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"It’s not for players, it’s with players": Inside Delta Project's creation, their plans for women's tournaments, and economics in an unforgiving esports ecosystem

Delta Project is attempting to do something that's been tried and hasn't panned out. Will this "player-owned org" be different?

"It’s not for players, it’s with players": Inside Delta Project's creation, their plans for women's tournaments, and economics in an unforgiving esports ecosystem

Image via SiegeGG

Fabian “Fabian” Hällsten has been through the wringer in 2021. 

After being benched by Vitality, Fabian was in a limbo of sorts, caught between the strict rules of the Rainbow Six Global Circuit transfer window and a less than stellar stint with his team. 

"I was sitting on the Vitality bench for such a long time. I wasn't really getting an opportunity to get away from that," said Fabian. "So after a while, when there was going to be another three months back to the next transfer window if there was going to be any chance."

Fabian recalled asking Vitality if the team could just get rid of him and his contract. Fabian asked the organization if they could just pay him less and “never bother with him” again. The team agreed, allowing Fabian to explore new options. 

There’s never been any sense of irony with Fabian, there’s no tint percentage that veils his real intentions, emotions, or feelings. Today, Fabian is purely earnest and raw —not at the same level he was in the past, but still raw all the same. In order to take the next step after his stint with G2 ended, he had to change the parts of his style that were more rough around the edges. 

Delta Project’s alpha stages, and economics

Fabian said that joining Vitality helped him realize that sometimes, his anger was too much, and he had to change. He said that while he was constantly growing as a player, during his time in Vitality he was incrementally learning how to be a "better person."

The Vitality team fell apart at the seams after a disastrous 2020, which led to Fabian being benched, and then out of his contract; even though he believes he “was the best player I ever was” with them. He’s been living off money that’s been fed into his own private company and is being paid out to himself in salary to avoid moving up a tax bracket. 

His competitive drive, indexed by a knowledge of what life can be like for players behind the scenes ultimately led him to his future, where he’s had to pivot into a new role: Player/owner of Delta Project. 

In traditional sports, the primary way teams make money is through tickets and TV deals — the teams want to get you in a stadium so they can sell you overpriced food and beer, and they’re soaking up advertising revenue from commercials.

Esports teams are fashioned after digital media companies, monetization of content and branded apparel "drops" are much more lucrative, as publishers and tournament organizers mostly soak up revenue that comes from broadcasts. The margins for teams are thin. 

Esports teams, by and large, exist in the red. An example of a team that's visibly close to sustainable profitability is TSM FTX, who sold their naming rights for $210 million to FTX. Many teams exist in a level of low to deep unprofitability, not unlike most sports teams. Natural business sense would take us to the conclusion that Delta Project operates the same way. Not so. 

If esports teams are essentially digital media companies with a merch arm, Delta Project is going to be a worker’s co-op with some of the same bells and whistles as esports team organizations in the future. Fabian owns all the shares right now, but is planning to sell them off... to his own team. If everything works out like he plans, he’ll keep 40 percent, Fynn "Drvn" Lorenzen will get 20 percent, their leadership group gets ten percent.

The women’s team were offered shares, only two were interested. Men’s players were offered five percent. Everyone has a chance to have a real stake in the future of the team, and a rising tide lifts all boats. This format has precedent in the past.

This isn’t the first time this has been attempted. Astralis ostensibly had its roots as a player-owned team as well, but didn’t live up to the lofty aspirations in the end. Eventually, it was disclosed that RFRSH actually owned up to 55 percent of Astralis, following reporting from Richard Lewis and an eventual statement from RFRSH founder Nikolaj Nyholm.

The difference between Delta Project and something like what Astralis attempted is that there is no outside investor that’s only allowing players to keep small percentages of ownership as a token and PR statement. While it isn’t a true worker’s co-op and won’t be, it’s still "player-owned" by definition: Fabian is a player, he owns it, and he’s offering to bring others along on the ride with him.

Delta Project players don’t sign NDAs that have language included to keep them quiet about how they were treated. They have NDAs for things like sponsorship deals, but are steering away from predatory agreements that many times have prevented players from speaking freely about how things really happened during their time with a team.

Fabian won two Six Invitationals, one Six Major, and three Pro League titles with G2 Esports.

"Anything about how you've been treated, about how the environment has been, nothing like that is ever going to be signed away," said Fabian. 

There’s an emphasis on complete transparency within the organization and a heightened sense of transparency from the company to the public. Some of this, Fabian admits, is because of NDAs he's signed or seen in his past that have prevented him or someone else from speaking with as much candor as they would’ve liked. He’s seen some of the ways shadier organizations have controlled narratives, and is taking concrete steps to not allow that to happen in his outfit. 

Said Fabian: "I just know how they work, and it's organizations I haven't even been a part of myself. You hear stuff from each other when you're professional players, right. There are some organizations that just do shady work, like really shady work and they do not treat their players well at all."

How team organizations can treat players "well" is a bit of a nebulous concept. There are no hard and fast rules, it’s a team by team process. The one rule everyone agrees on is that you should pay a livable wage for the area you’re living in, and you should pay on time.

Housing, for example, is a more nuanced story. Some despise the team house concept, they need their space for varying reasons, and just wish they had a bit more salary for an apartment in the same specific location as their teammates. Some love the team house concept, they enjoy having their living expenses paid for and being in direct contact with their teammates. There are certain moral pillars to adhere to, but the details of "treating players well" are up for debate.

There’s also a question of what exact compensation is fair or even stable for the scene. Esports operates in the margins, especially the non-tier 2 scenes of esports, and Rainbow Six Siege even more so. It's difficult to pay a substantial salary when your team operates in a league that is getting around 10,000 viewers, or even as low as a couple hundred in some cases. Players deserve compensation, but there’s also reality to consider.

Since the payment isn’t there for Delta Project players to operate on a full time schedule, they aren’t required to. The life of an esports player can be grueling — practices are long, and there’s an expectation that you’re creating content on the side, that you’re building a brand. Put crassly: There’s a similar undercurrent between the career of an esports player and a porn star. If you aren’t building a brand that transcends the game you play professionally, the industry will chew you up and spit you out in a few years, if not a few months. 

The Delta Project ethos is simple. They’re all stakeholders in the success of the organization, they are all required to practice an appropriate amount for their level of compensation, and content time never is stacked on top of practice time. When you have five hours of time specifically for content to benefit the organization (and by extension, you) that is carved out of practice time for you to build a brand, it makes working on that brand significantly easier. 

"Making money or building up the hugest fanbase, it’s not the priority for us … We’re not going to spend more money than we have," said Fabian when discussing how Delta Project was moving forward financially. 

There’s a tension here, one that merits explaining. There’s a distinct difference between eschewing the very concept of economics and money and what Delta Project is doing. The difference is in the amount of hours worked in practice — Fabian is explicit that they’re not trying to overtrain or practice beyond what’s reasonable for their team in a work-life balance. 

There’s another pillar that Fabian says is a large part of their team: Their commitment to their women’s team. 

Delta Project's commitment to diversity that goes beyond statements and Twitter headers 

The women’s team is treated the same as the men are. They have the same opportunity to own parts of the company, they’re present in organization created content alongside the men, and they get the same level of support from management that the men’s team does.

Marieke "MissMarie" Denise, a member of the OPL-winning Delta Project women’s team, said there were definitely times in the past where people wanted to work with her because she was simply a woman and not for her talents.

Explained MissMarie: "I feel like [Delta Project]’s about me and what I can do, and not about me having boobs and being able to shoot right."

For most esports teams, members of the women’s team sometimes feel like afterthoughts to management. MissMarie said that the ability to have stock in the company itself and the treatment she’s received since joining have been unique — she feels included in the direction of the company in a way not many players, male or female have.

Fabian says that Alice “Kitty” Duplan, a content creator for Rogue on loan for the women’s Delta Project roster, stood in for the men’s team in a scrimmage and performed well. The commitment to equity isn’t just stated, it’s acted upon. 

A factor that helps the environment is the average age of the team. There are some that skew young, but members like Fabian and Niklas "KS" Massierer are older, wiser, and more professional with how they handle themselves. MissMarie remembered a time where an unnamed young men "caught feelings" for her and didn’t behave like a professional would in a working environment.

“Everyone's a little bit older, has a little bit more life experience, has already done so much in life, and is now working on this new adventure,” said MissMarie. “...So everyone already has kind of the experience and knows how to talk to each other. And that's I think that's probably the biggest thing that you know, makes us different, I guess. Everyone is treated equally. I think that's the main thing. Everyone's equal. It doesn't matter if you're the owner of the company or just a player.”

MissMarie concluded: "It’s not for players, it’s with players."

So, what makes Delta Project’s commitment to women’s esports different, besides extending the benefits of a symbiotic relationship to women as well? Fabian told SiegeGG that he plans to organize a women’s tournament. He’s quick to add that the tournament will be free from acting upon conflicts of interest and he’ll actively work to limit them, but ultimately, women’s tournaments aren’t popping up with a frequency he likes, and he wants to give as many opportunities as possible. MissMarie mentioned that the women’s competitions they’re planning could be in the works as early as Spring 2022.

“What we are planning in the long term, is even to create tournaments for women and marginalized genders, so that we can have a bit more safe environments for them to develop in,” said Fabian. “And then on top of that, build tournaments ourselves with women’s tournaments as a qualifying stage for the main tournament where other teams can participate as well.”

Delta Project is riding an unconventional, but not new, approach to how it does its business and committing hard to its most important members — its players. Time will tell whether the team finds success, spots in Challenger League, or even sponsorships. For now, their morally justified approach to issues like burnout, equality, and player compensation are all paying off. However, those with a more business oriented mindset might look at Delta Project and wonder how they’ll ever make a single cent.

So, what does Delta Project’s bombastic founder and face say to those who doubt his plans?

"I do not care about other people's opinions. That's as simple as that. If I based my ideas and my ideals and the way that I want to bring things forward on what other people think of them; well, they think too much of themselves at that point."