Exclusive Interview: USEA owners make the case to trust $350,000 league startup

In an exclusive interview with Dust2.us, the USEA's owners attempted to provide insight and allay fears about their $350,000 league.

Yesterday, the United States Esports Affiliation (USEA) announced plans to host a massive $350,000 event in the United States that is advertised to conclude in an eight-team LAN finals. This announcement came completely out of the blue, with the community scratching their heads as tournament organizers promising events of this scale do not simply come out of thin air. However, this is seemingly the case with Ben Williamson's USEA, an organization that was only properly trademarked on May 11th and had no online presence before April 2024.

This lack of information combined with the relative anonymity of the owners of the USEA has led many to already label the USEA as a scam, cash-grab, or another product doomed for failure, potentially doing more harm than good in the NA scene.

To learn more about the USEA and the people behind it, Dust2.us' Jeffrey "Mnmzzz" Moore sat down with USEA CEO Ben Williamson and VP of Marketing Michael Peebles for a lengthy interview about the duo's esports background and to try and learn more about the enigmatic league, their vision for the product, the promises it has made, and what details the duo can provide to try and allay fears the product is an outright scam.

To start, who is behind this project and what's your background, especially in esports?

Ben Williamson: My name is Ben Williamson. I'm an entrepreneur currently living in Naples, Florida. I'm originally from the Midwest near Milwaukee. I started a product development and e-commerce company about 15 years ago and we created products and marketing services and a bunch of different companies before we moved onto taking a lot of those projects in-house and developing a lot of the brands ourselves.

For a lack of better terms, I spent the last 12-15 years of my life building that company up before I exited that business and got into medical technology where I created a medical technology company that created software solutions for fighting infectious outbreaks in the long-term care nursing home community.

We also got into medical device manufacturing, molecular diagnostics, and a few different passion projects on the side like boutique auto storage for high-end cars and some car racing projects.

I still serve on the board of directors for my medical technology company and I'm the chairman of the board of a private equity ground called The Benjamin Group, which is my private equity fund that gives me the ability to do things I'm passionate about whether that be auto racing, car storage, side projects in crypto, and the technology space. I'll let Mike give a general introduction before I talk about our esports background and the transition to the USEA.

Michael Peebles: My name is Mike Peebles. Mainly I own a business doing merchandising and marketing in the Chicagoland area. I deal with the grocery business but I've expanded out a little bit more in the last couple months.

As far as esports goes, I'm not a professional player or anything like that, I'm really just passionate when it comes to gaming and I've been gaming my whole life. I've partnered up with Ben here... Ben and I have known each for a very long time, starting on Counter-Strike. We came together with this project in the first place and I'll let him take over from that.

Ben Williamson: Yeah we go back a very long time whether it be health and fitness, being from the same area, or gaming. My gaming experience specific to Counter-Strike goes back into the days of CAL [Cyberathlete Amateur League] and CPL [Cyberathlete Professional League]. I played 1.6 competitively and am now 34 years old. Mike and I are roughly the same age.

When Source came out it felt like the next big thing and I had a team that was based in Munster, Indiana and I was based just out of Milwaukee. I used to drive in my car to go play CAL matches at my team leader's house named Rob in Indiana. I loved CAL, I loved playing CAL and for people from the Midwest it was very similar to something like a bowling league where we got to get together once a week and play our CAL matches. It was a great thing and we loved it.

When CPL and CAL came crumbling down it was a gut punch to us because we really know the structure of CPL and CAL and as that was all happening I was in high school and I got out of esports and gaming. I ended up selling my rig and started my business and that's what I've spent the last 15 years doing.

Recently Mike was pinging me about five years ago to get on CS:GO saying it was so much better than Source and that I need to get back into it so I downloaded it on my MacBook and I started playing under the name "11 inch MacBook Air" and it was a meme and funny. Slowly over the last few years or so I got a new rig and got back into PC building, and started playing CS2 when it came out.

I would have these discussions with Mike on a regular basis, like once a week... we both had our jobs and we were passionate about our careers but we wanted to get back into esports in America.

We looked on FACEIT, we looked everywhere for an organized league where we could meet every Monday and play a match with our five stack. It didn't really exist... I don't want to throw everyone else under the bus because it's not the case, but it didn't exist like we remembered it back in CAL.

The initial discussion with the USEA was "let's throw something together." We actually called it FPEL, First Person Esports League, and we branded it and threw it together. We didn't like how it looked and we scrapped it and came back a couple weeks later. I was really persistent with Mike... Mike was very into Twitch and streaming and he knows that whole side of the world and me having been out of it for 15 years I didn't have that touch point with the new era of gaming. We wanted to put something together, we kept persisting and persisting to the point where we came up with USEA.

I'm sure you'll ask more about the details and the map pool and I'll get into that in a second, but really it comes to what your number one question is, "Why the $350,000 prizepool for a league where people can come play for a week with their friends in an open division? It doesn't make sense." I get that.

The philosophy behind this open come one, come all division was really a product of us not trying to bite off more than we could chew. I've been a part of very successful businesses, I've been a part of businesses that have failed, I founded companies that didn't quite make it, and the common denominator was generally because we bit off more than we can chew too early on.

We had a great idea and had plans for the future, but we never executed on that small vision without trying to trip over ourselves to get to what we wanted it to be in the end. With us, do we want to come out with a league that four divisions, open, main, invite, pro right at once and try to put cash pools together, and try to put up a big USA LAN for the pros only and then try to convince pro teams that they should play in this new league, no. It was never going to work.

Our idea was to put an open tournament together that has a regular season followed by a tournament bracket, followed by a big LAN event where anybody could enter. We wanted to create a very low barrier cost to entry because we understand that when you have pros and joes, putting a high barrier to enter wasn't going to work. We wanted to create a season where you could come and play once a week and if you're good enough to make it to the tournament you would, and then the best would go on to a final event we felt from a business perspective would get a lot of media attention and be very successful.

Instead of putting 10s or 100s of thousands of dollars into a marketing budget to try and erect a professional league and put out only pros, only pros, only pros come see this event and pay us a bunch of money because we're so great, we put this thing on, we wanted to create a league where anybody could come to play in season one and play against the pro teams.

To circle back on my initial question, do you two have esports experience outside of being fans? Do you have experience running tournaments or anything similar?

Because Mike and I have only been players in tournaments like CAL and smaller LAN events in the Midwest in 2004 to 2006, a very long time ago, neither Mike nor I have operated or hosted a major LAN event.

We've done things at high school with our friends and 20 or 30 people while convincing Bawls to sponsor us and bring out some cans for the event, but nothing of this magnitude.

But what I can say about that from a structural and operational perspective is that I've spent the last 15 years of my life creating companies with 500+ employees from nothing and I'm very good at operationalizing businesses as that's what I do for a living. But in addition to that, you can be as good as you are at running a business, I'm fully aware of that, but it is going to come to the partner that we go with on the organizational side.

We're talking to two partners, there's only so many of these partners that you're aware of, and I'm not going to disclose who it is at this point. But, we've spoken to two of the biggest tournament organizers, league organizers and organizations that have the ability to execute this for us.

We've had conversations with them about carrying out everything from league operations, organization structure, and even the servers. These are both companies that already exist and are already doing this and operationalizing this for us because we're fully aware we're passionate business guys but we don't have experience organizing events of this magnitude.

Would you say then this is more of a white label event? How much control are you going to have outside of controlling the brand?

One of those groups will operationally run this at its core and the discussions we are having with one of those groups right now are the finite details. Who's handling customer support, how do we want customer support to be managed, who's going to be handling in-game customer support, the tournament, the bracket, the X's and O's of the LAN event, what services are going to be handled by the TO at the LAN event, things like that.

I can't give you the specifics again, I wish I could right now, and that will be announced in the coming days who is going to be handling that for us, but I wouldn't necessarily say it is a pure white label of something we're going to fully hand off to another organization and say run with this, put our logo on it, and say its us.

We're very heavily involved in the sponsorship outreach and the partners and vendors that we're selecting to run this in conjunction with us. We're also very heavily involved in the media rights and some of the negotiations between those vendors.

Any major organization like this comes down to the people within your org and the group that you have and Mike and I have been hiring slowly on our end to handle some of the operational things that we are presently negotiating with one of these TOs that they will not be handling.

But again, that's going to be coming out in the coming days and weeks and I think there's a very fine balance between some of these groups who are not in the United States and there's a different culture here. It needs to be handled differently and that's something Mike and I feel very passionately about as far as brand representation goes and company operations being in the United States.

How many employees does USEA currently have and what are your roles in the company?

We have right around ten individuals in the organization right now. Mike and I are both co-founders and I'm taking on the CEO role while Mike will be the VP of Marketing and Operations.

An area of public concern is that this impressive $350,000 prizepool is not real or won't materialize. What assurances are there for the prizepool? Is the cash in hand?

That's the first question that the TO that we're working with asked, "Is this going to be an egg on our face situation?" I had to in writing basically confirm and sign that the proceeds for season one would be handled solely by my private equity group, which I'm prepared to do. A large portion of that will most likely and has already been mitigated by corporate sponsorship.

We have already secured several large corporate sponsorships that already surpassed the payouts required for season one. But additionally it comes down to trust and faith and you have one shot at success with this league. If we want to go on to our second season with an Open and Main division we have to carry it forward and we have to come through with the payouts.

Like I said before, when we look at a marketing budget and we look at our payout budget, and we look at the operational budget with a LAN event, most likely the majority of that is going to come from our corporate sponsors and like I said it already has.

In writing we've agreed to pay out of my private equity fund to fund this major initiative because you have to remember season one isn't simply a cash-grab tournament, it is our marketing budget, season one is our marketing initiative, it is letting everyone come in and play and it is putting it all on the line for one final event.

That's not where we stop, this is a league that is going to carry on for multiple seasons and we are going to create multiple divisions out of it. In order for us to execute on our small vision to get to the big one, season one has to be a success and I've personally signed on the line to ensure that happens.

Does that also mean with your eventual TO partner the operational costs needed for the broadcast, tournament operations, etc. have also been secured?


There has been much discussion about betting companies sponsoring tournaments and the potential negative effects of that relationship. With that in mind, what sponsors does the league have? Can you share who is backing the tournament to ensure they are real and ethical?

Unfortunately I can't share who any of the sponsors are for the event that we have secured presently. You have to respect and understand that these agreements that we have in place are going to be put forth on a specific launch schedule for them and for us.

We plan to start announcing these in the coming weeks after we finalize the announcement with our TO. I can tell you that Mike and I have had many discussions about the types of sponsors we are and want to attract for this league.

There will be no alcohol, no gambling or betting, a lot of these sponsors are Fortune 100 or 500 companies here in the United States and we have made a very strong point to only accept sponsorship from companies that are headquartered in America or have a large and significant portion of their offices in the United States.

These are big name sponsors, our title and presenting sponsor is one that everyone knows and is all over the United and actually all over Europe as well. They are a food sponsor and they've given us great backing as they've taken a big leap into esports in the last five years.

We have a shipping partner that is not DHL. I'm going to get slapped if I continue to talk about these things so again I respectfully have to tell you that these will be announced in the coming weeks. When they're announced they will be co-announced on the partner's social media platform as well as ours and there will be a partner and vendor section that will go on our website at that time.

Are any of the sponsors companies you or any employees of UESA have a controlling interest in?

No, big companies. We threw around the idea of having one of my companies sponsor the event early on, but we pooh-poohed that because if my private equity group is going to at the end of the day determine any additional balances for payouts, it made no sense to other companies [I own] as a sponsor.

There's not a single sponsor that we've secured or are working on securing that will not be very well known by everybody in the esports and gaming industries.

Another thing that caught people's attention was the format, which is quite an old-fashioned format by having each week feature a different map. Can you explain the influence behind this decision?

To address that entirely, I want to reiterate this by saying that this format because of the way we anticipate season one going will most likely only remain in the Open division. As we progress into more competitive divisions... everything is coming to a head right now in professional esports. Using Counter-Strike as an example, the structure of the leagues and the tournaments are all the same and that's important, it's no different from professional golf for example.

You have the US Open, the PGA Tour Championship, these different cups and things, they're all played the exact same way with the exact same point system. For us to be accepted on a world stage we need to abide by that, but in our Open division this type of structure is going to remain the same for three reasons.

The first reason is lower-level players. Looking at this as a player development league and not just some cash-grab league for pros. We want to develop American esports, we want to create better players in America and we believe that it starts with teamwork, planning, and preparation.

One of things we loved about CAL back in the day was that when your matches were on a Monday or whatever day, you had a week to prepare on that map. Whether it be smoke lineups, strategies, or doing certain things in certain situations, we really liked that.

As a team we used that week to practice that specific map and we were able to put our best foot forward on that map the following week. The reason we put two games per week per map is because of the sheer number of teams that will most likely enter this. There's this stigma about getting paired against a pro team and getting smoked and how it will hurt a team's chances of making the playoffs.

That rang true to us so we wanted to have two chances per map per week so that in the event a pro team did come in and absolutely wreck a less-established team they could have a chance to play it again that same week.

We threw around so many different league formats, I'm sure you can appreciate us sitting in a room talking this through with our TO, talking it through with us, trying to come up with a format that we think can work for everyone and the answer is there simply isn't. We felt the best way to get the most diverse and well-rounded players to the tournament was to force everyone to play every map twice.

With the eighth week we just threw Overpass on there because we were still trying to determine what to do in the eighth week, whether it was going to be a veto scenario for this tournament, or an old map that isn't in the pool. We put Overpass on there, people seem to hate that, but it is what it is.

These details will come to be finalized prior to any sort of enrollment period for the tournament, but it was inspired by CAL for sure without question. I'll gladly say that, we loved CAL and we loved playing in it.

The league is set to culminate in a LAN finals with eight teams. With that, what size and scale of a LAN venue are looking at for this league in season one and is the venue already secured?

That's a really good question. That's one of the things that we'll be most likely determined by the number of signups and the feedback that we get at the beginning of season one. We have talked to two venues, one being a very famous venue in Dallas and everyone is going to scoff at us saying we are going back to Dallas. Everyone is talking about this Major in Austin, everyone is sick of Texas, Texas, Texas, but we have talked to a venue in Dallas that has done a very large CS event in the past...

Is it the Hyatt Regency, Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center, or Complexity's HQ, just curious?

No it's not any of those haha. It's what I would consider a mid-sized arena. One of our goals with this LAN event.. you see it with qualifiers with smaller crowds, face to face stages, more media and stream focused. It's qualifier events people tune in to watch but not a lot of people come in person to see.

One of the main points of discussion we have been having with our potential sponsors and current sponsors is how to activate crowds at events. This is an absolute tossup, this is something USEA Season One has a big tournament with a bunch of teams nobody knows and some teams everyone knows, do these teams make it to the finals? I don't know.

If those big names teams do not make the finals, there is going to be a very poor showing for that type of event. Mike and I sat down very early on and discussed if we need to create exemptions to get pro teams into the tournament in order to drive an audience for a finals event and then host it in something like Madison Square Garden and try to get a Major-sized crowd in there and the answer was simply no.

Our league needs to be built on player development and earning your spot in the playoffs and the last thing we are going to do is let these big pro teams buy into the playoffs if they didn't earn it. If they lose twice they're not going to make the playoffs, and maybe even once.

They're going to have to come to play and that's something we feel strongly about. That said, it takes a lot of time to secure a venue, to plan for a venue. In one of my roles in a company I've been a part of and previously organized trade shows, and even getting the booths and everybody set in the vendor section takes a lot of work.

My private equity group has a lot of people still working in that department that will help us operationalize this, but at the end of the day if you 16 weeks from inception to signups to venue you're already behind the gun. The venues that we have talked about are probably bigger than we are going to need but we have to start somewhere and if there are a lot of empty seats, we'd rather have it be that way than do it with a very small venue and have people outside that are unable to get in.

With eight teams on LAN, is your vision for the LAN portion to last multiple days?

That's it, yep.

Many of the initial reactions to this announcement were upset about the requirement for players to reside in the United States to compete. Does that mean that Canadians will not be able to compete in the league?

Hypothetically if they come to the United States based on the current agreements we have and the discussions with the organizers they could compete.

Would they need to reside in the US for the entirety of the league?

Not the entirety. If they wanted to travel here for the regular season and play their matches during those eight weeks and then go home before the playoffs, they'd be able to do that technically.

If they wanted to VPN in from Canada we wouldn't allow that.

What influenced this decision considering the American and Canadian scenes are so heavily linked?

Player development. This was the hardest decision we had to make as a league and we leaned on both league organizers that we spoke to about this. We had no less than ten discussions about this and we went back to the vision of the league and what our mission statement is. Our mission statement is we want to strengthen and advance player development in the United States.

North America as a whole is what everybody talks about when they talk about NA CS, NA FPS, but there really wasn't a place specifically for the United States. One of the long-term visions of our league is to create an atmosphere where there's country pride like we see in the World Cup and coming back to play for your country on the world stage.

If we let in Canada, then we let in Central America, then it turns into a discussion about if it's NA or is it the Western Hemisphere, really does the line stop? For us, to advance player development in the United States we wanted to draw the line at the United States and see how it was perceived in season one.

There's been some great feedback on Twitter about potentially a fifth playing and having the team be primarily from the United States. But then does that allow a ringer from another country to come in and does it change the dynamic of what we are trying to accomplish as a league?

So, we have always come back to our mission statement, which is "USA, USA, USA." That's where we drew the line. I'm sure there's going to be the most scrutiny around that, but that's where we have it now.

After season one is that something you are willing to revisit?

Of course, we are open to a lot of things after season one. This is a league that is a come one, come all tournament that we are trying to put on as a grand event for enjoyers of esports. But you have to remember that we keep talking about professional organizations, we keep talking about professional teams, and the pro players that have one player in Canada and the rest in America that travel all over Europe and play in these big events, it is not necessarily who we made this league for.

We made this league for the Open division, and for people to come in and play in the United States and develop as players here and grow. It would be very stupid to sit here and tell you we drew a line in the sand, it is definitive, we will never change it or listen to feedback and we don't care what anybody says. That's not the case.

We are going to learn a lot in season one just like any new org will, and it is going to be detrimental to not apply those changes as we go into season two and make sure the league is set up for success, without question.

For a team like M80, who all live in America but three of the players are foreign, would they be able to compete in the league without issue?

If they reside here then yes.

Whereas an orgless team like BOSS wouldn't be able to compete because two players are Canadian?

It is the same hypothetical as before, but if they came down to play then yes. It is not about excluding anybody based on where they are from, we just felt like requiring these matches be played on American soil was very important to us. We're talking hypotheticals and professional organizations, but I want to turn this back down to considering an open division with gameplay between young less-developed teams that are in the United States that just want to compete here so we can grow within our own country.

You have talked a lot about the league being a passion project, but to what degree is this motivated by a return on investment? If it doesn't result in a return on investment in the first year will we see a year two?

That's a really good question and at the end of the day it is a business first and foremost. It's a media company period. The passion comes from the games we want to put on the platform and we are enjoyers of Counter-Strike. Our league organizers said that we need to consider names like VALORANT and Dota 2 that we weren't as passionate about but we were open to the idea.

At a lot of the businesses I have been a part of, the years did start as passion projects like most entrepreneurs. They start something out of their garage and they hope to make it big someday.

What a lot of these individuals lose eventually is their passion for that business as they endure the trials of business because it honestly beats the crap out of a lot of people. You start a health and wellness company because you love health and wellness, I'm almost willing to bet three years in you don't love health and wellness anymore once you have made it your job.

Mike and I are in a unique position, and we're very fortunate to be in this position, where we can go back to things that we do love and turn them into businesses. From day one did we sit down and say let's make hundreds of millions of dollars, let's try to sell this to the Saudis, let's try to hire as few people as possible to jack up our valuation and sell it for as much as possible? Absolutely not.

Will we take a loss in season one? As I alluded to previously, that's something we are prepared to do. But, as it looks right now we are already going to come out ahead in season one just based on the sponsorships that we have. I'm looking more towards season three, four, five, six at where the league goes after these first couple inaugural seasons that we are already prepared to get through and I think the answer is growth.

Our mission statement is player development and we have to be around for these players to have a place to play in America and to grow esports in America. Keeping our entry fees low, and keeping the Open Division as something we love to compete in and play in is going to be the key to our success.

Is our goal to be some massive ESL-type professional only organization, I don't think so. Mike and I refuse to lose the passion with this project. Is that something we are willing to take a loss in for a period of time? Sure. But, we're not even really considering taking a loss on something like this given the strategy and approach we are taking for season one. We think it is going to be a massive success and we are most interested in putting the everyday gamers and esports enthusiasts first and creating a league for people to develop.

If we have done that with season one, this big marketing event, this big grand hurrah, that's going to help get the word out and bring a lot more people in to create something and play in something they love as well.

What is the timeline for teams to start signing up and for the launch of this league? Can we expect to see it in 2024?

It'll be this year. With there being as many pro leagues and circuits out there right now the schedule is becoming more packed by the day. We have leaned on our league organizers to try and find a schedule and eight weeks where we can get a regular season where we are not pissing off the other leagues even if it is only in America.

We don't want to come in and start ruffling feathers and scheduling things when pro teams are at other commitments. With that said, we're not going to let really complicated schedules get in the way of launching this league this year. That's our goal. We are aiming to have an enrollment period start this summer hopefully, towards the end of summer.

We are structuring our announcements with not only our league organizer, but with our sponsors, and some other people we are speaking to as far as influencers and partners and that's probably going to take place over the next month.

A lot of those league details are going to be ironed out and at that point we would open up an enrollment period and within that enrollment period whether it takes a month for enrollment or three weeks our goal is to get this set so hopefully we can have the final event in 2024. We want it to be this year.

So probably a Q3 league and a Q4 finals?

That's what we are hoping for.

With many of the key questions asked in this interview going unanswered or answered in broad strokes, the onus will now be on the USEA in the coming days, weeks, and months to convince the scene that this a tournament putting their trust in and competing in – something essential if Williamson's vision for his ambitious new product is to be realized.

Also read

#1(With 0 replies)
May 21, 2024 05:52PM
Cooked with this interview. Fantastic Work Dust2.us. I'm not a big fan of the no international bit, but if they're being honest about everything it sounds really promising and good for the region.
#2(With 1 replies)
May 21, 2024 06:14PM
Dust2 Birthday cake!
Not a fan of the whole "america first" mentality when almost all of the best NA teams have players from Canada who still live here.
#4(With 0 replies)
May 21, 2024 07:57PM
yea Canada is a big eg. for one but countries that are NA but isnt a US state are just out which sucks
#3(With 2 replies)
May 21, 2024 07:05PM
Dust2 Birthday cake!
> "If we let in Canada, then we let in Central America, then it turns into a discussion about if it's NA or is it the Western Hemisphere, really does the line stop?"

Actually yes, the line can stop. My brother in christ, you are the organizer.
#5(With 0 replies)
May 21, 2024 08:02PM
No shot they said that NA literally is a umbrella term for the Caribbean, Mexico, USA and Canada
#7(With 0 replies)
May 21, 2024 09:04PM
Yeah seriously just say only countries in NA it's a defined region
#6(With 0 replies)
May 21, 2024 08:11PM
I like that they the format isn't in stone. I don't like the US only just make Make it NA and NA isn't just US and Canada make it actually the full NA region It isn't that hard nor different that require change only thing that would be annoying is possibly visa but that's the later stage of LAN which isn't that important right now
#8(With 0 replies)
May 22, 2024 10:27AM
Thank you for doing this interview!
#9(With 0 replies)
May 26, 2024 07:53AM
so in the name of advancing the US scene they will sacrifice the development of any US majority team with only a player not based in the US. literally the only teams that rule will affect are lower tier orgless teams that would be by far the biggest beneficiaries of a league like this. what i imagine happening here is that those teams will just play with american stand-ins which defeats their stated goal for the league entirely. how do you have a single conversation about that let alone TEN and not come to that conclusion. americans shooting themselves in the the foot for the sake of nationalism
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