Astralis sports director explains team’s new academy system
Astralis Talent, a new sports-inspired academy program, has been launched by the Danish esports organization.
Unveiled on November 12, the initiative is said to be based on a “balanced, professional approach to performance and constant progress” and will be used to recruit young players.
Astralis Talent members will be housed in the same facility utilized by the A teams of the organization, initially focusing on Counter-Strike and League of Legends. Recruits will be integrated into the org’s performance model, the training program that they cite as a major proponent of their success to date.
Alongside stated intentions of building a 10-man roster in Counter-Strike, following unplanned breaks for two players due to “burnout and stress,” Astralis are ensuring procedures are put in place as a means of prevention. The talent program will be a component of keeping the main teams fresh, as well as developing prospective stars.
To delve into the academy program, including the exact approach that’ll be used and concerns of them locking down future talent to generate profit in years to come, Dexerto spoke with the team’s director of sports, Kasper Hvidt.
“We don’t know the best way to optimize players yet,” he told Dexerto. “We have ideas of the parameters we have to work on in order to create the best performance possible, but I don’t think any of us yet know the perfect formula.
“There are still many parameters to work on, including in-game training in League of Legends and Counter-Strike. In the last six months, we’ve seen tools develop where pros are starting to cut down their performance into smaller pieces. This is the same in a sport like football, where they work on corner kicks, free kicks, and on other smaller details. In esports, players are not taught what they should actually do in solo queue so practice isn’t optimized. There are many things we can do to improve globally in performance.”
Nature vs. Nurture
Astralis Talent is an initiative that will evolve over time, exploring best practices to help mold the next generation of talent. More than that, it’s also a recruitment platform that will see the Danish organization create a support system for their main teams.
“It’s a recruitment platform for the first teams,” Hvidt said. “In order to recruit talent for those teams, we need to attach the Talent team to the first-team staff. The ideas of the head coaches in the A teams will be brought down to the young talent we bring into the Astralis system. Football teams maybe bring one or two academy players into their main team, and that’s what we want to do, as well.”
The newly-announced talent is effectively an academy system – but that’s complicated in League of Legends, where each of the 10 European LEC sides already houses academy teams in national leagues. In the past year, there have been examples of academy players being called up into top tier of play and performing well — something Astralis are cognizant of.
“We want to go a step further; we have an academy team and below that, we have a Talent team,” he said. “For our Talent teams, we are looking at players from Scandinavia. There are so many talented players in the region between the age of 14-20 that haven’t had the chance to properly go into a professional athlete system, and that’s what we want to provide.”
It’s not just prioritizing physical fitness or improving reflexes that go into being a professional player. They are assets for the organizations they’re representing, and with that come valuable requirements that are entirely absent from the server. This talent initiative will also prepare young gamers for that eventuality, too.
“All the big teams, it’s our obligation to take the knowledge we have down to that pool of talent and help them to be as prepared as possible when they get the chance in the pro scene,” Hvidt explained. “There’s a big gap between being a good talent and being a professional, there are so many factors outside of the game.
“When you’re hired by an organization you’re not just a gamer, you’re a professional athlete. There are a lot of obligations: media days, commercial obligations towards sponsors, and many other things you don’t see when you just follow the game.”
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Starting in January 2021, Astralis Talent will compete in both Counter-Strike and League of Legends wholly comprised of raw and mostly-undeveloped prospects. They’ll also be integrated into Astralis’ procedures for their A team, and that includes practice. Whereas in a normal scenario Astralis have to scrim the same teams they compete against, they will soon be able to prepare and produce new tactics against their protégés until they’re ready to be deployed in official competition.
Merchants or maturation machine?
When Astralis Talent was announced, there was skepticism shown towards its legitimacy. Some believe this program simply sounds like a ploy to snap up all the promising future stars of esports just to then sell them on for profit. The director of sports for the Danish giants addressed this perception.
“Nothing is black and white, everything is in between,” he said. “It could be that we develop a really good player, an in-game leader, and within a couple of years he’s good enough to play in a tier-one team — but the main Astralis roster still has gla1ve and Magisk leading. It’d be quite hard to get into that team.
“If somebody approached us to buy that guy, we’d have to look at the situation. It’s not like we’re trying to keep all of the players and have 25 teams, and we’re not going to build a roster that’s able to compete at the highest level; we want talent we can develop. If we were to buy all of the Danish players, we should have multiple teams capable of qualifying for a Major — which can’t happen.”
Not denying the plausibility of selling their developed talent instead of retaining them for the main roster, Hvidt sees the initiative in a similar way to football academies. It’s incredibly rare, nigh-on unrealistic, that all young academy players will graduate to the main team. A couple may make it to the next level at the club, but the majority will naturally move on.
“The dream is to recruit our own players, not to hold players against their wishes or bind them with crazy buy-outs,” he said. “If we can sell a player that we can’t use in our main roster within the next couple of months, so we’re actually [hampering] that player’s career, then we will try to sell him. This is a professional business so we won’t give them away, nobody does that. We all try to do the best business we can, of course.”
There’s a current trend emerging in professional Counter-Strike in which organizations are recruiting a sixth man. The likes of Team Vitality and ENCE are prime examples, and, of course, Astralis themselves.
The four-time Major champions actually unveiled their intention to build a 10-man roster, however, though that plan has not quite come into fruition. While the likes of JUGi and es3tag joined the ranks since the initial announcement, the team currently have six players with Bubzkji serving as the substitute.
Dexerto asked Hvidt about his current thoughts on the project, and whether Astralis Talent is the next iteration of the plan.
“If you build a roster with Snappi, JUGi, es3tag, Bubzkji, and one more, then you have a top 30 team,” he said. “That team could qualify for a Major, and nobody would want to be in that team when the main Astralis exists as they would degrade their own career. This isn’t black and white either.
“I think you can build a roster within the next two years that is good enough to support the main team, not compete with them. In this case, hopefully, we will be able to see when a player is due for a break before it’s needed and we can tell one of the young guys they have an opportunity with the main team while they’re relaxing.
“When one of your best players is suddenly out for five months, it may be that you have to go out to the market. That’s no longer a conversation about support, that’s a substitute conversation and it’s too early for a Talent player to step up. Over time, we can develop a team that can help in practice and prevention of burnout; every organization should try to find a way to prolong their players’ careers.”
The jury is out as to whether the academy approach will work for Astralis, but if it does then they will be playing their part in helping to develop the next wave of esports talent — and likely making some money along the way, too.