What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the word "esports"? Famous teams, decorated players, huge amounts of prize money — those are the main things that tournaments in video games are associated with. However, there is another side of this industry. It doesn’t attract hundreds of thousands of fans, and you barely hear anything about it on your favourite news portal. We are talking about the unsung heroes of esports, which are referees, managers, admins, and other staff who do everything so we can enjoy watching events in CS:GO, Dota 2, League of Legends, etc.
The largest media on the esports market do not highlight their job. They don’t earn even half of what professional players get for winning the biggest tournaments. You do not know their names, but those are the people who do everything to give viewers an enjoyable show to watch. They know that they will not be worldwide famous but still are ready to spend 20 hours per day working.
We have something to say about some professions that are esports related, yet, due to two simple reasons, in this article we would like to discuss referees in CS:GO, specifically. First, lately the community has been expressing more interest in what referees’ responsibilities are. It is because of the recent scandal that occurred at StarSeries i-League S8, in the midst of which was an ex-referee of StarLadder, Sergey Zolovkin. Second, we had a chance to talk with a man who has experience at working in the field that we are discussing now. His knowledge is the main reason why we could immerse ourselves into the issue.
His name is Alexander Oleynik. He used to work as a Project Manager at StarLadder, but besides that he has had the chance to administer esports events and try out the role of a referee. He has worked with such teams as NAVI, Astralis, and BIG, and was involved in organization of many tournaments. Now, Oleynik is not working in this area, but he still has interesting memories from the old days, which were kindly shared to us.
The lion’s share of his experience was earned at PGL Major Krakow 2017. The main topics of our interview are how he was invited to work at the Major, which skills are demanded for a referee, and whether it is possible for anyone to become one. It was mixed by some stories from his life experience and specifically from the aforementioned tournament in Poland. In addition to that, we talked about communication between teams and referees. We asked how players treat people who help them, and whether they are afraid to say things that should remain confidential in a referee’s presence.
What had to happen so you, being StarLadder’s PM at the time, flew to PGL Major Krakow to work as a referee?
StarLadder loaned some employees, and pANda was deciding who would go with him to Krakow. Back then, he asked me whether I was ready to help him. He was in need of people who would know what to do. You give them a direction, and they work towards it.
We and PGL discussed whether we would be referees or stage managers. The decision who would go there to represent StarLadder depended on the following factors: who knows more about esports, who knows the players, and who is ready to work at the Major 16 hours a day. He invited non1ck as a server admin, while me and Perian took the job of side referees. Those were the most experienced people who had previously worked with the teams. pANda himself carried out the role of the head referee and established communication between PGL, Valve, and the players.
When we were discussing the idea of this interview, you said that being a referee requires special talent. What did you mean?
Almost every person who found a job in esports, doesn’t leave the industry afterwards. Almost everyone in esports is a passionate gamer. It happens rarely, but sometimes we see new people coming in who do not have anything to do with gaming, such as marketers and sales managers. Most of the times, people come to esports as players, and then they transform into managers and coaches. Also, they might continue playing or found their own companies.
I think that a referee or a team’s assistant - one who stands behind players’ back - should not be a "machine" that is programmed to do one function. A referee is the first person who teams approach if anything goes wrong. Technical issues, requests to bring water, and so on - they must have contact to ask for certain things. A referee has to know the person who stands next to him and how to speak with such people. One always has to have a neat appearance and be aware of… It’s like supermarkets. A cashier is the most important thing that will be remembered by a client. If one was rude to a customer, no one would want to go there again. The same can be said about referees. Besides, it’s one of the persons who are always shown on camera: if a team is demonstrated on stream, its referee should also be there.
Such a person should be able to make decisions quickly. Yes, you can hire volunteers. However, even though they want to do the right thing, they don’t know all the details of this job. It’s important to have a referee that is motivated and knows what are his responsibilities. For example, if to speak about our team - pANda, non1ck, perian, and me, - we always tried to understand the problem. We did not simply forward every request. We would figure a situation out, and we always knew where to get help.
Here is an example. It happened at the Krakow Major. A former player of BIG, Kevin "keev" Bartholomäus, had earplugs. He tried to remove them and one of the plugs stuck in his ear. He takes off his headset and says to me: "I have a plug in my ear". It was happening during a match. It was bothering him, so we had to stop the game.
Which problem is that: technical or physical? We paused the match and realized that that thing was deep inside his ear. Quickly enough, I went to the production crew to tell them that keev’s team should not be shown on the broadcast. At this moment, PGL CEO’s wife was sitting next to me, and I said to her: "We need tweezers. Maybe we need a doctor". At first, she did not understand what was happening. Everyone was staring at his ear, everyone was laughing. I don’t know what another person would do if one was in my place. Maybe others would also start laughing. At the end, keev left his place, even though it was forbidden by the rules of the Major. If we had shown it on camera, it would be unprofessional. At that moment, producers were showing another team, so everything looked clean for viewers on the stream. It’s just one example of the cases where, I think, a referee’s multifunctionality can be expressed.
However, I wouldn’t say that it’s a demonstration of special talent. You just described a qualified worker. When it’s desired, anyone can get those skills.
When it’s desired, anyone can become a top manager. Every person can start a business, learn how to ski, etc. It’s a matter of self-improvement. Being a designer requires special talent; being a developer, actually, also needs it. Maybe it’s just how I see things, my team tries to approach every job with creativity. A referee, as I believe, also has to be creative when one does his work. However, not creative enough to leak insights into his channel on Telegram (laughs).
Such a person should be an expert who really wants to do his job. Some people work to survive while others live to work. Also, there is one more category of people. It doesn’t matter what they do, they always succeed. Such people know their goal clearly, understand what they do, for what purpose, and what comes out of it. They see a goal in front of themselves.
Some referees - volunteers, for example - go to work at events just to spend some time in the esports environment. They have no interest in what happens next: with this company, with this team, and so on. A referee has to understand what he does and for what reason. You cannot just limit the job to giving simple instructions like "talking is not allowed" or "putting a bottle of water on the table is forbidden". This is what differs a robot from a human being with a soul.
Have you ever heard about situations when teams acted arrogantly towards referees or other people organizing events?
I think it depends on what you personally think about a team and how you establish contact with them. Many volunteers were afraid of Virtus.pro and thought that they are arrogant. I, on the other hand, found common ground with them very easily. Here, you have to draw the line between an arrogant person and a professional who knows what he wants. When players go there and say: "Guys, we asked for bananas and cold water. Bring it to us, please", it doesn’t show that they are arrogant. It’s a request to do what was promised.
I have always seen Astralis in this way. When you are around them at a tournament, they are always serious, collected, and they smile very rarely. Yet, I found the way how to work with them. With NAVI, for example, we had no trouble finding common language. s1mple is always friendly to me as he remembers me from the old days when he was participating in 1v1 tournaments.
It’s a matter of how you "feel" a team and establish your connection. One can be approached with a joke, other would require to be serious. There are moments when you realize that you have to choose between standing your ground in relation to a team and bending to its rules. In case of Astralis, for example, you have to respect their rules. With NAVI, in their turn, we could always speak with an equal voice. However, it doesn’t mean that a team is arrogant simply due to that reason.
Here is an example. At StarSeries S2 that took place in Palace Ukraine, n0thing made a promise to show up for an interview at 13:00. Later, people came for him, and he was not even ready at 13:30. They asked him to go, to which he replied: "They are reporters. Let them wait, I haven’t eaten yet. I have the right to do so.". How do you define what is arrogance and what is professionalism - that’s the question. He, eventually, came to give interviews even though he was late.
What teams allow themselves to say in presence of referees and admins? Do they watch their tongue so that they don’t reveal anything that they may regret saying?
Teams can talk about whatever they want. However, it’s no secret that every team hides some things. If they need to say something that shouldn’t be heard, they say it privately. Speaking about in-game moments and warmup - no, they don’t pay much attention to what they say. They can say basically anything. When it’s needed to avoid such situations, they have managers and psychologists for that purpose. It’s their job to make sure that people don’t enter a state when they can say something that shouldn’t be said. However, prior to matches and during preparation, you can hear some jokes and phrases that may piss opposite teams off. Yet, at tournaments you don’t usually hear swearing that is common in CIS.
Most of the times, insights are got at afterparties. Some people just talk, others are engaged in negotiations, and people share information one to another. I discussed this topic with Alexander "Lk-" Lemeshev, who is the current coach of HellRaisers. Usually, when they find themselves in such situations, they say this: "Not for the record.". Then, you can expect a good attitude towards yourself. [At afterparties], you can hear many interesting things. You just need to understand what can be revealed to the public and what cannot. Not all kinds of information can be disclosed.
Don’t you think that referees, who have worked in this role for a long time, in a way sacrifice their ambitions?
I don’t think that they sacrifice their ambitions. I’m not even sure that it’s a bad thing. Ambitions can transform into "madness". A person does what his is good at and what provides him some money. I believe that it’s better to be a good referee and earn something like $2,000 a month than to be an ambitious gamer who blames everyone, leaves his teams, gathers new line-ups around him, and says that he will destroy everyone. Actually, such a player makes his situation even worse.
Oleksandr "s1mple" Kostyliev, a 15 y.o. player, went to play aim-tournaments in Kiev Cybersport Arena and beat there every opponent he had faced off against. There, he was noticed by HellRaisers, and that’s when his ambitions came to life. There are only a few players like him. We can compare him to Mathieu "ZywOo" Herbaut from Vitality. They appear in a flash: they participate in a tournament, join a certain team, and have a meteoric rise to the top of the scene. The difference between them and ordinary players is how fast they progress. Let’s take pro100 as an example. They’ve been on a tier-3 level for a long time. On the other hand, there are players like s1mple and ZywOo who rise immediately. As a result, speaking of Sasha, nowadays he is playing for NAVI.
I wanted to give you an example of ambitions… Let’s speak about Oleksandr "Shara" Hordieiev. He is a player from Kiev who thought he was cool. He has played with Vlаdуslаv "bondik" Nеchуроrchuk… Meanwhile, bondik didn’t speak much but had been invited to play for many teams from CIS. He was on the rosters of FlipSid3, HellRaisers, and even TYLOO. Now, bondik is in Winstrike, while Shara… Where is Shara now? Shara had his time and now it’s over, even though he is a good player and an ambitious person. In 1.6, we also saw such a player as Konstantin "Pr1zraK" Krivosheev. He is also a decent player, but no one could get along with him.
Ambitions don’t matter when you have facts. "I’m the best player in the world", that’s a fact and ambitions don’t mean anything. Ambitions overcomplicate our lives. It’s better to be a referee in this case. You do your job and no one has any complaints against you. Besides, being a referee can be only an intermediate stage in one’s career.
Let’s take Janko "YNk" Paunović as an example. He was a player in 1.6, but then he became an observer. He was at one of the StarSeries events, and I talked to him at the time, but I doubt that he would remember me now. He said to me this: "What I’m doing now is very important to me.". Before that, I commended the job that he had done. "It’s very important to me. Everything I do for esports is important", that’s what he said. He was earning only a few hundreds per event day. Back then, his English wasn’t so good. Later, once he improved his language skills, he was invited to work as an analyst, and, in the end, became a coach. That’s why being an observer or a referee can be temporary. If you’re a schoolkid, you cannot become the owner of Microsoft in one moment. That’s the case only if your dad propagates you his company (laughs).
Off the record, Alexander told us a few interesting stories from the Krakow Major. They are about his interactions with the teams during the tournament. His first story was about FlipSid3 Tactics. According to him, he had helped F3 a lot and even earned the praise of the team’s captain, Andrey "B1ad3" Gorodenskiy. B1ad3 named Oleynik the squad’s talisman and was happy to see him in every match.
The second story concerns four different teams: BIG, G2 Esports, FNATIC, and Virtus.pro. Players enjoyed working with him so much that they expressed a desire to see him at every game.
How did Alexander earn their trust and what things they liked in his approach? In order to get a better understanding of what players think, we asked this question the coach of VP, Jakub "kuben" Gurczyński.
Why did you enjoy working with Alex? What are the specific reasons for that?
I will not hide it, it was a long time ago and I don’t remember much taking into account how many events I’ve participated in since the Krakow Major. But I remember Alexander very well. He's charismatic. Someone neutral is easier to forget, but I still remember him even though we haven't seen each other for a long time.
Every time we would come to our booth, he greeted us with a smile, saying few funny words in our native language. Despite our focus, smiles immediately appeared on our faces as well. It certainly helped us because when you see a referee who is usually rude towards you, your stress level increases, and even if you don't want it, you will unconsciously focus on the guy behind you and not 100% on your monitor or the tasks you have to do for your team in the match.
Alexander would always ask what drinks or snacks we needed. If we had any problems or required any help, he would be there for us. However, we also received rigid guidelines on when we would start the match, and when the last moment would come to go to the WC. Following the rules is also an important thing for a referee. One has to know where is the border between professionalism and amateurishness.
How much players appreciate the work that referees, admins, team handlers, and other stuff do at tournaments?
It probably depends on a team, and maybe more on communication they have with referees. There are some teams that are indifferent to everything, they just come to play no matter what. But also, there are friendly ones who can give high fives to their referee when the game is over. It's about the relationships that are built in a short space of time and impression that a referee makes on a team.
The most important thing is not to treat referees as robots or people of the lower class. They love the game as much as we do. We are from the same environment. They do their work, too. However, players are not always nice. Sometimes they are even cheeky and too demanding. "Give me water, bring me ice", and many others things that are said without signs of any appreciation.
It depends on how many people are assigned to take care of a team on stage, but sometimes one or two persons need to handle all team’s needs with continuous pressure from production crew as matches should start as soon as possible. Everyone - including players, referees, admins, production - have reached the professional level, and it is moving forward. Players must understand that some of the rules are also applied to them.
I personally do not share my appreciation on social media. I do it face-to-face and thank TOs, referees, and team handlers for their effort, professionalism, and work they do.
In addition to all that’s been said, ex-PM of StarLadder mentioned BIG. After PGL Major Krakow, when Alexander was not a StarLadder employee anymore, they were upset when they found out that he was not working at StarSeries i-League S6. The tournament in Kiev took place a year after the Krakow’s event, but they did not forget their "super-admin" - that’s how he was called by the players. After all, the Germans contacted him personally to figure out the reason as to why he was not there.
Eventually, BIG found time to appoint a meeting and talked to him. They demonstrated interest in Oleynik’s state of affairs, thought of old times, and, overall, treated him as a good friend.
Being a referee in CS:GO is not the simplest job and requires a special set of skills. Not everyone can be on the move most of the day; not everyone knows how to properly approach star players, or how to use creativity in the process to stand out among all other referees. That’s why some people leave the industry and never come back, while others stay there and continue doing their job.
For some, as the interviewee pointed out, being a referee is just one of the first steps in career. A person will find a way to unleash potential if one is committed to what he does. When you are a referee, you can become more familiar with the industry and make good connections. The most important thing is to not give up and constantly work towards self-improvement.
Alexander asked us to point it out that this interview is not recorded for the hype purposes. He, after the events at StarSeries in Turkey, wanted to tell people that being a coach is actually so much more than just standing behind players’ backs and hearing many insights within arm’s reach. This job has a different side, and some people don’t really notice it. In this industry, we have many good workers. They are professionals, and they do a lot to make esports a better place.
Besides, let’s not forget that hype is temporary. Today you are discussed by thouthands of people, but tomorrow no one remembers you. It’s a simple way to receive attention, but it does not guarantee success and might cost you reputation. People appreciate mutual respect. Players, coaches, managers, referees - no one is an exception.
That’s why we are appealing to everyone, who one way or another is involved in esports, not to ignore moral standards. It concerns both star players and simple workers. Let’s do everything to keep esports away from bad things. Even though it won’t give anyone hundreds of thousands of views or likes.