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It has been a big year for the storied SK Gaming, which brought in new shareholders in January via investment from vehicle manufacturer Mercedes-Benz and German soccer club FC Köln, and also began play in the franchised League of Legends European Championship (LEC). Recently, the 22-year-old organization also added a pair of non-endemic sponsors: insurance company ARAG and URSAPHARM Arzneimittel’s eye care brand, HYLO.
SK Gaming just made another major move with the opening of its new Magenta Facility in Cologne, Germany. Launched in partnership with Mercedes-Benz owner Daimler and named after the color scheme of sponsor Deutsche Telekom, the facility focuses on player development both in terms of game practice and physical training.
The Magenta Facility was opened up to press alongside August’s gamescom expo. A Mercedes-Benz representative said that the event was held to showcase SK Gaming’s approach to player health and wellness, and to try to dispel lingering stereotypes about esports athletes. “[Some people] think that players are sitting in a cellar, eating unhealthy food, and not doing sports,” the representative told The Esports Observer. “There are actually people that take care of you here and make sure that you have a healthy mindset, that you eat healthily and also do sports—because this will actually affect your gaming abilities as well.”
According to Alexander Müller, founder and CEO of the team, SK Gaming currently has about 15 employees based out of the Magenta Facility in Cologne, and has others in Berlin as well. As the organization moves more of its teams to the facility, Müller anticipates needing more support staff to ensure that all training, health, and wellness needs are met.
“This is just the opening. We’re just starting to get to know the whole area we created here, the facility itself. Once the teams are here, you will see that it will fill up quite fast,” he told The Esports Observer. Müller said the team isn’t sure yet how many additional people will be needed, but that it will scale gradually over time: “We will grow into it,” he added.
For now, SK Gaming’s LEC team will remain in Berlin near Riot Games’ Studio. However, as Müller spoke about at length, he hopes for a future in which publisher geolocates the teams and holds matches in their respective home markets. If so, he believes Cologne would be a perfect location to house the team and its home matches.
“There’s no question. At some point, we would love to have our LEC team in Cologne as well,” he said. “When the league is ready, when all the other teams are ready, and when everybody is ready to have home games in Cologne, London, Paris, and G2 Esports maybe in Berlin—let’s do that. I think it’s going to be exciting for fans to go to away games and have their own games, but it’s a process.”
Müller added that the reception to the Magenta Facility thus far from players has been very positive, especially those still striving to compete at the highest level. He specifically called out the SK Gaming Prime League of Legends academy team, which trains players to hopefully promote to its LEC squad.
“I want to have players that come here and enjoy their job, because this is a job. Funny enough, when the Prime team was here a couple weeks ago for their first boot camp, we were discussing—and one of them actually made a joke and said, ‘I don’t want to make it into the LEC team, because then I have to go to Berlin and I can’t be in this facility,’” said Müller. “A joke, yes, but there was truth to it as well. The Prime team wants to be here, they want to play from here, and we want them to become the best version of a Prime team.”
Primed for Performance
The purpose of the Magenta Facility is not simply to host most of SK Gaming’s teams and staff in a central location, but also to emphasize the team’s focus on physical conditioning as part of its training regimen. Müller said that in the past, he would issue physical challenges to players to help motivate them, such as tracking who had run the most kilometers. Over time, that mindset has become a more structured part of the team’s approach to player development.
“Sport, physical activity has always been a cornerstone of our DNA, no matter what,” he said. “At some point, when we were traveling a lot with the Counter-Strike team, we realized that we think it’s becoming more and more important.”
To that end, SK Gaming recently brought on performance specialist Yann-Benjamin Kugel. Kugel has worked with traditional sports teams such as FC Köln, FC Red Bull Salzburg, and the German national soccer team. As SK Gaming’s head of performance, he is adapting his training techniques to a different kind of athlete. It’s a unique experience for Kugel, who has been with the team for about two months now.
“I really honestly had to read and talk myself into it,” Kugel told The Esports Observer. “I have been sitting with players, and I have been reading a lot of interviews and scientific approaches to esports to get an idea of what we’re talking about. For me, it’s really interesting also to bridge the gap between professional, athletic sports, and now going into esports and looking into the demands that esports has on the players.”
Kugel believes that physical training and proper nutrition are key, even for athletes who compete while sitting in chairs and looking at screens. His approach to helping players so far has been to look at the complete lifestyle picture, including sleeping and eating habits, physical exercise, and when a player has the most or least energy during the day. His goal is to help players realize the benefits of a healthy lifestyle, which includes taking breaks from games and screens.
“Those breaks give the players the opportunity to work on their physical fitness, and it doesn’t always have to be a really exhausting exercise session,” said Kugel. “It can be a 20-minute bike session where you take a book and read something, or you get some fresh air outside and do a yoga session. I think the balance between the performance in front of the screen and then those regeneration sessions has to be well designed and well-fit to the players.”
Jorge “Werlyb” Casanovas is one of those aforementioned SK Gaming Prime team members, and while he hasn’t been training with Kugel for long, he said that he’s seen the benefits.
“I’ve talked with him a lot, and we also did one session. So far, I like it a lot,” said Casanovas. “First of all, he has lots of experience in sports and has his own method. He cares a lot about physical pain, stretching, and doing all of these exercises. I have experienced strain in both hands. That’s super interesting and helpful, because he was actually really into it and asking me a lot of questions, telling me the exercises I can do to mobilize the arms and muscles and everything.”
Changing the System
Ultimately, Müller suggests that most professional players in the upper echelon of any given esport are similarly skilled. What can provide an edge to a player or team, he said, are the things outside the game—such as healthy living and ensuring that physical and mental wellness needs are met.
“What separates them are neuroses. If you want to try to control those, there is more than the game behind them,” he said. “If you look at your players as athletes, then mental fitness, nutrition, discipline, structured lifestyle, and also athletics are all elements that can help shape the player to become the best player he can possibly be.”
SK Gaming’s approach to treating players like members of a traditional sports team might vary from how an organization like G2 Esports and owner Carlos “ocelote” Rodriguez might, for example. Asked about that comparison and the idea that G2 views itself as an entertainment company first and foremost, Müller said that there are varying approaches. He believes that SK Gaming’s approach is necessary to ensure that the team can still be competitive well into the future.
“I think Carlos is always right. Besides that, I think it’s a bit of both,” said Müller. “The question is: what’s your emphasis? I totally understand the whole entertainment aspect of things. Esports is part of the entertainment industry, just as football in Europe is a part of the entertainment industry. Champions League, Bundesliga; those are entertainment platforms, those are media outlets. Of course they play sports, and the LEC is pretty much the same, but in esports. What does it make us? Something in-between. I think we are a sports team, but we are here to entertain. I do believe that.
“If you ask Carlos, I believe he would look at his team as athletes as well, just as we do,” Müller continued. “He might not emphasize that as much as we do. He is more on the social media side of things, creating memes on the internet and interaction points here and there. Yeah, I understand that. We are more on the conservative side, you could say.
“We focus more on sports and nutrition—we try to spearhead something there. I’m quite sure that we could learn a lot from G2 on the entertainment part, and they can learn a lot from us on the other side of things. Right now, it’s indisputable that they have the best [LEC] team in Europe, so who are we to judge them? But we have a certain way, and we have a certain vision of how we see esports in five, six, seven years.”
Given the potential impact of competitive success on an organization’s viability with sponsors and other business opportunities, SK Gaming’s approach could impact more than just the minds and bodies of its players. Müller said that it’s vital to the team’s long-term future.
“If we want to still compete in four or five years, we need to change the system,” he said. “That’s the disruption we feel we need to make. That’s why we built this facility.”
Editor’s note: Interviews conducted by Graham Ashton
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