Martin Kabrhel: "Esports in five years will be very different from what it is now"
Interview with Martin Kabrhel, the Founder and Head of Data Science at Entropiq regarding his organization's ambitions, the state of the Czech esports scene, and what the future holds for the esports industry.
It's safe to say that esports has become a global phenomenon. While the likes of South Korea, Denmark, and Brazil and juggernauts in the industry, even smaller countries, by esports standards, have some form of esports scene, even if it's just a handful of players. 2020 has been an incredibly difficult year, what with the COVID-19 pandemic and all, but with so many people working from home and most sports being indefinitely postponed, the year has served as a great opportunity for many to discover the world of competitive gaming.
This year also, coincidentally, saw the emergence of Entropiq: a rapidly-growing Czech esports organization. While the Czech Republic, with the exception of a dozen or so players, isn't really present on the world-stage of esports, the country is beginning to see a growing interest in the field. To learn more about the happenings in the Czech scene, WePlay Esports sat down with Entropiq's Founder and Head of Data Analysis, Martin Kabrhel.
Let's start off with the esports scene in the Czech Republic. How widespread is esports?
We are in the early stages, but the scene is developing. For about 10 years, there's been a phase that may be called "esports", but when you compare it to what's going on in Asia, Western Europe, or the USA, we are still a very young market. I would say that this year has been pivotal for Czech esports because Entropiq and several other professional or semi-professional organizations emerged.
Our country has about 10 million inhabitants, of whom close to half a million are interested in esports. That is a pretty high percentage. There is a huge potential to grow a fanbase, and our data confirms that. Entropiq already boasts a very strong fanbase, which keeps growing. We foresee a bright future for Czech esports and will be a part of it.
What are the most popular titles in the Czech scene?
The number one is, undoubtedly, Counter-Strike, because the game already has an established fanbase. While League of Legends or Dota 2 tend to be the second biggest titles in other countries, we have a very big PUBG scene. Entropiq has a squad that belongs to the top tier, but we still fight for our place in the world’s top 16. Two or three other Czech-Slovak organizations have competitive PUBG squads as well.
The local scene features League of Legends, but it doesn’t grow anymore because only the top two teams go to the EU Masters and because the LEC is closed.
Then there's Hearthstone, which might be perhaps even more popular than LoL nowadays. We have a few strong players, who can compete on the Masters Tour level, and the Czech Republic also has a Grandmaster.
Another popular game is FIFA. While some fans don't consider FIFA a top-shelf esports game, we at Entropiq think that FIFA offers the potential to link with mainstream partners. It is easy for fans to understand; it’s football on a computer.
The last title I’m going to mention here is VALORANT, especially now that the qualifiers for the First Strike are underway. The European scene is still young, but several Czech CS:GO and PUBG players have already switched to VALORANT, and I think it's a title we'll be very competitive in.
Has the Czech government made any investments into esports?
Not yet, but the times are changing, which is natural. Two or three years ago, if you had started this discussion, you would've looked like a fool. Well, now it starts becoming mainstream here. The decision-makers at various associations, including the Ministry of Sports, and so on... they all have children, who play games and follow the esports scene, and they talk about it at home. So, government investments? Not yet, but I think that will come within the next two years.
So, with all that in mind, what are Entropiq's ambitions as an organization?
We are Czech, based in Prague, and we are proud of that, but our long-term strategy isn't really influenced by that too much. Sure, we want to be the best Czech organization, but our ultimate goal is to be among the leaders in Europe and beyond. Becoming the best on the home soil is a necessary step on the road, and we’ve already claimed the national title in Hearthstone and reached the finals in CS:GO. But we think big, eyeing international success. It's just a coincidence that we speak Czech. If I were from Denmark, my vision and ambition would be the same.
Barring your international VALORANT roster, all of your players are Czech or Slovak. Moving forward, do you still aim to keep the Czech identity in your rosters, or would you consider going international if that was the best business move?
When we choose our players, we look around the world and scout the best possible options for each game we're interested in. Though I’m not a fan of the word, we're quite opportunistic; if we see a good opportunity, we go for it. As an organization, Entropiq is still a baby: it was established on January 26, 2020. For the first six months, we didn’t have a CS:GO roster, but it's not that I couldn't hire the best guys. We're trying to search for players who aren't just good aimers, but who share our values and can work with us long term. We don't want to be here for two years and then fade away. We emphasize the long-term vision, and I think that, barring a few exceptions, we have already signed the best players from the Czech-Slovak scene.
In about two weeks, we’re going to announce an acquisition of two new players from the United Kingdom. I’m not going to reveal which game they play, but we’ve been working on it for months, and I’m really happy about it. For us, it's not about money. It's about finding the right fits. It's tough to put five or six people together and make it work for the long term, especially on the local scene. Rosters change all the time; people are unhappy, lose motivation, and so forth. We're trying to find the best match and go for it. While we've been actively seeking a Dota roster, we still don't have one. I would love to have a good Dota 2 team, but we will have it when we’re sure it’s worth it. There's no pressure on acquiring one before the end of the year or Q1 2021. I want to know that the guys can play together for two or three years and achieve something meaningful. We want to build the team with them, invest in them, and help them with our performance coaches.
When I return to your original question: it doesn't matter to me whether the players come from Greece, Colombia, the United Kingdom, or the Czech Republic. If the players are confident enough to prove themselves as people who share the organization’s vision and values, that's what matters. I would bet that we'll gradually have more international acquisitions at Entropiq because there aren’t many players from the Czech-Slovak pool that we’d want but haven’t signed yet.
Despite being a young organization, Entropiq houses a surprising amount of rosters across various games. You previously mentioned Dota 2, but are there other titles you're looking to enter?
Whenever I see a trade with a positive expected value, I go for it. We have a list of priorities and games we want to enter. We already have a CS:GO roster, we also have two VALORANT units, which is pretty remarkable for such a young organization, but we saw it as a great opportunity to be quick off the blocks. We also have FIFA and Hearthstone players, and a PUBG roster. Other than that, Dota 2 is an attractive market for us. If I see an opportunity to sign a tier-one squad that will be able to compete at the highest level and hopefully make it to The International, then I'm in. I’m not going to comment on other games.
On a more personal note, how did you discover esports and gaming?
Thanks to Ematiq, a data-analyzing company which is my primary project, we can see all the data from the esports industry. We know the popularity, how much money is involved, the probabilities, and more. That allows me to say that the esports industry, as a whole, is still very young. I think that esports in five years will be very different from what it is now. That's my prediction, and I'm pretty confident about it. I think that the standards in esports are going to evolve, and I'm convinced that we’ll see more money being invested in this field. The industry has tremendous potential.
I have many contacts from poker and business, so I know the guys who run the top esports organizations. I’d had conversations and calls before I got invested, and while I think that the people involved do a great job, many of them are former players, fans, or people that love video games. I have nothing against that, but I think that some people behind the big esports names aren't business-oriented. They do it with passion, and I'm on board with that, but there should be an emphasis on business rationality. I think the esports industry lacks that, which makes me firmly believe that we can succeed.
We are really good when it comes to data; we know who we should acquire based on it. We're also different in the way we execute things. Entropiq invests more money into the supportive staff than the players. That may not convey a good message towards our players, but I'm honest with them, of course. I try to put people who can think about things long-term in charge: people, who can make good business deals and navigate things in this complex industry. Personally, I do not dedicate the majority of my time to Entropiq because I have other big projects to take care of. But that's why I looked for great managers to run the organization. So far, I'm very pleased. We may not be the world champions in any game yet, but we are very good at creating content, we have a great fanbase, and think we can bring Czech esports to the next level.
Famous MMA fighter Machmud "Mach" Muradov recently joined Entropiq as a brand ambassador. Could you tell us a bit about that deal?
We believe that bringing in huge sports names can help us bridge the gap between the mainstream audience and esports fans. So far, it has worked really well. Mach is a prime example of what could successful athletes bring to the table. His passion for everything he does -- including playing games -- is a testament to the values pursued by Entropiq. Mach’s incredible discipline and steadfast approach to improving and becoming a star in his sport resonate with our long-term vision. He personifies our core principles and motivates our players and fans to follow in his footsteps. We believe that doing things at the highest level and giving it all while enjoying the process is the way to success.
Before we partnered with Mach, we also acquired former Liverpool F.C. football player Vladimír Šmicer, who is Czech and who invested in our company. We recently published a video with Vladimír, who was playing FIFA with one of our players before they went on a real football pitch; it was fun to watch. By creating this kind of content, we're able to draw attention among people who would otherwise never follow esports, who would never tune in to our CS:GO tournaments. With this transition, we're able to explore new markets, and I think it's working. A few years ago, if you said that you were watching someone play video games, people would call you crazy. But more people gradually come to understand that if you're watching real football, it's pretty much the same, right? You follow the competition.
So we're delighted with our ambassadors, and their genuine interest in playing games was the main reason why we decided to partner with Mach and Vladimír. The former plays Dota and Counter-Strike, the latter likes FIFA and NHL. Had we just brought in a random celebrity from our country, who would have no idea about esports, people would've said that we do it only to get more followers. We planned to make a lot of content at offline events, which unfortunately couldn’t happen due to Covid, but still, we're very excited.
August was a big month for Entropiq, as you formed a partnership with McDonald's, one of the biggest fast-food chains in the world. Could you tell us a bit about that deal?
It's a great achievement for Entropiq, and I’m really happy about it! With McDonald's, our goal is a long-term cooperation, which is always hard to set in stone. If other esports organizations are looking to cut a similar deal, I have bad news for them because it really isn’t easy. Luckily, I have a lot of contacts in our country, which includes the Central European branch of McDonald's. It definitely helps to have good connections, but we have so much to offer, so it wasn’t too difficult. We’re all about professionalism, that’s what we bring to the table.
It comes down to what I said earlier when I mentioned how esports organizations are run. Somebody thinks they’re happy to have all these brands on the jerseys, but it's about putting all pieces together to have the whole package. From the partners’ point of view, they’re looking to make profitable investments. We succeed in convincing these companies to invest in Entropiq because we know what we can deliver. If you're over-promising but under-delivering, the deals will be over after two months because the partners won't be happy. We try to pick partners who are on the same page with us and have the same long-term vision. It also helped that, even before we signed with our first partner, we’d had a solid background and great investors. Professionalism, good delivery, and making people happy, that's the key. And, in a few days, we'll be announcing a new partnership with another top brand.
You mentioned a sports psychologist earlier, but what kind of resources do you allocate to your players?
We have 1,000 square meters of beautiful offices in the Prague city center. Around 70 people are involved with Entropiq, including players and coaches. That is a pretty significant number for such a young organization. We invest in our players as we want them to be devoted to the game, the training, and following our advice. It's hard because esports players are typically very young and the 20-year-olds “know better”, right? Ultimately, that is the bottleneck. Because if they don't listen to our advice, then it becomes tough. Therefore it is an essential part of the decision-making process when we recruit new players. We need to make sure that they have the right attitude and will be able to follow advice.
We've already seen considerable improvements in performance and the quality of life of our players. That's why we invest so heavily into coaches. Every division has a coach, who reports to our performance coach. They brainstorm, share information, and try to learn from each other. We also want to have boot camps, but it's a little hard amidst Covid. Ideally, we want the players to live nearby so that they can regularly come in the office and have a sort of permanent boot camp. We also encourage our players to exercise and eat balanced diets, but we do it gradually. Otherwise, the changes would be too big, and they might not handle it.
You're a former competitor yourself, you won 2 bracelets and 5 rings in World Series of Poker, so you know what it takes to be the best. How ingrained are those values in Entropiq?
If my time allows it, I try to provide our players with good advice. Having won many tournaments in poker, I think I know what it takes to be the best. Talent is part of it, but it also takes a lot of hard work. If you want to be the best in the world at something, you need to breathe that thing. I try to share this winning mentality with the rest of the guys, but it’s not easy to transmit. That's also why we always look for players with the winning mindset straight from the beginning. Many people involved in Czech esports think that if they're the best in our country, it's a great achievement. We tell our players that it's a nice goal to have, but it's just the start. We want to be world champions.
I know a lot about statistics and variance, so if we don't win a CS:GO Major in the first two years, it's okay, but I want to make sure the team does the maximum to reach that goal. It's hard to make me 100% satisfied, I'm really demanding. But if they do the most they can, then I'm happy. They can be unlucky, and we will make mistakes; it's all good. I'm a mathematician, so I know it's all about maximizing our probabilities, analyzing, and making correct decisions.