Maksym Bilonogov, chief visionary officer and general producer at WePlay Esports, discusses the WePlay Academy League
With 2 successful seasons under their belt, WePlay’s Academy League is an important project for the future of CS:GO. With 8 of the biggest organizations in CS supporting the project, this may be where the next Zyw0o emerges from. Prior to Season 2, we sat down with WePlay Chief Visionary Officer Maksym Bilonogov to talk about how the league came to be and his thought on the first season.
Arnav “XL” Shukla: Why did you decide to create the WePlay Academy League?
Maksym Bilonogov: “Among the esports community, the idea of creating a project where novice players can prove their skills and gain new experience while competing with up-and-comers just like themselves has been brewing for quite a long time. The esports market has long since begun to experience a shortage of “young blood”.
Tier-1 teams are reluctant to present novice players in their main rosters due to their inexperience. Transfer prices for professional players are getting higher. More traditional sports such as football or basketball deal with this problem through junior squads and leagues. A similar strategy can be applied to esports as well, especially considering that many esports organizations have started forming or already have their own rookie teams.
WePlay Esports has decided to take initiative and proposed the idea of such a league for the juniors. In turn, esports organizations responded positively to this venture and supported the project.”
XL: How did you make the WePlay Academy League?
Maksym: “The need for an academic structure in esports had become clear a long time ago. When the regulations of tournaments do not allow to exhibit several rosters from one organization per one tournament, it is quite difficult for beginners to gain gaming experience and train the knowledge they get from coaches.
Also, do not forget that for Tier 1 players it’s extremely important to know how to behave correctly in public, on stage, to communicate with the press and the management of the tournament organizer. Before the WePlay Academy League kicked off, our team started working in this direction with a CS:GO league for younger teams, WePlay! Forge of Masters.
Prominent esports organizations reached out to us and suggested creating such a league for their academies. Even after the start of the project, the teams were very engaged in dialogue, they had a say in shaping the format, and shared their ideas on how to make the project better — and together, we brought this idea to its realization.
And now we see the WePlay Academy League really working and fulfilling its mission: there are already players who have moved from the juniors to the main rosters. This is incredible!”
Mouz NXT Sycrone: "I think the goal for every Academy team is to replicate what Gambit has done"
mouz NXT's Sycrone is fresh off a win at the WePlay Academy League Season 1.
XL: In terms of shoulder content, WePlay Esports has created many pieces of content that we don’t usually see in other events, like the Team Profiles and Virtual Talent Models in the game. How does this shoulder content benefit the league and the broadcast, and do you think there is a need for more high-quality shoulder content in the current landscape?
Maksym: “We are living in an amazing time when esports tournaments are perhaps in one of the best stages of their development. Tournament operators make events more colorful and grand, and the broadcasts are of ever-higher quality. The audience sees a nice picture, and you’d think should be happy about everything. The problem is that this picture is pretty much the industry standard, and you can’t stand out with it alone.
The concept of our company is to bring entertainment through esports events. It’s not enough to just make quality in-game content — now it should be appealing, engaging, and unique. Analyzing the tournaments and broadcasts from WePlay Esports, you will notice that almost all of them have interesting features that are not typical of other operators’ broadcasts.
Even the usual stuff which today is a must-have for any esports event, we create differently. For example, for the WePlay! Bukovel Minor 2020, the Dota 2 Minor organized by WePlay Esports, we have developed an AR map for the analytics studio, where you could see what was happening during the game. For WePlay AniMajor, in between matches, the talents played games from Japanese TV shows, as the theme of the tournament was Аnime.
So, the Academy cases are just some of the many worth being described.”
XL: The WePlay Esports broadcast and production quality has also been praised by the CS community, is it feasible for WePlay Esports to run such a high-quality production on a product like the Academy League?
Maksym: “The audience expects a certain level of quality from us, which we always deliver in our tournaments regardless of whether there are Tier-1 teams or academies playing. This time, we have conceptually focused on the players, not the visual content around the game.
We tell the audience the names of future esports stars. After our tournaments, viewers begin to follow the youth roasters. We feel incredible pride for the folks when they leave our arena and move on to the pro stage. We are lighting up the stars, and it’s worth any production effort.”
XL: The WePlay Academy League is supposed to be a lower-level tournament than, say, an ESL or a Blast event by nature of the teams involved, yet WePlay Esports have hired Tier 1 talents for both English and Russian broadcasts. Why hire such a high-level broadcast team instead of using Tier 2-3 talent like most other TOs do?
Maksym: “The WePlay Academy League is produced in such a way that in terms of format and level of organization, it is not at all inferior to Tier-1 esports events. The participants communicate with the press, get to meet the best talents, take part in media days, etc. — everything is like at any other prestigious tournament.
This is also an important part of any esports pro’s career, and our project is aimed at introducing the juniors to this side of esports tournaments as well. Young players need to see and understand that they are no worse than other players, even though they are just starting their careers.
For many, this is their first experience going on stage, standing in the spotlight. We heard the folks tell us how, at the beginning of their esports path, they used to dream that their favorite talents would commentate on their game one day, and now it’s coming true. The League is in many ways about chasing a dream. And in dreams, there is nothing but the best.”
XL: Has the WePlay Academy League broadcast also served as a potential test for bigger events from WePlay Esports in the future?
Maksym: “We analyze the results and draw conclusions about what was good and what could have been done better for each project. The WePlay Academy League is especially useful for us as an experience in creating and developing a long-term project. In the future, such knowledge will be handy, for sure.
Also, the Academy is a strategically important project, not only as a platform for practicing the skills of organizing a tournament series but also for expanding the esports audience and sharing the knowledge with the wider public. Together with the young players, people who had no experience watching gaming content before start to learn more about the sphere.
The viewers see how everything begins, how the teams are formed. That helps to understand that this is the sport of the future, and it’s worth following today.”
XL: How successful has the WePlay Academy League been in your opinion? Has it lived up to your original vision?
Maksym: “The first season fully met my expectations and demonstrated that the audience also had an interest in this project — according to Esports Charts, we had more than 28,000 peak views and more than 1 million hours watched. It’s too early to draw conclusions for Season 2, but so far everything is going well.”
XL: Are there any changes or improvements that you wish to make before the next season of the WePlay Academy League?
Maksym: “We work on scaling the project. We want to see more organizations participate in the WePlay Academy League so that more novice players have the opportunity to take part in the project and gain new skills. It will be great to see the competition between the junior rosters of all the leading esports organizations from around the world.”
The Home of Future Talents
With so many big organizations creating academy rosters, it’ll be interesting to see how the project develops in the future. Players like Ilya “m0NESY” Osipov and Ádám “torzsi” Torzsás are already being marked as players who could move to tier-1 play soon. The sheer amount of talent and resources available in this league make it the place where future top players will emerge from, much like Valerii “b1t” Vakhovskyi in NaVi did.