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CPL’s founder Angel Munoz talks past & present (part 1) – An Inside look at the CPL

A two-part interview with one of the first people to bring esports to the masses.

Interview conducted by: Steven Leunens

Angel Munoz is the founder of one of the first esports leagues the world had ever seen in the form of the Cyberathlete Professional League or CPL. Eventually Munoz stepped away from the esports scene entirely, following the sale of the CPL. He would go on to launch technology company Mass Luminosity in 2011 and GTribe in 2014, the latter being a social media network founded on the principles of privacy. 

More recently in 2020 Munoz launched Beacon Technology, with their first product Beacon aiming to become the next revolutionary video communication platform. We spoke to him about the past and present in a rare two-part interview, talking CPL, controversy, new challenges and burn-out.

Legacy in esports

What do you think is your legacy within the esports scene, what was your contribution?

Munoz: When I had the concept of esports in my head it wasn’t the result of anything I had seen before, it was the result of me seeing people competing informally, mostly online at the time, back in 1997. I was an investment banker and back then I sold my firm, quite frankly thinking I would retire, in my thirties. That’s ridiculous, thinking of retiring at that age.

I didn’t have much to do and I found myself with time to spare. My friend Jeff Fox recommended me to look into videogames. At the time games still came on floppy disks and he brought me DOOM. I remember seeing the game and thinking: “This is the future!”. I launched a website named Adrenaline Vault, which was one of the top websites for video games. Millions of people visited it and it gave me a lot of insight into the behavior and lifestyle of gamers. I saw a lot of competition between gamers, which was disorganized and informal. I think formalizing PC competitions was my contribution to esports. It’s interesting that a lot of the same rules and formats we had to create, that didn’t exist yet, are still used today. 

A sport has to have a level playing field. I think that’s where we came in.

One of the hardest things to sell to the community back then was having everyone on the same computer system. A lot of people like to say esports started with Red Annihilation, which was a promotional event that occured in Atlanta at E3, a few months before CPL started. Dennis Fong won a Ferrari there. What nobody mentions is that not everybody was using the same computer, Dennis had the best one around and actually didn’t allow anyone else to use it. I’m not taking away anything from his victory of course, but that isn’t a sport. A sport has to have a level playing field. I think that’s where we came in. 

It didn’t stop at just the level playing field, though. It was also the approach of being televised and having the big prize pools. That has pushed people to do the same within the industry. Do you think that part of your legacy was pivotal seeing where we are today?

Munoz: It’s arguable that started with us though, as Red Annihilation did have that Ferrari up for grabs. I would say that bringing in sponsors played a big part. Can you imagine doing pitches to them when we just launched? We partnered with interesting companies at the time, such as Logitech and Razer, with the latter just starting out. Of course we also had Intel and Nvidia and a lot of other companies who are still around today. 

I think you’re right in the sense that we formalized the process but all we did was imitate modern sports. We needed ticket sales, advertising and sponsorships and that’s how we did it. The CPL was widely successful at the time and it caught us by surprise, because as you know it became global right away. When I look at an event now, the only difference I notice is that there are just a lot more people there.

A lot of people started their legacy in or at CPL. The World Tour did seem a little ‘off’ however as there were a lot of empty seats. It might be because of timing but game choice – Painkiller was used – might have also played a part, no?

Munoz: Our events before the World Tour were packed to maximum capacity. We would have 10.000 people and 5.000 would be a minimum number. We would charge $100 for a ticket, so you can see that just with ticket sales we were generating anywhere from $600.000 to $1.000.000 for an event. People would be there to participate but also to watch the event themselves, as they were interesting to them. I wouldn’t specify that spectators for esports came after the events, that would be an error, as we had over 100.000 people watching them online.

Next came the World Tour, which was a very expensive undertaking where we were incentivized to use games that were not popular (Painkiller). In that sense it was an error to do it that way. Also the fact that we did 1 versus 1 matches, even though I loved them, was too much pressure on people. We were the first to do Counter-Strike tournaments so we knew 5 versus 5 was more comfortable for players. One of the reasons I wanted to use a game that had not been used before was that it wouldn’t give an advantage to people who have been practicing for a long time beforehand. It didn’t attract a lot of audience, that’s fine, but I should mention it was televised.

Disappointing results

I can imagine that when you come from these events featuring 4.000 to 5.000 people, the results weren’t what you expected.

Munoz: I would agree there. It was fine because I loved it, though. We can’t do anything about the past. We can talk about it and say it was a mistake but I have to tell you I have no regrets in my life. Zero. When that event happened I thought our mission was accomplished. Now we’ve proven one thing: That there is potential to take all this to the next level. There’s nowhere to go but up from here on out, we had a million dollars in prizes, a tour around the world… . 

It felt like an accomplishment. It was a spark in the darkness. It was on television, we had big sponsors and it felt like all the pieces came together. I loved the fact that we never in the history of the CPL had someone come from the losers bracket and win the tournament, and then it did happen during the World Tour.

Do you think doing the same thing with Counter-Strike, regardless of the financial aspect, would have worked?

Munoz: Oh lord, it would’ve been a huge success. It was a mistake using Painkiller, when you look at the results. We were in the right port but we just weren’t carrying enough people on our ship. If we would’ve done Counter-Strike or Quake it would’ve been a huge success. We knew it going into it but there was so much going on behind the scenes of what Intel wanted to show, what Nvidia wanted to do and of course everyone washed their hands of it and blamed us for it. For them it was looking at what taxed the systems more, what would sell the most products. It was a combination of things that led to it.

I still get comments from people who had an incredible experience at the events.

I still get comments from people who had an incredible experience at the events. Often I hear of their experiences and they tell me that it put them on the path to esports and they still work in it. In that sense it was successful, but financially it wasn’t.

What role did the competition play in all this?

Munoz: When we started esports in 1997 there was nobody else. Just us. What happened was that we would get all these reporters from South Korea and they would often ask these questions like what our business model was and how we got our sponsors. Then all of a sudden the WCG was announced and we found ourselves competing against Samsung. Yet, I didn’t care. I was happy and thrilled. They were trying to do the Olympics of esports and you’ll never find an article of me saying anything negative about them.

Did the competition help you out in any way? Did it have a positive effect?

Munoz: I agree 100% that it had a positive effect.  Our first mission was to get to an event that had a $100.000 prize pool, that was our first goal. We did that in 1999 with the Razer CPL events, which was very early. That was unheard of! 

Selling CPL and controversy

After that World Tour things started to go a bit differently, you guys ceased operations and sold to an investment company, bringing some controversy around it. What is your story behind it, how did everything go down?

Munoz: In all honesty I had been running the CPL for 12 years at that time and quite frankly, I was burned out. It started as a project that I really was enthusiastic about and now I wasn’t anymore. I felt that I had accomplished my mission. You have to look at the timing of things. First of all, if you really go in-depth on it, we went into a major global depression. People were being taxed to travel and come over to the event and then a small group of people made it their mission in life to badmouth the CPL. 

It came at a time when I was tired, I had young children and I wanted to be a part of their lives, which I’m glad I did, and I didn’t feel like defending myself. In the end people are going to see my contribution to esports. I’ve been really shocked at how many people have contacted me to say they are sorry for the things they’ve said and all that. It’s been amazing. 

There also wasn’t a controversy with WuLong, there was a controversy with another company out of Abu Dhabi, which turned out to be a front. I didn’t know that. I really didn’t know what was going on there. They made it a point to write things that would diminish the value of CPL while they were negotiating with us on the price. Frank Young, the guy behind WuLong, called me. He told me that these people writing articles are associated with them indirectly, but they’re doing things he didn’t approve of. He basically said: let’s bypass them and go ahead and acquire. They still own it today. They haven’t done a lot with it but that’s on them, not on me. I often get people saying they wished CPL was still around. I always have to say that it is around, it’s just in China.

What about the acquisition itself and the prize money for the events, how did that go down?

Munoz: When we did the final sale it was at a fair price. I have nothing negative to say about Frank Young, he was a man of his word. However it took years for them to pay us because they were raising capital to be able to pay us. In the meanwhile they had agreed to pay all the prizes of our last events. Apparently, at least that’s what they told me, they made a website and said that if you hadn’t received your prize money, send us the paperwork and we’ll pay you. A couple of people have told me that they did go through that process and still haven’t got paid. That’s not on me. That’s on them.

Then they came out with a statement saying that what they bought is just the brand, which isn’t true. Anyway, that’s all just noise at this point. All that happened and it sort of perpetuated this image of me. First of all I never paid prizes, the company did, which had employees and board members. Saying I was the one who wasn’t paying prize money, couldn’t be more wrong. It was enough for me to say that, after all this work, for people not to even give me an opportunity, I don’t want to be part of this industry anymore. That was my thinking back then. Now it’s different. It’s why I’m on this interview with you now.

So if I asked you the burning question about CPL losing Intel to one of their employees, you’d be willing to answer it?

Munoz: Yes, I’ll tell you exactly what happened. They wanted to buy CPL and I told them no. They (Intel) came over to my house and they said they wanted to run CPL and take control of it. I said no, I’d rather not. Then they said they’d pull their sponsorship if we don’t do it and I responded saying: “Well then you have to do what you have to do”. That’s what happened.

I have no hatred in my heart against anyone, things happened the way they developed.

I’ve spoken to him (Scott Valencia) over the years and I don’t have anything against them, I don’t take things that way. He doesn’t know what happened, I’m the only one who knows what happened. It was an aggressive move and they just wanted to take over. They had already spoken to Nvidia. I have no hatred in my heart against anyone, things happened the way they developed. However it was an aggressive move to displace and take control over the CPL completely, for a minimum amount of money, and there was no way I’d do that.

Intel became very involved with the WSVG and, to the benefit of esports I’d say, are now also very involved with ESL and IEM.

Munoz: As you know ESL was CPL Europe, not many people know that. I was shocked when they approached me, and it’s difficult to shock me in business. They were very aggressive and basically told me: “this is the way it’s going to be”. Imagine someone coming in telling what and how your company is going to be. It doesn’t matter if you’re spending over one or two million dollars a year on sponsorships, you just don’t approach things that way.

I was already tired and didn’t have the fight in me anymore. When they did that I knew it was the beginning of the end, so I immediately went on to sell as I knew they were going to pull their sponsorship.

Munoz goes on to talk about his current and future projects in the second part of our interview, which will be releasing on Monday 26/04.

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Image credit: Mass Luminosity

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