Saad Sarwar is one of the creative minds behind Level99. This is the company responsible for the H2K and G2 Esports rebrands, co-founders of the OG DOTA2 team and contributors to development of Immortals’ sales strategy.
Here Sarwar tells us his story of going from working in a bank to Fnatic to co-founding this growing and global creative agency, and how to date the whole Level99 team remain each other’s harshest critics. He also hit us with some other opinions on debates and trends in esports.
Sarwar will be speaking on the subject of ‘Esports does digital better’ at the Digital Gaming Revolution event in Antwerp on June 8th. If you do attend the session, make sure to challenge him on any assertions he may make…
Esports Insider: Tell us the Level99 story and about your own background in esports..
Saad: Level99 happened when a mixed group of people overly critical of each other’s work came together. I say mixed because the founding group is made up of, 10+ year esports veterans, an Austrian field hockey hall of famer, a banker, former pro gamer and a DJ that’s opened events for guys like Laidback Luke.
I don’t think there’s a single thing I’ve seen that is more unifying than esports. Where else do people who’ve put in corporate time at places like HSBC Bank, Raiffeisen Informatik, CBSi and RedBull come together and love one thing so much?
Anyway, we’d all humbly bragged our esports achievements to one another and realised that together, we could hold ourselves up to our own standards not the we’re-comfortable-doing-what-we-have-done-forever standard that we were used to seeing in esports. There are over 25 people at L99 now and we are still each other’s worst critics.
“I don’t think there’s a single thing I’ve seen that is more unifying than esports”
As for me, I started working in esports in 2013 as Fnatic’s Sales Director.. mostly responsible for developing marketing strategy and bringing on clients. I still remember crafting out every single unique proposal that eventually led to bringing in clients like King of Shaves, AVAST! Antivirus, BenQ, Kinguin and Monster Energy and others. Man I learned so much from people over there like Patrik Sattermon, Anne Mathews, Daniel Rejmus and Elroy Pinto (now at Level99!). I will forever owe them a debt of gratitude for giving me completely full autonomy to do whatever I felt was right for the commercial success of the brand.
“There are over 25 people at L99 now and we are still each other’s worst critics”
I left in 2015 and by the close of the year we kicked off Level99 so I’m now in my fifth working year in esports and I still absolutely love it.
ESI: The British Esports Association chairman recently stated that their stance is that esports are not sports. Thoughts on this and whether it really matters?
Saad: People are entitled to think and say what they want. If calling it ‘not a sport’ was the best way they could express esports, good for him.
From skipping school as a kid to play Counter-strike 1.0 in LAN centres to watching amazing players compete to be the best in the world…esports has just always made me feel good. That’s what I think matters.
I really couldn’t care less whether people think it’s a sport or not.
Saying that, I do like to read and listen to so many differing opinions like that because it gives me so much to think on when creating content ideas for our clients. So thanks, Mr British Esports Association Chairman.
ESI: Why did you decide to speak at the Digital Gaming Revolution conference in Antwerp in June? What can attendees expect from your session?
Saad: I really admire the guys behind the conference and respect what they’ve done for the industry behind the scenes.
“I’ll talk about why esports annihilates all other forms of entertainment and sport when it comes to social media. I’ll also touch on how player salaries and earnings relate to digital popularity. Come to the session if you want to hear less politics and more real numbers and assertions. Also, challenge me. It’ll be rewarded”
As for the speaking gig, I’m obviously doing it because I want to put something out there that people will think on and question. If someone doesn’t talk to me during the talk or after and challenge my perspective on things then I’ve failed.
So in my session I’ll talk about why esports annihilates all other forms of entertainment and sport when it comes to social media. I’ll also touch on how player salaries and earnings relate to digital popularity.
There will be real financial numbers presented (for those that I’m not bound by some form of confidentiality) not that wishy-washy hide everything you know bullshit that I see so often.
I’ve been fortunate to witness groups like Fnatic’s LoL (that hit out the 18-0 perfect split) and CS:GO squads (Kings of the game), supported a handful of players in their organisations and of course, helped found the brand that is now one of the most accomplished DOTA2 teams in the world; OG DOTA2. There are some incredible human beings at the core of each of those teams.
Come to the session if you want to hear less politics and more real numbers and assertions. Also, challenge me. It’ll be rewarded.
ESI: What is your take on mobile esports and at a basic level what constitutes an esports title?
Saad: My take is I don’t actively play mobile esports so I’m not in a position to give an opinion that’s worthwhile. I have peers at 99 who actually know the space so well. I avoid talking about things I have no hands on experience with.
“Esports audiences are the most vocal with their feedback, you’ll know if they like it and you will be DDOS’d if they don’t”
As to what constitutes an esports title… is the game so competitive that getting to the top is a monumental achievement and then when you get there, is it even more challenging to stay on top? That’s an esport for me.
ESI: How can companies use new technologies to maximise the effectiveness of bringing the excitement of live events to people watching at home? Moreover what in your opinion do events organisers need to do to enhance esports events? Should they all offer a ‘fuller experience’?
Saad: I’m a believer of people not knowing what they want till you make something amazing and let them try it.
Use every single technology you have at your disposal and let people decide what excites them. My advice is if people think it’s crazy and say it won’t work, do that thing. Esports audiences are the most vocal with their feedback, you’ll know if they like it and you will be DDOS’d if they don’t.
“Is the game so competitive that getting to the top is a monumental achievement and then when you get there, is it even more challenging to stay on top? That’s an esport for me.”
We create a lot of video and graphic content for event organisers (such as ESL). For me, the challenge is telling really powerful stories through content to excite and challenge both the guy/girl who knows that world and then tell another for those that don’t.
“Use every single technology you have at your disposal and let people decide what excites them”
Events will be greater experiences the more the audience feels for the storylines. I can point to nearly every league right now and name something amazing each of them are doing. I am waiting for the moment the next thing is done that resonates more emotionally with people; shock or awe.
ESI: Which teams do you see as leading by example when it comes to building a brand and generating a loyal following? What should orgs do to best achieve this?
Saad: The thing is that there is no single leading brand in esports. There’s only people that make more mistakes than everyone else then iterate, and then people who do what everybody else does and sticks to what works for other industries.
“Teams like G2, H2K, TSM, Liquid… you can see they try things out publicly and embrace mistakes, learn from them and move forward”
I’m a fan of every team that’s in that first camp. Teams like G2, H2K, TSM, Liquid… you can see they try things out publicly and embrace mistakes, learn from them and move forward (some of those names are clients, so yes I’m biased). I dislike the safe teams too afraid to do their own thing.
My advice to brands that don’t work with us would be to sit back and think about if your brand were a person, what would he or she look like? Then ask 100 people you don’t know (a blind poll of fans) to pick what they think personifies the brand. If they don’t see what you see, you’ve discovered a brand building opportunity. Explore it and make it work for you.
ESI: Any news from Level99 incoming that we should be aware of?
Saad: We’re an agency not a game developer but we have one binding belief here.. the only thing that matters is the player.
Saying that, it’s likely we’ll be working on a social media strategy this year for a team that no one has ever tried in esports. I seriously can’t wait to see what players think of it.