Living Evil: How North America's Greatest Esports Brand Became A Nightmare
The first in a series of articles interviewing former and current employees who candidly share their experiences working for one of the most tarnished brands in esports
The North American esports organisation Evil Geniuses has had something of a complicated history. Once synonymous with excellence a series of ill-advised business moves continued to diminish its formerly glittering prestige. Under the vision of its founder Alex Garfield the organisation was acquired by Twitch at the end of 2014. The sale sparked a lot of legal speculation and behind the scenes it created even more friction with some of Twitch’s partnered organisations, such as Cloud9, objecting to the acquisition on a number of principles. Finding himself amid a web of corporate politics Garfield left his position at Twitch in August 2016 and then almost two years to the day of the acquisition Twitch handed control of the brand to long-standing player custodians.
The period of Twitch-owned limbo saw the organisation lose significant standing in the marketplace and the next few years comprised of a depressing series of downgrades to make ends meet. Legendary names left the organisation and the management that were left trying to keep the brand afloat were working constantly to find the resources to do so. As one source recalled from that time “they might have been like, weeks from bankruptcy at any one time. I don't have access or proof, just the hearsay of like them saying ‘this is how we're keeping the wheels on, making ourselves attractive to investors/sale, and essentially making ourselves LOOK like a tier one organisation from the outside.”
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The hard work paid off. On May 29th 2019 a Chicago based tech investment company called Peak6 acquired Evil Geniuses outright and promptly installed their own people to run the operation. This would include a new CEO in the form of Nicole LaPointe Jameson, a former Associate who worked in the Strategic Capital arm at Peak6 who had no background in esports. However key members of management, such as COO Phillip Aram, would remain in their roles and the initial communications with fans seemed to indicate that little would change except the work now being conducted with a financial safety-net. This was publicly communicated in a fairly relaxed and jovial manner via a Reddit AMA the day after the announcement that both Aram and LaPointe Jameson took part in.
In the four years since this acquisition took place the Evil Geniuses brand slowly became synonymous with failure. Teams under their banner that had once showed promise no longer performed and each roster change seemed to make things worse. This isn’t the worse thing that can happen to an esports organisation even if it is embarrassing. Every legacy brand will have had their periods of abject failure, the rapidly changing landscape of every game meaning you’re one update or one new game away from total irrelevancy. On a long enough timescale failure is inevitable. What’s worse is to become associated with incompetence and certainly that too followed for this new phase of Evil Geniuses. Experience and tenured management figures left and were replaced by people that could be charitably described as “fresh blood” and lots of them too. All the while the brand was steeped in a kind of corporate cringe right down to the unironic use of the term “disruptors” on their website. Picking up fifteen mediocre CS:GO players with a view to making an excellent team of five was called “The Blueprint Initiative” where most would call it “throwing shit at a wall and seeing what sticks.”
Worse than either of these would manifest itself in a story I wrote in March. For some time there had been rumours behind the scenes around one of their young League of Legends players Kyle ‘Danny’ Sakamaki, namely that EG management had failed to act on multiple red flags about his mental health deteriorating. Not only that, it would transpire that not only had the organisation applied pressure for him to continue despite wanting a break but his health had deteriorated to such a point that he would be physically malnourished from a lack of self-care. These key components of these allegations would be independently verified by at least two other journalists and it would be revealed that Riot Games had launched their own independent investigation into the treatment of the player as far back as December 2022.
Even though the Evil Geniuses response was to move Sakamaki from the bench into a purportedly lucrative “Creator” contract, the lack of acknowledgement and a dubiously timed announcement said to not even to be written by the player generated an expected amount of criticism. It also prompted ex-employees to approach journalists and speak of their own experiences. As it would turn out, in the eyes of many who had worked or continue to work there, Sakamaki was not the only example of the new unfeeling, corporate Evil Geniuses coming with a human cost attached to their operations.
Over the course of the past few months I took it upon myself to interview a number of current and former Evil Geniuses employees and even set up a small town hall for some to speak of their experiences in a group. The stories shared range from ridiculous examples of executive narcissism to accounts of workplace bullying and intimidation. The common theme among all of them was that ever since Peak6 came in and took over the brand it seems people mattered less and less and were ultimately treated as disposable. Many spoke of their own struggles with mental health and others of the difficulties of working in an environment where at any time they could be offered up as a sacrifice for a handful of untouchable executives.
Each person I spoke with was someone from a managerial, coaching or executive role and demonstrated having a wide range of knowledge of the inner workings of the company. Multiple sources corroborated each other both independently and in person. Naturally all requested anonymity fearing reprisals from the Peak6 organisation which everyone characterised as “nasty” and “litigious.” As such great care has been taken to remove any identifying information from answers to any questions posed to the individuals. When I asked why so many of them were fearful of reprisals two of the sources explained why they felt their concerns were justified:
Source1: I can give you one very clear example where a former employer was let go from the company and decided to sue Evil Geniuses. When Nicole heard the news she said on a group call “what a fucking little shit. Let’s destroy them. Let’s keep this going for so long that they are buried in legal fees and have to sell their house.
Source2: The executive from Peak6 that was speaking with the legal team was telling their counsel do whatever you have to do to destroy this person’s life. If you need to talk in circles with their lawyers and just keep them on the line as long as we can do it so their lawyers fees rack up.
Source1: It wasn’t anything to do with this individual in particular. They just get so annoyed when anyone comes after them that they just want to nip it in the bud. The owners of Peak6 are extremely wealthy and they give zero fucks.
Source2: I saw the culture behind the scenes and it’s an attitude of if anyone comes against us then they are dead to us and we will do whatever we can to take them down.
Throughout the series of articles each Source has simply been assigned a number so the narrative thread of their experience can be preserved without having to assign any indication of specific role within the company. Far from ideal but a measure that seems necessary under the circumstances. For balance it is worth nothing we haven’t been able to locate any examples of Evil Geniuses suing or even threatening to sue their employees. We have however reported on how one former player has taken legal action against Evil Geniuses making allegations of “breach of contract and fraud”
which is set for a jury trial starting June 26th this year. We are also currently in the process of trying to obtain documentation for the other aforementioned legal standoff.
With so much material to transcribe and compile this series of articles will present its findings in a loose chronological order addressing the most important issues about what has been happening behind the scenes at Evil Geniuses. Some of the allegations are of course more serious than others but it seems clear enough that with so many current and former employees having negative experiences that something is wrong in how the organisation is run. If it were just a matter of another venture capital group wasting money in esports then it would ultimately be of less interest. However, as we’ve seen in the Sakamaki incident, which is still to be resolved in full, it’s clear that people’s welfare as well as their livelihoods are at risk here and that isn’t something that can be ignored, even if it means further tarnishing the legacy of one of the greatest esports brands.
By all accounts Peak6 came in and wanted to make an immediate impact on the company’s culture. While the existing management had worked hard to keep EG afloat there was an assumption that perhaps they were working harder rather than smarter. With this in mind Peak6 wanted to identify any potential bottlenecks for success, be it personnel or work-flow based, and address them head on.
The previous executive structure had many former players and long-term managers built into it, things were typically collaborative and part of that collaboration included criticism. If someone disagreed with a proposal they were largely free to do so. Meetings between managers across all departments were frequent and input was welcome. Given the precarious financial situation Evil Geniuses had been in for years it simply wasn’t viable to be precious about anything that could have a negative impact on the company because they were only a handful of poor decisions away from bankruptcy.
The new ownership quickly eradicated that culture. Right from the first day there was a sense that instead of it being a continuation of what had gone before everyone was instead being reassessed. Now, that’s perfectly normal for any company that goes through a significant change at the top and it would be wrong to frame it as being in some way strange. Yet many recalled a distinct sense that they were immediately under pressure to pledge allegiance to the Peak6 management appointments and to do so in front of everyone else. Even the first gathering’s purported team building exercises were loaded with trepidation for the people who had to participate in them.
Source 6: During the transition meetings, they had all the employees, I think the Rainbow Six team and maybe a couple other solo players in a presentation setting. And they did their like, "here's how things are changing, Nicole is your new CEO, this is how your employment is changing, etc” thing. They did a couple like icebreakers and shit. You had to stand up and talk about your favourite things but then they also did a thing where they stood us up, and asked us to move to one side or the other of the room depending on... "how optimistic we were feeling” Or like, how we were feeling about the whole [takeover] thing.
There was one who didn't stand to one side, like, the optimistic" side. They stood at 50 percent. The management asked them why in front of everyone. There's definitely a part of me going "Wow, they probably used that to call attention to people who might have a problem with this and make them visible.
The clash between the more regimented corporate finance world and that collaborative esports world was also felt very quickly.
Source1: There were a few people that tried to explain to Peak6 that they had concerns about a very corporate company coming in and not understanding esports. People tried to be open on day one and say they were worried that they’d bring down what they’d built and just to have an open mind. Obviously those people are no longer at the company.
The initial meeting fell flat and many legacy hires were already sensing trouble on the horizon. Despite the concerns being communicated the early agenda showed that Peak6 didn’t want to retain much of what had existed before. Only a month or so in to the new regime and they were talking about a complete brand overhaul, including a new logo, to make the new era distinct from what had gone before. This struck many as a surprising decision especially after so much of the early media work had been reverential of the organisation’s history. On that note..
Source1: Nicole was happy to take credit for the previous management’s achievements. She would walk around with the CDL Championship Ring all the time. She had the old trophies on her desk and in her office… All the pre-Peak6 trophies were kept with her.
LaPointe Jameson certainly came into esports with an excellent résumé. Educated at an Ivy League institution, where she studied statistics, she also excelled at Tae Kwon Do before being hired full time at Peak6 after an internship. Never one to avoid the limelight she has gone on to become a media darling after being placed in the CEO’s role at Evil Geniuses. The Verge declared that she was “reinventing the industry.” In a 2020 interview where she stated she “had to come in and help save this org” the Washington Post declared her a “mastermind.” This was the same year that she was placed on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list for gaming. Even if you know that a lot of this initially was driven by the esports PR company The Story Mob the glowing write-ups and praise drenched profiles have continued to come each year.
Unfortunately the behind the scenes reality doesn’t seem to match up with the public narrative. Indeed, it seems that Peak6 are more interested in building the LaPointe Jameson brand than restoring the Evil Geniuses brand to its former glory. Far from the fearless leader persona that has been peddled, most of those who came forward portrayed her as very self centered and stated that by 2020 Evil Geniuses was becoming an environment more about running Nicole’s experiments rather than implementing traditional approaches to esports success.
Source4: Nicole would say all the time that she didn’t even want the position in the first place, that she wanted to be on the board, but they put her as the CEO. She would spend a lot of time talking shit about the previous EG management even though a lot of people still working at EG had worked under them. The general consensus was what do you mean? EG was a great company. We loved it.
Also on the horizon would be the addition of another Peak6 executive to work alongside LaPointe Jameson. At the start of 2020 Jessica Hammond joined as Head of HR but then later changed her title to “Chief Culture Officer” a role she still holds to this day. This now meant that the two most senior people at Evil Geniuses had zero working experience in esports and those from the “old guard” constantly observed the two of them repeatedly making direct demands of their team members without looping them in. It was very clear that the corporate structure now only flowed in one direction.
Source2: She [Jessica] doesn’t know esports at all either by the way. Peak6 didn’t bring endemic people in but the people they did bring in pretended they knew what they were talking about. She didn’t even know the names of players on the roster. When we had PPMD (Smash Brothers Melee player Kevin “PPMD” Nanney) on our Smash roster Jessica would ask ‘what’s a PPMD’ and I think it took her like a year to remember.
There was also a belief that even after just six months Hammond was a corporate hatchetwoman, sent in to the company after barely any time at all in order to oust any of the old EG loyalists. Several people said those words came from Hammond herself.
Source1: Jessica came in from another Peak6 company and when she first came in she was bragging to everyone in the [EG] office that the first thing she always does is clears the decks and fires a bunch of people and that is how she turns things around… Jessica said that the work she had done for Peak6 was with ‘companies in distress’ and she said EG was a company in distress and she would turn it around.
Source4: I remember the first day I met Jessica. Her office was right next to Nicole’s so if you went to see Nicole you had to pass Jessica. I walked past and she jumped out the office and then shook my hand saying she was here to make sure there wasn’t any dead weight and that she’d heard there was a lot of that at the company. I thought she was having a bad day but then I realised that’s just who she is.
Source1: Jessica could pretty much do whatever she wanted without objection from Nicole. She would say repeatedly that everyone’s job at the company first was to protect Nicole. Not to win, not to protect the brand or the employees but to protect Nicole.
And so with that as the new structure at Evil Geniuses the work ahead was set. LaPointe Jameson wanted her new brand, logo and all, while Hammond was tasked with overhauling the company culture. The rebrand, as we’ll get to, was comically disastrous. Less amusing was the sudden shift in work environment that took place during the Covid-19 pandemic. For many it was the first concrete example that they were working for a company that no longer valued them.
Part two in the series will follow shortly…
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