Exclusive Interview with Maksym Bilonogov, General Producer at WePlay! Esports

 While the strongest participants of the CIS scene are fighting their way through the dangers of the Clutch Island, We've managed to reach out Maksym Bilonogov and asked him a few questions about the ongoing WePlay! event. Our conversation turned out to be opened and extremely interesting

Hello, Maksym. It was very nice of you to take some time to answer our questions. First of all could you introduce yourself to the audience? What does your regular day look like and how does it change when it comes to hosting an event?

Hi, Sure. My name is Maksym Bilonogov, I am General Producer at WePlay! Esports. My main tasks in the company are to create audio and visual content, such as clips, documentaries, ads, recaps etc., oversee the construction of esports arenas and studios, and host live broadcasts.

Usually, I’m available 24/7 and that’s what I tell everyone I work with. People call me any time of the day or night and if I don’t pick up it means that I’ve fallen asleep. When I’m up in the morning or in the middle of night, I respond to all the calls and messages. That’s why my workday generally doesn’t have an end hour and there is usually no regard for weekends. I’ve adapted this approach in college – we didn’t have days off, were not allowed to get sick because it’s unprofessional. You were only allowed to work and grow as a person and as a professional.

During the events, we have a massive spike of activity, my pool of tasks and responsibilities grows and I need to put in even more effort.

Photo (provided by WePlay! Esports)

You've joined WePlay! Esports five years ago. What was the most complex thing to do to raise from a small Ukrainian studio to a well-known worldwide esportainment company?

The toughest thing for us was gaining faith. Let me explain what that means. From the start, I had a specific vision of how I wanted things to work, look, and feel. The company founders ignited me by giving me the freedom to do and create things my way. The next step was convincing people, who at that time worked on national TV channels, had very comfortable working hours and generous salaries. What I was offering them was in progress and in the future. It took time and enormous effort to make them believe that what we are doing is the future and to see flames in their eyes.

As soon as I found myself surrounded by a group of people burning with the same ideas, it struck me that I only wanted to do more. Now this constant process of striving to make things better is the reason why our studio has grown in the eyes of many people so much.

Photo (provided by WePlay! Esports)

What could you point out as the biggest achievement of the studio throughout last year? What has been the toughest challenge overall?

I recently picked up this phrase and it struck a cord inside me. It is “satisfaction kills development." It really got me thinking about the fact that we never have an event that just goes smoothly. Every single time there is a period, a day or a week before we start, when we are frantically applying a fresh idea. Very often the process of trial and error is taking place during the event, and the results show up in the second or third day of the broadcast. The audience sees things on the screen, and they have no idea what kind of process took place to make some things possible. 

When a tournament ends, we take a couple of days off and get busy inventing new techniques based on new technological developments and ideas. This helps to make every event unique in one way or another.

Specifically for this event, our developers produced software that switches the webcams to the player currently featured in the game. This touch helps to bring vibes of a LAN-event as the viewers can see the raw emotions of players on screen.  We’ve also extended the set for the English-speaking audience. Lots of effort was put into the display of picks/bans phase, the SFM-films. Our augmented reality team put in many hours to improve various elements of the show. We are also planning to roll out an AR map, similar to the one used for Dota 2 events. 

One of the biggest achievements for us is participating in the production of The International for the Russian-speaking audience – we were the crew behind the Late Game show (talk show which concluded every play day at the International, editor's note). We managed to prove to Valve and the other teams involved in the process that our approach works. At first, we submitted a script draft that went through an approval process. In the end, we were cleared to use the script, as well as our equipment and our technical setup. We also created some content for the main English-speaking TI broadcast.

After TI, we received a request for proposal for DPC tournaments which ultimately

led to WePlay! Bukovel Minor 2020 several months later. Speaking of which, the DPC event created a wide range of challenges for our team. We hosted it in a destination venue which was not even remotely equipped for an esports tournament. Yet, it turned out to be the most successful Minor in the history of Dota Pro Circuit.

"We are working to get the opportunity and the privilege to host Majors in both CS:GO and Dota 2."

Shifting to the current state of things, how in your opinion did the pandemic situation affect the industry? What things did you change in the work process of your studio? Did this situation provide you any extra opportunities that you've taken and succeeded?

The esports companies are rather well-equipped to deal with the quarantine, relative to other industries providing various sorts of entertainment, including classic sports.

One thing that helps us stand out in this case is the speed with which we can make decisions. There is always a direct line of communication with the company founders, General Manager and other executives and it helps a lot.

When we found out that a Dota 2 Major would be cancelled due to the pandemic, I sent a message to our CEO Oleg Krot and offered to host an online event instead. Very soon he responded that it was an excellent idea, and we needed to start working on it. Less than an hour later, we decided that it would be a charitable event and all the proceeds would go towards efforts to aid the battle against COVID-19. Every division in the company went to work. 

One week later, most of the office was deserted due to the WFH order. Yet, we started the first day of WeSave! Charity Play. You need to be flexible and able to adapt. A lot of things become possible if you are looking out for opportunities and prepare for them.

Photo (provided by WePlay! Esports)

Your company is known for its unique style and themed events. How do you come up with an idea for the next event? What was the thinking process behind the abandoned island of the ongoing WePlay! Clutch Island?

The event theme can come out of any concept. Any IRL event, movie, epoch, genre, holiday, time of year, etc. We are open to everything and harvest ideas during brainstorming sessions or in work chats in general. The ideas are weighed and discussed. 

Before WePlay! Clutch Island, we were thinking about the general mood. It’s summer now but many people are stuck inside and don’t even think about going to a beach. We wanted to make something that would inspire a specific mood of a place surrounded by sea or ocean. We also needed there to be a conflict, so a normal beach with sun loungers didn’t work.

This is how we arrived at the idea of the uninhabited island survival show that was very popular in CIS and also is known to the Western audience. In such shows, there usually are groups of people who work together for survival, overcome obstacles and at the end of each episode, eliminate one of the contestants. This way, we got our conflict and naturally provided our scriptwriters, decorators, outfit designers and the rest of the team with a creative setup.

 "Every day and night I cheer for our viewers, and wish that they both enjoy the competition and have aesthetic pleasure."

Speaking of the current RMR tournament WePlay! Clutch Island, how, in your opinion, has it been going so far? Was there a change of plans or had it been planned as an online RMR event from the start? Who are you cheering for?

The pandemic forced us to adjust all the plans we had for this year, so I can’t say that we ever planned an online tournament in June 2020. When the RMR circuit was announced, we submitted a proposal to host the tournament.

Every day and night I cheer for our viewers, and wish that they both enjoy the competition and have aesthetic pleasure.

Could you hint for our readers anything special you've prepared for the tournament conclusion, aside from maybe the AR map?

In the event teaser, our Russian-speaking casters participated in a survival food challenge. We’ve prepared a set of various challenges in which our casters would participate for real during the live broadcast. I can’t say for sure if those challenges will ever take place, though, due to the very stacked schedule. 

So far, the event has been fast-paced with short periods of downtime. Mostly, there is a game and 10 minutes with the analysis panel followed by the next match. We don’t want to force the additional content if it ultimately won’t improve the show experience.

Are there any plans for 2020 to host any offline events in CS:GO? How do you think the situation would change in the future, as we already have a few offline events scheduled?

We can’t predict when the situation around COVID-19 will allow travelling abroad and gathering of large audiences. We are ready and willing to resume offline events as soon as possible. Me personally miss the challenges and the rhythm of life when you are working on an event in a venue with the teams and live audience. 

We are working to get the opportunity and the privilege to host Majors in both CS:GO and Dota 2. Hopefully, both events will happen within the year.

Your studio's brand mark became the Dota 2 events you've been hosting with the unique features and media. You've developed a special identity and the community is fond of it. How are CS:GO fans reacting to your attitude so far, any plans for the future on how to improve?

This is the first Counter-Strike event with premier-level teams for us, and a large portion of the audience is meeting our studio for the first time. To an extent, connecting with a new audience is like the early stages of dating. You take your time just looking at the other person, getting used to him or her, and understanding how they think and act. The same thing is happening now, the audience is just getting to know us and what they can expect. Some decide how reliable we are in delivering the games on schedule, some notice how our studio looks and how the casters are presented, and, to some, it’s very important that we show the players’ webcams. 

We welcome this process, and hope for the best.

You've been among the first to make an online Dota 2 league this season after the outbreak, any plans for CS:GO events like that for the rest of the year?

If there is room for CS:GO events, we will happily jump at the opportunity.

Looking back now - what was the most successful event hosted by your studio and why? Which one brings the warmest memories in your heart?

Every event is memorable in one way or another, each had some unique measure of success. But WePlay! Bukovel Minor 2020 was probably the most outstanding. We invested a tremendous amount of energy and time in this project. Everyone was trying to jump over their heads and deliver an extraordinary result. The atmosphere was phenomenal – what the viewers felt and saw reflected about 20% of what we actually felt.

Photo (provided by WePlay! Esports)

WePlay! Bukovel Minor 2020 was a crucial point in the history of WePlay! Esports on its way to success. Though it was a group effort involving multiple departments, everybody felt personally responsible for the quality of their work, communication and the mood. Such projects are not created with heads and hands. They manifest from pure energy, emanating from the people making it. I feel endless gratitude towards my colleagues, who powered through those incredibly stressful days despite the lack of sleep and other essential comforts.