An interesting media back-and forth took place on the pages of Weszło esport recently as both devils.one CEO Maciej “Sawik” Sawicki and team captain Wiktor “TaZ” Wojtas were interviewed separately by the publication about the situation that led to the organization parting ways with its CS:GO team. Perhaps the most important statement made was TaZ’s assertion that he was never actually a co-owner of devils.one despite an extensive marketing effort stating the contrary, which, if true, will definitely cast the entire enterprise in a different light.
Before we delve into the details of this growing controversy, can I just say hats off to the Polish publication? Getting both sides on record and asking meaningful questions about the situation – and getting some fairly important answers about them – is to be commended. Most of this writeup is based on their excellent work.
The split between the devils.one organization and their players came as a surprise for most observers. Not only was the project fairly new in the first place – launching in the middle of February, originally branded as Black Devils before realizing that might not go down well with the wider community –, their results were fairly impressive as well, with wins at DreamHack Open Montreal and the recent domestic LOTTO Cup Winners’ Cup LAN alongside decent performances in ESL Pro League.
The two interviews make it clear that the sides couldn’t agree on either the financial aspects or the long-term brand building goals, which would make an amicable split a logical business decision by itself – and indeed, the two parties continue to talk of each other in a mostly positive fashion, with the CEO going as far as to say that TaZ and co. have “big balls” to go at it alone for the time being. However, certain specific statements make the whole ordeal seem a lot more messy than we would have initially thought based on the limited English-language reporting available so far.
From the CEO’s perspective, the story seems fairly clear-cut: the team wasn’t delivering the sort of results that would warrant the fairly high wages given to them. (Let me editorialize for a brief moment and say that it’s somewhat scary to see how much stock both parties seem to put into the HLTV rankings when it comes to determining their stature in the scene. It reminds me of how certain game developers’ contracts involved bonuses based on the title’s eventual Metacritic score.) This wasn’t the only sticking and they were also unwilling to make better use of their facilities – dubbed the Esports Performance Center where their League of Legends team resides –, which is why he decided to renegotiate their contracts. TaZ was the point man for all negotiations and the parties couldn’t find common ground. Again, it all makes sense on the surface.
However, the statements and allegations made by TaZ paint a much more Machiavellian picture, perhaps from both sides’ perspective. For starters, the whole enterprise seemed a bit weird from the off with Team Kinguin’s cessation leading to a new team that was established in part by Kinguin’s CEO as a direct replacement and Kinguin itself staying involved as a sponsor. TaZ’s domestic fanbase and clout was greatly leveraged in setting up the brand, with the CS:GO player supposedly a co-owner of the company. As it turns out, that wasn’t exactly the case: TaZ apparently was never a shareholder of devils.one despite plans to do so as he opted for a traditional salary instead, apparently as a consequence of events related to the change of the existing contracts. Why he didn’t contradict reports about his co-ownership then is a question that remains unanswered for now. It’s a subject the CEO dodged in his interview, saying that the fate of TaZ’s shares is still a subject of talks, which doesn’t make a lot of sense after the team was let go. This is not a well-known thing: ESL’s Michal “Carmac” Blicharz, the company’s vice president of pro gaming made a statement as recently as yesterday about the whole devils.one situation where he explicitly referenced TaZ’s ownership stake multiple times.
In TaZ’s telling, the players were told that the organization intends to change their long-term contracts (likely trying to move to a more performance-based pay system) just a day after they clinched promotion to the ESL Pro League and were just getting ready for the minor. He attributes this uncertainty to close losses to teams like Windigo and Heroic. Based on that, he seems to be of the opinion that the team’s overall monthly salary of 150 000 PLN (circa $40000) was justified as it is.
What doesn’t seem to make sense is why the disagreements over the usage of the Esports Performance Center haven’t surfaced before – per the CEO’s answers, the players were expected to relocate to Warsaw by 2020, which they flatly refused during the contract renegotiation process. They’ve only been to the facility twice in 2019. In TaZ’s mind, a gaming house like this is not necessary to succeed in a fragmented competitive ecosystem like CS:GO’s (contrary to the LCS or LEC where the teams are expected to stay together for essentially the whole split).
All in all, the disagreements seem quite stark and not exactly reconcilable, and the org’s financial setup seems a little odd from an outside perspective. And yet, both sides seem to want to leave the reunion option on the table, with the CEO saying that the offer is still valid and TaZ also stating that bridges should not be burned in the interview.
In some ways, it feels like a game of chicken between parties that served each other quite well up until this point but seem to have reached a breaking point. TaZ was given a lot of autonomy and cash to build up a successful CS:GO side – a project which, depending on how you look at it, is promising or just fell short – in exchange of his formidable personal brand to help in establishing a new non-Kinguin brand in Poland. The little white lie about his ownership likely suited both parties just fine. From the devils.one side, the results weren’t there and the branding obligations weren’t fulfilled, hence the attempt to cut costs – and now to find a different team. From TaZ’s perspective, the team’s doing just fine and they are clearly trying to find an org that’s willing to pay the price they’ve already set. It seems pretty clear that neither are sure that they can make it work without the other – hence the niceties. It’s going to be quite interesting to see how this story develops now that this whole ownership kerfuffle has gone public – watch this space.