This interview was conducted ahead of the IEM Dallas grand final.
Cloud9 temporarily ceased operations in CS:GO in March 2021, marking the first time the North American giant would not house a team in the game for an extended period since they first entered the space in 2014. Their departure marked the end of the ‘Colossus’ project, an ambitious roster that Henry “HenryG” Greer had made an effort to put together that fell apart due to a combination of a failure due to COVID, an inability to gather the team together in person, and lacklustre results in their short time together.
At the time, the end of COVID restrictions weren’t in sight, and with two North American players tied down and playing from apartments, the decision had been to pull the plug so the players could return home, and the organization could bide their time and find a better moment to make their return. It wasn’t until a year later that it would finally come about though, with the never-ending slew of online events giving way to the return of LAN competition and Counter-Strike continuing to remain a stalwart presence as a top esport.
Jack says watching CS events and knowing he didn’t have a team in the game was “painful”
After Russia began an unprovoked war with Ukraine and began to invade, sanctions were placed by the United States and the European Union to prevent involvement with Russia and its oligarchs, with esports following suite as Gambit and Virtus.pro were no longer allowed to be represented in most notable tournaments under their own names as a result of having ties to oligarchs.
Soon, rumors began to emerge of the Gambit roster being offered up for sale, and in April it was announced that Cloud9 had finalized a deal to acquire the lineup along with coach Konstantin “groove” Pikiner, their assistant coach, and manager. The opportunity was offered by Norway-based ULTI Agency, who acted as a middleman of sorts to allow the deal to come to completion.
In an interview with HLTV that was conducted at IEM Dallas ahead of the grand final, Cloud9 CEO Jack Etienne touched on how that opportunity was offered to him, and spoke to the importance of groove being a part of the deal, calling it a “game-changer.” He also celebrated the organization’s return to CS:GO and spoke about the dissolution of both the former ‘Colossus’ roster and of Flashpoint, which he referred to as “another victim of the pandemic.”
You’re back supporting Counter-Strike, a long awaited return from Cloud9 for many fans. How does it feel to be back in the space?
I never wanted to leave. I was always looking for an opportunity, and with the way things were going in North America, I really didn’t know when that opportunity would happen. I was actually starting to think that hey, maybe what I’ll do is just dive into the development scene and try that way, but the system in North America is not in the greatest shape right now and so I didn’t really have a timeline on when that would happen.
This opportunity was presented to me by ULTI Agency, and I was pretty interested, but I really wasn’t quite ready to commit to it so I basically told them that I would keep thinking about it, but I’m not sure. Obviously the players are incredible so it looked like a pretty good opportunity, and then I realized, I was like, ‘wait, is groove still the coach of that team?’
I actually just called Konstantin, I’m like ‘hey, this whole thing that ULTI is passing around, are you joining it?’ and he’s like, ‘yeah.’ I’m like, wait a second, that’s a game-changer. I’m like, ‘okay, if you were to join, would you want to be with Cloud9 long-term?’ He says, ‘I’ve been with three teams in 23 years, I would want to make Cloud9 my last team.’ I’m like, I’m in, I going to figure this out, we’re going to make this happen. Cause with that guy, he built that roster and he would keep that roster functioning for the long-term, and I really want to invest in the long-term every time I approach a team so for me it was a no-brainer.
I never really thought that I would ever have the opportunity to work with someone like groove, so frankly it was kind of shocking
Jack Etienne, Cloud9 CEO
There was a rumor you were interested in groove before that, that you were talking to him maybe a year ago.
No, I’ve seen him at events for about a decade now through League of Legends and Counter-Strike events, and I’ve always had massive respect for him, we would always chat at events. For me, he is my counter-part in Europe, he was super passionate about development and so am I. I never really thought that I would ever have the opportunity to work with someone like him, so frankly it was kind of shocking, I was like wow, these type of opportunities don’t happen.
It’s a really rare thing, similar to me being able to pick up Perkz last year. When you see these opportunities you better seize them before somebody else does, and if you don’t, you’re probably going to regret it. So I jumped on the opportunity for him at that point, but never before had I really had an opportunity to work with him.
Let’s talk about jumping on that opportunity — picking up a Russian roster in the current climate has its own public perception currently, so for you, was there any hesitation on the organizational side in picking up a Russian roster in terms of how it’d be received?
When I see players that are super passionate about what they’re doing, I don’t really see the government that might be stamped on their passport, that’s not what I really think about, and I want to support players that are outstanding and passionate in their field. Of course when I brought it up to my executive team, they were like, ‘hey, their might be some really strong push back and people being upset about it.’
We definitely had to think about it, and I sat and I thought, imagine we do this post, are there going to be people who are upset? Absolutely. There’s going to be a couple of people who get upset, and I understand why. But I also thought it out like, there will be an absolute tidal wave of support for these players, people want to support these players in their endeavor to be the best players on the planet. They shouldn’t be held to the politics of the country they come from at all. That’s how I felt they would be received — every once in a while I’m right, thankfully this was one of them.
As we were talking about, the crowd was cheering for them, you had mentioned to me yesterday that the players had told you they’d never really been cheered for like that by a crowd.
After the first map with FaZe, all the guys were doing strategies, getting ready for map two — they just lost the first map — and I think it was Ax1Le, I didn’t understand everything he said, but he’s like, ‘did you hear that? “let’s go Cloud9!” [claps]’, they got super excited about the cheering that was going on, and I’m quite certain that helped carry them through the rest of that series with FaZe. That audience was pretty split 50/50, but that’s a split with a Major-winning team with a North American player on it, a North American brand.
When you think about that, that’s pretty amazing that Cloud9 fans have adopted these players right away. We are the North American representatives and our fans love us, it’s really cool the way they’ve adopted these players. When I talked to the players about it at dinner last night, they were so happy to have that feeling, like there’s a sixth man in the audience that’s picking them up when they fall down and cheers for them, it’s pretty cool.
Cloud9 had the support of the Dallas crowd behind them
On the North American support side of things, there’s been talk of this roster relocating, what’s going on with that situation? Are you trying to move them somewhere in Europe?
It’s all going really well. They’ll be playing on European servers, and everything has gone perfectly to plan as far as getting them visas, getting them residency progress, getting them housing, so I couldn’t be happier with the way that things have been turning out.
All of the most talented players and teams are playing out of Europe. So if you want to push yourselves to be the best, you have to play against the best, so that is the place to be and we are going to be there until that changes
Jack Etienne, Cloud9 CEO
To tie that in with the old Cloud9 lineup, one of the issues cited back then was the inability to relocate them to LA, where they were supposed to be based out of for Flashpoint as well. From what you’re saying, this roster is going to be based in Europe and being in LA still won’t be the case then?
The reality is that right now, all of the most talented players and teams are playing out of Europe. So if you want to push yourselves to be the best, you have to play against the best, so that is the place to be and we are going to be there until that changes. That’s just where we are right now and that’s the state of the world, but I think they would be fully open to moving should the conditions of the competitive environment change, but that’s just the reality at this point.
Talking a little more about the dissolution of the former lineup, the way it spiraled downward over the course of the six months or so they were together, obviously not what you would have hoped to see when that project was put together. I know HenryG had a lot of control over that roster, but what was it like from your side, watching it fall apart over time?
I think HenryG did a great job with it. The reality is, the pandemic had massive implications for our team because our two North American players, Xeppaa and floppy, were living in an apartment in a foreign country that didn’t speak their language, in lockdown, they couldn’t leave their apartments, they were far away from their families who were scared because lockdowns were happening all over the world and at a time where they really want to be together.
When the pandemic was starting, we all thought like you know, how long will this last, a month, two months, three months, and it just kept going and kept going on. At some point I was like, this isn’t healthy for my players. I think we all agreed that we need to stop this project for now, and we’ll come back when this pandemic is over, maybe in like six months. Turns out it was you know, two years [laughing], so it took longer than we all thought.
There’s no one to blame for that situation, trying to place it in that type of conditions is crazy. I think everyone worked their ass off and it just wasn’t meant to be. Sometimes you try really hard and it fails, I get that as we’re looking at it, it’s really sad, but hey, that opened me up to having this really amazing opportunity right now.
When that roster was announced, HenryG tried that whole thing with the public salary announcements, and you even talked about it an interview with Striker back then. For some of the players that had a lot of blowback, at least in public perception, so looking back on that now is there any regret in trying to make that public?
No, I think it was fun. It was an interesting experiment, and in order to standout you have to take big risks, and HenryG was taking really huge risks that I thought were really worth pursuing and fun, so I’m glad we did it. I don’t regret anything that we did. Based on the circumstances and the information we had, it was a fine decision, but life sometimes chooses otherwise on where things go so it’s okay.
Jack Etienne: “We’ve been a part of CS essentially since the beginning of Cloud9 and we care a lot about it; we’re going to put our money where our mouth is” (Part 2)
At the time you’d said that one of the reasons you were trying to make salaries public was that people had this perception of Cloud9, that they weren’t paying their players well.
Oh yeah. That was basically armchair reddit analysts who you know, have totally no understanding of the economics of what we’re doing. One of the nice things about what we were doing is that it was fully transparent and some people really appreciated it, but it does put this target on the players where if they don’t perform, then they’re memed about it, so that’s not what we want.
That was an unforeseen problem with doing something like that, so you have to be really careful about it, find what’s the right way, and I’m not quite sure. Once, if we get to a point where all salaries are public, then it will be a safer environment for that information to be out there, but potentially it’s not a good idea when it’s just piecemeal and we really don’t have an idea of what the whole scene is doing.
And I guess that is also why this roster’s salaries or negotiations weren’t made public in the same fashion then.
Yeah, I mean if you don’t learn from your errors in the past, you’re doomed to repeat them [laughs]. So we’re not going to do that again.
Do I regret spending the money? Hell yeah. I wish I had that money, this is talking millions of dollars for Flashpoint and for these players. I don’t like to actually add up how much it cost us
Jack Etienne, Cloud9 CEO
Another part of that whole salary reveal that you were talking about at the time was trying to drive people to Flashpoint as well, trying to show Cloud9 was paying well, this is the project we’re running-
I feel like Flashpoint also is another victim of the pandemic. It could have been something really cool, but it just, like many other businesses, couldn’t survive. That whole league was planned around really well run LAN events, which didn’t happen for two years.
Poor timing, but that is again something that would be foolish for anyone to lay blame on someone for thinking they could pull it off prior to the pandemic actually showing up. Even then, if you look back and think oh, we should have just cancelled all of the events, at the time these events were months down the road and we didn’t know the pandemic would just keep going so I’m basically giving everyone a pass on that one.
Do I regret spending the money? Hell yeah. I wish I had that money, I mean this is talking millions of dollars for Flashpoint and for these players. I don’t like to actually add up how much it cost us, but that’s okay, this is the cost of doing business and sometimes things are catastrophically failing.
The Flashpoint project never really got off the ground thanks to the coronavirus pandemic
From a public standpoint, there was never any confirmation that the Flashpoint project officially came to an end or fizzled out, whether it was dead or not. Is that something that is gone or coming back? Because there are a bunch of organizations who obviously invested in the project.
I don’t know for sure where it’s headed, but things are definitely you know, paused while we sort them out. I think everyone wants to make sure that if we make decisions, it’s not going to fizzle in front of us, so I don’t expect a Flashpoint event to happen any time soon.
Being able to purchase a roster and buy directly into a top three spot, at least when you bought them, that’s not an opportunity that comes around often. What does that mean for Cloud9, to be able to just jump right back into the top level?
It’s super exciting. A lot of the time when teams maybe buy an entire roster, you’re along for the ride, and you’re not able to actually take part in helping that team. You’re paying salaries, but you’re literally just along for the ride, but because of the really unique situation this roster is in, I’ve been able to directly impact their lives to make things better for them, like help them relocate, get visas, give them all the support they really need at that point in time.
Along with working with groove and just incredible players, it’s deeply satisfying for me to be able to do this. I’ve always loved Counter-Strike from the very first event that I watched, so not being in it was painful, like watching these events and knowing that I didn’t have a team that could actually compete. Having a top contending team is just icing on the cake really, and it makes it extra special.
I would be pretty interested in taking part in the resurgence of the development system in North America
Jack Etienne, Cloud9 CEO
You talked earlier about the state of North America not being great, and obviously Cloud9 has always been associated as a North American brand. To not have a team in that region anymore, what is that like, not having a direct tie to it?
We tried really hard to make it work in North America for a very long time, ever since the collapse of our 2018 Major-winning roster. Just go take a look at our Liquipedia page, it’s just pages of players that came in and came out and we couldn’t make it work. But that doesn’t mean I don’t believe that there are really good players in North America, I know they’re out there, and I think that I would be pretty interested in taking part in the resurgence of the development system in North America, it’s something I’ve been thinking about and I don’t see a problem with it. If North American leagues for development really start coming back together, I’d like to support that.
Considering the state of North America right now, what do you think is needed to rebuild the region?
There’s a few things that are causing problems, like there is a competition for the players with VALORANT and Apex doing pretty well in North America. There’s just a lot of opportunities for skilled FPS players to get more steady jobs in other games, so I think that has pulled at the seams of the North American Counter-Strike development scene. What needs to happen is that teams and tournament organizers together need to actually put together a development structure, where players can feel like, ‘hey, I can put the time into this game, and actually have a future.’
I would love to have discussions with tournament organizers and other teams and see if there’s something we can do here. The announcement of EG picking up all those players in North America is really interesting, and I applaud them for investing in it. It’s something I haven’t talked with them about, but I’d definitely like to pick up the phone with Nicole over there at EG and say, ‘hey, what are you focused on doing, what do you see?’ and maybe we can work together.
There’s been a lot of conversation already regarding that whole 15-man roster, people questioning it. You seem a little sold on it, so I’m curious what your perspective is.
I wouldn’t say I’m sold on it, but I like that they’re doing something, because no one is really doing anything. I think it would just be ridiculous for me to speak poorly about someone actually doing something in the scene and supporting these players, so I applaud it, I think it’s awesome, and I would love to talk with them, see what they’re thinking, and maybe there is a way for me to contribute as well and help with that development.
I want to make sure that my players have every opportunity to compete in every event that matters, and so I need to do some homework and have some discussions with [the Louvre Agreement] guys
Jack Etienne, Cloud9 CEO
Talking a little about the development of leagues, because of being a founding Flashpoint member, Cloud9 are not a part of the Louvre Agreement or a partner team in Pro League as those were two competing entities at the time. Coming back to CS now and not being a part of that deal, does that have an effect on you right now?
It doesn’t really have an effect on me right now, mainly because I need to go talk to those guys and see what they’re building. I’m really unaware of what their plans are, so I’m certain that I’m going to be having meetings with some of them. I need to find out and be brought up to speed on what’s going on, and I want to make sure that my players have every opportunity to compete in every event that matters, and so I need to do some homework and have some discussions with those guys.
This trip out here probably could have been a really good opportunity to spend time talking with them, but more important to me was spending time with my players, spending time with my coach and Alex, Sweetypotz, my manager. That has been my goal for this trip, so I’m not really doing any business-type stuff, I’m just spending time with my team, getting to know them, but I assure you that over the next few weeks I’m going to be talking with them like, ‘hey, what’re you working on, tell me about it, what’s the plan?’ and maybe there’s a spot for Cloud9 to work with them.
Actually being with the team in-person now, being able to connect with them, what has that experience been like?
It’s been so wonderful, they’re really great guys. They actually speak English really well. I didn’t know exactly how it would go, but I’ve actually had great conversations with them, had multiple meals together, it’s really been nice to have worked with these guys.
For how incredibly good they are at the game, they’re so humble, friendly, and nice, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told by other pros and other top teams, ‘you have a really good team, your guys are great, they’re really good people.’ They don’t have huge heads, they just keep their heads down and keep working hard, I really admire these guys. I definitely hit the lottery on how amazing these players are.