Santiago “Daveys” Galvis is one of VAULT’s Colombian CS:GO players. Photo credit: Felipe Guerra
Andrew Buck has been many things in his life, from a graphic designer, to an aspiring special forces soldier, to a security contractor. But, these days, he’s just one: an esports manager. Despite being a lifelong gamer and esports fan, Buck never would have anticipated he’d end up owning and managing VAULT, one of Colombia’s top CS:GO teams, from his home state of Minnesota.
Going from training bomb-sniffing dogs to esports management isn’t exactly a typical career path, and Colombia isn’t exactly the first place that comes to mind at the mention of professional Counter-Strike. But for Buck, that was exactly the point. He saw an opportunity to get into the industry by looking beyond the usual places. And, in his case, that place was Colombia.
Counter-Strike in Colombia
VAULT is one of the few pro Colombian esports teams. Photo credit: Felipe Guerra
Gamer culture has existed in Colombia for as long as it has in the United States. According to Luis Parra, who writes about Colombia in Video Games Around the World, Colombian gamers have had access to “the latest games and consoles almost as they appeared in the US market.” As a result, Colombian gamers have been playing and making games since the ‘80s. In fact, the recent boom in Colombian engineering graduates has directly contributed to the Colombian game industry’s growth. The Colombian economy may be the fourth-largest in Latin America, but the country is just now emerging from almost 60 years of complicated conflict between the government, paramilitary groups, guerillas, and gangs. As the dust has slowly settled, the pressure is high for young people to get well-paying jobs.
But esports is a different world entirely. While game development may be increasingly viewed as a legitimate career choice, esports still isn’t, especially when few Latin American pro gamers get paid. Even Colombia’s top-earning pro gamer, Javier “Janoz CFI” Munoz, has earned just $28,500 his seven years as a FIFA player—according to Esports Earnings above the global average for FIFA 18 players overall, but well below the kind of earnings many pros make. This is why three of VAULT’s five players have chosen to keep studying full-time while playing professionally part-time, including engineering student Santiago “Daveys” Galvis.
Like many Colombian pro gamers, Daveys chose to study full-time and play part-time.
For VAULT player Juanes “sickLy” Valencia, becoming a full-time pro was a five year uphill struggle, even in an international esports title like CS:GO or 1.6. “Here, obviously the [esports] scene is not that big, and in 1.6 it was even smaller,” he says. Some might expect a small scene makes it easier to get noticed, but it can actually have the opposite effect when there’s no one to compete with and no potential for upward mobility. Much like the Portuguese pro scene, few players can make it work, and those who do often leave the country for greater opportunities. sickLy says this is especially common for League of Legends players, who often go to Mexico to compete in the North Latin American league.
A small scene also means small money: what little CS players did make, sickLy says, “It wasn't enough to live off the game.” Not to mention the difficulties with ping times. Their only server choices are in North America, Chile, or Brazil, meaning game servers can be anywhere from 3,000 to 7,000 km away. These reasons are why the global gaming world has largely overlooked not only Colombia, but other countries like Argentina, Chile, and Brazil. But for people like Buck, the nascent esports scene made Colombia the perfect place to have a team.
Mall to manager
Andrew Buck didn’t have prior esports experience, but that didn’t stop him from starting his own team. Photo via Andrew Buck.
Back when Buck was thinking of founding VAULT, there was no guidance on starting an esports team, much less managing one. After all, many early teams formed organically when groups of friends were good enough to go pro, while many managers are retired pro gamers whose skills segue naturally. But Buck wasn’t a current or retired pro gamer, and he didn’t have the venture capital of today’s newer gaming organizations. Becoming a full-time esports manager meant jumping in headfirst and doing everything himself, even when he didn’t know what he was doing. It was total “trial by fire,” he says. By day, he was working his regular job training bomb-sniffing dogs. By night, he was making investor pitch decks, designing brand graphics, and recruiting players for his new esports organization.
For someone who initially didn’t know what he was doing, Buck moved quickly, soon recruiting a Heroes of the Storm team, followed by CS:GO. Although he began with a few North American CS:GO rosters, Latin America’s evolving esports scene quickly caught his eye. He particularly liked the players’ attitudes. “I've always admired the passion and dedication [in Latin America],” he says. “This community embraces each opportunity they’re given with an unmatched level of enthusiasm and professionalism.”
ROG Masters Colombia 2017 provided opportunities for local teams to advance to a regional and international stage.
With some networking, Buck was soon coaching some of the Colombian players who later joined VAULT. In 2017, VAULT’s Colombian CS:GO team was officially born, and they immediately began proving their mettle. The top roster went to the EFCA premiere LAN, won first place at the ROG Masters Colombia 2017, and blew up in popularity, with dedicated Latin American superfans literally betting on their success.
According to sickLy, having a remote team manager isn’t all that strange. Photo credit: Felipe Guerra
You might expect Buck’s travel expenses to rack up while coaching a Colombian team, but he’s never actually met any of his players face-to-face, not even for major tournaments. Between travel costs and full-time job responsibilities, he’s never had the chance. He definitely wants to, ideally by bringing the team to North America. But, for now, he’s possibly the world’s only remote esports manager.
Thanks to Discord and Skype for regular chats and video calls, remote team management is surprisingly easy. But Daveys says it was still a little weird at first. After all, they didn’t know if they could trust this American guy who wanted to be their manager. But once Buck began paying league fees, winning sponsorships, offering travel opportunities, and coordinating their international trips, it sank in that he was serious about helping them.
The travel part is especially key, since teams in small regions can’t improve without exposure to diverse competitors and play styles. Thanks to Buck, VAULT’s CS:GO players have had unprecedented international travel opportunities, including WESG in China, Strike One in Peru, and Fragadelphia in the US. This might not seem like a big deal, but it’s rare for Colombian pro gamers to have the chance or money to travel abroad. While their management arrangement may be unusual, so far it’s working well for everyone.
Compassion over competition
On VAULT, players like sickLy have invaluable local knowledge that they contribute to team and brand development.
VAULT’s remote management and grassroots origin story is as unique as Buck’s overall management approach. Esports is an industry where exploitation still starkly coexists alongside some of pro gaming’s greatest success stories. In VAULT, democracy, empowerment, and equality come before victory. “This is what really drove me to get involved in esports,” says Buck. “Reading the stories of players not being paid or not receiving the support that was promised to them initially.” He thought he could run a team more ethically than the examples he saw, especially by valuing people and relationships over pure performance. Buck says it’s all a matter of keeping an open dialogue with his players about their needs.
VAULT isn’t alone in this approach. It's part of a growing trend where teams strive to put their players first, including Echo Fox, Ninjas in Pyjamas, and Astralis. Buck also leans on his players for their local knowledge. “They know the communities better in Colombia than I would,” he says. That’s why he wants his players to all have a say in VAULT’s future direction as both a team and a brand. VAULT’s players agree that there’s a noticeable difference when the focus is on cooperation and equality. “[It’s a] mutual relationship, when we do our best to represent the brand and to get good results, and [Andrew] does his best [...] giving us everything that we need to compete better,” says sickLy.
Opening new opportunities
Buck began as an everyday esports fan who dreamed of someday owning and managing his own team. There wasn’t any template for what he was doing, but that didn’t stop him. He figured out how to do everything himself and took the leap. Today, that grit and perseverance is responsible for his current career: managing Buck Gaming, an NBA2k18 team that’s part of the Minneapolis Bucks and has joined 16 other NBA-owned teams in the NBA 2k League.
Competing internationally isn’t something that most Latin American pros can take for granted. Photo credit: Felipe Guerra
As for Colombia, gamers are seeing new opportunities arrive, slowly but surely. The city of Medellin will soon have two new LAN centers, which is especially critical for training the next generation of Colombian esports pros. Not many Colombians today have gaming-capable computer monitors or computers, so sickLy foresees this being a boon for local esports. He hopes it will help the national team as well as VAULT with “[finding] upcoming players to represent the country.”
And as VAULT expands from CS:GO and Heroes of the Storm to Vainglory and League of Legends, their hopes for the future still aren’t simply about winning. “My goal is finding these players who are hungry but don't have the resources,” Buck says. In VAULT’s world, it’s not victory that drives them, but opportunity.
By Kimberly Koenig