2017 — Reflections, Apologies, & Lessons

I love seeing good movies. To borrow from Donald Miller, author and producer of podcast Storybrand, experiencing a good work of art gives you a temporary feeling of clarity about your life and what your next steps should be. It puts things in perspective — similar to the effects of travel.

After seeing the new Star Wars movie, I knew I had to write about 2017 — both for myself and the people I interacted with.

Reflections

This was a year of growth. Put another way, it was a rollercoaster year of stress and emotions as growth never comes from being in a comfort zone. The year started on a high note with arrival of my U.S. green card, after 12 years of waiting. I visited the United Kingdom and Switzerland for the first time, and took my 4th trip to Burning Man. But then came the split with my business co-founder IraqiZorro, followed by fun but challenging 3 months in New York as part of our first startup accelerator. Three of our teams experienced setbacks due to circumstances entirely outside of their control: a player unexpectedly banned 15 minutes before a key match, an event cancelled due to the unfortunate Vegas shooting, and a player experienced an in-game bug during a major tournament that rendered him unable to play. The year ended with my estranged father deciding to come visit for Christmas, but then telling me things that no son deserves to hear. “You have no right to expect any encouragement from me because, technically, I never promised any.” Cool story, dad… But overall, it was a great year, with Gankstars growing from 2 game titles and 14,000 followers to 5 titles and 220,000 followers! Plus, we won another world championship. 2017 was so chock-full of events that it actually felt like 2 years.

Our major goal for 2017 was to transform Gankstars from a Vainglory organization into a multi-title esports organization. Just like Team Liquid or Cloud9, Gankstars was established to become a household name in more than one game. And we succeeded: our Critical Ops team became the world champions, and our Paladins (both PC and Xbox) and H1Z1 teams are typically top 5 in the world. In fact, the Xbox Paladins team is going to HRX next week and has a good shot at becoming the third Gankstars team to win a world championship. With teams from Overwatch, Gears of War, Rainbow Six, Call of Duty, Rocket League, and other games applying to be a part of the organization, it’s clear that Gankstars has become a brand that is recognized and respected across the esports scene. This makes me more proud that I can possibly express, and I am so grateful for all of our players and staff who made it possible!

We’ve added some amazing people to Gankstars this year, lost a few, and learned a lot about overall org management: how to treat people and also how not to treat people, how to make great content and what doesn’t matter as much, where to trust and delegate more and where to provide more specific directions, to name a few. I think Gankstars will feel quite different in 2018; it will be a more lean and mean machine and a really fun place to be at the same time. That’s really what gets me out of bed every morning.

Apologies

At the same time, I made mistakes. I failed at some things. I directed some efforts in a direction that led to a dead end. I think it’s important to talk about those things, too. We often shy away from talking about the embarrassing stuff and try to put on this image of perfection, like nothing is ever wrong. But that doesn’t give room for others to really connect with us or to learn from our mistakes. And where there are mistakes, there should be apologies.

I’d like to apologize to R3cKeD. He was a phenomenal support player on our Vainglory team, and I could have communicated better about his removal from the team. This is one of those things where, technically, we’ve done nothing wrong. But sometimes doing nothing wrong isn’t the same as not hurting feelings, and that was a valuable lesson for me. I am tired of perceptions growing without check, so here’s the full story.

This year, the last chance to sign a good player in Vainglory was right after Spring season. This is because every organization wanted to sign players through the end of the year; making changes to a team after Summer season was too risky, as Autumn season was the crucial last chance to qualify for World Championship.

When Spring season ended, R3cKeD still hadn’t signed his contract. This put us in a tough situation as an org because a key player on the Vainglory team could leave after Summer season began and we wouldn’t be able to get a replacement. We got a partnership with Ultimate around the same time, so we also wanted to move the team to Los Angeles so that Ultimate could start creating content around the players. R3cKeD decided to not move.

So we found Vains, who was willing to sign and move to LA. The problem was that Vains went on a cruise after Spring season and had a spotty cell phone connection. Thus, he was unable to download and sign his contract until the 11th hour, i.e. close to the start of Summer season. I notified R3cKeD as soon as Vains signed, but by the time he saw the message (he was also on a cruise), it ended up being so close to the roster lock deadline that it left R3cKeD with few options as far as moving to another team, which understandably hurt his feelings.

I apologize for the lack of transparency and how it worked out, R3cKeD. Had I told you earlier, we’d potentially end up without a roam (you’d leave and Vains hadn’t confirmed yet), which would put the other 2 players on the team in a very bad situation. I still don’t know what I could have done better there, to be honest, but I do know that I hate how it made you feel. I want you to know that it was not intentional and a very hard decision to make. I hope you can forgive me— I will always respect you for your high skill and discipline.

I’d also like to apologize to IraqiZorro. Him and I have an agreement to not talk publicly about what happened because it’s complicated and so easy to misconstrue, so I won’t be getting into details. What I’m apologizing for is not having the conversation earlier, and perhaps not having it in a better way. I love you, Hamza, even though right now you may certainly not see it that way. I still hope I can do justice by you, I am still convinced that you’ll be able to see at least some of my point of view as time passes, and I’m very happy to see you happy in your new job. I even hope we can again work together in the future. For now it’s a situation where you can find 10 people who agree with your point of view and I can find 10 people who agree with mine. All I can say is that I miss you and that I look forward to a day where we can talk about things with less emotion and more empathy and reason, both of us. I wish you the best 2018 and a blossoming esports career, which you deserve perhaps more than anyone else I know. I hope you can forgive me for not communicating better, if nothing else. Also, Vy says hi. And Kona.

Lessons

#1 — serve your own people even better than people outside the organization. The executive team needs to provide impeccable service to the staff, and the staff — to the players. My top goal for 2018 is to establish a persistent culture of service, and in 2017 I was sometimes the biggest offender of it. You can make long lists of what your business needs, how to make it more fun, or how to make sure everyone feels motivated, etc. But in the end, I learned, one thing matters more than anything: do people feel like you’re taking care of them? If they truly feel that you have their best interests at heart, everything else just falls into place. They will be loyal, more motivated, and excited to contribute. If you recruited the right people, then the only question you need to ask them is, “How can I make sure there’s nothing in your way so you can do your best work?” And then you use available resources to serve them, i.e. to solve their problems, so that they can focus on everything else. If Gankstars provides the best service to anyone making any sort of contact with us, be they a fan, a player, or a staff member — I know we will succeed.

#2 — empathy before solution. It’s so easy to answer someone with, “Just do this!” It may be what someone needs, yes, but it’s not what they want in the moment. When people are sick, or their life goes haywire, or they fail at something, the first thing they need on an emotional level is empathy. Hear them out. Say you’re sorry. Hug them. Cry with them. Then spend time in silence. Then at the end, or maybe even the next day, carefully attempt to introduce a solution. And only after you first ask them for their idea of the solution first. Then, “That sounds like a good idea. By chance, have you thought about doing [this other thing]?” In the end, this is not about you giving a solution and them accepting; it’s fine if they decline or you never get a chance to help. Just providing empathy is more help than we may realize. (Thanks to the love of my life, Vy, for helping me learn this lesson.)

#3 — maniacal focus. This may sound simple — we all know not to get distracted. But in business, there are always fires, always urgent tasks, and always multiple new opportunities that all look oh-so-appetizing. The problem is that if you pursue all those opportunities, you will spread yourself too thin and end up with less done than if you had pursued just 1 or 2 of them at a time. You just have to let some opportunities go. And you have to dedicate at least 20–30% of your time to those goals every day, despite the whirlwind of chores and tasks. Reading The 4 Disciplines of Execution was great at reinforcing this lesson, and we’ll be implementing that framework org-wide in 2018.

#4 — celebrate mistakes. This doesn’t mean keeping people who continuously make mistakes in such a way that makes your company look bad and drives away other people or business. It means that even once you have a very capable team, they’ll make mistakes by the virtue of being human. Mistakes are essential to learning. Give people enough space to make those mistakes and then celebrate them by extracting lessons from them. People feel guilty enough when they screw up; the last thing they need is someone reminding them about how badly they screwed up. Instead remind them of how much they learned from it! I’ve been guilty as charged here more than once, and my goal for 2018 is to get way better at this.

#5 — find time to give recognition. This is another one that seems obvious, but the reality is that you lose track of time, you are slammed with things, and so you forget. It’s better to allow many other things slip through the fingers and always remember to recognize people to even the smallest achivements. Nothing in this whole world builds a better relationship than recognition and encouragement, which go hand-in-hand.

Thank Yous

No end-of-the-year post is complete without thank yous :)

First and foremost, I thank Vy for being the partner I need, even when she’s not one I deserve. Her understanding, lessons in empathy, and unbiased opinions make me feel so lucky. Thank you, babe — you’re the best!

Thank you to everyone who believed in Gankstars this year and helped or supported in any way: my executive team, our staff & players, their friends and loves ones, our advisors Kevin Chou, Trevor Owens, Kyle Ellicott, Koh Kim, and Dori Gurwitz, our sponsors Twitch & ULT (and previously, Mobcrush and HVMN), and last but not least — Verizon and R/GA Ventures.

Of course, the biggest thank you goes out to our fans, without whom Gankstars is just an idea. The fans give the idea a form and make it real. I hope we can bring you an even better 2018!

Happy New Year!!

What are your lessons learned? Share in comments so we can all learn from them.