MSI & VCT Masters interview with Ásbjörn Ásbjörnsson from the Icelandic Esports Association: “These are the biggest events Iceland has ever held, period. And we’ve had artists like Justin Bieber and Ed Sheeran playing here in the last few years!”

Asbjorn

Image credit: Dusty

The League of Legends Mid-Season Invitational (MSI) and Valorant Championship Tour (VCT) Masters Stage 2 will take place in Iceland’s capital Reykjavík in May.
This is a historical landmark for the Nordic nation and marks the first time they’ve been chosen to host not one, but two prestigious esports tournaments back-to-back. While these are live events taking place at Laugardalshöll Sport Center, there won’t be any fans in attendance given the pandemic.
Megalodontus speaks to Icelandic Esports Association (IEA) board member Ásbjörn Ásbjörnsson, who’s also the founder and CEO of NLC team Dusty. He talks about the significance of Iceland being chosen, some of the challenges involved and even food recommendations for visiting teams and players!

Please introduce yourself and tell us what the Icelandic Esports Association aims to achieve.

My name is Ásbjörn and I’m the CEO of the Icelandic esports organisation Dusty. I also serve on the board of the Icelandic Esports Association. I was a competitive gamer here in Iceland a few years ago in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CSGO), but later retired to study and then work at a fishing company. However, I missed esports so when I heard there was this really ambitious project taking off in Iceland, I decided that the time was now or never.

The Icelandic Esports Association was founded in late 2018 to draw attention to and support the development of esports in Iceland. The aim of the association is to promote esports and its positive benefits such as cooperation, communication skills, problem solving skills and more. IEA also seeks to support grassroots work and cooperates with the government, parents and teachers.

The IEA wants to create jobs in the field of esports as well as pass on knowledge that can be useful in building careers within the industry abroad. This is not limited to professional gaming, but includes work in the fields of training, analysis, event management and more. They recently collaborated with the government on a scheme to help the unemployed find jobs in esports.

The IEA is also the tournament organiser for the Icelandic esports league (Vodafone League for CSGO and LoL).

Thanks for that. Let’s start off with the main topic: MSI and VCT Stage 2 Masters will be hosted in Reykjavík! How did you feel seeing the announcement, and what does it mean to the Icelandic esports fans?

Iceland is a small country and I had already heard whispers about the possibility of this happening some time ago. But seeing the official announcement just meant a lot to me, and to all the people who have been working tirelessly in laying the foundations needed for something like this to happen in Iceland. It’s a massive validation of our efforts.

The chairman of the IEA has been actively reaching out to Riot for a while now in hope of them realising the potential Iceland has for an event like this. Also, it’s just a massive advertisement for Iceland as a tourist destination, and the government realised that as well so it was all hands on deck trying to land this deal!  

“One of our values is nurturing and developing Icelandic talent. I sincerely believe in a few years we’ll have multiple Icelandic pro players competing in the highest level of competition in esports. The foundations we are putting in place will prove to be vital in that process.”

We understand that the esports scene is still relatively small in Iceland, with Counter-Strike still being the dominant title. How has its newer rival Valorant been received so far by the Icelandic playerbase? 

Yes, Counter-Strike has been the holy grail in Iceland for quite some time now. For example, the fifth season of the Vodafone League started last month. We have 80 teams competing in 10 leagues and interest has never been higher. Almost every game in League 1 is broadcasted live on Icelandic television, with a lot of coverage in mainstream media and we are also seeing a massive growth in viewership numbers between seasons.

Conversely, the Valorant scene in Iceland is not in great shape. There are a decent amount of Icelanders playing the game, but the community just hasn’t flourished yet. Hopefully this changes with the VCT coming here. The IEL was, however, one of the first tournament organisers to be allowed to host a tournament in the game which was a showmatch between Dusty and Knattspyrnufélag Reykjavíkur.

I’m positive we will see more interest in the future and am certain that we have good players in Valorant, Logi ‘Hugstar’ Baldursson for example. Maybe Dusty will expand to Valorant in the future, who knows?

So ENUK’s editor Dom Sacco is curious…will we get to see the event played alongside the northern lights?

Sadly, the northern lights won’t be visible at this time of the year, not naturally at least. If I were the tournament organiser, I’d be doing everything in my power to whip up some artificial northern lights in the studio. People will just have to come to Iceland over the winter themselves to witness the northern lights in all its grace!

That would be an interesting touch! We’ve seen effective COVID measures put in place for Worlds in Shanghai, will we see more of the same measures MSI and VCT, or do you have plans to do things slightly differently?

I’m not sure about the COVID-related measures that will be taken during the event. However, at this point of writing, all persons traveling to Iceland will have to stay quarantined for five days on arrival. But for the venue itself, it will probably be a ‘bubble’ system again. I highly doubt guests of any sort will be allowed to enter the premises under any circumstances. 

With these events probably being the two biggest esports events Iceland has ever held, what are the challenges you face and how do you plan to overcome them?

The biggest esports events Iceland has held? These are the biggest events Iceland has ever held, period. And we’ve had artists like Justin Bieber and Ed Sheeran playing here in the last few years!

It doesn’t matter if you look at amount of equipment, amount of staff or viewers – nothing has come close to an event like this in Iceland. Actually, I’m also pretty sure these are the biggest esports events that’s ever been hosted in a Nordic region.

For the local talent that will be working on the project, this of course is a big challenge. For most of them, they have never dealt with anything of this scale before, unless they’ve been helping to organise events abroad. I’d imagine we will be lacking in the equipment department as well. I guess they’ll just use all the equipment we have here in Iceland and import the rest.

What are the current rules for crowds attending events in Iceland? Do you predict that MSI and VCT will herald more events with large audiences?

During live events in Iceland we’ve been getting around 300 people in the crowd and that was for the finals of the Iceland CSGO league, pre-COVID. The total reach (online viewers and television) of the event was maybe around 30-40,000… so this is a bit bigger! Though unfortunately, MSI and VCT will not have live audiences like Worlds 2020 for safety reasons and this is probably not going to change at any point of the tournament.

I do however sincerely hope this will herald more big events in Iceland. We have the knowledge and expertise, and Iceland is also perfectly located for international events since it’s right in between Europe and North America, not to mention we also have very good air travel infrastructure so flights won’t be an issue. 

However, there are only around 350,000 people living here, so we probably will never have a big crowd of Icelanders present despite our good public transportation. We lack a big enough stadium as well. My theory is that if COVID hadn’t happened, Iceland would not be hosting MSI and VCT Masters. 

MSI didn’t take place in 2020 due to COVID, but the 2019 finals were held in Taipei, Taiwan, and here are the numbers it achieved (see above)

On that note, with how well Iceland is dealing with COVID, there have been reports of potential earthquakes and volcanic eruptions which could threaten the cancellation of the event. Do you foresee these being potential issues during MSI and VCT? 

We have seen a slight increase in COVID cases but it looks like we are in control at the moment. There are strict measures regarding the pandemic here in Iceland, so we are not seeing these huge spikes in cases like many other countries have been seeing. The last huge spike here was at the beginning of last October. 

Recently, however, we have had a volcanic eruption at a pretty unusual place, around 50-60 km from the international airport! That place hasn’t erupted for a couple of thousand years at least. But it’s a small eruption so it shouldn’t have any negative impact as it’s pretty far from the nearest town. Since it’s just a small eruption, the air contamination should be minimal as well.

In fact, it might instead have a positive impact and attract tourists from around the world, since scientists are saying the volcano might be going strong for some years to come!

“I do sincerely hope this will herald more big events in Iceland. We have the knowledge and expertise, and Iceland is also perfectly located for international events since it’s right in between Europe and North America, not to mention we also have very good air travel infrastructure so flights won’t be an issue.”

Speaking of tourists, for the players, staff or casters who may take this opportunity to visit Iceland and Reykjavík, what are your recommendations in terms of places to visit, travelling tips, sights to see and foods to try?

I’m ashamed to say that until last summer I had not travelled that much around Iceland, at least not to the main tourist places. But due to the pandemic, our government recommended Icelanders to travel local last summer with a big campaign promoting it. So me and my family toured the ‘golden circle’ as it’s called and it was actually amazing. There’s so much I had not seen in my own country! 

My favourite place was just the south coast. Amazing landscape, waterfalls, mountains, beaches and nature in general. You have to at least travel around the south coast for sure, even if you don’t tour the entire golden circle. 

We have many great restaurants here in Iceland too but there’s also this ‘food hall’ trend in Iceland, and I recommend going to the one downtown Reykjavík. There you can have a variation of local restaurants at the same place. I won’t recommend eating any traditional Icelandic food, as that consists of things like fermented shark or Hákarl – which no one likes. So instead I would encourage people to try our seafood, which are all sustainably caught and it will be hard to find a fresher fish than Icelandic restaurants!

hakarl fermented shark
Mmm delicious – Ásbjörn says traditional Icelandic food includes fermented shark (image credit: Wikipedia Creative Commons / Jóhann Heiðar Árnason)

Before we end, I’d like to ask you about your Icelandic esports organisation Dusty. This hasn’t been the easiest season, but you managed to retain your NLC spot for the 2021 Summer Season. Please tell us about Dusty as an organisation and how you would reflect on the 2021 NLC Spring Season.

I’ll start with Dusty as an organisation. I founded it in 2019 and we are the biggest team in Iceland, with healthy growth from year to year. We’ve already met many of the goals we set out to achieve in five years and we’re just trying to grow alongside the scene in Iceland. We are entering a financing round in the next few weeks and I have many exciting ideas in store.

Our NLC spot is very valuable to us, it’s the biggest competition we feature in and we want to retain the spot. However, I’m not willing to abandon our values we feel are instrumental to long term success, and one of them is nurturing and developing Icelandic talent. I sincerely believe in a few years we’ll have multiple Icelandic pro players competing in the highest level of competition in esports. The foundations we are putting in place will prove to be vital in that process. 

Of course, we fielded three icelandic players in this NLC this split and still managed to retain our spot. I’m happy and I know everyone wants to win any competition they participate in, but you have to to approach this realistically as well. We’re taking our first steps as a nation in esports so to win EU Masters is not a goal we’re ready to meet just yet. If retaining the NLC spot means playing with five imports, that doesn’t do anything for me or our long term vision. 

I’m just really proud of our organisation seeing the level of play and ambition from the team during the relegation series. However, next split I’d like us to set bigger goals and make playoffs, which I’m sure we’ll be able to do. 

I wish you luck for Summer then. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

If you’d like to follow the progress of Icelandic esports, I’d suggest checking out our social media platforms. We genuinely are trying to do something different here in Iceland when it comes to esports, so check us out!


You can follow Dusty and Ásbjörn Ásbjörnsson on Twitter here. MSI runs from May 6th to 23rd, while VCT Masters Stage 2 on May 24th to 30th.

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