9 July 2015 - 16:14

Missed payments, a dummy corporation, and a 'big sorry': The bizarre saga of MeetYourMakers

Earlier this year, Marcin "Kori" Wolski, a player for European League of Legends side MeetYourMakers received a phone call from his former boss
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Earlier this year, Marcin "Kori" Wolski, a player for European League of Legends side MeetYourMakers received a phone call from his former boss. Wolski had left the team two weeks earlier, jumping on a plane to North America, where he planned to join another team. He hadn't been paid in weeks, and couldn't stand living in the team's gaming house any more. He wanted out. But Sebastian “Falli” Rotterdam, MeetYourMakers' manager, wasn't about to let him leave.

Replacing Wolski would cost the team "$50,000" per game, Rotterdam told him in the phone call. He screamed at Wolski. At times you can hear him banging on the walls. The team could lose sponsors, he said. Wolski was 17 when he joined the team, and that meant he needed a guardian—his mother—to co-sign the contract. If Wolski broke his contract by not returning, Rotterdam was going to make sure his mother "would lose the house" she lived in.

Wolski rejoined the team. No one knew he'd recorded the entire conversation.

When portions of the conversation were made public in a Daily Dot report on Feb. 8, MeetYourMakers became the center of a maelstrom of online controversy. Rotterdam apologized for his behavior, delivering a line that would go on to become a meme: "Big sorry," he wrote in a statement to the Daily Dot. He was later fired.  

Rotterdam's dismissal provided a neat endline for the MeetYourMakers fiasco, at least in the public eye. But there has long been more going on behind the scenes. The organization has weaved itself into a complex web of corporate ties, all for the apparent purpose of skirting LCS rules. Wolski, meanwhile, wasn't the only person who wasn't getting paid. Multiple players and staff accused the organization of being late on payments—sometimes as long as four months straight.

MeetYourMakers deflected the criticism, saying that the payments were owned by the team's former owner, a company called AK3. But as people within the organization had long known, and many others outside the team suspected, AK3 and MeetYourMakers were hardly separate entities.

The new MeetYourMakers

There have been a lot of fingers dipped into the Supa Hot Crew, AK3, and MeetYourMakers pie, and the entirety of it can be hard to track. But there is one question that is relatively simple to answer: Who owns MeetYourMakers?

On paper, that's Jürgen Rolf Ehrhard, a 47-year-old businessman who owns a construction company based in Bensheim, Germany, called Akustikdecken GmbH. The phone number and address listed on the front page of the MeetYourMakers website—now under maintenance—matches the head office for the construction company. I’ve tried calling that number multiple times and have never spoken to anyone at the other end, be it about esports or the construction industry.

MeetYourMakers was founded in 2000 by a Danish esports enthusiast named Peter Mark "Mercy" Fries. At one point, it was one of the biggest organizations in the industry. An investment deal in 2006 gave it the spending power to house some of the world's best esports talent. It was a huge name in Dota, with its 2006 Danish team winning DreamHack Winter and the Dota Masters. In Warcraft 3, MeetYourMakers at one point had both Jang "Moon" Jae-ho and Manuel "Grubby" Schenkhuizen. In 2008, the team acquired Polish Counter-Strike team PGS Gaming that would go on to become known as “The Golden Five.” They won the Electronic Sports World Cup that year.

The organization, however, struggled to find revenue streams and monetize its brand in line with both its history and ambitions. By the time Ehrhard became involved, the modern MeetYourMakers had fallen on hard times and had become known more for a history of non-payment to players. The owners were looking to offload. Under the advice of his long-time friend Khaled Naim, Ehrhard purchased the ailing MeetYourMakers brand in May 2012.

Ehrhard knew next to nothing about esports. But after installing Naim—a salesman with a self-declared love of esports—as CEO, he felt comfortable that the organization would be run by someone competent, someone who knew and understood the industry. As League of Legends grew into the biggest esport on the planet, Naim was quick to identify the importance of having a top team in the game and recruited an up-and-coming League team from Poland. With the organization struggling to bring in sponsors, Ehrhard funded the team out of his own pocket.

AK3 and MeetYourMakers were hardly separate entities.

The team went on to win IEM Singapore 2012 and finish third-fourth at IEM Cologne the same year. They would go on to qualify for the League of Legends Championship Series in May the following year, narrowly defeating fellow European side DragonBorns in the promotion and relegation playoffs. Entrance into the LCS eased a lot of the financial pressure on the organization. Riot Games, the League of Legends developer, salaried the players and covered competition expenses. It was a watershed moment in the history of the new MeetYourMakers.

But as many organizations before it would find out, if you wanted to enjoy financial security for the foreseeable future, you needed to keep that spot. And MeetYourMakers found that life in the LCS was a lot harder than anticipated. The team crashed out with the worst record in the league in its debut season, racking up 20 losses and only eight wins.

A tangled web of ownership

As MeetYourMakers' fortunes became squandered, another team of up-and-comers were making a name for themselves. A team calling itself Supa Hot Crew had advanced all the way to the promotion playoffs on Dec. 13, 2013—one step away from the LCS—before losing to SK Gaming. They got a break, however, when LCS team Lemondogs was disqualified for not submitting "satisfactory" paperwork and Riot held a special playoff to replace them. Supa Hot Crew's opponents in the playoffs were none other than MeetYourMakers. The Crew won 2-0.

MeetYourMakers was out. The guaranteed money was gone. One possible course was to drop its current players and sponsor the the team that had just defeated them—Supa Hot Crew had no sponsorship deals. But due to LCS ownership rules, it simply wasn’t possible for MeetYourMakers to buy the Supa Hot Crew team straight away. The team had just been relegated and had to wait at least one split. The rule, as outlined in the LCS ruleset, reads:

“No Team Member on a team who played in either LCS region and/or any aspect of the Challenger Series (including play-in) may purchase or otherwise attempt to own/control an LCS team without a complete LCS Split having taken place since their last point of participation in the LCS or Challenger Series.”

The spirit of the rule is designed to stop organizations from simply avoiding relegation by directly buying their way back into the league. For appearance's sake, MeetYourMakers had to spend a season out of the league

Enter AK3.  Founded in August 2012, the company was owned by former MeetYourMakers Business Manager Sascha Ackermann. Outside of its paperwork, it wasn't clear what made AK3 a company, or what business it engaged in. But at some point—the exact date isn't clear—AK3 signed Supa Hot Crew. Despite an illusion of being independent, Ackermann still received input from the MeetYourMakers management. One source within the team claimed that AK3 was relaunched with start-up money provided by Naim.

“[Ehrhard] is the Investor of MeetYourMakers and [Naim] told him the only chance to do anything is with SupaHotCrew,” this person explained. “[Ehrhard] then supported AK3 with loan money to [Ackermann] because he had no money left.”

Another whistleblower from inside MeetYourMakers asserted that AK3 existed solely to help bypass Riot’s ownership rules.

“The idea to bring in AK3 was [Ehrhard's] and [Naim's],” this person said. “AK3 was a company Sascha Ackermann had registered some time ago and done nothing with. Even though [Ackermann] had the license for LCS, it was Ehrhard that funded it and Naim that made the decisions for that team. After that one split, everyone knew that the team can move to MeetYourMakers officially without any problems.”

In January, 2014, the organization was "about to lose” its main sponsor CM Storm in January 2014, as they were no longer an LCS team, according to multiple sources within MeetYourMakers. After internal conversations, the company settled on the idea of sponsoring Supa Hot Crew, which had qualified ahead of them. This deal was announced on Jan. 31 2014. On Feb. 8, MeetYourMakers announced it was releasing its League of Legends team, who would go on to complete the EU Challenger Series Spring #1 and finish in third place behind Ninjas In Pyjamas and Cloud9 Eclipse.

Ehrhard has finally intervened and taken control of the organization—but too late. 

That same month, Ackermann negotiated a title-sponsorship deal with the European esports division of computer and electronics manufacturer Acer. The company had no knowledge that the Supa Hot Crew was being influenced and had been funded by the MeetYourMakers management.

One person associated with MeetYourMakers alleged that management not only influenced the organization’s decision-making process through direct instruction to Ackermann in the time that Supa Hot Crew were sponsored by Team Acer, but that they'd also made a financial contribution.

In Sept. 2014, Ackermann dropped a bombshell on Team Acer. After weeks of rumors the team would be leaving their sponsorship and the Supa Hot Crew name behind, the speculation reached fever pitch after an interview on MeetYourMakers’ official website was posted under Ackermann’s name. This confirmed he’d been given full admin access to the site.

Team Acer's founder and CEO, Uwe Semtner, when learning of the proposed move told the Daily Dot:

“I got a call from Sascha Ackermann last Friday, in which he mentioned that he was thinking about leaving the SHC group because of personal reasons and that he might move with the players to Meet Your Makers. I asked him why not stay with Team Acer and he just said that he has a long history with Meet Your Makers and that they are his friends and would always be his first choice.

I then asked the Meet Your Makers management if they had already spoken with the players and they said 'no,' that they would do it over the weekend. He told me not to say anything because nothing was fixed and even Riot does not know about it. Then we get the call from Riot staff asking when the deal will be public. It was already done.”

The relationship between the three organizations became even more convoluted with the entry of another company. The HMF Group, based in Mannheim, Germany, offers a variety of what it calls “business services,” such as marketing strategies, packaging design, digital branding, and promotional movies. The company announced MeetYourMakers as a client on Sept. 17, 2013, marking its first foray into esports. Then, in January 2014, Ackermann himself joined the company full time as a project manager. According to sources within MeetYourMakers, Erhard, who knew the HMF Group's owner, got Ackermann the position as a reward.

It didn’t stop there, either. MeetYourMakers soon brought in a number of employees who had allegedly been part of AK3, including the company's sales and marketing manager, Cristian Manea, and journalist Eli Penders. There was also some significant overlap in staff, with some members of the management claiming to be part of both AK3 and Meet Your Makers simultaneously. For example, Martin Krause claims on his LinkedIn profile to have worked as business manager for both organizations between June 2014 and October 2014.

On Dec. 8, MeetYourMakers officially unveiled the Supa Hot Crew roster as their new team heading into the 2015 Spring Split. All the scheming that had taken place behind the scenes would be for nothing. Midway through the season, the Wolski controversy went public and the team’s internal problems were laid bare for everyone to see. Riot issued a measly $5,000 fine for violating its rules on “moral turpitude,” but that would be the least of the team's worries. MeetYourMakers plummeted down the league tables, finishing rock bottom in the regular season after winning only five games. They were automatically relegated.

While I was investigating the Wolski situation, I spoke with MeetYourMakers CEO Naim about the relationship between Supa Hot Crew, AK3, and Meet Your Makers. He didn’t explain the scheme as described by other sources within the team, but he did confirm involvement.

“The fact is, SHC was AK3 and we [MeetYourMakers] are friends,” he explained. “It’s like NiP and Lemondogs," he said, referring to TK. "We are friends but have nothing to do together.”

Regarding their relationship with Ackermann he added: “[Ackermann] is a friend in real life and yes we helped him until he stopped working with Acer.”

A separate organization?

In Riot's ruling on the Wolski situation, the company put the blame on both the player and the organization, and emphasized that "the only missing payments stemmed from the Supa Hot Crew (SHC) organisation, of which Wolski was a player in the 2014 season."

"As we understand it," the rulling continued, "the failure to receive payments from SHC arose due to Wolski's own failure to provide requested tax documentation, and this problem can be resolved once Wolski produces these documents.

“As a separate organization, Meet Your Makers has provided us with documentation verifying that they have not withheld any payment from its players. As such, it appeared that by leaving the team ahead of the beginning of the spring split Wolski was breaking an active contract and commitment to Meet Your Makers.”

But that statement didn't take into account the fact that the two organizations were apparently only separate on account of the paperwork. The name was different, but it was still the same people who owed the players money and still the same management that were giving the players the run around with excuses. There were multiple players from the Supa Hot Crew era who were still owed salaries, sometimes as much as four-months worth.

This is verified by an email Ackermann sent in September in which he informed Riot Games the organization wouldn't be able to pay out salaries that month. In total, the organization owed more than  €8,000 to the players. Ackermann blamed it on the players, saying they'd failed to return their correct paperwork. In emails between Ackermann and Riot employees, however, he said the biggest problem was that the the players had fallen afoul of some German tax laws following an audit.

This was only partially true. The organization allegedly failed the audit due to Ackermann’s own error, according to team sources. Under German law, if a company employs foreign independent contractors, then it needs to pay a fixed tax rate of 15 percent. It's up to the employer to withhold that money at the point of payment. This hadn’t been done, causing the tax authorities to temporarily freeze all business transactions pending a secondary investigation.

Despite this error, the communications with Riot didn’t seem to prompt any intervention from Riot Games, nor even prompt any chastisement.

“Hi Sascha,” replied Scott Parkin after being notified of the ongoing payment issue in February 2015. “We're aware of the details and fully recognise the current situation regarding yourself and Supa Hot Crew. We understand the delay and we just ask you keep us updated of any changes to the situation.”

Wolski wasn't the only person who wasn't getting paid. 

In the exchange, Ackermann also asked Riot to provide him with a platform to deflect public accusations of non-payment and to help challenge the esports journalists that had started to cover the story.

“I don’t want to fight the news or shoot against any press publication,” he wrote in a lengthy email. “But this news site is definitely making benefit out of our and hard (sic) problems we have as a company with the German tax rules."

“According to the last allegations against myself I wanted to ask if it is wise also to explain the facts I have been telling you” he wrote again, just five days later. “People are accusing me to not paying players deliberately. But as you know I have to handle everything, all actions related on the German tax government.”

The report he was referring to was the work from TheScore journalist Nilu Kulasingham. It never saw the light of day, but the journalist did share its contents with the Daily Dot after learning we were conducting our own investigation into the outstanding payments owed to the Supa Hot Crew players. In the unpublished report, Ackermann admits the outstanding amount of money, but claimed that the players agreed to it—something the players have denied.

“Yes, it is correct that we haven’t been paying four players yet,” Ackermann was quoted as saying. “I have to say they agreed on it. The players were always informed on what is actually going on behind their backs.”

Ackermann also reiterated that it was the German taxation system that was to blame, even claiming that the delayed payments were to prevent the players from any legal reprisals.

“In Germany, it is really tough about taxes and its obligations. We did the delay to not cause further problems for both parties and ensure a safety of our players and the company. We were at several lawyer (sic) and consultants and finally we are in the finishing moments to solve everything and the players are getting payed (sic) the next days.”  

Michael Schorr, the manager for Supa Hot Crew both prior to and after the AK3 purchase, would later state there was more going on in regards to the money than Ackermann was letting on—to both the players and Riot. He claimed that large sums of the salary had been used to pay for a deposit on the team house. “We were a young organisation and had to stock up the safety deposit for the house” he said. “€5,000 went towards that.”

This housing deposit later became a key part in the dispute as Ackermann continued to refuse to pay the players. After claiming the tax audit was the reason for delayed payments and then issuing partial payments in January 2015, he asserted that the leftover money was going towards damages from the team house.

In April this year, he once again outlined to Riot why he was withholding payment, claiming that repairs to the house cost €7,800 Euros, which was reduced to €6,900 after negotiations.

“This means 1.380 euro deduction for everyone inclusive [of] me,” he wrote. “We cannot do it with Kasing because he was only living in the house for month and Mimer, Rallez and Impaler were living there for the whole period, since we got the house.”

In addition, he announced that the players would only be getting 50 percent of their salary for four months for failing to perform any promotional work.

“[For] the 50 % cut off I asked the players to please send me any proves (sic) that they have been doing at least an interview, streaming, advertisement, facebook post etc. but there was nothing at all. According to the contract we were able to pay them 0 euro for four months, but this is totally not respectful and against our philosophy against any player. So we said you only get the half.”

Riot support didn’t seem to blink an eye about the new development regarding the house or about the players having their money cut in half for failing to do promotional work over a period of time they were already not being paid.

“Thanks for updating me. I will look into what can be done,” was the short reply from Scott Parkin.

The Daily Dot was able to acquire photographs and video footage of the property. While these photographs do show the house was untidy and not well maintained, there's also nothing to indicate what would cost  €7,000 in repairs, though we've only got the photos to go on. So far Ackermann hasn’t provided a detailed invoice with a breakdown of costs to us or, to our knowledge, Riot Games.

There were also concerns about the initial contracts the players signed. In an article on the Daily Dot, one German legal analyst broke down the contracts, and explained that they were vulnerable to challenge in a German court of law. As the LCS team’s roster started to break apart in the aftermath of the scandal, several prospective players received copies of the contract and many refused to sign them based on the terms.

One recipient of a MeetYourMakers contract, who wishes to remain anonymous to avoid potential reprisals, reached out to Riot’s esports coordinator J.T. “Tiza” Vandenbree to voice his concerns. He was mostly worried about some of the clauses that seemed to enable the organization to renege on parts of the agreement while the player was still contractually bound to the organisation.

"Being able to strike individual invalid sections without invalidating the whole contract is written into basically every contract or agreement you have ever signed,” Vandenbree replied.

“I’d recommend speaking to a lawyer directly, these are intricacies that Riot isn’t suited to directly assist players with. Plus giving legal advice is very dangerous, as in many places it makes the person or providing the advice legally responsible for the party following it. Sorry I can’t be more helpful but this is something the players need to investigate on their own.”

Several players we spoke with expressed regret at ever having signed the contracts. They had doubted the legitimacy of the AK3 company from the beginning, but had little option but to sign if they wanted to participate in the LCS.

"When the contracts were given to us we were told that we had to sign them fast because the season was coming up soon," one player said. "We weren’t sure about doing that but when we spoke with Riot they said we had to sign if we wanted to play in the league.”

The €400,000 mistake

MeetYourMakers wanted to move away from its bad reputation. But this incarnation of the team may have gone on to be worse offenders than its predecessors. Multiple staff members complained about missing payments, late payments, or simply not being paid at all. Some prominent staff members were working for free.

Supa Hot Crew and MeetYourMakers coach Nick “LS” De Cesare also had problems with payments across both organizations, primarily the latter.

Wolski rejoined the team. No one knew he'd recorded the entire conversation.

According to De Cesare, Supa Hot Crew paid him everything he was owed "with the exception of a side-agreement which I have no way to do anything about." That payment was three weeks late, which wasn't "too big a deal" to De Cesare. But, he said, MeetYourMakers never paid him at all for the entirety of his work in December 2014. "Nor was I ever paid during off-season despite them bringing me back on in September," De Cesare said. "I ultimately never heard from [Naim] or anyone and [Rotterdam] deliberately ignored contact with me for some time. Throughout all of this I believed [Ackermann] and the others to not be involved so I never really spoke or reached out to them at all.”

Rotterdam, the man who was recorded threatening to have Wolski’s mother’s house repossessed, attributed his reaction to stress. He'd worked for the organization for free for two years, he said. MeetYourMakers owed him money during the period when player salaries were going missing—“a few thousand euros” according to sources within the organization. That amount has subsequently been settled.

Ehrhard has finally intervened and taken control of the organization—but too late. The German businessman had no idea what was going on and how the management had withheld information and manipulated the truth so that he would continue to fund the organization free from any doubts.

“[Naim] was doing all he could to remain in charge and maintain his funding,” one source from within MeetYourMakers. According to this person, the organization soon found out that Naim had been "reading [Ehrhard's] private emails for two years to make sure no-one was emailing him anything about anything shady that was going on behind the scenes.

"They explained the Daily Dot report about Wolski as some sort of personal thing, that [the Daily Dot] wanted to destroy him." Ackermann, meanwhile, is still allegedly withholding payments and blaming the problem on the house issue. "I’m sure [Ehrhard] wants to settle everything and move forward.”

After learning of the facts, reading the reports he’d been insulated from, and finding out that his emails had been compromised by the personal friend he gave a job, Ehrhard reluctantly fired Naim. He also removed all the existing management, including Ackermann, leaving only director of esports Harun "Revyls" Yavuz, who joined the organization two months ago. Ehrhard has also started settling any outstanding debts as he has been made aware of them.

Speaking with Yavuz, who knows he has quite a job ahead to restore the organization’s reputation, he says that Ehrhard has learned the hard way that esports can be a rough business, especially if friends take advantage of your naïvety.

“Everything that has gone on with MeetYourMakers is a long and really complicated story,” he said. “In the end [Ehrhard] is the only guy who almost invested €400,000 in esports to have nothing besides invoices to show for it.“

Image via SacredxNinja/Twitter

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