Mistreated, unpaid, and dismissed out of hand: Two years with Mineski, GESC and Entity Gaming

The last two years have been very hard on my career. All three of my major employers over the period have let me down in big ways, to the point where I find myself forced to consider a change in career.

At various points I’ve considered writing to expose some of the harmful practises I’ve encountered but I’ve usually been advised against it by friends in the industry. I’m told it might hurt my potential for future employment — some people might not want to hire a person who publishes complaints and criticisms about their employers.

For a long time, I was moved by these concerns, and stayed quiet. Today I’ve changed my mind for two reasons. First, I’ve decided that anyone who doesn’t want to hire me for exposing this stuff is not someone I’d ever want to work for anyway.

Second, I’ve realised that a big part of my not writing has been a reflection of a failure on my part to value myself. I’m a person who finds it very easy to stand up for other people but quite difficult to stand up for myself. When I’m the subject of concern, I find it too easy to second guess myself, doubt my experiences, and rationalise the things that have been done to me. In my personal relationships I am often susceptible to abuse and mistreatment, and regularly find myself apologising in situations where I’m the victim. I have no doubt that this problem relates to my long term struggles with depression, anxiety, and insecurity.

Unfortunately, this is a disposition that has put me at risk in the esports industry for many years now — a new, young industry, not yet properly regulated, where there are an abundance of people eager to exploit and profiteer off others. My hope is that writing this article will be a step in the direction of breaking this habit. Further, I hope that by exposing various harmful practices, I can help contribute to a discourse that works to reshape the space into a safer working environment for everyone.

Entity Gaming: June 2018 — October 2018 (Manila, Mumbai)

About two weeks ago I was fired from Entity Gaming, along with all of my players. The move came entirely out of the blue. We’d had a solid run in the TI8 qualifiers, finishing 4th in the SEA qualifier, but had started off the new season slowly. After three disappointing qualifiers, we’d decided to make a roster change but were having difficulty locking down our new fifth player. In the midst of this difficulty, management decided to throw in the towel and just drop the team altogether. By way of reason, they cited the facts that a) they were spending a lot of money on the team and b) our results had been poor this season.

This decision was made two months into my one year contract with Entity. Most of my players also had new one year contracts, and some of them were only a month into theirs. When I enquired about severance, I was told in no uncertain terms that the organisation did not consider itself to owe us anything. Severance, they said, applies to employees who have been working for a company for a long time and since we’d only recently started we wouldn’t be eligible. They also repeatedly insisted that we weren’t being “fired” as such, but rather that the team was simply being “let go”. I was, and continue to be, confused about where the distinction between those two things is meant to be.

Management expressed an interest in working with me in the future. They said that they intended to return to Dota 2 next year. At this point, I made it clear that if I did not receive any severance, I would find it difficult to consider working with them again. They took some time to consider this, and came back to me with an offer of 15 days severance, emphasizing the fact that this was an act of generosity on their part, and that they were under no contractual obligation to pay anyone any severance.

That was, of course, bullshit. Here’s a screenshot of the beginning of the “termination” section of my contract. It implies a basic minimum of one month notice before dismissal, which I take to correspond to a basic minimum of one month severance for any immediate dismissal.

All the same, I accepted their 15 days offer. Why? Because regardless of what the contract says, there was no real legal recourse for me in the situation. Somewhere along the line, my employers had become aggressive, and had made it very clear they were not willing to concede any liability. I was still waiting for them to pay for my return flight (and, indeed, my salary for September was still outstanding at the time). If I evaluate myself to not have legal recourse, at some point I have to just play nice to make sure I get the most that I can, rather than risk losing the few things I’m still hoping to get.

Why is there no legal recourse? Because I’m a South African, “working” in India on a tourist visa (as insisted by the employer), bound by a contract under Singaporean law. I’m set to leave India in a few days, and can’t afford heavy legal fees. What sort of steps could someone in my position reasonably take?

This kind of position is more common than you might think. In fact, one of the points I hope to make in this article is that for a foreigner like myself, taking a Dota 2 job in SEA almost always puts me in a position where my contract is largely symbolic and real legal recourse just doesn’t exist.

Entity Gaming’s lineup was released without compensation, despite most players having long term contracts.

Before we left, my players and I were given forms to sign which would explicitly declare that Entity had paid us everything they owed us. This a bizarre thing to do on their part, and the only motivation I can imagine for them doing this is their knowing full well that, in fact, the opposite was true. Nonetheless, we signed them. I received 15 days severance, and to the best of my knowledge none of my players received any. As discussed above, the situation we found ourselves in was, essentially, coercive. We wanted to move things along, and make sure we got ourselves safely back home. Nobody wanted to risk a dispute resulting in losing out on a flight home, not to mention compromising our feeling of safety, given that we were still living in Entity’s team house for the time being.

In any event, I have no intention to chase after unpaid severance. Ethically, I’m certain that Entity should have paid me and my players more. It would not be difficult to argue that we have lost several months of gainful employment, after being fired without cause.

The point is that we found ourselves in a situation where there was no way for us to use the law to enforce our rights. And one of the reasons I’m writing this article is to say that these situations are common, and happening to a lot of people, all of the time.

GESC: September 2017 — May 2018 (Manila, Cape Town, Jakarta, Bangkok)

Starting in September 2017, I was hired as a consultant for GESC. I dealt directly with Oskar Feng, the CEO. Oskar is someone I had become friends with over the last couple of years, and I trusted him and believed in his vision for the industry. With GESC, he hoped to provide a more professional circuit of events than what the SEA region was used to seeing.

Between September 2017 and March 2018 my relationship with GESC was purely that of a consultant. It was a smooth work relationship and I was generally paid on time. What’s more, Oskar actually negotiated me up when originally discussing remuneration — that’s right, he offered to pay me more than my asking fee, believing that I was undervaluing myself.

Oskar hired excellent, highly qualified staff, and one of the roles that myself and some other consultants played was to help acquaint them with the Dota 2 industry in a very short period of time. In general, I was very impressed with how the GESC team functioned, and they did genuinely seem a lot more professional than many of the organisations I’ve previously worked with in esports.

GESC were supposed to run four events in the 2017/2018 DPC season. However, early on during planning it became clear to many of those involved that the window for planning the first two events was too small. Most of all, there was some uncertainty about securing the necessary funding on time. Thus, GESC made the responsible decision of cancelling the first two events, in favour of focusing on the later ones in March and May. While this caused a bit of a stir in the community, from an internal perspective, I saw it as a positive sign — the company was making mature business decisions.

Later on, Oskar asked me to participate in the March and May events as talent. We had toyed with the possibility before, and I had been considering attending as an interviewer. But now, one of the expected talents had needed to pull out so I agreed to be the replacement. I was impressed to discover that GESC was putting in the effort to organise proper work permits for those attending their events, something that other events I’ve worked for have never done.

The March event went very smoothly. Especially considering it was GESC’s first ever esports event, it was really quite amazing. But, in the two months between March and May, things started to change a bit. Payments for the Jakarta event were nowhere to be seen, and my last consulting invoice was only settled six weeks late. Oskar became difficult to get hold of. And then, about a week before the Bangkok event, a rumour started spreading amongst the talent and teams, that the Bangkok event was being cancelled for lack of funding. I contacted Oskar directly about this. A few days before I was set to fly to Bangkok, he called me. He admitted that there had been some issues with investors, but insisted that he was on top of them, and that the event was going to go ahead as planned.

Some talents discussed refusing to attend the event unless they were paid for Jakarta first. Ultimately, everyone attended as planned, and the event ran very well just like the March one did. During the event there was a lot of chatter about whether or not we were going to be paid. At this point, everyone was aware that there was a possibility of non-payment. Oskar, however, insisted to everyone that he had things under control.

With the benefit of hindsight, it appears he did not. It’s nearly November, and I am yet to be paid for my work at GESC Jakarta in March or GESC Bangkok in May. To the best of my knowledge, nobody has been paid for either event — not company staff, not talent, not players, nobody.

GESC currently owes hundreds of thousands of dollars to players, talent, and staff.

The last time I heard from Oskar was in June, when he messaged me to congratulate me on the success I was having with Entity in the TI8 SEA Open Qualifier. At the time, he indicated that everyone would be paid what they were owed within the next two weeks. But payment never arrived. I contacted him in July and in August to follow up, and am yet to hear back from him. It’s possible he may have been in contact with some other talents more recently, but I’ve not heard anything to suggest that anyone has been paid.

I do not think that Oskar deliberately screwed us over. When it comes to character assessment, I still think he’s one of the most honest, well-intentioned, considerate people I’ve worked with in the Dota 2 industry. He did a lot of things really right for GESC, and the company really looked like a promising alternative for the SEA region. But he failed to secure the investment needed to cover his events. I don’t know much of the detail around this, though the last time I was speaking to him it sounded like some investors had pledged money to GESC and then changed their minds at the last minute.

Although I’m obviously angry about not being paid, I can sympathize with Oskar. I expect that he himself has been the victim of the same sort of instability and lack of security that permeates this space we work in.

But this is why I thought it was all the more important to include this in my article. My experience with Entity suggests that having a contract is not the same thing as having security. My experience with GESC suggests that having a contract with a good, smart, capable, person is also not security. I have no doubt that Oskar wants to pay everyone the money he owes — which is more than I can say for Entity — but at the end of the day if he doesn’t have the money, we’re not going to get paid, and it’s tough to see what any of us can do about that.

Mineski Corporation: October 2016 — October 2017 (Manila)

I worked for Mineski for much longer than I worked for GESC or Entity. They didn’t, technically, fire me out of hand. And they don’t, technically, owe me any money. So why am I including them in this article? First, because the above technicalities really are just that — I worked for Mineski for nearly six months after my contract had expired, without a renewal being signed, despite numerous attempts on my part to make that happen. And second, because there are more ways for a company to treat their employees badly than by firing them or not paying them.

After parting ways with Mineski last year, I was determined to write about what had been a very traumatic experience. And I did, several times. I wrote a handful of 10,000+ word pieces about them. But every time by the time I got to the end it all just seemed pointless. So many of the details felt important to me, but I also knew that nobody would read anything that long. On top of that, I was doubting my own experience, essentially gaslighting myself. This, together with the number of people who warned me against writing, led to me never publishing anything.

To avoid slipping into another thesis length publication, I’m going to try and be very direct in my discussion of Mineski. Rather than tell my story, I’ll simply discuss a few themes from my time with the company.

Company culture

While Mineski works hard to convince people it functions like a family, I experienced it to be more like a cult. The company was very controlling of and suspicious about my interactions with basically anyone else while I was working for them. From the first week I arrived, I was given a list of people I was not to associate with or talk to. For example, I was expected to have no interaction with anyone who worked for Tier One Entertainment, TNC or Execration — more or less everyone else in the local industry who wasn’t part of or affiliated with Mineski. I remember being reprimanded by management, two months after attending Galaxy Battles Season 1 in China, for having dinner with some Fallout Gaming employees after the LAN concluded.

Everyone who works for Mineski in the Philippines is expected to show extreme deference to the big bosses, Ronald Robins and Dar Andrew Cayabyab. Nobody questions them ever, and indeed I found myself being warned by other employees not to do so. Though Ronald himself initially encouraged me to be critical in our interactions, I would later realise this was driven more by self-interest than humility.

Personal treatment

Along these lines, when I first joined Mineski I did feel taken care of, respected, and well treated. Ronald met with me regularly, enquired about my wellbeing, and took my feedback seriously. But this was at a time that I was achieving excellent results for the company. I joined a Mineski Dota 2 team that was on the verge of disbanding and managed to turn things around in a very short space of time, just narrowly missing qualification for the Boston Major at the end of the season. At the end of the season, Ronald forbid me from joining another team temporarily for the Major. However, he also offered me a promotion, which I did not take, wanting to continue as a coach.

I took a vacation before the next season but unfortunately fell sick and my return was very delayed. As a result, by the time I got back to Manila, the Mineski team had changed quite a lot and already had a new coach. I was to coach Mineski’s second team, Happyfeet. Unfortunately, from day one my work with Happyfeet was destined to fail — most of the players were not fluent in English and showed no desire to try to get better at it. With that kind of communication barrier, my ability to coach the team was totally undermined, and naturally, my impact was much more limited. Happyfeet did not have a successful season — we qualified for only one LAN, and did poorly at it.

Somewhere along the way, as my results declined, the company starting showing much less interest in taking care of me. Meetings with Ronald became more scarce and HR started ignoring my communications. One day, we were woken up to the news that the team was being restructured — some players were being kicked and needed to leave immediately. I was also being moved to a different accommodation. Although I was thrown off by changes being made in such a top down fashion, I was glad to be moving out because I don’t believe it’s ideal to live with the team one coaches.

However, my new accommodation turned out to be an absolute nightmare. It was a house that was being used primarily as an office for Mineski’s accounting department, though it had bedrooms upstairs, one of which I would occupy. It did not have flushing toilets. It did not have drinkable water. It did not have a stove or a fridge or any basic kitchen equipment to use for the preparation of food. And it was pretty infested with cockroaches and mosquitoes. I raised all of these issues immediately with HR, and was told directly that I was “being a demanding foreigner”. After repeated efforts on my part, these issues started to gradually be addressed, but not before I lived under these conditions for over a month.

The cultural point, for anyone wondering, was a smokescreen. Ordinary Filipino citizens with decent jobs all have the things I referred to above — and certainly all of the Mineski employees I interacted with did.

Treatment of others

Even worse than the conditions I was subjected to by Mineski was finding out that some of the players in Happyfeet earned a salary as low as 8000php ($150) per month. This is less than the minimum wage in the Philippines, which itself is obscenely low. And in any event, being a professional Dota 2 player is not a minimum wage job. Some of these players had attended LANs representing Mineski, and won money for the organisation.

Happyfeet at Galaxy Battles 2017. At least two of these players were paid a salary of $150 per month at the time.

When I raised the issue with Ronald, he told me I didn’t understand “Filipino mentality” and that paying players more would only result in them wasting that money. I think the cultural claim is ridiculous, but even if it were true it still wouldn’t justify paying employees unfairly. If people want to waste their money that’s their prerogative, and doesn’t justify your exploitation of them. In the last two months that I coached Happyfeet, I insisted on a minimum salary being set at $300. To the best of my knowledge, this is what happened, though I’m told the situation reversed once I was later dismissed.

Another incident where Mineski showed a lack of professionalism in taking care of their players was with ROG Masters 2017. A few weeks before the LAN, someone realised that the events team didn’t have enough computers for the LAN. Their solution? They took the extra computers from the Mineski Bootcamp. Mineski’s CS:GO team, who had 3 upcoming LANs that month, were made to practise at internet cafes for two weeks.

Finally, though I’ve not been given permission to share details on the subject, I can attest to the fact that some number of professional players contracted to Mineski have been pushed into outrageously one-sided contracts, which essentially allow for the possibility of those players being completely sidelined in their careers with no potential for buyout or transfer, even when they are not playing for Mineski. The fact that players are too afraid to speak out about this should serve as further emphasis of the kind of company culture Mineski has.

(For anyone who might be confused at this point, I don’t believe that the primary Dota 2 team post-Mushi has ever been treated this badly or paid this unfairly — for the simple reason that once the team started getting big names it became less possible to get away with that level of exploitation. That said, Mineski Corporation has hundreds of employees, and continues to exploit most of them.)

The contract situation and circumstances around my dismissal

To be clear, at the time that Mineski fired me, I did not have an active contract with the company. That said, the reason I didn’t have a contract was because I’d spent half a year trying to sign a contract renewal. I’d routinely be presented with an incorrect contract, one that did not accurately capture the terms of our agreement. When I refused to sign it, and went to Ronald to query it, he’d insist that he’d make sure it would be amended accordingly. And yet, every single time it wasn’t properly amended. So I kept refusing to sign it. Unfortunately, this would work against me when the company decided it wanted to let me go — but if you understood anything from the first two sections of this article, it should be that the presence of a contract in this situation would not have been actionable for me in any case.

So, the company fired me three months before the end of my verbal agreement with them. But it wasn’t a regular firing, as nothing can be simple with Mineski. First, I was informed by a complete stranger that myself and some players were being let go. Then, when I tried to query this with Ronald, he dodged all communication with me for two weeks. When I finally cornered him, he told me he was no long administering the team and that Dar was. Dar, who I had never interacted with before, also dodged me for a while before eventually agreeing to meet with me. In our meeting, he said that Happyfeet could only keep running if it became three times cheaper. When I told him that would be (obviously) impossible, he said that the current team would then be dissolved. Dar surprised me by saying that actually he’d like to keep me on at Mineski just in a different department. He said he’d take a few days to figure out where to place me. And then I got radio silence for two weeks, all communications completely ignored. And then, one day, a message telling me there isn’t a place for in the company and I’m to leave the company provided accommodation within 24 hours.

That is how my one year working relationship with Mineski Corporation came to an end.

Conclusion

I’ve written this piece for a few reasons. One is personal — I felt like I needed to share my experiences, and that it was high time I stood up for myself.

However, I also think this is the right thing to do. Companies need to be held accountable for bad practices, and especially in this fledgling industry, the very least I can do is offer a warning to potential future employees of these (and other) companies.

Lastly, I feel a unique attachment to the SEA Dota 2 scene. I think you will struggle to find a person more passionate than me about development in the region. Ironically, this was a cause for hesitation for me in writing this article — an article that pretty much talks exclusively about how dangerous it is to work a Dota 2 job in SEA. But I think my hesitation was mistaken. It helps nobody to pretend that things are different to how they are. The fact is that the SEA region is extremely unstable, unreliable, and unsafe to work in right now. Especially for foreigners. This is a problem that needs to be solved and it won’t be solved by pretending it’s not there. I truly do hope that in the coming years, more professional organisations will step in and stabilise the scene.

For my part, I am currently considering stepping back from Dota 2 altogether. It’s that or pursuing a Dota 2 job (coaching or whatever else) somewhere in the West. The last two years weren’t only the most stressful years of my career, but also very difficult years for me personally, in terms of my mental health. In prioritising my mental health, I need to find a career path with some semblance of stability and security — with all three of the above employers, I actually thought I was doing that. I was naive, and trusted too easily, and going forward I need to be smarter about who I get into business with.