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Four questions with the founder of Fnatic

'With anything that you put a lot of your heart into, sometimes emotions can get the better of you,' Sam Mathews says.
Flickr/bastian stolk
Flickr/bastian stolk
Jessica Conditt
Jessica Conditt|@JessConditt|October 7, 2016 5:00 PM

Sam Mathews founded the European esports organization Fnatic in 2004, after selling his car to send a group of players to a competitive gaming event in Las Vegas. A dozen years ago, esports were barely a blip on the mainstream radar, but Mathews was an early adopter -- and the industry grew quickly. His teams continued to expand and succeed in tournaments for a range of games, including Quake, Counter-Strike, Dota 2 and League of Legends.

Today, Fnatic is one of the world's largest and most popular esports organizations, consistently competing for millions of dollars and selling swag across the globe. As one of the first entrepreneurs to believe in esports, Mathews has a unique perspective on the industry's history and how it will continue to evolve going forward. Professional video game tournaments are already being aired live on television, after all.

Last week, Mathews took a break from the ESL One Counter-Strike: Global Offensive tournament in New York to answer four questions about esports and the pressures of leading one of its most legendary organizations. We've recorded his thoughts below.

You've been in the eSports world for over a decade -- what's the largest or most surprising change to hit the industry over that time?

Apart from the small things, like moving from CRT to LCD, or the scale of the crowds, it's really about speed at which things are moving. I didn't expect real sport teams to get involved so quickly, especially how much it's been progressing in the last 18 months. I always had a good inclination of how big this could be and would be, and still believe that it is probably bigger than most people expect, but the adoption by physical sports stakeholders is exciting, to say the least.

Have esports entered the mainstream or are they still a fringe activity?

I think if you look at the sheer scale in terms of number of participants, esports is technically mainstream. But in terms of perception and the amount of awareness in the public, I think it's definitely still in the underground. I do think that this is quickly growing and changing and it's only a matter of a year or two before it's widely known and accepted globally. I liken it to the previous youth culture movements, such as skateboarding, which took hold in the eighties and nineties and created a subculture. The same could be said about surfing and even snowboarding, all of which started as amateur underground sports which have become legitimate multi-billion-dollar industries.

How do you handle the pressure of leading one of the world's top esports organizations?

I think with anything that you put a lot of your heart into, sometimes emotions can get the better of you, but that's why you have to keep them in check and understand what they are. This is especially the case when you own a sports team. You have a lot of highs and lows -- and grey hair. However, I believe our fan base is aware of how much we try and strive to be the best, and trust we're doing all in our power to keep our reputation and results. The beauty of esports, however, is that we have more than one game to keep us stable. So whilst we may be struggling in some games, we still have others that keep things balanced by being on the up.

Does any part of you wish pro gaming would stay small, or are you excited for it to continue growing?

This is funny because I do think that it's been exciting seeing the growth. But, on the other hand, when it's small it was nice, because you knew everyone in the scene and there's less competition. However, I'm super excited about espots being a global phenomenon. We've started something special and I honestly believe that it will be one of the biggest entertainment verticals out there in the next five years. The possibilities keep me up at night.

Four questions with the founder of Fnatic