Here’s the situation that’s going to make Team Dignitas rich. Riot Games stipulate that a team owner is allowed a single squad in the LCS, the League of Legends Championship Series, at any one time.
Dignitas already have a North American team in this year’s LCS. And another, assembled from some of the best Danish players in LoL’s uppermost Challenger tier, have overperformed – earning their own place in the game’s most prestigious competition.
That’s left Dignitas owner Michael ‘Odee’ O’Dell in breach of the rules, with two LCS teams. That means he has to sell one of his slots, and one of his teams. By the time we talk on Skype, he’s already had offers of over half a million dollars.
“Which is good,” he laughs.”It’s a nice problem to have.”
Odee doesn’t know how high the winning bid is likely to be. Or, indeed, which team is likely to go – though either way, they’ll probably be replaced by a new Dignitas Challenger team.
“It all depends on what bids come in,” he says, carefully. “We’ve spoken to some people from the Middle East. But I can’t say who or what at this point.”
The eventual buyer will need to work through Riot’s system of checks and balances to make sure their new hires still qualify for the LCS. And, perhaps a harder challenge, they’ll need to gain Odee’s trust. Some of the interested parties have been around e-sports “for a long time”, while others are brand new.
“I’ve got to understand who I’m selling it to,” reasons Odee. “Who the new people are – what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.”
His unease is born of years spent watching e-sports suffer as a result of iffy investments. In 2009, Odee was made a Community Council member for UKeSA, which was to be the UK’s governing body for e-sports – until the organisation collapsed into bankruptcy the same year.
“There’s lots of people who’ve come in and mucked it up completely, especially in the UK,” he explains. “I’m always wary of new people coming in splashing money around. I’m pretty cautious when it comes to people like that.”
Odee’s keen to make sure his players are happy with who they’re going to work for, too. Both teams’ success has shifted the ground beneath their feet, and their manager knows they’re nervous.
“Obviously they all want to know which one’s going to be sold, but I can’t say at the minute – I don’t know,” he says. “But they’ll all be fine. Because I’ll make sure that they’ll all be fine.”
Is there a measure of sadness in letting them go?
“Whichever one we decide to sell, it will be [sad],” Odee acknowledges. “We’ve got to know them quite well over the last year. But they’ve achieved their dreams – the NA team are already in the league, [and] it’s nice to see the Danish team actually achieve what they wanted to do.”
Lately, Odee has been thinking through the complicated chain reactions each deal could cause: the effects on Dignitas’ exposure, their sponsors, and the LoL ecosystem. But ultimately, of course, his motivation is the same one that first got him into e-sports. He wants to win.
“We’ll look at which team has the best chance of winning in the future,” he says. “It’s down to putting the right team together that can compete.”
As for the money, Odee hopes it’ll be a “good windfall”: “I’ve got a wife and kids, so some will be coming this way.”
A large chunk will be reinvested in Dignitas – a name which nowadays graces the chest of some 47 players.
“Just having some in the bank for a rainy day, that’ll be nice. Not had that before.”
Odee has his eyes, too, on Dota. Three of the pros who won the 2015 International, Evil Geniuses, are Dignitas alumni (“Kind of annoying,” he laughs). But the team have never competed in Valve’s massive MOBA themselves – because it’s expensive.
Salaries are higher in Dota than elsewhere. Factor in travel, boot camps and the regular roster swaps encouraged by the game’s tournament schedule, and according to Odee you’re talking hundreds of thousands of dollars: “Dota is a nightmare – it really is.”
Dignitas have had their rough moments through the years. There was the recession, and its nadir in summer 2009, when delayed payments meant the team couldn’t afford to accommodate the 20 players they’d just flown to Denmark. The pros made do in the LAN sleeping area – just as Odee had in his day.
There was the fire that claimed the manager’s house just before Christmas two years ago. And there are the players poached or lost to early retirement – Imaqtpie, scarra, ZionSpartan.
“You have to rebuild things, because they were big players, big names,” muses Odee. “One of the hard parts of being an e-sports manager is knowing when to let go.”
But there’s one idea he’s held onto. If Dignitas do come into that “crazy money”, or land a huge sponsor, he intends to pay a dividend to the team’s original 14 Battlefield pros.
“It’s something I promised I would do when I took over,” he says. “So to go back and pay those original players a nice bit of money, that will make me feel good.”