Fragadelphia Co-Founder: "I lent the brand to Nerd Street, stupidly maybe for free"
On October 26th, when the news broke that Fragadelphaia's co-founder and most passionate voice, Stephen "sasquatcH" Csikos, had left Nerd Street, many in the NA community were concerned about the future of the beloved tournament series. Additionally, there were questions abound about how such a thing could happen as Csikos and Nerd Street had just completed their largest tournament to date — Fragadelphia 17.
This final event in an extensive series of LAN and online vents saw NA's best teams and a few European teams who were able to justify the leap across the Atlantic to battle for a $100,000 prizepool – a massive sum in the post-COVID post-VALORANT NA domestic scene. So what happened? In the part one of an extensive interview with Csikos, Jeffrey "Mnmzzz" Moore had the chance to sit down with one of NA CS:GO's most passionate voices to discuss the history of Fragadelphia, the often troubled relationship with Nerd Street, and the conditions that led him to leave a company he helped build.
What was the business relationship between FRAG and Nerd Street during your time running events with them?
Fragadelphia was founded by myself, Rob Hilsky, and with the support of Jarvis, which was a tech firm in Philadelphia. John is the owner of that alongside my friend Chris who I've known for a very long time. They provided us a venue to do our first event as a test; it went really well and the community latched on to it pretty heavily, so John thought we should turn it into some sort of business. The original intention of Fragadelphia was never to be a financial gain for myself or anybody, the first three or four events we lost money. Nobody got paid, nobody made a dollar, we took time off of work, and everyone got their own hotels or stayed with friends and slept on couches.
This is 2014, Nerd Street was not even existing yet officially, but the original relationship... I would call Jarvis an incubator, and Nerd Street/Fragadelphia at the time was a test product. We ran the first events essentially just running tournaments because we wanted to, and that was the inception of our relationship. I would say that Fragadelphia as a tournament is one of the big catalysts of Nerd Street as a company.
But it was one entity all the way up until 2017; after Fragadelphia 11, myself, Rob, and John had turmoil, we had disagreements on which direction the company should go. So as part of my initial exit... I'm one of the founders yet I own no founder's stock... in 2017 I sold my shares back to the company. But, essentially, I took Fragadelphia as an entity, the brand, the image, the name, our website, everything went to me.
That was our in-between time, at the time I was living in Orlando, after Fragadelphia 11. We hadn't done an event for six or seven months and then we ended up doing Fragadelphia 12, and what's funny is that Nerd Street reached out and they offered up the venue we always used as a partnership. Me being comfortable, I was like "Sure let's do it there". Fragadelphia 12 was huge, we had 52 teams in that small venue in Philadelphia. With eight Battalion 1944 teams, we ran 60 different teams of five players in that venue that really shouldn't have held that many people. The event went really well, other than the small heat issues with like air conditioning when you have that many people in a room in August heat. After that event, we went back to the drawing board. The Jacksonville Madden shooting happened, I was working at EA at the time, and that kinda put us on a pause. So from Frag 12 to 13, we didn't do anything for a while.
Almost a full year goes by, and I went to E3 and got courted by the COO of Nerd Street and John to come back, and I did. So we essentially came back, and because I wanted to build Fragadelphia further and help the community more, we did Frag 13 in California in a Nerd Street venue partnered with ULT. We did an event in December of 2019 in Philadelphia in the venue that ended up being The Block, and that was a struggle. We ran the event, all the revenue went to Nerd Street, we saw nothing from it. But the essence really wasn't to make money for myself at that point; at this time I was working at Nerd Street and I never thought about the finances behind these tournaments. My end goal is still to have the most fun we can have. So we ran the event, and then I left again!
I left Nerd Street in February of 2020 because of a disagreement between myself, the COO, and the CEO, and Fragadelphia left with me because I never sold it back to Nerd Street. That was just before the breakout of the pandemic, up until the point where we came back in July. That essentially covers Fragadelphia and Nerd Street's relationship; it's essentially still owned by me, and I lent it to Nerd Street under the guise that I was gonna sell it to Nerd Street. Multiple times the events have been monetized and operated by people who worked at Nerd Street with myself at the time, like Ed. Essentially, I lent the brand to Nerd Street, stupidly maybe for free.
You leave Nerd Street in February of 2020 and then you come back. When did you come back and why did you come back?
November 2020, because I had just left FlyQuest. During the pandemic, I was looking for work, so I started doing consulting work at Nerd Street, purely financial because I needed the money. When I was there it just [felt] good again; I guess the relationship example is like when you start dating somebody fresh and new, it feels good at first and sours after time. It's a toxic relationship you shouldn't be in, but it feels good every single time you go back. I came back as a consultant at first, did a lot of work there, started writing some of the RFPs [Request for Proposals], and eventually went from a consultant to a full-timer to someone who then ran a bunch of the departments.
After that point, we have the next three Fragadelphia events and the resulting circuit. What factors led you to walking away from Nerd Street and taking the FRAG brand with you again despite it looking like things were going well from the outside looking in?
I'll be honest, I didn't so much leave willingly. I was laid off at the middle of October 2022 because the company wanted to go a certain direction I agreed to go, except I wasn't happy with it, so I said that if I stayed in this role I would have to go look for work elsewhere. I mean I would do my job to my best abilities, I'm not someone who half-asses it, if I was gonna stay there I would work my hardest and try to do best by the company. Obviously, at that point I wasn't feeling like I wanted to be there so I would work the job, do my best, and then try to find something that fit my long-term plans. When I made that statement I was laid off.
That's surprising to me as you're the face of Fragadelphia. What do you think that says about the state of Nerd Street and its future?
I don't really have a long-term opinion or an inkling of what that does long-term for the company. They are in a position that is very unique in the industry that they have operated a lot of the programs that have been seen as pretty influential and pretty big to certain communities so there is definitely some value there that I don't think goes anywhere even if I'm there or not there, there's still high value. It definitely raises questions about their short-term goals and direction. They need to re-position and re-focus. That's the reason I got let go was that they wanted to focus on some things. I definitely am not part of their long-term plans, which I would find alarming as an outside person where I take [my own views] out of the scenario.
I had a good grasp on our business and when I was there and I think I have a good grasp on the ecosystem of esports and gaming and the monetization paths. So yeah, I don't know. It's hard to answer that question because I don't know what their future is going to be.
You talked about their long-term plans and long-term strategies. Do you think these changes suggest that Nerd Street is still interested in CS:GO as a long-term investment?
They definitely could and I think that there's definitely still interest there. There's always been a difference between what we were doing at Fragadelphia and what we what's happening at Nerd Street. Fragadelphia is a community focused entity and was never supposed to be a financial breadwinner for myself, it was never my intention. When we started Fragadelphia I was working at Apple, and then we were still doing it when I was working at Azubu and we were still doing it when I was working at the Mixer esports studio in Manhattan, so it's never been my full time income.
Nerd Street as a business is very different than a communal event. While I can basically request community support, request people to donate time, businesses have a hard time doing that. There are also these rising costs in the ecosystem as a result of the pandemic: production rates, rates of casters, people's admin hours, and the competition for online events as the pandemic has squished the barriers for entry for a lot of companies. Online events almost became synonymous with "tournaments" because there was nothing else [that could run during the pandemic].
With those things happening, it is very hard for a circuit of Counter-Strike tournaments to operate effectively and financially positively without some pretty heavy sponsors. I am not sure and I don't know what's going on at that end but that's the one detractor of Counter-Strike for a lot of people right now. There is a lack of viewership at the lower levels and thus there's a lack of sponsor interest, right? That's always going to be the thing that detracts people from Counter-Strike is that we are a super established game that has been around for a long time so the expectations of the players are very high on the quality bar, the production levels and what you are supposed to do for this game and it doesn't truly make profit as just a tournament running.
It's harder for a business to operate without that profit or at least some form of profit. There are going to be a lot of businesses that readjust their programs in 2023, there's going to be a lot of focus this year with what's coming up in esports. People are saying that the economy is in a downward spiral, not to be dramatic, but that's a fear a lot of people have and when you have that same economic recession as as 2009/2010 with the housing crisis when the CGS was running before that and all this money was being thrown into esports, and specifically Counter-Strike, in North America and then boom, the housing market crashes, everything goes down then and then everyone's looking for tournaments to play in.
That's honestly how Fragadelphia was founded, there was no other tournament. That's one of the reasons why we were successful in running the CS tournament and running CS in general around that time was that there was not many competitors because the economy had closed almost all LAN centers, so it's very interesting.
A lot of people made the connection between Nerd Street's recent fortunes and the collapse of FTX. Do you think it's accurate to portray this collapse and Nerd Street's issues as closely related?
In the industry? Or that specific relationship?
Let's start with FTX because FTX played a big role as a title sponsor where it was up on the stage and all around the venue. Is the community right to think that the collapse of FTX was a herald of these changes at Nerd Street?
The changes are due to the fact that there is no major over-arching sponsor. The big sponsor goes away and you obviously have to reassess and do things, that's probably a valid concern or statement. The historical relationship between the Fragadelphia 17 circuit, and part of 16, and FTX... the reason why [the circuit] went the way it did, there is definitely a correlation.
The big sponsor comes in, the sponsors dollars go in, the prize money increases and without that it obviously has to go backwards, especially if it's going to run. That is what's logical when a sponsor backs out or is there some other thing you're referring to like causality from that sponsor?
That's a good take, and if we don't say FTX in particular having a big sponsor pull out will create a massive readjustment in operations. FTX itself has been in the news so much and it's had such a viral collapse, and then a week later all these changes come to Nerd Street, people are sort of connecting the dots even if there isn't a 100% correlation. What do you think about that?
Yeah I think that's fair and I think there is a lot of partners that are interested. FTX is obviously a major partner of the last Fragadelphia 17 circuit. I think the one thing that is interesting with Counter-Strike compared to some of the other games that are there in the industry is that Counter-Stirke is one of the only games that has no restrictions on sponsorships.
Gambling websites, skin gambling at one point pretty heavily, cryptocurrencies, honestly alcohol. Those things have sponsored Counter-Strike predominantly more than some of the other games over the last four or five years since Bud Light started getting into DreamHack and esports there has been all those different sectors that have entered and I think that's the one thing that Counter-Strike allows for. Losing FTX is a big deal but there are other partners that are potentially out there that have similar interests.
Unfortunately with crypto having such a high amount of money to be invested in a lot of these entities, not just Counter-Strike, FTX was on Major League Baseball umpires' chests and FTX literally sponsored an arena in Miami. They had all these different partnerships, different celebrities, and there's always going to be negative downfall when that happens in any industry and I think that esports is going to feel that too, that wave of crypto sponsorships that were here and may not be here next year. But, long term there is something to say about esports mimicking traditional sports. I think Fragadelphia sits in that realm of AAU basketball where a lot of AAU basketball is funded by team's parents flying their kids to places.
Can you explain that AAU basketball reference?
Amateur Athletic's Union or whatever it's called. I have had friends who played travel basketball for AAU and their parents flew them for tournaments around Christmas and nobody was sponsoring that. Similar to what we do with our tournaments in that sense, they're open and that model is probably going to be a model we are still going to be doing ourselves and I see Nerd Street and other companies doing it as well where some of the burden of amateur esports is going to have to be shouldered by the participants and hoping it doesn't increase ticket sale prices or entry fees.
That stuff is always the piece but when you don't have the sponsorship dollars to do an event, it's like an inverse of each other where more sponsorship means less costs on the player or else the venture can't economically run. That's going to be something in the next coming year, two years, three years. As we mature, this level of esports and gaming is going to probably be figured out.
Was your departure coinciding with NVS' departure intentional or is that just a coincidence that both of you acted at the same time?
I Don't think they were to be honest. I was laid off and I believe Ed resigned. I Don't want to speak for him. I don't know the correlation of like why he resigned so much. I don't think it was me leaving or my departure. But you can definitely ask him for that directly. It was just a unique circumstance in time that he decided to put his two weeks in.
Has there been any discussion about NVS continuing on with this new Fragadelphia?
Yeah, It's not going anywhere. Our long-term goals of why we did Nerd Street a missional ethos and Fragadelphia's ethos and like getting involved with the community and being a pillar, that doesn't change with Ed's departure of Nerd Street. He still is interested in that stuff and I think Ed is gonna be somebody who's very much involved in the future of Fragadelphia as we go forward. There's definitely something that he said about Ed's work over the last couple of years, but it definitely rises to the occasion and I'm really excited to see what we can build.
In part two of our extended interview, Csikos discusses efforts to rebuild Fragadelphia now that it is decoupled from Nerd Street and what NA CS:GO fans can expect as 2023 kicks off with NA's most important LAN event going it solo.