Every country has a competitive gaming presence of some kind. Whether it be school clubs or events at a local game store, gamers coming together for competition needs no interpretation. But for Simona Dailidonytė, a native of Lithuania, her goal was to bring the worldwide excitement of esports to the Baltic states.
Dailidonytė told The Esports Observer that she had been regularly keeping an eye on the rise of esports, identifying growth opportunities, until the time came to step into the scene and find a way to “build a better environment for the region.”
Dailidonytė wasn’t the only one keeping an eye on the Lithuanian esports scene. So were other gamers, fans, journalists, and investors, wanting a celebration of gaming inside their country. Eventually, these like-minded individuals came together and the organization GameOn was formed.
“There was very little esports activity to be seen in the region that brought up incredibly talented individuals such as Puppey.”
What started off as a grassroots project is now a full-on professional organization. This November will mark the fifth year the GameOn expo will be held. It’s a two-day event that will bring together — based on last year’s numbers — over 16,000 gaming fans to the capital city of Vilnius, not only to play the latest games, but to also watch the best competition with Lithuanian, Latvian, and Estonian teams.
“We are a very young region in games and esports,” said Dailidonytė. “It’s not a secret that Lithuania is a post-Soviet Union country. Just little by little, we are gathering experience from the outside to create our own identity.”
As GameOn grew year-over-year, the team wanted to take esports more seriously. And to do that, it needed a person to help lead the organization. In January 2019, the organization recruited Florian Masuth, the former head of marketing and events from German indie games studio THREAKS, as the new head of GameOn. Dailidonytė took the position of head of esports. As part of a team of six full-time employees, the two are working to put Lithuanian esports on the map.
“We basically outgrew the expectations of that dream project,” said Masuth. “We don’t go a lot for profits, we try to invest everything we make and [are] always adding new things to get bigger and to bring more cool content and ideas to Lithuania.”
The main esports league in the region is the Baltic Masters. The brand includes separate tournaments in , , and , each comprised of teams from the Baltic states. And like other regions, the efforts of GameOn are starting to attract professional sports talent. Since April 2018, has hosted a League of Legends team and three players. These players were originally cultivated in-house as a side project of GameOn, before BC Žalgiris ultimately recruited the players and formed a team.
“Within a few days of us reaching out [to Riot], Challengermode approached us saying that they had already been granted the license to represent the Baltic league.”
“We agreed that we would move the players to their organization, which was cool for the teams, and assisted them with easing them into the space,” Masuth said.
Even if it does not run the competitions directly, League of Legends publisher now actively supports leagues across the European continent. Without a sizable competitive presence in the Baltic region, Riot turned to Swedish online tournament organizing platform to organize events and foster a competitive scene. Challengermode runs similar competitions across Europe, including the Nordic Championship.
“Within a few days of us reaching out [to Riot], Challengermode approached us saying that they had already been granted the license to represent the Baltic league,” Masuth said. “But since they are not from here, they were looking for partners to do the on-the-ground work. And since we are a well established tournament and event organizer here, we came to an agreement that a partnership would be a good opportunity for both.”
Of course, Riot has a lot of experience starting esports leagues around the world. So why didn’t the publisher move on in and start a Baltic league itself? Despite being high-income economies, and collectively one the world’s most digitally advanced regions, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia are comparatively small—a combined population of just under six million. Even for the highest populated EU economies, such as the United Kingdom and France, Riot has partnered with commercial partners instead. With an organization like GameOn there to act as a focal point, Riot appointed Challengermode to help get the competitive Lithuanian scene going.
“We already had a large audience in the Baltics and saw a lot of potential in the region, given its technological affinity and large gaming population,” said Challengermode head of business development and strategy, Philip Hübner. “However, there was very little esports activity to be seen in the region that brought up incredibly talented individuals such as Puppey… and found a passionate and talented team in GameOn.”
“We already had a large audience in the Baltics and saw a lot of potential in the region, given its technological affinity and large gaming population.”
Clement “Puppey” Ivanov is an Estonian Dota 2 player and current captain of , which reached the top of the Dota Pro Circuit rankings for 2018-19. Lithuanians have also had some success on the international stage, in League of Legends. In 2013, the now disbanded GamingGear.eu qualified for the Season 3 World Championships in Los Angeles. While the team didn’t get past the group stage, it did prove to Lithuanians that it was possible to compete at an international level.
Even with GameOn’s prior success, that’s not to say Masuth and his team aren’t dealing with challenges. There are three spoken languages in the Baltics—to avoid bringing in six individual casters on broadcasting days (for just one game alone), the Baltic Masters is showcased entirely in English, with international casters. Logistically, there also aren’t many local companies that specialize in livestreaming or have the proper equipment.
“We either work with the total pros who do live TV and sports, which is completely out of proportion for most of what we do, or — what we actually do — is constantly bring in young, interested helpers to teach them as much as we know and basically build an industry from the ground up,” Masuth said. “We are super proud of what they are achieving and the production quality of our events and streams, which does not have to hide behind other European broadcasts.”
GameOn is set to take place Nov. 16-17 in Vilnius, Lithuania, and will feature the Baltic Masters CS:GO competition, along with other esports content for Hearthstone and Clash Royale. The Baltic Masters League of Legends finals will take place at the end of August.
Editor’s note: This interview was conducted by .