at some point and I expect to be a big piece of that puzzle.”
I push for more information about any potential expansion. There are rumours to that effect. He tells me that he can’t answer. I knew that anyway. I ask about a few other things that all amount to the same thing, all of which are nimbly dodged—although he does promise clarification about changes to IEM “soon.”
I think about the potential for that new esports Mecca in California, gleaming in the sun, populated by venture capitalists, powerbrokers, agents, and salespeople. Right now there’s a flurry of interest in esports, and that means the collective purse-strings are momentarily loosened. Existing investors are finally ready to double down on what was always a wild, drunken bet to begin with. With Intel, Blicharz secured one of the biggest sponsors in esports, and got it to stick around. He's helped IEM grow organically into a major force. It didn't bang and then fizz out like a cheap firework, as so many ventures run by other people have. When I think about what North American esports has compared to what it needs, Blicharz's move makes perfect sense.