Jeffrey "Mnmzzz" Moore had a chance to sit down with Extra Salt CEO Daniel "Gandalf" van Flymen and COO David Alson for an extended interview following the announcement of their new esports organization, Extra Salt, who Rush B Media reported have signed ex-Cloud9. The duo discussed their esports roots, the creation of Extra Salt, the state of North American CS:GO, and Extra Salt's expectations for 2021 among other topics.
To start, can I get an overview of how you two got your starts in esports? What has been your journey thus far to creating a new NA organization in 2020?
Daniel van Flymen: When I was a kid and a teenager, I was very involved in the early days of South African Counter-Strike. I started an organization called Damage Control, and we were one of the first teams to go overseas and compete. We went to the WCG 2004 and ESWC 2006 to represent South Africa. In the early days of 1.6 we had a burgeoning scene in South Africa, and we were hungry to go overseas and compete. Unfortunately, because of its geography, South Africa has been an isolated arena for Counter-Strike. And so a couple of years went by, and eventually I made it to New York where I’ve been working as a software engineer. This is where I met Dave—we’ve both been working at startups for the better part of 10 years in the tech scene. Since I’ve been watching CS for ~20 years, and we both love the competition aspect of it, we've been looking for an excuse to get into esports for quite some time. We're learning, but we’re optimistic about the scene and so this was a great opportunity for us to get involved.
David Alson: My background and interest in esports really started in high school. I was playing a lot of Diablo 2, and ended up building an online store for items and services, and that was my transition into tech. And I think looking back: if esports were as big back then as it is today, I would have gone into it full-time. This is an opportunity that Dan and I have been talking about and exploring for quite a while now and we’re both very excited to be working with this team. We think the future of Counter-Strike is very, very bright and so it was the right time for us to jump back into esports.
Going back to what Daniel said regarding his South African esports roots: looking at the list of NA teams in free agency, was the choice to go with ex-Cloud9 influenced by the presence of South Africans on the team, or did that just happen to be a happy coincidence?
Daniel: I knew some of the players, but not very well. I had always been in touch with T.c, the coach, who's been a friend of mine for quite a while. When we heard the news about Cloud9 towards the end of their tenure, we spoke about the opportunity and jumped in. So yeah, I don't think it had much to do with the fact that we are both South African, we just knew each other, and I'd been closely following the team as a spectator for a long time.
Okay, and so for you, David, you said your origins are more in Diablo 2? In that case, what made you get interested in Counter-Strike esports and want to be involved in the scene?
David: Diablo 2 was the first game I was very involved in. Growing up, I played Counter-Strike too. Competitive esports is something I’ve been following for the last few years and it has become increasingly exciting because of the growth, the audience, and the LAN events. For us, being able to get back into esports with Counter-Strike is really exciting for both of us.
To divert from your origins for a second, I know that before your organization has even launched, the name "Extra Salt" has already aroused a bit of interest and banter on social media. Can you discuss why you chose such an interesting name?
Daniel: We love the name. It's provocative, it's cheeky, and unique. There are a lot of connotations to grinding and sweating, and I love the fact that salt was once more valuable than gold. We think it’s different. Also, Sodium’s symbol on the periodic table is Na—fitting for the saltiest region of all.
So does that mean you guys are ready to accept the banter that comes with having such a provocative name? Like, if your team goes out in the group stage at an event, are you ready for Twitter to joke about how salty your team is and other shots across the bow?
David: We're ready.
Daniel: We’re ready, but we hope our fans don’t need to get that salty.
So, in your “leak” to Rush B Media, it was reported that Infinite will not be part of your plans moving forward. Can you discuss why that is, and overall how the team is coming together?
David: We were in talks with him, but he seemed more interested in VALORANT, so we didn’t come to a deal.
Was he an integral part of your plans or is the team is still on course while you continue your search for a fifth?
Daniel: We didn’t sign a contract with him or anything. He’s a talented player that our players liked playing with, but our plans don’t hinge on signing him. We’re looking to complete the roster with an NA star, or rising talent from the pool of teams that have recently disbanded. We put a lot of trust in the players and our coach to help us find our 5th.
I think you dropped a key hint there. You said “recently disbanded teams”, does that mean you have been looking at Chaos and their players, are they in consideration for Extra Salt moving forward?
Daniel: We're certainly not ruling it out.
Are there any other players you want to name drop that you've looked at so far?
Daniel: Our player search is still in its early stages. And currently our coach and our team are all visiting their families for holidays. Over the next few weeks we're building a shortlist of talent that we’re interested in. I'd love to give you a name, but we just don't have anybody yet. DMs open.
Earlier, David mentioned the general trend of interest in VALORANT, is that esport something that you think Extra Salt will also be pursuing moving forward? And how do you rate your interest in North American Counter-Strike compared to North American VALORANT?
David: If you look at the trends of Counter-Strike, the game has never had more players and fans than now. We think the future of Counter-Strike is very bright. We also think VALORANT is a great game, and that there's potential there, but Counter-Strike has been around for the longest time and has the most staying power of any game out there. Our plans are to eventually move into other titles, notably VALORANT and League of Legends, and field new rosters, but right now Counter-Strike is not going anywhere and remains our focus.
So, speaking about the popularity of CS:GO this year, although we've seen the highest number of players ever, is there an explanation for why there's so much skepticism and cynicism in North America for CS:GO as a viable business prospect? How do you navigate that as startup and someone who's coming to the scene fresh?
Daniel: Yeah, I think COVID-19 has really made the scene very difficult in North America. It certainly hasn't helped that some of the tier one organizations have gone to Europe to compete. And so we think the current state of the scene is really a victim of circumstance. But as soon as the tournament schedule for next year gets underway, we should see things picking back up. And we'll start seeing a lot more enthusiasm and optimism towards CS:GO [in North America].
Was having a European team ever a consideration for Extra Salt? Because we’ve seen a number of old NA organizations have left the scene for Europe over the past three years, including Cloud9, Complexity, and MAD Lions/Splyce, are there any advantages to investing in North America now?
Daniel: Just based on locale, David and I are based in North America. We love the NA scene, and we think that there's a vacuum to take advantage of—there are a ton of players available, and we want to learn as much as we can, recruit the best talent, give them what they need to succeed, and craft the underdog lineup that will eventually go to Europe and take on the European teams.
Transitioning back to the business side, I know one perspective that is sort of under looked in the esports narrative is how the development of a new startup organization works. What was the process of creating Extra Salt after you two sat down and said, “let’s create an esports organization.”?
David: When we first began talking to Cloud9, and taking this opportunity more seriously, we began looking at the existing organizations and trying to learn as much as we could about them—how they’re structured and how they manage themselves internally. Dan and I have been operating in the tech scene in NYC for about 10 years now. We’ve been through the process of building and growing teams and companies before. So we took a lot of these lessons and adapted them to esports. And the process for that—just from a high level—was to spend a lot of time forming the company: making sure that we have the right support and financial structures in place; making sure that we were doing things correctly in terms of contracts and Visas. Our core focus is the players, and we need to make sure that the infrastructure is capable of supporting an environment where everyone can succeed.
As newcomers to the scene, who do you look towards for funding, is it venture capital, is it angel investors, is it more traditional investment? Also, speaking about venture capital, is there still excitement in the venture capital space for investing in esports right now?
David: Daniel and I have both put in our own money to kick things off. But we also are backed by private investors—both VCs and individuals who have interest in esports. COVID-19 has accelerated growth in esports and we think there's more people looking to get into this space than before.
I feel that that runs contrary to the sort of traditional narrative that we've seen over recent months, that people are less willing to invest in esports because of COVID-19. Do you think that now if anything, COVID-19 has created the right opportunity to invest in esports, and can explain these positives associated with the current COVID-19 esports landscape?
David: What we've seen is there's been increased viewership, and as a result more people are looking at the space because of how quickly it's growing. So from an investor's standpoint we're hearing from people who have never taken a look at esports before. Traditional sports have been offline, creating more engagement in esports. So we’re seeing more investor interest in the future of esports.
Daniel: So to add to that, COVID-19 has been terrible for offline events in the space but if you look at the viewership and streaming numbers, there's never been more engagement on platforms like Twitch and YouTube.
In terms of the public interest towards esports, it is no longer entirely new uncharted territory as it was 10-20 years ago, we have very established brands. What is Extra Salt’s strategy to start building a fan base when you are competing against the likes of Cloud9, Liquid, OpTic, Complexity, and so on?
Daniel: We're not a Colossus, or a Juggernaut—we are a group of people ready to grind and ready to work. We want the brand to reflect that vision. So from day one, we want to be authentic and craft a brand that players would love to work with and fans would love to support. We look at that as a differentiating factor and we’re going to grow it organically. We don't have the kind of exposure that some of the big streetwear brands do like FaZe and 100 Thieves. But, you know, we are definitely open to that in the future as we grow the team into a brand for staying power. But, we think that the way [we’ll build the brand] is first by lifting trophies and actually showing results before we just start pushing cheap merch.
Is that an expectation for the team in 2021, that there will be trophies lifted by Extra Salt?
Daniel: We’re obviously going to do everything to succeed, we’ll support the players and give them the right environment. David and I have interviewed hundreds of software engineers and ran software engineering teams that have similar performance metrics [to esports teams]—they are both mentally intensive. We want to make sure that we run this team as efficiently as possible and that they have everything they need to succeed. But yeah, we believe that with the right environment and with the right mechanisms in place, this team will lift trophies, and they will do it in Europe in 2021.
David: Yeah, I'll add to that, we want players to come first. And so we’ve talked to the players, even before signing them, and discussed what it looks like to build the best environment for them—where they’ll be the happiest.
A lot is up in the air right now regarding what esports will look like in 2021; whether we're going to see a return to offline play, or we're going to see a continuation of online play. Does this unpredictability factor into how you plan to launch the organization?
Daniel: If it's online, then we'll play online, if it's offline, then we’ll play offline, and we're going to do the best we can. We've been in talks with ESL Pro League, and it looks like the team is going to be able to keep their core ranking points, so we do expect to be in EPL next year.
I believe Daniel made a light jab at organizations like FaZe and 100 Thieves that more of a focus on content creation and apparel over core esports. Do you think this is a direction you will go in, or will Extra Salt be initially more focused on competition first?
David: We’re spending a lot of time learning about the scene and learning how we can best provide for the team. As we learn, and as we develop, we will look outside of our organization at other teams and take lessons from them. But in the short term, we're really focused on providing the best environment for our players.
Daniel: Yeah, to answer your question more succinctly, we want to lift trophies first as opposed to the traditional approach of building a brand first and then trying to lift trophies later. By putting performance first, the brand will naturally grow as a result.
So a trophies before hoodies approach to esports?
Talking about building an ideal environment for your players, are we looking at Extra Salt being a West Coast or East Coast-based team?
Daniel: We initially had the discussion [about being based in New York City] and perhaps we were a little bit optimistic about it. But after investigating and talking to the players, it seems like unanimously our team wants to be based in Austin. There's a healthy scene there, there's a lot of people moving into the area, and the internet is really good and the pings are very low. So I'm pretty certain that the team is going to be based there. It's unknown right now whether or not our headquarters will also be in Austin, so it might end up being that we're based in New York while the team is playing out of Austin.
Outside of a few exceptions, like Splyce in Rochester and New York 3D during CGS, no large CS organizations have been based in New York. Is the New York esports scene something Extra Salt wants to develop, and will New York City be part of your brand image in the future?
Daniel: It’s too early to tell and we're not 100% sure yet. But, I think that there are geographical advantages to being on the East Coast. Like if we had to rewind back to a year or two ago, when players were getting burnt out from travel, a six or seven hour flight to Europe is a lot better than a twelve hour flight from the West Coast. That being said, we're an NA organization and we want to focus on the region as a whole and we don't think that we need to be in one specific region.
Outside of EPL, which Extra Salt is looking to compete in, we've seen a general trend towards franchising, with Flashpoint being the main one in CS:GO. Is Flashpoint something Extra Salt is interested in, and overall do you think the organization and its investors are interested in franchised leagues?
Daniel: We are open to Flashpoint and have been talking to some of the organizers. I think it's a little bit too early to tell, we want to see what the next year looks like and what the tournament organizers plans are for upcoming leagues. It's definitely not something that we've spoken to investors about just yet. I think that our goals will develop as the overall plan for Extra Salt shifts and changes. It’s too early to tell right now.
One of my closing thoughts is that as both of you guys are from the startup world, where companies takes years to go in the black, has this prepared you for esports, where most companies operate in the red? And with that, do you think Extra Salt is going to be here to stay for the long haul in esports?
Daniel: Yeah, definitely, we’re building something that we want to last. We're not interested in a quick cash grab and a foray into the scene. We want to build a brand and a team that people remember and that has staying power. One of the advantages that we have is that David is one of the best software engineers I've met in my career. We've both done a lot of work, as we mentioned multiple times, in the tech scene. And we think that we’ll discover a lot of opportunities where our skill set allows us to give Extra Salt a unique advantage. I think that answers it. You know, we’re definitely here for the long haul.
Daniel: And we’re going to IPO….. no I’m kidding that’s an awful idea.
Final question, what is Extra Salt looking at right now in terms of brand partnerships?
Daniel: We’re working on brand partnerships right now, and we’re open to talking with anyone interested.
Ah ok, in closing is there anything you want to say to our NA readers, new fans, or fans of the players about Extra Salt?
Daniel: Start buying the salt sprays in CS:GO.
David: Also, I just want to say since the Rush B article yesterday, we've gotten a lot of positive feedback from people in Counter-Strike as a whole, but also from the NA scene and we just want to thank all of the new fans for their support. It’s meant a lot and both the players and us feel like there is major positive energy coming out of North America for the Counter-Strike scene and we're very happy about that.
While Extra Salt have yet to formally sign ex-Cloud9, Dust2.us knows that the team are in the final steps of acquiring the players. Additionally, Daniel van Flymen told Dust2.us that they have resolved the visa situation for the South African trio of Johnny "JT" Theodosiou, Aran "Sonic" Groesbeek, and Tiaan "T.c" Coertzen, allowing them to continue playing in North America. If you want to follow the Extra Salt project, their Twitter account and website can be found here and here.