Jun 28, 2018 Written by: ROG

The secret sauce fueling NiP's startup mindset

Articles: eSports
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nip-fullres-25smallEmil ‘HeatoN’ Christensen grins from NiP’s podcasting studio. (Photo via Petter Nilsson / NiP)

Ask Emil ‘HeatoN’ Christensen if he ever thought that Ninjas in Pyjamas would become what it is today, and his reaction is immediate. “No way in hell,” he says, grinning broadly and shaking his head. It’s grown from a gaming clan established with just a few close friends to one of the most recognizable and internationally-acclaimed esports brands, with millions of devoted, worldwide fans.

But when NiP first began in 2000, there were no multimillionaire pro players, no gaming houses, no arenas packed with screaming fans. Turning gaming into a full-time, paying career seemed laughable. A pipe dream. Today, NiP is a thriving esports empire with six teams across six games. (CS:GO may be their bread and butter, but a little diversification never hurts.)

Of course, no one’s saying it’s been a consistently easy road, much less a fully deliberate one. “I like to say that NiP was a company that happened by accident, rather by plan,” says CEO Hicham Chahine, laughing. “And what you ended up with today is one of the most recognized esports teams in the world.”

nip-fullres-24smallWhen NiP began 18 years ago, there weren’t massive esports arenas or millions of screaming, passionate Ninjas. (Photo via Petter Nilsson / NiP)

Embracing growth mode

Eighteen years after its inception, it’s difficult to fathom that Ninjas in Pyjamas predates some of its die-hard fans. But though it’s one of the most time-honored and well-recognized esports franchises, this is no stodgy, old-fashioned business. Walk into their Scandinavian-chic Stockholm offices and two things are immediately apparent: first, Chahine’s dog Oliver has the run of the place. Second, NiP is being run like a startup, and they’re in mega growth mode.

The CEO describes the last couple years as “crazy” with good reason. What started as an esports team with no business plan has blown up into an international brand. They’ve hired a CMO, COO, CFO, and heads of merchandise, partnership, creative, and social media. They’re scaling up the content team and expanding into new verticals that they're not ready to reveal just yet. Chahine is bursting with excitement and pride as he explains all these future avenues.

nip-hq-fullres-24smallA sneak peek inside NiP’s stylish Stockholm HQ.

There are also collaborations with Swedish schools, the royal family, and the government: programs like Area08, a summer camp that’s bringing esports bootcamp training to high school students, and Friends, an anti-bullying initiative to highlight issues like online fair play, social responsibility, and gender and racial equality.

With over eight million devoted fans worldwide, thousands more joining every day, and the highest social media engagement numbers of almost any esports brand, NiP is taking their job very seriously. After all, they’re not just any esports team. Whether you’re talking about legendary players like HeatoN, GeT_RiGhT, and f0rest, or rising stars like Rez, Draken, lekr0, and Dennis, they’re all role models for the next generation of gamers.

Bring on the challenges

Massive growth notwithstanding, NiP is a lean, mean startup machine. They have just 50 employees between their HQs in Stockholm and Landskrona, Sweden. This is a shockingly small team for a worldwide esports brand that’s been around for 18 years. Compare that to Echo Fox, which has only been around since 2015 and already has a Los Angeles headquarters with over 75 offices.

With NiP’s agile atmosphere comes a willingness to tackle challenges and make mistakes along the way. “We have a saying in NiP that it’s all right to fail,” says head of social media Petter Nilsson. The last few years have been intense, with plenty of opportunities to wear many hats and contribute to the company’s direction. He also points out that they have no references. With esports teams becoming profitable in just the last few years, NiP is quite literally a trailblazer.

CEO Hicham Chahine is the first to admit that, with as many successes as they’ve had, there have been a couple hiccups along the way. There were the ultra unhealthy, NiP-branded potato chips that didn’t quite fly off store shelves. Then there was the warehouse full of painfully unfashionable polos. Failure is natural when you welcome experimentation; it’s all about learning and gracefully recovering.

staff-fullres-1smallCEO Hicham Chahine is the first to admit that the NiP’s expansion means big wins and gracefully recovering from mistakes.

But NiP’s biggest learning experience happened when Chahine first came onboard. In 2014, venture capital firm Diglife acquired a majority stake in NiP. At that time, the company was also in the middle of a minor tax crisis. Chahine’s first order of business as CEO was to sort through it. Today, he views the experience with incredible good humor. “It was a lot of fun, because the tax authorities in Sweden also got really engaged,” he recalls. “It took us two years to clean it up. And the funny part is that we didn’t end up owing that much money at all. So it was quite fun.”

It’s hard to imagine anyone else using the word “fun” to describe a 6,000-transaction reconstruction and two-plus years of intensive accounting. But, then again, he infuses everything with a bubbling vivacity, whether it’s running numbers or simply keeping spirits high during a long weekend of burning the midnight oil with the team. That’s one of the reasons the CEO travels with and supports the team at every competition.

One other big takeaway from the experience is how it so clearly reflects the NiP, and Chahine’s, business ethos. When Diglife and NiP joined forces, they actually had a choice: try to fix things, or scrap the whole company and start over. “But that’s not the way you should be doing business,” the CEO says. Especially not when it comes to setting an example for other esports teams and for NiP’s fans: “You don't want to let them down.” They could have cut their losses and saved over two years of work, but they didn’t because it wasn’t the right thing to do. Chahine takes his job of setting a clear moral compass very seriously.

Welcome to the family

nip-fullres-31smallWhether you’re a player or or a photographer, being in NiP means being in the family. (Photo via Petter Nilsson / NiP)

Spend any amount of time at NiP HQ, and it’s quickly clear that this is no ordinary esports organization, and it’s not just the pamphlet they’re producing on responsible internet citizenship. At first, you can’t quite put your finger on it. Then it dawns that these aren’t just employees. They’re friends, super fans, and a family.

For one thing, Chahine is on close terms with everyone. Though it’s more than that, too. “He’s kind of the dad,” jokes HeatoN. Chahine protests this at first, but then admits that, actually, it’s probably true. A typical day as CEO spans everything from presenting to the board of directors and mentoring players to, well, dog duty. “This weekend I might be babysitting f0rest's dog,” he confesses. And that amicable vibe even extends outside to the group’s significant others. “Our girlfriends know each other, they go out for dinner without us,” Chahine laughs.

Head of video content Perra Andersen quickly noticed this close-knit, easygoing atmosphere when he began filming NiP’s CS:GO team. They all hang out together as friends, and, even among the so-called star players, there’s no ego or elitism—they’re regular people who are genuinely “just happy that they can make a living doing what they love to do.”

nipmanagementsmallHead of video content (center) Perra Andersen travels with the NiP family to as many events as possible, including ESL Pro League Dallas 2018. (Photo via Petter Nilsson / NiP)

Players notice the difference, too. f0rest says he’s still with NiP after six years because it “feels like home.” And coach Faruk ‘Pita’ Pita feels the love from the staff, saying it’s more like a team with everyone, social media staff included: “They’re supporting us all the time. This isn't five players. This isn't five players plus the coach. It's everyone.”

Crucial to maintaining that sense of closeness is immediately inducting players into the NiP family when they join. When their new PUBG players became part of the organization, management moved some of them from the US to NiP’s Landskrona, Sweden HQ, co-locating them with the other players.

Not only is GeT_RiGhT’s dad one of his biggest supporters; he’s also NiP’s board of directors player advocate. (Via NiP on Twitter)

Players aren’t just part of a roster here, either. As much as possible, Chahine wants them to feel like an integral, important part of the business. That means everyone is in the annual business kickoffs where the company communicates its upcoming vision, objectives, financials, and other key milestones. Chahine emphasizes that this involvement is also key for ensuring players feel like they’re going to a job each day. And, whether they stay with NiP or someday go elsewhere, the CEO wants them to have that business intelligence so they can suss out what’s important in healthy esports organizations.

When people ask him how he’s managed to keep his various rosters together and happy, it all comes back to that inclusiveness and sense of family: “It’s not just saying that you’re building a family. You can just say that, but it’s about what you’re actually doing.” For NiP, that includes having a player representative on their board of directors who looks out for the gamers’ best interests. Naturally, he’s Christopher ‘GeT_RiGhT’ Alesund’s dad.

What it takes to be a Ninja

HeatondancesmallHe might be a world-renowned player and the face of the NiP brand, but HeatoN is also about as goofy and genuine as they come.

Ask anyone at NiP what characterizes this team, and one word comes up repeatedly: authenticity. Here it isn’t just a buzzword, but a way of life that begins with the brand’s face: Emil ‘HeatoN’ Christensen. Although he’s retired from his career in the competitive hotseat, he’s more than happy to be NiP’s brand ambassador. In fact, he seems thrilled about it. He also volunteers for Area08 and Friends, working with kids at esports camps and campaigning against online bullying.

As someone who was voted the world’s best Counter-Strike player—and the first person inducted into the Esports Hall of Fame—HeatoN has absolutely no qualms about being the face of the NiP brand. “It’s really cool, it’s fun, and it’s a big honor,” he says with a broad grin. “It’s a reflection on my career, how well NiP is doing, how well I’m doing. I feel it’s my little baby.” There is perhaps no more affable esports legend than HeatoN, who frequently makes jokes at his own expense, whether about his age, his (supposedly) rusty CS:GO skills, or how all the other players regularly outpace him at his own game.

As for the other players, they never see themselves as too good for their fans. “Making the fans happy is one of the biggest missions for NiP,” says video editor Perra Andersen. In his content, it’s all about telling a story that conveys NiP’s authenticity—bringing fans firsthand into the experience, putting them right there with the players. “The struggles, the winning moments, the happiness. You can see it through my videos,” he says. Even talking to him, you can hear how invested he is in NiP’s success: his voice lilts with excitement when he talks about the signature NiP magic when the team pulled through against the odds at IEM Oakland in 2016 and 2017.

nip-fullres-34smallThe many faces of NiP fan selfies. Perra Andersen says NiP is “nothing without our fans.” (Photos via Petter Nilsson / NiP)

Chahine echoes the importance of making fans feel included. “Some of the esports teams are trying to do, like, ‘We’re the New York Yankees’—” he holds one hand high to represent the esports teams putting themselves above their fans, “—and ‘You’re down here.’ We don’t want to do that, we want to be here, somehow,” he gestures to show a level playing field.

A Ninja’s ethos, through and through

NiP does things differently, even with something as seemingly simple as a shirt. You might not realize it, but if you order NiP swag, you’re guaranteed that it’s been through a painstaking quality control process thanks to Laura Rojas, who is responsible for merchandising. The NiP ethos of authenticity and integrity means they hold themselves to an incredibly high standard in their quality control processes. Rojas emphasizes the magnitude of respecting NiP customers and preserving their brand trust: “I measure every single T-shirt before it's sent into production. It's all about respecting the customer. We never want to break the love that they have for us because it's beyond passion.” If one of their products is even slightly uneven or one sleeve is just barely longer than the other, they wouldn’t think of sending it to their customers.

staff-fullres-4smallNiP’s authenticity even extends to merch. But for Laura Rojas, it’s more than that: it’s also about trust and passion.

When it comes to player recruitment, a humble and genuine demeanor is doubly important. Whoever gets added to the NiP lineup has to be a good fit. “We’re not scared of saying no,” says Chahine. “I can take the second best team in the world if we connect better personally.” In the past, they’ve sent contract offerings to top teams, only to discover that the personal connection wasn’t there. Sometimes players clearly weren’t invested in NiP for the long-term; sometimes they were simply in it for the money. “Yes, you rank number one in the world; yes, you just won the invitational; yes, everyone is looking at you… but we’ll say no to you,” concludes Chahine. HeatoN agrees. He looks for “mindset and talent,” but it’s the mindset that’s extra important. You can have the talent, but if you’re not a good team fit, it’s not going to work out.

This is also what ultimately led NiP 10,920 km away, to São Paulo, Brazil. “The players are super nice, they’re super pleasant. It’s not just like, ‘Yeah, you pay our paychecks.’ They see themselves as part of this long term. They genuinely believe in what we’re doing,” says Chahine. Brazilian players who were NiP fans from back in the day suddenly saw themselves becoming part of something bigger. That spirit and team-oriented thinking was exactly what NiP was looking for.

What the future holds

nip-fullres-24smallNiP players and staff settle in for some traditional Texan fare before ESL Pro League Dallas 2018. (Photo via Petter Nilsson / NiP)

As NiP looks at the future, they’re hungry for more: more games, more growth, and more greatness. Game wins are fuel for the fire, and game losses just push them to fight even harder. There’s no complacency here. The NiP of today is not the same as yesterday. “They didn't even know what losing was,” says Andersen. “I think they're more humble now, and they know what they need to do to deliver.”

But as much as they’re focusing on expansion, they’re also being highly deliberate. “We're picking our family members very carefully,” says Nilsson. He pauses to think before continuing. “Our partners also extend our family. We're making sure that this next partner is actually good for us, and is going to be good for our fans, and they're going to think that it's fun that we're partnering up with these guys.” This includes partners like Republic of Gamers, which joined the NiP family in January 2017 and provides NiP’s players with top-of-the-line gear, like the ROG Swift PG248Q high-refresh gaming monitor and the esports-friendly ROG Strix GL12 compact desktop. In fact, when Diglife first came in, NiP parted ways with a significant number of former brand partners. These days, if there isn’t mutual value and cohesion, they won’t force it.

It’s still fun looking back on those early days. While reminiscing, Chahine admits that when Diglife first invested in NiP many, many years ago, they didn’t do any due diligence.

“None whatsoever?” I’m stunned.

“No, none.” They invested solely based on a personal relationship with HeatoN. “At that time it was probably the stupidest investment we have done,” says Chahine with a grin. Of course, there are no regrets now. “It's beautiful to see where NiP is heading and how big the brand has gotten,” says star player and team veteran f0rest. “I always had a dream for NiP to be even more successful, but I [never] thought it will be this successful,” echoes GeT_RiGhT.

Someone is obviously doing something right, although Chahine won’t ‘fess up to it. Of the close-knit environment that’s formed, “I think that everyone built it together,” he insists. However, coach Pita has caught on: “You know, it's easy to be good at numbers, to be good at structure, to be good at how the organization should look like. But making a team out of 30-40 people, whoever does that—I assume our CEO—but whoever made this possible is a big part of the success in whatever game we have.” Indeed.

And it’s just as clear to the millions of die-hard NiP fans that something very special is happening in Sweden. For those people, NiP was and is the very best esports team. “I am a huge fan since 1.6,” writes one fan, Konstantinos Panakas, on the official NiP Facebook page. “You guys are and will be the best ever.” Another fan writes: “They are the heroes who fall and rise again... Truly inspirational team.” This is the NiP magic. For what began eighteen years ago as a group of friends chasing their dreams playing CS1.6, to what’s now an internationally beloved esports brand and hyper-growth startup, it’s been an incredible journey. And they’re not nearly done dreaming.

By Kimberly Koenig

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