ESI spent some time in Katowice last week and were able to sit down with the man behind Ninjas in Pyjamas, CEO Hicham Chahine.
In his pre-NiP life, Hicham’s experience spans over nine years in the financial industry where he worked for Formuesforvaltning, the largest independent wealth management firm in Scandinavia. He was a part of the investment research team where he was co-managing the firm’s hedge fund investments. Following that he founded Diglife, the company that has invested in Ninjas in Pyjamas, Copenhagen Wolves, LGB esports, Xtrfy, DRKN and more. Hicham is currently the Chief Executive Officer of Ninjas in Pyjamas and a member of the Executive Board of the World esports Association (WESA). In his free time Hicham gets involved in social entrepreneurship and volunteerism through the Prospera Network.
ESI: First memory involving esports?
Hicham Chahine: That is a tough one. My first memory in esports was back in 2008, I was playing a little bit, but I was really bad. The first memory in esports is when I attended DreamHack Winter back in 2013. Back in those days, we were still not involved with NiP from an investment perspective. Diglife, which is the company I built, they own the company called Gunnar, which does eyewear, and we sponsored NiP.
Emil ‘HeatoN’ Christensen and I have had a relationship for a couple of years surrounding Gunnar. He was at SteelSeries at the time. I remember I was walking around the entire weekend making fun of him that he would lose to Fnatic in the final. That was the worst thing I could tell him! He was a big guy at that time. Now he’s married and is a little bit chubbier. But regardless of that, I walked around and every time I saw him and said ”Fnatic’s gonna beat you in the final”, and he got so mad!, he was like, ”No. We haven’t lost in 86-something in a row. It’s not gonna happen”.
What happened? They walk on stage, and Fnatic beat NiP in the finals.
Then I got to know the guys and after a while I asked them what really happened in that final. They said to me, ”You know what? We went out, ate the largest pizza you can ever imagine, and we went back to play the finals”, I’m just like, “Oh, of course…”. That’s my first memory.
ESI: How did you become CEO of NiP?
Hicham: Back in the finance industry, together with some of the other portfolio managers we went and founded Diglife as our venture to do fun investments because we weren’t allowed to touch small investments at the hedge fund. What we essentially decided to do with Diglife, was to invest in lifestyle tech companies. I had a close and professional relationship with Emil through Gunnar and back in 2013 NIP needed financial investment.
They ran into some issues with previous CEOs, which is a result of esports symptoms, I would say.
Obviously, I love watching video games. I said, “Okay, you know what? We’re just gonna do it”, and then NiP turned out to be quite successful in terms of an investment.
Then in 2016, while I was still at Formuesforvaltning, and Diglife, NiP ran into some issues with another CEO, surprisingly. I had to go in and clean up with some of the guys leading to the removal of that CEO.
At that time our firm was 55 billion assets under management but after nine years running a hedge fund, I went to my CIO, and said to him “I’m going to work at an esports company, so I’ll see you guys later”, and he just looked at me just like, “What?”.
“I just decided when we removed that CEO to take the job. I jumped off the finance train and said that I’m ready to do something new”
Obviously, I’ve been very entrepreneurial with Diglife, because we have built many companies there. It just felt right. Literally going at it for two and a half years now. It’s been good!
ESI: When did you realise esports-specific merch would work and can you share how Xtrfy came to life?
Hicham: I believe it was Cologne 2014 where we actually said that we’re going to invest heavily in jersey production and sell at the event.
“I’ve been at restaurants in Stockholm where people are wearing our hats and hoodies, where you come in and go, “Oh, that’s an NiP hat”. Then you know that you’re doing good merch“
On that particular ESL One event, we sold something like 800 or 900 NiP jerseys, which made us think, “You know what? Merchandise is a thing”. We did it as a thesis. Obviously, we knew that we would sell some, but the response we got there was insane. That led to us focusing quite heavily on merch. First jerseys, but then we rolled out several other products. Everything from hats to t-shirts to sweatpants, to the socks I’m wearing right now. That part of the business has been quite successful for us. Now, we are looking at the idea of elevating it even further.
Teams have been very poor at getting paid for what they do. Why would we sell a jersey for 39 euros when a football team sells it for 100 euros? To do that, you need to follow the branding, the quality, the product you sell needs to be elevated. That’s what we’re looking at now. We have done some experiments where we launched very expensive collabs and merchandise collections, but that only works as long as you provide a good product. Our idea surrounding merch is, buy a jersey, go to the arena and watch the games, but also wear it when you go to school or when you’re at a restaurant. I’ve been at restaurants in Stockholm where people are wearing our hats and hoodies, where you come in and go, “Oh, that’s an NiP hat”. Then you know that you’re doing good merch when people want to wear it outside of the arena. That’s what we’re thinking at now.
For Xtrfy we wanted a hardware peripheral company to exist outside of esports. We got some very skilled people from SteelSeries, and then we did Xtrfy.
Whether you’re G2, FaZe, Na’Vi, or whoever, you can use our stuff and it’s not connected to NiP. That’s where, I think, we succeeded, with calling it Xtrfy.
We started off with a keyboard, the keyboard turned into mouse pads, mouse pads to mice, mice to headsets, then we did a lot of other peripherals that have all been very well perceived.
FaZe, Na’Vi and G2 players use our stuff, and NIP, obviously.
It has been such a cool story to get that acceptance for our hardware by the pro scene. But at some point it might be so that we aren’t involved in NiP, maybe 10 years, 15 years from now, or maybe NiP doesn’t want to have a hardware peripheral company. That was the idea behind separating each from the other. Unlike what Fnatic is doing with the whole tying the brand together. They are two different approaches, and both of them are pretty cool.
We’re committed to really good hardware for the next 10, 15 years.
ESI: NiP is very active in the education sector with collaborations with the Swedish government and outreach programs like Area08. What can you tell us about those?
Hicham: Area 08 started as a summer camp for children where players like GeT_RiGhT and Pita were lecturing and teaching kids about video games. Area has evolved and now that Potti, has taken over into Area Academy, which is more developing educational programs to be taught in high schools and primary and secondary schools across Sweden. It’s more about educating teachers and enabling them to run esports programs at schools. It’s more about bringing legitimacy to esports. That has been well received. We’re proud to have been the initial step of that.
One of the things is, if you would go to a high school and play football as part of your educational program, why can’t you go into esports?
When you’re outside of Sweden, you think, “Okay. All these great Swedish teams, all these great gaming companies, esports companies. Sweden must be doing great to support the industry”, but actually no. There’s no governmental support at all.
The government is even fighting to have esports recognized as a sport. The Swedish and Nordic society in general, with the exception of Denmark, because they’re quite developed lately, for some reason … Look at Sweden, you should exist within this narrow category that is, you should play football, you should play hockey, you should do some physical sports, and then you should sit on your computer two to three hours a day, and if you don’t do that, you are the odd outlier of society.
That perception needs to change. The subculture of gaming exists in Sweden and that’s why it has been this successful, but in order to keep that advanced position you need to do something with the overall perception outside of the subculture.
We had access to fiber very early. The first country in the world in fact. We also have very good teams and players. If you look at Counter-Strike, League of Legends, and Dota, there’s been role models pulling it forward and young kids looking up to them.
ESI: On a personal level can you tell us what the Prospera Network is and what your involvement is?
Hicham: A peer of mine from the hedge fund team founded Prospera. It is a network of consultants and very highly ranked professionals in finance and the oil industry, consultancy industry, and so forth, with a very particular skillset. I think it’s 450 people there now. Prospera is about bringing people together and doing pro bono projects for charities, independent organisations, and so on. As an example, a couple years ago, I did a pro bono project alongside some very skilled people from the oil industry for an organization called Impact. It was about securing funding for an association who were running dentists and eye operation boats down in Indonesia. People struggled with eye problems, that was basically … I don’t know what you call it in English. It makes you lose your eyesight after a while and the operation is quite cheap and quite easy to do. It costs you $6. For us, what we were doing there is to inventorise and bring together a network of people to fund that.
They do a lot of things for the Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, they build schools in Africa, they do educational stuff down in the West Bank. It’s pretty cool, what they do.
It’s a good platform because they receive projects with very specific needs, and they connect you with the right people and companies. For us, it didn’t take more than a month to put this together. It would have been very costly and almost impossible without the Prospera network to do what we did with Impact.
ESI: The partnership with Betway has allowed for an incredible cross industry content piece with West Ham United F.C. how did this come to life and can we expect more?
Hicham: That was one of Betway’s key selling points, actually. We spent one and a half years after we announced the partnership and worked together to actually make it happen.
Our partnership with Betway has been one of those things where we’re trying to set an example. It is how you take a non-endemic brand, which has never been in the industry before, and make it endemic.
I think we have succeeded very well because Betway’s now recognised as a household name in esports. For us, it is all about content. Forget about pushing links, or just putting your logo here and there, free bets, all of that. Obviously, it can be part of the grand scale of things but 95% of what you need to do is to make engaging content that people connect with, that people like to watch, that people interact with. Then you will win the esports people hearts. People don’t follow Betway’s channels to get 5 euros or pounds in free bets. They follow the channels because it’s amazing content, right? That was the idea being the West Ham thing.
It’s about putting esports, NiP, up there with traditional sports. To see that these guys aren’t far from different from each other. It was also showcasing esports, to the West Ham’s fans, because it was also posted on their channels, which was quite fun.
I was present during the filming, and what I really liked about it was having f0rest, GeT_RiGhT, draken, REZ, xizt teach Antonio and Chicharito how to play Counter-Strike and seeing them actually liked it. They were having tonnes of fun playing video games, being coached by our players, because video gaming is for everyone and everyone can enjoy it. That was what made it so genuine and cool. If there will be more … I certainly hope so. We’ll see.
ESI: What’s on the roadmap for NiP in the near future?
Hicham: We’re scaling things up quite significantly. That includes staffing, content-production, management, and we’re also expanding Xtrfy. We’re doing street wear, and we are now going to be engaging much more in charity projects and defining our social responsibility, which’ll be announced soon.
That is what we have planned for the immediate future. Obviously, we are going to be looking at expanding titles as usual. We’re going to make sure that we stay relevant in the titles we operate in right now, that we have strong teams in them and give the teams the support they need. I think that we will have enough to do, certainly for the next couple years, at least.
ESI: What’s on the Hicham wishlist?
Hicham: NiP to win next major, right? I don’t think I have any other wishlist right now.
Everything we’re doing around the team now, for Counter-Strike, it is basically to return us to former glories and for us, the key objective there is to have the best team in the world again.