The Counter-Strike: Global Offensive community was taken aback on Saturday when HLTV and 1pv reported that Astralis would make their first roster change in more than two years.
The four-time major champions would be adding a sixth man to their roster, Patrick "es3tag" Hansen, as they move to a new model to improve the team after failing to retain their title as the best Counter-Strike in the world the past month. But as the astonishment of the team addition wore off, the details of the move bore even more fruit.
Astralis' signing of es3tag could lead to the collapse of a team transfer deal between his former team, Heroic, and FunPlus Phoenix, who made their Counter-Strike debut on March 15 sporting the former Heroic roster.
In a statement issued to HLTV, Heroic CEO Erik Askered said he was making "legal preparations" and accused Astralis of wrongdoing, saying the signing could jeopardize the Heroic-FunPlus deal. In a response on Twitter, Astralis Group CEO Nikolaj Nyholm said the team signed es3tag to a contract that would begin July 1, after the June 30 expiration of es3tag's existing contract with Heroic, and that Astralis did not seek to hurt either Heroic or FunPlus. Nyholm said Astralis notified both parties following the deal they struck with es3tag.
"We are here to operate the best team in the world," Nyholm said in a statement on Twitter. "Our objective has been to sign an excellent player upon his free agency to achieve our goals of performance excellence and player health."
In the end, FunPlus Phoenix forfeited their March 22 Flashpoint match to Orgless amid the chaos. In statements made on Twitter, the team's in-game leader Casper "cadiaN" Møller said he's "been mistreated my fair share in esports, but this one beats them all." CadiaN went on to explain, in another video, that his team was "gutted" and that it's unlikely FunPlus will even compete in Flashpoint at all.
So it seems the Heroic roster competed under the FunPlus Phoenix banner in their first Flashpoint matches before a deal to move that team was even completed. Heroic, which were initially given a spot in the ESL Pro League, withdrew from that league after being unable to field a roster. And in the middle are the players -- cadiaN, Martin "stavn" Lund, Johannes "b0RUP" Borup and Marco "Snappi" Pfeiffer -- who now likely lose out in competing in either.
This whole debacle stems from a recent team grab in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and speaks to the disorganization at the heart of some of these transfers and, frankly, at the core of Flashpoint.
FunPlus Phoenix's participation in Flashpoint was announced just days before they began competing. The Chinese organization's first step into Counter-Strike is based on faith built in a personal relationship: Cloud9 president Dan Fiden, who is a director of Flashpoint, is the former chief strategy officer of FunPlus and even led a seed funding round for Cloud9 as a part of FunPlus Ventures in September 2017. Fiden was integral to recruiting the company to Flashpoint, before they even had a roster to compete.
But the FunPlus leap of faith just scratches the surface of the roster buyouts and team grabs that have occurred in the CS:GO scene. This isn't new in esports; look at Overwatch League before its first season. Teams made similar moves in order to have an immediate chance at a title in the inaugural season. The financial opportunity presented in Flashpoint and ESL Pro League has led teams to make significant financial and business decisions, with several, like this one, leading to unintended consequences for organizations and unsuspecting players.
Update: pic.twitter.com/d4lxHheSA2— cadiaN (@caspercadiaN) March 22, 2020
Nearly every team in Flashpoint bought up rosters in the past six months. Gen.G made their Counter-Strike debut by acquiring Cloud9's core of Timothy "autimatic" Ta, Damian "daps" Steele and Kenneth "koosta" Suen in December. That month, MAD Lions acquired the Tricked Esport roster. Shortly thereafter, c0ntact Gaming picked up the CR4ZY lineup. Dignitas completed their return to the game in January, recruiting many of the veteran players who made their names under Ninjas in Pyjamas in the past.
The majority of these acquisitions wouldn't have been made without Flashpoint and the hope of boosting revenue in mind. Hundreds of thousands and in some cases millions of dollars have been spent scooping up rosters while trying to just make a buck.
But in the case of the FunPlus Phoenix and Heroic deal, it seems both parties flew too close to the sun.
ESPN Daily: Sign up here!
Flashpoint shouldn't have allowed FunPlus to compete in the league until the Heroic deal was 100% locked in. FunPlus should've ensured that the players they were paying to acquire from Heroic were there to stay -- and if they weren't, in the way es3tag isn't, made arrangements to hire replacements. Heroic, for their part, should've done that due diligence too and not sold the roster and withdrew from ESL Pro League if they didn't have those assurances.
No party looks good here, including Astralis. But of the three teams, the former world No. 1 is the least affected -- and the other two teams, despite their financial losses, aren't the worst-off parties, either. The players are the ones hurt most by this, especially if they have to sit out the next few months from tournaments as a result of the botched deal and ongoing cancellation of events due to the coronavirus.
There's no clear remedy for Heroic or FunPlus yet. I hope this turmoil ends in cadiaN & Co. being able to move forward and compete, albeit given Heroic's handling of this situation, it'd be best that they do so under FunPlus or another org's banner.
These players deserve better, and so does Counter-Strike.