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The Way Forward: 1on1 with Evil Geniuses CEO Chris DeAppolonio

2023 was an up-and-down year for Evil Geniuses in every sense of the word. Now looking to the future and with new leadership in place, we had an exclusive sit down with CEO Chris DeAppolonio about the new path for Evil Geniuses

There is not a single rollercoaster in North America that could compare to the year Evil Geniuses had in 2023. Despite a year marred by controversy, EG crowned itself VALORANT world champion before ending the year with a flurry of structural changes. Of these changes, the most noteworthy was the departure of CEO Nicole LaPointe Jameson, and the off-loading of various esports programs that followed led to reports that the organization would be leaving esports altogether by 2024.

Rumors of Evil Geniuses’ demise may have been exaggerated, but aside from the name and a few familiar faces from last year’s VALORANT roster, nothing is the same for the organization in 2024. Evil Geniuses CEO Chris DeAppolonio sat down with ESI to discuss the peaks and valleys of EG’s 2023 and provide clarity on the organization’s focus in 2024 and beyond.

DeAppolonio first joined Evil Geniuses in 2020 as its Chief Innovation Officer and served the organization in that position until he was named Interim CEO following Jameson’s departure last August. As Interim CEO, DeAppolonio’s aim was to put EG on a path that would leave the controversies of the past calendar year behind it as the organization enters its 25th year of operation – a rare milestone in the tumultuous business of esports.

One month ago, DeAppolonio shed the ‘interim’ from his title and took on the task of steering the ship for Evil Geniuses in a permanent capacity, but he’s leading a much leaner crew than what was present during his time as CIO of the organization. The organization currently includes 19 employees and its focus has shifted entirely to VALORANT in 2024.

Evil Geniuses VALORANT team

“We've got five players, two coaches, and then support staff that are everything from gaming operations, to marketing, to partnerships, to business operations,” DeAppolonio told ESI. “[We want] to make sure that we can have a successful year that we can fight for a championship and try to defend that title.”

EG’s run through the VALORANT Champions Tour last year was historic, but it did not shield them from the current economic downturn running rampant throughout the esports industry. In fact, DeAppolonio is of the opinion that organizations have become squeezed between players and developers in the fiscal crunch. “We don't have a lot of ways to drive revenue partnerships, for the most part,” DeAppolonio explained. “Maybe a little bit of prize money, depending upon the contracts of the players, right? Or maybe some league revenue share. We're not selling a ton of merch; we don't get ticket sales, you know? Fans aren't paying for parking, popcorn, beer at events…we don't have home games.”

VALORANT made sense to Evil Geniuses as the program to prioritize for 2024 – not just because of the recent success of the organization’s VALORANT team, but also because of Riot Games’ approach to developing the ecosystem. “It is the fastest growing esport. The number one most-watched esports title in the Americas, right? It continues to grow,” said DeAppolonio. “The social [media] numbers that we did on VALORANT alone last year were massive – some of the biggest we've ever done as an organization over 25 years. And the way that Riot has built out the title; offering in-game opportunities for teams. . . I think it's going to be a very special year for VALORANT.”

It’s not a coincidence that EG chose to stay in a franchised league above all others – while the League Championship Series is also a franchised league, EG’s success in VALORANT – as well as the popularity of the game itself in North America – exceeds that of League of Legends, and the structure of a franchised league is a better business model for esports organizations than open circuits.

“A more open ecosystem can make it difficult for organizations to actually run a business and forecast how things can work because a lot of it is all dependent upon competitive success. And event of success in an industry like eSports, or sports isn't guaranteed,” said DeAppolonio. “Whether you spend a ton or you spend a little – you could win; you could lose – it makes it really hard and really difficult to run teams in those titles.”

While EG may have internally been all-in on VALORANT for 2024 all along, it didn’t necessarily look that way to the outsider. Little had been heard from the organization following reports of the players on their world champion roster being stuck in “contract jail” following reported pay cuts. By the time EG stars Ethan "Ethan" Arnold and rookie of the year Max "Demon1" Mazanov were acquired by NRG, it was unclear if the 2024 VCT circuit would even feature its defending world champion.

DeAppolonio stated that, contrary to reports, EG had fulfilled all players’ wishes following the restructuring of the organization. “We made the decision – maybe right, maybe wrong – to let the players know, quickly, after the VALORANT Champions grand finals that there were going to be changes that would have to come,” the CEO recalled. “Every player who did move on from Evil Geniuses – we were able to get them to the teams that they wanted to go to and make that happen.

I think that's important, right? We didn't just send them wherever, we made sure that they could be with the teams that they wanted to go to and give them the opportunities that they wanted to have in 2024,” DeAppolonio continued. “We paid every player per their contractual agreements and their salaries and increases in salaries over the offseason. We didn't reduce contracts, we didn’t not pay our players – we held true to all of that and continue to honor the contracts of the players that we have today."

With Demon1 and Ethan going to NRG, Kelden "Boostio" Pupello signing with 100 Thieves, and Corbin "C0M" Lee joining Leviatán, only Alexander "jawgemo" Mor and head coach Christine “Potter” Chi remain from last year’s world champion roster. Before even playing a match in 2024, EG’s roster has already been criticized as the organization simply fulfilling a contract with Riot Games through 2025 with the bare minimum of effort, but DeAppolonio says this couldn’t be further from the truth.

“We believe in VALORANT, and we want to be in VALORANT. We're not in it because we have to be. We want to be a part of this league,” said DeAppolonio. The EG CEO also drew comparisons between EG’s 2023 and 2024 rosters, both in terms of their composition and the public perception of the roster prior to competition. “We got a great leader in Potter, who builds a system and brings in the right talent who eventually peak and have success at the right time,” said DeAppolonio. “If people had been asked whether we were going to win the World Championship last year with the roster we had, I don’t think anyone would have said yes at the beginning of the season.”

DeAppolonio has placed heavy emphasis on shedding light on EG’s goings-on in this new chapter for the org – a merciful respite from the deafening silence emanating from the org since Jameson’s departure as CEO nearly half a year ago. “I understand that it's been dark,” said DeAppolonio. “People don't know what's going on. And they're asking a lot of questions. And we haven't given a lot of answers. Hopefully, this is the start of more transparency and more communication with our fans and with the community.”

DeAppolonio did not claim to have any valuable insights on controversies plaguing EG prior to his promotion to interim CEO, such as Riot Games’ investigation into the treatment of Kyle “Danny” Sakamaki, but he did state that none of the remaining EG staff were involved in the conversations that led to the investigation. He did speak on the organization receiving backlash following the release of streamer Elyse "Herculyse" Herrera when shutting down their Creator Collective this past November.

Herculyse took to Twitter to share the news of her departure from EG and the subsequent cancellation of her tournament series. EG then announced the Chevron Collegiate Cup following her exit, and while the timing led to criticism towards the org for running a tournament Herculyse planned before her layoff, DeAppolonio described the situation as a misunderstanding. He clarified that Herculyse's contract ended as part of the organization's overall ending of the Creator Collective project, and not due to loss of sponsors. In fact, EG still had sponsor commitments to fulfill after the dissolution of the Creator Collective.

 “We still had partnership deliverables for one of our partners that we had to fulfill focused on Rocket League,” DeAppolonio explained. “And so we tried to do that event, and run it. And it happened to be shortly after her departure.”

Aside from mentioning that ownership felt like he was next in line to serve as CEO, DeAppolonio did not go into the circumstances of Jameson’s departure from Evil Geniuses. “As a leader, my focus is really cultivating a workplace that values trust and transparency and creating a positive culture here,” DeAppolonio said. “I pride myself that all people that have worked for me or worked with me have enjoyed their time in my departments and having me as a leader…We have a small group of really talented people at EG now. We're obsessed with making this organization a success again.”

DeAppolonio hopes that a more transparent approach from the organization will lead to a much-needed humanization of the brand and those who work to represent it going forward. “Obviously, we have our players and talent, and we'll never take away from them,” DeAppolonio said. “But I think people want to know that there's humans behind the logo. People that care deeply and will continue to work as hard as possible to rebuild the trust that the fans expect us to have with them.”

DeAppolonio has been part of the esports world for over two decades, first entering the competitive gaming space as a Super Smash Bros. Melee player. As a professional in esports, he has held a number of roles since 2018 – including serving as President of the Overwatch League franchise Houston Outlaws – so he has no fantasies about the process of rebuilding and rehabilitating Evil Geniuses as a brand an organization. There’s a long road ahead for the new Evil Geniuses, but DeAppolonio is optimistic that the org will enter its second quarter-century of operations on the right foot.

“I think that come 2025, we'll sit down and we'll look back at this year and say ‘Man, you know, everything was stacked against us. People didn't believe in us. But we celebrated the past of EG in our 25 years, we celebrated the success of our current future. And we’re ready to continue to move forward and build on that.

The history and legacy of this brand and this team is special…I want to be able to celebrate 50 years of Evil Geniuses at some point.”

EG can’t rest on the laurels of its legacy after a tumultuous 2023 that, despite competitive success, was a rough year for the organization. The genuine desire of DeAppolonio and co. to rebuild Evil Geniuses does not abdicate them of responsibility – fans are right to hold this group just as accountable, if not more so, than the previous leadership group responsible for the majority of the issues plaguing the organization. To many, the legacy of EG has been tarnished by this recent controversy. Hopefully, 2024 will be a step in the right direction for the future of the organization.