NIP’s Jonas Gundersen: The COO waking up a ‘sleeping giant’

NiP
Image credit: Ninjas in Pyjamas

Sometimes it feels like Ninjas in Pyjamas (NIP), the eminent Swedish esports organisation founded in 2000, has spent the last few years in its own metaphorical pyjamas. The organisation’s flagship CS:GO team last dominated the game in 2016.

Much like starting a Football Manager save with a once-great team, NIP needed a way of turning things around, and the organisation was well aware of it. 

Enter Jonas Gundersen. The former CS:GO professional knows a lot about the game, but his résumé extends far beyond that — he had a startup stint, worked as a recording artist, and was even a poker coach.

Right now, Gundersen is the COO of Ninjas in Pyjamas, a task that he confesses to being a very interesting experience to say the least.

Gundersen is not just working for NIP, though; he is an investor in gaming studios and a prolific writer of LinkedIn posts that regularly receive traction — he doesn’t think of himself as an influencer, but by some metrics he is.

Jonas Gundersen NIP
(ESI Illustration) Pictured: Jonas Gundersen, COO of Ninjas in Pyjamas. Image credit: NIP

Gundersen’s life story is both eye-opening and puzzling. Like many C-level executives, Gundersen has a way to step back and make a concise statement that sticks with you. 

“The way I saw NIP when I entered was like the sleeping giant brand, similar to something like Manchester United. It’s a massive brand with an iconic history that clearly had not followed the trajectory of success from some of the other teams in esports.” 

The comparison with Man United is very appropriate. Both the football team and NIP have been resting on their laurels following brand-defining wins years ago; a 2017 UEFA Europa League win for Man United and a CS:GO Major in 2014 for NIP. Yet both teams still have huge followings and passionate fans, and continue to invest heavily — United bought football superstar Ronaldo, NIP bought CS:GO superstar Nicolai ‘dev1ce’ Reedtz. 

Gundersen admitted that NIP needed a shift towards a more “winning culture,” and he expected things to be daunting from the start. Still, NIP has been sleuthing around for 22 years — Gundersen jokes that the organisation has been “playing 3D chess,” trying to figure out how to relaunch an era of NIP dominance.

From school dropout to a startup founder

Many people who know Gundersen, or ‘calc’ as he goes by in-game, would say that his CS:GO experience helped him in his current job. Yet it’s his startup and entrepreneurship experience where he cut his teeth into the shape needed for his current role.

Gundersen has a diverse background. He told Esports Insider that he realised at a very young age that school is just “not right for him,” and proceeded to quit at age 16. Being faced with a lot of free time and no real way of spending it, Gundersen entered the world of competitive gaming and played professionally between 2002 and 2006 for a number of rosters, including x6tence, Dignitas, and SK Gaming. 

He always trusted his instincts and explored, which is what brought him to a number of different positions after he left esports. He dabbled with a telecom company, and had a stint in poker both as a coach and a player. Fast forward, and he was releasing an EP as a musician, before later working in the startup industry in both Europe and the United States. 

Jonas Gundersen NIP COO
Image credit: Jonas Gundersen / LinkedIn

When a San Francisco-based startup ‘failed’, as he puts it, Gundersen felt like he’d earned a proverbial MBA. He came back to Denmark, and ultimately to esports as a member of North, the esports subsidiary of the Danish football club FC Copenhagen. He was an executive at North until he left to join NIP in 2020. 

Right now, Gundersen has around 10,000 followers on LinkedIn, where he discusses leadership, inspiration, and overall life advice. The LinkedIn story started slowly, he said, from an urge to express himself.

“I definitely did not wake up one day thinking about how I’m going to be a LinkedIn influencer. I always had a very strong urge to express myself, always been very opinionated, and tried to create stuff. It took a really long time to start making content around my opinions.

“For example, music, you can hide a bit more around that because it’s just songs, there are emotions in it. But once you start going like: ‘here is my opinion’, it gets really hard,” he continued. Gundersen described himself as a fairly confident person, but admitted that starting to write posts on LinkedIn was a strange experience riddled with impostor syndrome.

“I don’t have an end game. I don’t have a newsletter to get you to subscribe or to buy stuff off of me. I just like sharing and creating and I guess one day I’d like to write some books on, I don’t know…stuff? I haven’t figured that one out yet.”

Pictured: NIP’s CS:GO team in 2022. Image credit: PGL

 

‘Esports’ is not a company culture

Gundersen’s experience in the startup world equipped him with an understanding of the business side of esports. He derided the oft-cited excuse used in the industry of ‘it’s esports’. The problem with this is that ‘esports’ doesn’t mean that much. ‘Esports’ is not a culture, and esports companies often struggle to find core business values and create a company culture that isn’t simply saying ‘we do esports’, he claimed. 

According to Gundersen, every company needs to have rules of engagement, processes, leadership philosophies, and core values. Every company, in esports or not, needs to know how it wants to do business, how to hire people, and so on.

Gundersen told Esports Insider that company culture was also a problem when he joined NIP in 2020, but the organisation is slowly working towards creating a culture and a way of doing things that are not tied to just esports. The challenge here is simply finding the right minds.

“It’s so challenging, finding the right people who understand the nuances of esports, and the way it’s talked about and at the same time understand real-world business and then understand how to get there.”

Organisations need to understand how to switch from an esports perspective to a business perspective, but also vice versa. Organisations and companies are hiring professionals from other industries to help them, in the hopes that mainstream business experience will help transform business practices, but this can be a double-edged sword that each organisation must balance appropriately.

“The way I see it, we used to have 80 percent of endemic people in the industry, and now we’re shifting towards 80 percent non-endemic people,” Gundersen said. “There’s only a need for 20 percent expertise, and 80 percent growth mindset.”

On the topic of people and hiring, Gundersen noted that one thing the industry does not need is “idea people”. There’s an overwhelming amount of those who say what should be done, but unfortunately can not get there, he said. In his opinion, the real challenge is to find people who can steadily deliver results and execute the things that are needed.

“You get a lot of people who come in and can talk, they can conceptualise, strategise but simply can’t execute. And even on low-level, entry-level positions, there is a need for strategic thinking and complex problem-solving. Even if you’re a junior social media manager or something, you need to know how to maneuver a couple of variables at the same time.

“So in every ‘trench’ of the esports industry, you need strategic thinking people. But more than anything you need people on the ground that can execute, and bring something from A to B.”

For his future at NIP, Jonas Gundersen is of course focused on winning. The somewhat mediocre NIP of previous years still lingers around the offices of the organisation, but there is progress in the right direction on the business front with the recent Shinobi Esports venture and NIP’s expansion into China. 

The key to this big transformation is communication, Gundersen said. “I think we solved [the problems the organisation had] okay, but I also think we still have a long way to go. From now on, it’s going to be almost like a mantra to me to deal with things in a super transparent and super radical fashion.”

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