Almost a year after Cowana closed its doors, many still wait for the money they’re owed
German esports organization Cowana Gaming closed its doors at the end of 2022, leaving behind a trail of debts. Dexerto spoke with a former player and a lawyer representing five other people, with the group owed over $100,000.
Kevin ‘kRYSTAL’ Amend thought he had seen it all in his career as a CS:GO player. He had weathered cheating accusations hurled at him during his early days as a pro. He had watched as his team’s Major spot was snatched away after three of his teammates were lured by a bigger organization. He had also survived a coup to oust him when a star player decided to rebel against his methods.
After over a decade of competing, kRYSTAL thought that nothing could surprise him anymore.
But then he joined Cowana Gaming, which failed to pay his salary for almost a year.
“Esports organizations, in general, try to make money off you, but something this huge had never happened,” kRYSTAL told Dexerto, estimating that he is owed around 33,000 euros (almost $36,000). “And that is after tax.”
kRYSTAL signed with Cowana Gaming in August 2021, at a time when he was entering the autumn of his career. Then 28 years old, he had enjoyed almost a decade of success in CS:GO, not only in his home country of Germany but also abroad, after transitioning from CS:Source.
Cowana Gaming was the esports branch of Cowana GmbH, a German event and marketing company. Founded in 2020, it fielded teams in multiple esports titles, including in CS:GO, Valorant, Call of Duty and Rainbow Six, and supported a number of content creators.
Hosting sim-racing expos was a key part of Cowana’s business model, but then the pandemic shut down indoor events across Germany for over a year, eating away at one of the company’s main sources of revenue.
This is one of the reasons, kRYSTAL explained, that he was understanding of Cowana’s financial issues and didn’t make waves on the many occasions when Michael Wamser, the company’s CEO, informed the team that salaries would be paid late.
“Michael Wamser always came to us on TeamSpeak and told us, like, ‘Hey, I want to update you guys so you know it from me. It’s like this with the coronavirus, and we’re waiting for financial support from the German government,’” kRYSTAL said.
“The government’s relief payment was allegedly delayed by five months, and then Gamescom got canceled. He said the salaries would be delayed by a maximum of three months, but then it got pushed back more and more.”
Other players on the CS:GO team ran out of patience after a few months. kRYSTAL recalls that, at one point, his teammate Stefan ‘stfN’ Seier refused to play until his missing wages were paid. Later on, another player, Denis ‘denis’ Howell, threatened Cowana with a lawyer after his first salary was not paid on time. In both instances, kRYSTAL said, the company quickly settled the outstanding amounts.
Money was often a source of contention within the team, which stagnated at the lower end of tier-two Counter-Strike. Even as he went unpaid for months on end and kept tapping into his savings just to get by, kRYSTAL was focused on finding a way to get the squad out of the hole it was in. However, he kept running into roadblocks.
“We had some issues that we couldn’t fix because of the money problem,” kRYSTAL said. “Instead of us going forward as a team and talking about what we could fix, our talks were often about whether we had got any answer from Cowana.
“I would have some stuff I wanted to talk about but couldn’t because people just didn’t have to headspace to do it.”
Cowana’s money issues became public knowledge in the CS:GO scene only in November 2022. First, Estonian player Kevin ‘HS’ Tarn revealed that there were “unpaid salaries, in some cases for over half a year” as he left the team. And then British player Thomas ‘Thomas’ Utting terminated his contract with the organization just one month after joining, citing “unforeseen circumstances.”
On December 6, Cowana announced that it would be closing its esports section at the end of the year, referencing the “effects of the international crises.” That same day, German media outlet 1HP published a story detailing Cowana’s financial woes, which went all the way back to 2020 and affected players, staff, and content creators.
By then, kRYSTAL was already out of the team, having been benched in October. His contract with the organization was officially terminated at the end of the year.
Reneging on promises
In its statement, Cowana said that it would “make sure” that any outstanding payments would be settled by the end of the year.
“We hope with this transparent statement to be remembered a little better,” Cowana said. “We want to communicate it openly with you and not just disappear from the scene.”
But nine months later, many of those still owed money say that their attempts to contact Cowana have been met with silence.
Marco Pirolo is a German lawyer who represents four ex-members of Cowana’s CS:GO team (players denis, stfN, and Ádám ‘kolor’ Domoszlay, and head coach Mariusz ‘Loord’ Cybulski) and one former player for the Valorant team, Alexander ‘alexR’ Frisch. He was hired by the esports player foundation, a German not-for-profit that supports over 100 athletes on their esports journey, to represent the group, which is allegedly owed a combined €70,000 ($75,900 USD) by Cowana.
“Some of them had not been paid since June,” Pirolo explained. “They already had very high outstanding amounts.”
Pirolo’s first action was to send a letter to Cowana informing the company of his clients’ claims. According to him, Cowana did not respond to the letter, but in a conversation with an esports player foundation chief, Wamser indicated that he was open to reaching a settlement plan.
“So I asked to talk to the CEO of Cowana to see if there was a chance that my clients, instead of filing a lawsuit, would get their money in installments,” Pirolo said.
“Michael Wamser said that he was in talks with investors and that he was hopeful they were bringing in cash and that he would be able to fulfill an installment plan. That was, I think, in February.”
Pirolo said that was the last time he heard from Wamser. There was no follow-up on these alleged new investors or how the installment payments would be made.
kRYSTAL recalled a similar experience when he tried to work out a payment plan with Wamser.
“I told him, ‘Every two weeks, you give me a third of what you owe me,’” he said. “And he agreed to it. But the money never came. And then he stopped answering me.”
For kRYSTAL and everyone else with outstanding payments, their hopes of ever getting their money took a major blow in May, when it was revealed that Cowana GmbH had filed for insolvency.
The news came as Pirolo was gathering information from his clients to file a lawsuit, which was no longer an option.
“In insolvency proceedings, generally speaking, the only way to enforce your claims is to submit them to the insolvency administrator, who is responsible for distributing the money amongst all the creditors,” he said.
“Filing a lawsuit during insolvency proceedings is usually not possible, and it would also not make sense from an economic point of view.”
Pirolo said that it will take several months for the insolvency administrator running Cowana’s affairs to review the financial situation of the business and determine whether it is in the creditors’ interest to save the company. If it is not, then the creditors will be given the opportunity to file their claims.
According to Pirolo’s information, by the beginning of August 2023, more than 100 creditors had submitted claims totaling more than 3.3 million euros ($3.55 million USD) to the insolvency administrator. From Pirolo’s experience, it could be more than a year before any proceeds from the insolvency process are paid out.
“They are tired,” Pirolo said of his clients. “They have been waiting for their money for a very long time.
“I also try to manage their expectations. When you’re talking about insolvency, it’s not great. Very often, creditors receive only a fraction of their original claim or are left empty-handed.”
Pirolo said that, in addition to submitting his clients’ claims to the insolvency administrator, there are further options that he is evaluating. His clients might apply for insolvency compensation, known in Germany as ‘insolvenzgeld’. This would see them receive a guaranteed three months’ wages from the German government.
And then there’s also the option of filing a criminal complaint against Wamser, Cowana’s CEO, if there is suspicion that he committed fraud by, for example, entering into employment contracts knowing that he would not be able to pay wages or delaying the filing for insolvency and further aggravating the situation.
“At the moment, we don’t have any compelling evidence that a criminal offense has been committed,” Pirolo noted. “That would be something for the law enforcement agencies to determine.”
Dealing with the trauma
kRYSTAL admitted that he still has a hard time processing everything that has happened. To this day, he doesn’t know if Wamser was ever truthful when he said that he was working to settle all outstanding payments.
He recalled one night when he was out drinking with Wamser during Gamescom 2022.
“We were having a good time, and it felt personal, you know?” he said. “He always said he wanted to make all members of Cowana feel comfortable with them. I didn’t understand why he would continue doing that.
“I even told him, ‘I’m the one who has been with you the longest and I’m the one who hasn’t complained once. Yet I’m the one you haven’t paid anything to yet.’
“I would say I am a little bit lucky that my mom owns a building. I have my own apartment on the ground floor, she lives on the second floor, and my brother on the third floor. I told Wamser that if it wasn’t like this, he would be responsible for me living on the street because I didn’t get any money for over a year.”
kRYSTAL said that this ordeal has had such a profound effect on him that it has impacted every aspect of his life, including his personal relationships and his sense of self-worth.
“When I was with my friends or met new people, it was like, ‘Oh, what are they doing for work?’, I got constantly reminded that I was basically getting scammed,” he explained. “It made me feel worthless.
“I feel bad for being nice, but I guess this is how I am as a person. But I was taken advantage of. It felt really bad at the time, and now it feels even worse because I was used, basically. I don’t feel like I’m worth too much because people are allowed to do this with me, and I can’t do anything about it.”
On July 4, it was announced that SouthWest Vision GmbH will replace Cowana as the organizer of the ADAC SimRacing Expo, the world’s largest SimRacing event. The 2023 edition will take place from October 13 to 15 in Dortmund.
Registered only in June, SouthWest Vision GmbH is co-managed by Nadine Wamser, who was the Managing Director of the former Cowana subsidiary Media Lounge. Three sources have told Dexerto that Nadine Wamser is Michael Wamser’s wife.
Danny Giusa, Cowana’s former Head of SimRacing, and Alexander Kreis, the company’s former Head of Business Development, are also working for SouthWest Vision in similar roles, as reported by gamesmarkt.de.
Nadine Wamser did not respond to a request for comment.
kRYSTAL has put his playing days behind him. He is now the assistant coach of Bad News Eagles, the team from Kosovo that has challenged CS:GO’s status quo by reaching three Majors, the game’s most prestigious events, without the backing of an organization.
He said that the decision to stop playing was motivated by what happened with Cowana. “It was the first time in years when I didn’t want to play anymore,” he noted. “It was just not enjoyable at all.”
kRYSTAL knows that the chances of getting the money he is owed in an insolvency case are slim. That’s why he is keeping his expectations in check to temper the potential of another disappointment in a chapter of his career that he deeply regrets.
“I hope I get everything, but I expect to get nothing, I guess,” he said. “I don’t want to have this expectation that I will get everything, so I don’t get disappointed again.
“This is how it was all the time. He [Michael Wamser] would talk to us or he would talk to me, and my expectations would go up, and then I would get disappointed again and again. This killed the joy and everything.”