Important questions Astralis shareholders need to ask
Richard Lewis takes a look at Astralis' history and asks a set of questions that the organization's shareholders should be asking right now.
Dexerto’s Richard Lewis takes a look at Astralis’ history and asks a set of questions that the organization’s shareholders should be asking right now to protect their investment.
At the end of 2019, as they prepared to celebrate their fourth anniversary, Astralis were an esports organization like few others. Having dominated Counter-Strike: Global Offensive with their flagship team of Danish talent for two years, the brand’s reputation was stellar. Indeed, there have only been a handful of faster ascents to the top of a highly competitive space. To the stars indeed… And maybe beyond. A purchase of Origen offered the new frontier of competing in League of Legends. 2019 was also the year they resolved the convoluted ownership situation between themselves and parent company RFRSH Entertainment, which also owned the BLAST tournament operator. While this conflict of interest had brought some criticism their way, the CS:GO team’s continued success and likable personalities acted as a shield that ensured that it barely made a mark.
At this time it made total sense that the company would go public and so in December 2019, they started to trade on the Danish Nasdaq. By the start of 2020, the share price would increase to 8.88 Danish Krones a share, and the future was looking positive. What would follow was a protracted battle between management and players over getting time off and better contracts. This then segued into the global pandemic, which saw the organization request players took a 30% pay cut in order to adjust operating costs to a more sustainable level, which would then seemingly be contradicted by expanding the CS:GO squad to six and then later seven players. The whole fiasco was detailed in an extensive report published on Dexerto in June of that year, and it wouldn’t be the last negative headline the organization would generate.
Over the course of 2020, despite the CS:GO team’s results still being very respectable, the share price would continue to drop, ending the year at 4.22 Danish Krones a share. 2021 would see the team’s performance dip significantly, and eventually, the legendary roster that had achieved so much was slowly dismantled. A surprise sale of Nicolai ‘device’ Reedtz to Swedish organization NIP would see an ineffectual replacement in the form of Philip ‘Lucky’ Ewald that continued to drive poor results.
By the time the PGL Major in Stockholm rolled around, they were in bad shape, suffering humiliating defeats at the hands of the device-driven NIP, as well as eternal rivals Heroic and French side Vitality, ensuring that they didn’t play in the stadium. Even as that tournament continued, Astralis announced that they would be signing Kristian ‘k0nfig’ Wienecke and Benjamin ‘blameF’ Bremer, a move that confirmed Emil ‘Magisk’ Reif and Peter ‘dupreeh’ Rasmussen would not be re-signing with the team. The end of an era, but of greater concern would be the departure of the greatest coach in CS:GO history, Danny ‘zonic’ Sørensen, who agreed to follow his Danish compatriots out the door. Since then, the organization has been in freefall, consistently generating bad results and negative headlines. In tandem with that has been the downward trend of the Astralis share price, now at 1.63 Danish Krones per share.
Incompetence in esports is the norm, and it seems that is never set to change, but it’s worth noting that publicly traded organizations are to be held to a different standard than the ones that exist by pissing venture capital against a wall. A publicly traded organization, like any public company, has a fiduciary duty to its shareholders, which means it must be committed to making decisions that enhance shareholder value, while also adhering to any appropriate laws and regulations.
As we can see, Astralis have ended in one direction, both on and off the server. Now, I am wisely not a shareholder of Astralis, but maybe you are one of the few, outside of Nyholm and his associates. If that’s the case, then you might want to ask some questions about why the board of directors is making decisions that seemingly fly contrary to their obligations. If you’re unsure of what those questions might be, then don’t worry. You can use this article as a checklist. Maybe you’ll get the answers Astralis seek to deny the general public.
Why was it deemed so essential that you employ Nicola ‘HUNDEN’ Petersen, especially as it now conceivably appears to be a reward for negative actions taken while in the employment of your local esports rivals Heroic?
The lengths Astralis have gone to in order to employ HUNDEN are beyond extraordinary. Not only is he a convicted cheater but he also engaged in the type of unprofessional behavior that would make his hire easily described as risky. Heroic, his former employers, took legal action against him for the sharing of confidential documents (with Astralis) and breach of contract. In addition to that, in a bid not to prove his innocence but to assert his former players’ guilt, he manipulated a vulnerable person by abusing a position of trust. Despite this, not only did Astralis follow through and employ him in a “head analyst” role (recent footage of him operating at BLAST would heavily suggest he is the de facto coach of the team) but they even leveraged a sponsor to provide him with work while he lodged his ESIC appeal.
Aim Labs is a prominent partner for Astralis and yet seemed completely unaware that HUNDEN was working on a joint project as part of their sponsorship. Equally, many sources in Denmark believed it was a “Trojan Horse” style operation to enable Petersen to work with the players without it generating the negative publicity such an announcement would provide. In addition to that, when confronted about the relationship, they stated that “once Mr. Petersen’s ban has expired, should we have the need, we would not have any second thoughts about offering him a position as an analyst or the like”, tipping their hand to future plans.
In regards to the optics surrounding the timeline, it would be a reasonable conclusion to believe that HUNDEN deemed the actions of sharing competitor intelligence from Heroic and trying to have their players banned as an additional service to Astralis ahead of future employment. The fact that Astralis Chairman Nicolaj Nyholm went from irate at the Heroic team to being willing to work with the architect of the cheating seems to be a strange about-turn.
Even just judging HUNDEN on his merits would raise questions. His coaching experience amounts to a little over a year, even if you include the time spent working as an analyst at Heroic while he concluded his suspension. This was during a time when the pandemic was limiting the true competitive experience of Counter-Strike, and even so, the team only won a single major tournament either side of HUNDEN’s suspension. In his absence, Heroic have gone on to greater things and have ascended to being ranked as the No.1 team in the world, a feat Astralis themselves haven’t achieved since March 8, 2021. All of this, combined with the immediate results after his hiring, raises questions about the determination to bring him into the team, especially when considering the detrimental hit he brings to the brand’s already ailing reputation.
Given that a part of HUNDEN’s transgressions involves the attempt to exploit someone with Asperger’s Syndrome, what safeguards are in place to ensure that any players he might work with at your organization are protected?
As mentioned above, part of ESIC’s report from the second time HUNDEN was convicted of violating its code of conduct was that he abused his position of trust and targeted someone with both ADHD and Asperger’s syndrome in an attempt to have them self-incriminate. ESIC described the actions as “ruthless” manipulation and characterized it as a “set-up.” Given that HUNDEN’s role will involve him working unsupervised with other potentially vulnerable people under his duty of care, what safeguards are the management putting in place to ensure there’s not a repeat of this incident?
Why does being a convicted cheater seem to increase your chances of employment at Astralis?
Astralis’ hiring policy regarding the coaching and analysis roles since zonic left has seen them employ a total of three individuals convicted of cheating offenses in the online era. This seems at odds with the strong stance taken by Nyholm and the CS:GO players, who themselves seemed to be vocally against cheaters during that time.
Alexander ‘ave’ Holdt was employed by the Astralis organization between November 2021 and May 2022, working with both the main team (as head coach and assistant coach) and the academy squad (as head coach). Peter ‘casle’ Toftbo took charge of Astralis’ academy lineup in August 2022, but less than two months later, he was named interim coach of the main squad. Before the end of the year, Astralis confirmed that he would remain in the role in 2023.
Both ave and casle (in addition to HUNDEN) were among the 37 coaches banned by ESIC in September 2020 for using the spectator bug for competitive advantage. Naturally, the community sentiment about the coaches that cheated during this time is negative, and the fact one organization has hired so many has eroded a lot of good faith outside of Astralis’s dedicated fanbase.
How do your sponsors feel about their brand being associated with convicted cheaters?
At the time of writing, the following companies sponsor Astralis:
- Bybit (a cryptocurrency exchange)
- Logitech (a consumer electronics company)
- Omen (a computer maufacturer)
- Hummel (a sportswear manufacturer)
- Bob Sports (official regional partner for the Asia Pacific region)
- Boyu Sports (official regional partner for the Asia Pacific region)
- Garmin (watch manufacturer)
- Secret Lab (gaming chair manufacturer)
- Power (Nordic electric retail outlet)
- Dribe (car sharing start-up)
- FACEIT (gaming and tournament operating platform)
- Stimorol (chewing gum manufacturer)
- Go Mate (Energy Drink brand)
A number of these brands are staples in their respective field, many of them working with multiple elite-level teams. While it is the norm that team business would never be discussed with sponsors, given the potentially damaging association with their own brand values, it would not seem unrealistic that Astralis would have briefed them ahead of their announcement.
As an organization that has demanded that broadcast talent face sanctions or be removed from the broadcast for things they’ve said on multiple occasions, can you explain what action you will take against your staff for making public threats akin to blackmail?
For context, Astralis has lodged complaints on multiple occasions about the conduct of broadcast talent on social media. For example, during BLAST Premier’s 2020 Spring European Showdown, following this exchange on Twitter, Astralis back-channeled and requested BLAST make demands about CS:GO analyst Duncan ‘Thorin’ Shield’s use of social media during the event. Thorin refused and left the broadcast.
It seems unthinkable that the Astralis organization couldn’t have predicted the reaction to a controversial hire being negative and yet their Director of Communications, Steen Laursen, had what people in modern parlance refer to as a “social media meltdown” over one such example. Prominent CS:GO analyst Janko “YNk” Paunovic exclaimed that the “org had turned to shit” on Twitter, prompting a strange response from Laursen. Intimating he would expose something negative about YNk, he then immediately withdrew the threat when his bluff was called. He explained his behavior away as “disbelief” at the criticism being leveled. While the incident was discussed on multiple social media platforms, it seems no action was taken.
Externally, such behavior could be perceived that Astralis have hiring issues across the board, the one trait you would want from a Director of Communications being a cool head. As the brand’s mouthpiece, an inability to behave appropriately in public could be detrimental to Astralis as a whole.
Can you explain Kasper Hvidt’s role in recruitment and his input into the team? He has provided tonally inconsistent messaging around roster size and has even directly undermined the CS:GO team coach in doing so.
At the start of 2020, after members of the CS:GO team complained about issues of burnout, having completed a grueling tour of five tournaments across a 43-day span, (traveling from Denmark to China, China to the USA, the USA to Denmark, and finally Denmark to Bahrain), the organization decided it would look to expand the roster. Concerns about this colored contract negotiations and resulted in two members of the squad taking a leave of absence from the team. The moves were clearly unexpected, with the organization scrambling to find stand-in talent so they could meet their attendance obligations to their partners. In came two players well below the Astralis standard.
A few days later, Hvidt would write a blog entitled “We Need A Change”, in which he opined about how Astralis hadn’t actually caused the burnout and that it was an industry-wide problem, despite this roster being one of the only examples in the modern era of CS:GO. He added that fans were being encouraged to buy into “conspiracies” as pundits questioned the timing and manner of the departure with contract negotiations about to get underway. Some had suggested the players were brought in as “scabs” to demonstrate to the players they would be willing to play without them if it was necessary.
Hvidt has always maintained his vision for a ten-man roster, with five starting players and five substitutes constituting an academy team. However, this vision didn’t seem to overlap with that of zonic, who had publicly stated that there wouldn’t be a seventh player on a rotational roster. While likely unintentional, undermining such a valued and respected member of staff, one who directly contributed to the success of the CS:GO team can’t be a net positive for a team in transition.
Can you explain the thought process in handing a lucrative four-year contract to a player in their mid-20s and struggling for form?
Similarly bizarre was the decision to give a reputedly lucrative four-year deal to the aging and out-of-form Andreas “Xyp9x” Højsleth. Xyp9x had been in talks with other organizations as he explored his options, and many felt he was destined to leave. That he was able to get a type of deal that isn’t in keeping with the industry standard is a testament to the desperation of Astralis at that time. It’s fair to say, based on performance levels since, which represent some of the player’s lowest in an illustrious career, the deal has not represented value for money.
After having produced several busts when it comes to player scouting are there any plans to evaluate how this process is done?
Ever since the legendary core of Astralis broke apart, the organization has really struggled to identify the correct caliber of talent necessary to fill those metaphorical shoes. In that time, four players have left the organization, including one who was seemingly salaried to not play across the main or academy team, and one transfer was reversed with the return of device. This all represents a significant investment for not much return.
Another new player with little elite-level experience has also been added to the roster, and so far he looks like he has a long way to go in terms of development. Based on this, it would probably be a good idea to re-evaluate the scouting and recruitment policy in place as it has been a waste of money that has not yielded any noticeable improvements on the server.
Recently, you had to cut a player from the roster after he injured himself in a drunken fistfight while representing Astralis at an event. Is this hugely embarrassing incident indicative of how Astralis players behave when at events? Where are the managers to ensure professional behavior from players when in the field?
It has been written about repeatedly but for the record, a player billed as a star for the team, Kristian “k0nfig” Wienecke, let his drunkenness get the better of him at an ESL event in Malta. After being refused entry to a nightclub and ejected roughly, he waited outside the venue and then decided to confront the person he deemed responsible for denying him entry. In the resulting melee, he managed to break his own ankle and then was on the receiving end of physical retribution from his intended victim. This meant that k0nfig had to return to Denmark for surgery on his broken leg and missed a must-win qualifier for the CS:GO Major. Astralis failed to qualify, losing out on the opportunity to sell digital merchandise in conjunction with the event, which cost them significant revenue. The irony was that k0nfig had already been passed over as a recruitment option in the past by Astralis due to his attitude.
Since you publicly present yourselves as an elite-level esports organization with an equally elite-level support staff, how do you explain the consistently terrible performance of your LEC team?
Since they applied the Astralis brand to their League of Legends team, they have regularly ranked among the worst teams ever to compete in the LEC league. Having finished no higher than joint 7th/8th out of 10 competing teams in four seasons, two of those saw them finish dead last in the league despite a roster that boasts some veteran talent. In the aftermath of their 30% pandemic salary reduction, it was reported that the pay cut was partially used to fund the recruitment of players, suggesting Astralis have tried to operate their LoL team at a minimum expenditure.
Given that Riot’s LEC is considered by many to be one of the best esports products to be involved with right now, the fact that the team’s performance continually stains the brand is far from ideal. Astralis in general have really struggled to establish themselves as a great esports organization, having close to no success in any other game they’ve participated in. Instead, they’ve established themselves as an organization made great by the efforts of one team, a team that no longer plays together.
Can you provide more context about what happened regarding the cancellation of the Roobet sponsorship deal? It’s not your first time taking money from sources that the public might deem dubious, so how will the process of screening sponsors for suitability change in the future?
In May 2022, Astralis entered into a sponsorship deal with online casino Roobet. This deal came at a time when Roobet were under heavy criticism for being an offshore, unregulated, crypto casino, as well as for their use of influencer advertising that would inadvertently target those underage for gambling requirements. At the time, Astralis said of the deal: “Roobet came to us looking for a partner to help establish and grow the Roobet brand in the international esports community. It did not take long to establish that there was a match between our common ambitions and our digital position and capabilities, so it was all about tailoring a partnership agreement to meet the high expectations of both parties.”
A lot can evidently change in 24 hours as it wasn’t even a full business day before Astralis announced they would be terminating the deal. They said: “In this incident, we did not perform our due diligence well enough around local legal matters, and when you make a mistake, you must correct it. This is what we do now. With good reason, Astralis is an icon in Danish and international esports, and we must always be aware of our responsibility. There can never be any doubt about our actions, but in this case, we have not met our own standards, which we regret towards all parties implicated.”
This, however, isn’t Astralis’s only dealings with a sponsor that would be deemed “dodgy” by the general public, which suggests they really need to work on how those famous standards are applied. It was only in 2018 they proudly announced a $2 million sponsorship with esports.com. They were, prior to selling the name and URL to an esports publication, an Etherium-based cryptocurrency that claimed they were going to build a betting platform and content website. A clear and obvious grift from the start, their white paper was a garbled bunch of nonsense, and nothing on the roadmap was executed. Although the nature of the deal remained unclear, the esports.com project as it was then was widely reported as a scam, with its founding executives leaving the project amid allegations of misrepresenting their business partners, not paying contractors, and using the ICO as a classic rug-pull.