- Alliance is a European esports team founded by Razer, with squads competing in multiple games.
- Alliance’s “Dota 2” team is currently competing in The International, a massive tournament with a $US33 million prize pool in Shanghai, China.
- Business Insider spoke with Alliance’s CEO and coach Jonathan “Loda” Berg and general manager Kelly Ong about what it takes to build and support a competitive team of professional gamers.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Esports is a burgeoning industry, and only a handful of people can truly call themselves veterans in the world of professional gaming.
Jonathan “Loda” Berg is the CEO of Alliance, a Swedish esports team sponsored by major companies like Twitch, Monster, and Razer. But before he was an executive, Loda was considered one of the world’s best “Dota 2” players. In 2013, the same year Alliance was founded, Loda led the team to victory at The International, the annual “Dota 2” championship hosted by Valve Software, the game’s developer.
Now six years later, Alliance has new roster of young players to competing for a $US33 million prize pool at The International, with Loda as the coach. The tournament’s prize pool is more than 10 times larger than it was when Loda won, and it’s being hosted in Shanghai, China for the first time this year. The winning team will walk away with $US15 million, but Alliance’s progress in the tournament so far means it will leave with at least $US501,545 in prize money.
Alliance has also added new players to compete in games like “Fortnite,” “Super Smash Bros. Melee,” “League of Legends,” and “Call of Duty.” Alliance general manager Kelly “kellymilkies” Ong has more than 10 years of experience in competitive gaming and helps manage logistics, social media, and other day-to-day matters for the rapidly-expanding team.
Business Insider spoke with Loda and Ong about what it takes to build and support an esports team, how professional gamers can transition to new jobs when their careers end, and what it takes to win on the biggest stage in competitive gaming.
Loda led Alliance to victory at The International in 2013, when the prize pool was $US2.9 million. Back then, he thought he was too competitive to be a coach.
“Back then I could honestly not see myself being a coach because I was always all about competition,” Loda said. “I always loved playing “Dota 2,” and I loved competing in “Dota 2.”
Loda retired in 2018 after competing for more than a decade. Now, at 31 years old, he says he’s found a personal connection with Alliance’s current “Dota 2” roster. The team has an average age of just under 22, and only one of them has competed in The International before.
Loda said that most “Dota 2” players reach their physical peak between the ages of 18 and 22, but it can take a few more years for players to learn enough strategy maximise their potential. He said that older Dota players can take advantage of their experience to stay competitive for longer, but that often requires them to move into a support role as a captain.
As a coach, Loda wants Alliance’s players to learn from his experiences.
“After working with these boys, they have grown a lot on me and they mean a lot to me,” Loda said. “It’s just a blessing to be able to be here and help them. We’ll hopefully make the same kind of journey that I did.”
Alliance finished the first round of qualifiers with an even 8-8 record, earning the 8th seed in the 16-team bracket for The International’s main event.
“I try to remind them of stuff that went through my head and just calm them down,” Loda said before the tournament began.
Players on Alliance’s “Dota 2” team hail from Sweden, Germany, and Norway, and the oldest player is 25.
Loda scouted the five members of Alliance’s “Dota 2” squad to play specific roles. Three of the players are from Alliance’s home country of Sweden, while Maximillian “qojqva” Bröcker is from Germany, and Tommy “Taiga” Le is from Norway.
Loda met the team’s strongest player, Michael “miCKe” Vu, through another game called “Heroes of Newerth.” Vu introduced Loda to the team’s oldest player and eventual captain, Aydin “iNSaNiA” Sarkohi.
The team’s third Swedish player, Samuel “Boxi” Svahn originally played against Alliance in practice matches – Loda says he was impressed with his decision-making.
Loda prioritised aggressive players who could “think outside the box,” while recruiting for Alliance.
“I’ve been in Dota for so long that a lot of it is based on gut feeling,” Loda said. “But also seeing ‘can they think outside the box? Do they offer something that maybe other players don’t offer?'”
Similarly, Loda saw great potential in Le’s quick thinking and adaptation when he watched Taiga playing with lower-level teams. Loda said Le has been willing to learn and fill new roles for the team and has shown the most improvement since the current roster was put together in late 2017.
The team added Bröcker in June 2018 to bring a veteran pressence to the team. Bröcker competed in The International in 2014 and 2016 with two different teams, and he’s the only Alliance player with experience in the annual championship.
Alliance General Manager Kelly Ong organizes the team’s travel and business affairs when they’re not playing. She scheduled the team in Shanghai two weeks early for The International.
Alliance arrived in Shanghai two weeks prior to the start of the International to help the team adjust to the environment and begin focusing on the tournament. The extra time in Shanghai gave the players an opportunity to adjust to the humid climate and local food.
“We came two weeks early because I knew that they needed time to get used to the humidity,” Ong said. “It’s a shocker for anyone who hasn’t been to this part of the world before, and also the food tastes very different. It’s conditioning the body and you know that your body is your mind, and your mind is your body.”
“Sometimes they only want to eat McDonalds and I’m like ‘no, this is not it,'” Ong said.
“if you want them to be the best, you need to provide the best conditions,” Ong said of her role as general manager.
Unfortunately, the team encountered some equipment issues during this early arrival period, but Kelly reached out to her connections in China to rent a fresh batch of computers for the team to practice with.
“They were really happy, like you could see the obvious mood change,” Ong said. “We started winning a lot of our practice games, and of course I couldn’t let them play in those conditions.”
She continued, “That’s my job, to make sure that the players have the best available for them. Because if you want them to be the best, you need to provide the best conditions.”
Ong works to keep the team’s morale high by taking care of all the small things outside of the competition.
Ong mentioned that players can get homesick in the early days of a big trip, so she makes sure to take care of all the little things to keep the team’s spirits high.
“A lot of these players haven’t actually left their home country before, let alone travelled to another continent,” Ong said.
Sometimes that can be as simple as buying the team’s favourite snacks, or using Facebook to keep in touch with each player’s parents.
Alright what snacks am I missing to complete my tier 9999 snack game?? ????
(Dw fam the squad eats lots of fruits, drink a lot of water & exercise together too.)
PS: I need to work on finding a snack sponsor ???? pic.twitter.com/6odeFfU5Ee
— Kelly Ong ???????? (@kellymilkies) August 12, 2019
“I send them cute pictures of [the team] eating and just pictures of them hanging around,” Ong said. “It helps them, because they know their family is worried about them.”
Ong said that Alliance prides itself on grooming young players into champions. While the team has had opportunities to sign high profile talent, Alliance has focused on finding passionate players with a strong work ethic and proper teamwork.
“When they come up to you years later, even when they’re super, super famous and they still call you mum and give you a hug… it just makes everything worth it.” Ong said.
Ong has accepted a motherly role as the Alliance’s general manager, and after 10 years of experience in esports, she’s seen many of her players grow up.
Martin “Rekkles” Larsson is considered one of the best players in the “League of Legends” European Championship at the age of 22, but he was still a teenager when he joined Alliance in 2014. Though he left Alliance to join Fnatic as a salaried professional in the LEC, Ong said he still calls her “mum” when he sees her.
“Sometimes you don’t feel appreciated, right? That’s life. That’s being a mum,” Ong said. “But you know when they come up to you years later, even when they’re super, super famous and they still call your mum and give you a hug and genuinely talk to you, it, it just makes everything worth it.”
Loda said that professional players who are approaching 30 should consider their role within the industry. Ong mentors two players a year to teach them skills for a new career.
While Alliance’s “Dota 2” is currently competing for millions of dollars, most esports careers don’t lead to a massive fortune. Loda said that players who are approaching the age of 30 should be considering other roles in the industry.
The older players get, when the mechanical skill goes down, it’s also hard to keep striving to improve all the time,” Loda said. “It’s because you have to really invest just as much time as these other kids when it comes to playing the game. I’m talking about playing 10 hours of ‘Dota’ every single day, almost every single week of the year. And that gets tough.”
Ong said she mentors players to help them learn new skills like marketing and media relations, and said that older players should also be focused on networking to make sure they still have opportunities when their competitive career comes to an end.
“Your priorities change,” Ong said. “Playing 10 hours a day, seven days a week at some point in time when your 30… if you want to have a family, that’s really hard.”
Alliance has secured its place in The International’s main event, earning a minimum of $US501,545. The team will play its first elimination match on Aug. 20.
Alliance will face off against Royal Never Give Up, a Chinese squad, in the first round of The International’s main event. Both teams are in the lower bracket and face elimination if they lose. Regardless, the team will earn a minimum of $US501,545 for its performance so far.
The International’s main event will begin at 11 a.m. ET on Aug. 20 in Shanghai, which is 11 p.m. ET on Aug. 19. Alliance vs. Royal Never Give Up will be live on Twitch at 4:30 a.m. ET on Aug 20, and the match will be available for replay later in the day.
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