Freaks 4U Gaming is a veteran of the esports industry. With over 20 years of experience, the agency sees how the land lies and is responsible for managing massive live productions. With Michael Haenisch, Chief Executive Officer, we talk about the history of Freaks 4U Gaming and the esport industry in general, as well as about Berlin as a gaming hotspot.
Freaks 4U Gaming is the world’s leading esports and gaming agency. Why was Berlin the perfect place to get this endeavor started?
Berlin, with its international and innovative spirit, provided the ideal launchpad for our gaming and esports journey. It’s not only attracting millions of people that want to feel the vibe of Germany's capital, but also attracts tons of companies, startups, initiatives and projects that share the vision to grow together as a community. The city's openness, coupled with a rich cultural heritage, fostered an environment where entrepreneurship and new ideas thrive. Berlin's strategic location in the heart of Europe and its excellent infrastructure further facilitated our growth and expansion across international markets.
With headquarters in Spandau, one of Berlin’s boroughs, Freaks 4U Gaming benefits from having access to international talents locally as well as being able to offer positions to those who are interested in working in a multi-cultural city. Being in Berlin has helped us become a diverse company, our employees consist of more than 30 nationalities.
How did Freaks begin in 2002? What were important factors for your growth within the last two decades?
Freaks 4U, the predecessor of Freaks 4U Gaming, was founded in 2002 by a group of gaming and esports enthusiasts, myself included. Back then esports was a niche interest and gamers were a marginalized group, we knew we were “freaks” – which is where our name came from – but we also knew our passion would become the next big thing. Following our passion and belief, Freaks began by organizing tournaments and events on the grassroot level. These were the glory days where a winning team of 5 players would “split” the grand prize of one graphics card, which led to us looking for sponsors and coming up with creative brand integration for tournaments. As we grew our sponsor clientele and executed more creative integrations for tournaments, brands started coming to us for other marketing activities and community activations. With the growing needs of brands wanting to reach this specific target audience and there was practically no company offering integrated solutions in the realm of esports and gaming, we saw the perfect opportunity to create a full-service agency. I took over Freaks 4U and founded Freaks 4U Gaming in 2011 together with two other co-founders, one of them is Matthias Remmert, now Senior Vice President of Product, TV & Media Productions at Freaks 4U Gaming.
Today, Freaks 4U Gaming has evolved into a 360-degree esports and gaming powerhouse – part agency, part content creator, and part community. Through our agency business, we cover a multitude of disciplines such as strategic consultancy, social media and community management, tournament and event organization, influencer marketing, editorial and design. The company also delivers state-of-the-art broadcast solutions and digital media productions with nearly 3,000m2 of TV and livestream studio space, in addition to our substantial investment in industry-leading production technology and equipment.
Furthermore, we have built some of the most successful communities across a diverse portfolio of game titles as a leading content producer and league operator, through our proprietary platforms and licensed esports ecosystems in close collaboration with publishers. Specific to the DACH region, we launched the largest CS:GO and League of Legends communities, 99Damage and Summoner’s Inn, respectively; we are also the official license owner and operator of the League of Legends Prime League and the German National Championship ESL Meisterschaft.
Freaks most certainly has come a long way from our humble beginning, and we attribute our success to an approach that’s two-fold: Relationship-oriented and community-centric. We truly see our clients as partners and care about cultivating lasting relationships. The team at Freaks is open and candid about what works and what doesn’t, we believe in knowledge sharing with our clients based on our experiences and insights as opposed to simply doing what we are asked. On the other hand, Freaks is and has always been “community first.” We ARE part of the community therefore we want to bring value and better the ecosystem overall, which translates to us creating campaigns that actually resonate with the community and as a result, achieving our client’s goals. We really do pride ourselves in creating “win-win’s” for both our clients and the community.
Freaks 4U Gaming is the official license holder and operator of the League of Legends Prime League and responsible for league operations, tournament organization, content creation and community management. How do you plan and execute massive productions like this? What does it take to build a successful esports product?
Established in 2018 and formerly known as the Premier Tour, the League of Legends Prime League is one of the leading regional esports leagues. Our vision was simple and true to our relationship-oriented and community-centric approach: We wanted to create a league ecosystem for both professional and amateur teams on the national level that is unique and brings value to all the stakeholders, may it be teams or sponsors, and invite them to kick start with us collaboratively as partners.
And to create a successful esports product, meticulous planning and execution are as essential as a deep understanding of the game and its community - it’s about speaking the gamers’ language and engaging them at eye-level. Freaks 4U Gaming has done exactly that for the League of Legends esports ecosystem within the DACH region.
From exciting rivalries to feel-good underdog triumphs, storytelling is at the heart of creating awareness and keeping the audience engaged and entertained – which is why since the very beginning, we have carefully created protagonists and focused on telling player stories. With editorial pieces, always-on social media content, video highlights and aftermovies, our content and community management teams have done a phenomenal job creating authentic player-centric narratives and reaching these digital natives through the league’s website, social channels, and Discord.
Furthermore, our extensive experiences and industry-leading technical know-how in live and broadcast production, tournament administration, and event management have also helped to create exceptional spectator experiences both digitally and in-person. These memorable moments translate into fan loyalty and affinity with the Prime League brand.
Last but not least, stakeholder management also plays an important role in creating a great product. We value our partnerships with publishers, sponsors, partners, and other industry players, our approach is to build mutually-beneficial relationships based on trust, transparency, and open dialog. By aligning our goals and objectives, we create synergistic collaborations that drive value for all involved. For example, in addition to brand placement during livestream, our team brainstorms creative ways to integrate sponsors – from PC hardware to frozen pizza and instant coffee – through innovative content creation. Regular communication, effective project management, and delivering on our commitments are vital for us in maintaining strong stakeholder relationships.
Having been around for so long, what is your assessment of how the esports industry has changed during the last 20 years?
While our company has grown tremendously in the past twenty years, the esports industry has also undergone a remarkable transformation. Initially, esports existed on the fringes of mainstream entertainment, similar to the first years of the gaming ecosystem, but it has now become a global phenomenon. We have witnessed exponential growth in viewership, prize pools, and sponsorship investments.
Traditional sports organizations, brands, and media outlets have recognized the potential of esports, leading to increased legitimacy and widespread acceptance. The professionalization of the industry, improved infrastructure, and enhanced production values have made esports events akin to grand spectacles, captivating millions of viewers worldwide. The global championship tournaments of Dota 2’s The International and the League of Legends’ Worlds, both are widely regarded as “the Superbowl’s of esports.”
As the esports industry matures, our audience also has higher expectations. In the past it was more about the games themselves – the gameplays and esports as a competitive sport – and nowadays the fans are also looking for fandom and being part of a community that rallies behind a team, a player or a region. This has challenged the teams and tournament organizers to invest more into content creation to keep their fans and audience engaged.
Content creation is also vital for sponsors. Esports sponsors now understand that the true value of sponsorship lies within authentic storytelling and campaigns, in addition to the standard entitlement such as logo placement and advertisement. The sponsorship is only as good as how creative and memorable the integration is.
“Content is king” has never been more true in esports. And this is what Freaks are here for.
Is Berlin an esport hotspot in comparison to other international cities?
Berlin boasts a vibrant gaming and tech scene, a thriving startup ecosystem, and a strong international talent pool, which are ideal for the esports and gaming industry. Thanks to publishers such as Riot Games, who established their EMEA Esports HQ in Berlin Adlershof in 2015 that also houses the League of Legends EMEA Championship production studio, has drawn a lot of attention and created opportunities for Berlin. Additionally, more esports events have taken place in Berlin in recent years, such as the Stage 3 Masters of VALORANT Champions Tour 2021, The Six Berlin Major in 2022, and the ESL One Berlin Major for Dota 2 just last month. Last but not least, the success of esports organizations such as G2 Esports has also put Berlin on the radar of the global esports audience. Berlin has definitely made major strides in becoming an esports hotspot.
Additionally, being someone who was born and raised in Spandau, I am extremely proud of the accomplishments in esports, gaming and entertainment by Freaks that have come out of Spandau. We have not only contributed to the growth and development of the esports ecosystem in Berlin but also put Spandau on the global esports map.
As an industry pioneer on the regional and local level, Freaks 4U Gaming has always been and still is proactive in looking for opportunities to bridge our industry with the government and other stakeholders outside of our network. We support and very much look forward to seeing state and business investments, academia collaborations, and local initiatives which would further the development of our ecosystem in Berlin and elevate the city’s position as a global esports hotspot.