Exclusive: New Virtus.pro CEO talks ESforce deal and tournament bans

Virtus.pro

In his first interview since taking over Virtus.pro, CEO Aram Karamanukyan shed some light on his background and confirmed that Valve green-lit the Dota 2 team’s attendance at TI 2022 under the organization’s banner.

Very little is known about Aram Karamanukyan, though a quick Google search shows that he shares the name with a scholar and military man who became a Lieutenant General in the Syrian Army after he and his family were forced out of Armenia during the Armenian genocide over a hundred years ago.

That curious fact has only added to the mystery surrounding Mr. Karamanukyan, who was on September 16 unveiled as the new CEO of Virtus.pro and an investor in the company. Esports is still a close-knit industry where everyone seems to know, or at least to have heard of, everyone else; so the sudden appearance of this rather mysterious figure with “experience in the construction business and hospitality industry” as the new face of the company has been met with skepticism in many quarters.

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The announcement came during a very challenging period for Virtus.pro, whose CS:GO and Dota 2 teams have had to play under a neutral name, Outsiders, since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine because of the organization’s alleged ties to the Kremlin.

Mr. Karamanukyan insists in an email interview with Dexerto that the claims this is all part of a ruse intended to deflect sanctions couldn’t be further from the truth. The transfer of the company to its new owners “was made on market terms”, he says, and the documents to prove it have been shared with game publishers and tournament organizers.

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As Dexerto reported on September 21, Valve has determined that Outsiders’ Dota 2 team will be allowed to compete as Virtus.pro at TI 2022, and Mr. Karamanukyan expects other tournament organizers to follow suit.

The interview below has been edited.

Ever since you were announced as the new CEO and an investor, there have been many questions about you and your background. Could you tell me a bit about yourself and how you got in touch with Virtus.pro?

Aram Karamanukyan is a man, Armenian, a businessman, an investor, a father of a 10-year-old girl… This will be the shortest and most accurate description. In more detail, I have been involved in construction and finance all my life, and now, as a CEO of Virtus.pro, I am responsible for the strategic development of one of the most decorated esports clubs in the world.

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You probably realized by now that before buying Virtus.pro, I had nothing to do with esports. If you don’t count playing Call of Duty occasionally. But there are two things I should mention here. Firstly, I have always been interested in doing something that was in the early stages of development in the country. At first, the construction boom in Armenia attracted me, then I had my own company that developed the first mobile banking solutions in Yerevan. And esports for me has become another endeavor in a new, promising area for Armenia.

Secondly, a close childhood friend of mine suggested that I invest in an esports club that was in a difficult situation. He suggested it because he has been working in this industry for a long time and knows it well. I became interested and studied the matter: I watched the matches, analytics, what kind of audience the tournaments gather and how much the largest American clubs cost … In particular, I consulted with consultants from the Big Three. And I realized that I was interested in investing and trying myself in this area, in this part of the entertainment industry.

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Right off the bat, we decided to split the responsibilities, with me being responsible for strategic development, global communications, relations with publishers, and my partner, as he understands esports, taking care of the sports part – possible transfers, communication with players, selection of tournaments – and so on. I think it will be an effective management model.

According to Virtus.pro, you now own the company’s trademark. Could you clarify what exactly that means? Have Virtus.pro’s esports assets (the players and staff) been transferred from ESforce [Virtus.pro’s former parent company]?

There was a bit of miscommunication. The media asked us under what name we would play: Virtus.pro or Outsiders. And we wrote that we only have the rights to the Virtus.pro brand, meaning that Outsiders is a name invented by the players, and this tag, of course, was not a part of the deal. Therefore, we can and will only compete as Virtus.pro. And someone understood this as the fact that we have only a trademark – and nothing more. This is not true, of course. All the assets of Virtus.pro belong to us, including the contracts with players.

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Many believe that your appointment as CEO is merely a smokescreen to bypass the sanctions placed on organizations with alleged ties to the Russian government, with some suggesting that you are friends with ESforce CEO Nikolai Petrosyan, who has Armenian origins. What do you have to say about this?

You know, such guesses… This is one of the stereotypes about the southern nations – Italians, Greeks, Armenians – that they are all relatives or know each other through one handshake. Before we started discussing the deal, I did not know Nikolai at all.

As soon as I appeared on Twitter, the staff of the Ukrainian broadcasting studio Maincast literally started harassing both me and Virtus.pro. As a result, their audience began to write to me personally and publicly, wishing for my death, for neighboring countries to destroy my own… How is this normal, how does it correlate with any kind of ethics – business or human? Not the best start for cooperation.

I would like to answer the questions about the transaction, once and for all: it was made on market terms. We have provided all the necessary documents to the largest publishers and tournament operators – that’s a fact, not a rumor. I am not going to succumb to any provocations and will demand respect for my club.

Why hasn’t there been an announcement from the VK group [the Russian technology giant that acquired ESforce in 2018 and is a publicly traded company] about this matter?

We have signed a rather complex NDA that affects many media aspects. Therefore, I cannot comment on the actions of our partners.

Earlier this week, your Dota 2 team appeared as Virtus.pro on Dota 2’s official website and not as Outsiders anymore. But there are questions about whether Valve was aware of this as the name change was most likely done by the team in-game in their profile. Have you had talks with Valve about this matter?

The renaming was the result of our negotiations with Valve and PGL, which approved our attendance under the Virtus.pro tag.

Virtus.pro
Virtus.pro’s logo will be on display in the last-chance qualifier for TI 2022

Dexerto reported that ESL and BLAST are currently reviewing the new ownership before making a decision on whether Virtus.pro will be allowed in their tournaments. Are you confident in a positive outcome?

I am encouraged by the positive decision from Valve. And I would be very surprised if the decision of the tournament operators contradicted it. However, in today’s complex world, anything is possible.

Let me point out that we ourselves proactively contacted ESL to discuss the matter of performing under the name Virtus.pro. We have provided all supporting documents and are now awaiting a decision. But we have not contacted BLAST, so we don’t really understand what is being considered there.

In a comment, Virtus.pro said that the organization’s teams “can and will compete exclusively under the Virtus.pro tag”. If tournament organizers decide that Virtus.pro should remain banned, will you consider boycotting these events?

I don’t think it can be a unilateral decision. If this happens, we will continue to seek the right to play under our own name, because the tournament operators and publishers have no reason to ban us.

Your CS:GO player YEKINDAR has been playing for Team Liquid in recent months but his situation remains unclear. What sort of agreement does Virtus.pro have with Team Liquid for the Latvian player? When can we expect a transfer to be finalized?

At the moment, Virtus.pro and YEKINDAR are at the stage of finalizing the terms of parting. I can’t say more yet. Please be patient.