It’s January 17th, 2019. Maria Mavrekh, a former marketing director of the esports ICO “Play2Live,” is walking home on what has been an unremarkable day in Moscow. Taking a brisk pace down a sparsely populated street she isn’t mindful of the car that pulls up alongside her, even though the vehicle is driving with a speed and purpose that doesn’t fit the setting. Like a scene from a movie, two large men would emerge from the car, take an arm each then forcibly push her onto the back seat, closing the door behind them in one fluid movement. The screech of tires sync with her screams, which are then cut short as she sees the gun pointing at her face.
Had she not survived this ordeal who knows how this would have been reported. Maybe she would have joined the list of 25,000 people who would go missing without a trace in Russia this year. Maybe it would make the local news, a bungled kidnapping turned to murder. But she did survive, tossed out the car as swiftly as she was thrown into it, left trying to process exactly what had happened, scarcely believing it was real. After a brief time spent with her family, still in a state of shock and seeking catharsis, she posted about it on Facebook as if it were as mundane as a photograph of breakfast.
The post wouldn’t last of course. The prescribed wisdom from her friends and family was to not draw any more attention to herself, to instead contact the police and maintain a low profile to be safe. She would delete the post but by then it wouldn’t matter. People had taken screen shots, one of which was sent to me by one of my sources in that region. At first I didn’t register why. Sure, it was a shocking story about someone who had worked for a time in the esports industry. Then I read through the broken English of the attached translation and I realized why I had been sent it. Maria’s claims were that her kidnappers were criminals chasing money that had been invested into the Play2Live project, money they had been told she had stolen.
“I was shoved into the back seat of [a vehicle] by two large men” her post began. “In front were Chinese or Korean and a white gangster. We were driving. The white gangster started saying that I should give back the money I stole. I did not understand what was going on. I did not understand anything at all. They said I have to return the money that [Play2Live founder] Aleksey Burdyko had pissed away. They told me that last year, when I left the project, he told everyone that I stole three million [dollars]. This is someone who invested in P2L. I have no money, I did not steal anything. I did not break the law. I did not do anything bad.”
She also made it clear that the threats involved a firearm and that she wanted to get her family as far away from the situation as possible.
“A man poked a pistol into my face. Black and cold. I say that I have nothing and they need to sell the project and take their money. Tears flowed. I did not understand. We stopped and pulled me out of the car. I left. Now there is nothing to lose. Nothing makes sense. My child will leave the country very soon with his father.”
I’d forgive you if you were to arrive at the conclusion that all of this seems far-fetched. Did the cinematic introduction to this piece actually happen? Impossible to say. The only source we have that it did is Mavrekh herself and as a former executive in the Play2Live company she would be no stranger to outrageous and outlandish lies. That, as you’ll see, was their bread and butter. Yet, I have followed the people involved in this company since 2015, watched every scam they have put together and made a note of every debt they owe. I’ve interviewed their ex-employees for articles I never published, some of whom have told me about what they call the “legbreakers” that have approached them in the aftermath. I can say comprehensively that if ever a group of people were to get in over their heads and resort to things such as this, it would be them. Equally, because everything they have touched has been such a spectacular and expensive failure, Play2Live reportedly burning through $30 million of investor money with nothing to show for it, the lies one might tell to get out from under it would stretch credulity to snapping point. And yet, with all I know, I’m inclined to believe Mavrekh. After a history lesson you might be too.
It’s April 2014. Over the past few years a company called TechLabs has run a series of modest sized esports competitions across multiple titles in the Russian and CIS region. Despite the success of the business there are internal disputes, particularly revolving around the owner Aleksey Burdyko. What these disputes are would never be explicitly said in the public domain although it is at this time they reach critical mass. Speaking on a Russian esports talk show called “Third one?” Vladislav Udovenko would publicly say that employees had forced Burdyko for the good of the company. The reasons were vague but the inference was clear; it was the opinion of the employees that were running the company that Burdyko was incompetent.
The mutiny worked. Burdyko would retain ownership of the company but he would play no part in its day-to-day operations. This change didn’t do much for the company’s standing. They would host their final event in May, a small Dota 2 tournament in the Stolitsa shopping center in Minsk, Belarus.
For Burdyko, even though he owned TechLabs it mattered little. He was already repurposing his new project, an esports broadcasting company called Game Show TV, to host their own tournaments. The intent was seemingly to create a competitor to his previous business, revenge for their refusal to back him. Functionally the project would be now nearly identical to his previous one and they forge new partnerships to help them run tournaments in a region he knew intimately.
Starting small, in 2015 they partnered with DreamHack, who had expanded to include Moscow events on their calendar, and a Russian gaming expo called IgroMir. Hosting some smaller events as “proof of concept” at these tournaments meant they could keep costs down while simultaneously build their brand to their key audience. They had also built an online platform, GSL.tv, that would be used as a hub for smaller competitions. They didn’t seem to care much that the abbreviation GSL was also being used by the much bigger Global Starcraft League.
By the Summer of 2015 something was happening that had never came up during the Techlabs competitions; people were complaining about missing prize money. A report from Russian Dota 2 website Dota2.ru stated that several small teams were complaining about prize money not being paid out, some even threatening to sue the Game Show League. The sponsors for the event in question, Logitech, told reporters they had sent the money to GameShow and would be hands on in making sure they paid out. Some teams did receive belated payments but some of the money was described as “lost.” Where exactly, who can say? Missing money would become a recurring trend among Burdyko’s businesses. The negative press didn’t seem to perturb him much. Expansion was only around the corner.
It’s the end of 2015. Despite what would be dismissed as a few hiccups relating to missing prize money, Aleksey would now be looking to expand his business. As the company had always been intended as a broadcasting platform anyway, the next step seemed logical enough. They would move into creating original content and programming. The kicker here was that with a broadcasting platform infrastructure, he could use the tournaments as content for the broadcast platform and use the content as a gateway to generate attention, and crucially sponsors, for the tournaments.
Somewhat out of his depth with this undertaking he brought in Natalja Chaikovskaya. She was a former TV executive that had left the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) television station at the end of 2013. Having worked on what Burdyko viewed as a similar project, he believed she would be a good fit. Although she only plays a minor role in this story, her involvement proved to be a significant development in terms of how the Game Show business would play out.
In one of my old interviews, conducted back in mid-2016 while I was trying to chase yet more “missing” money, a former employee of Game Show TV mentioned her. “She brought the original investors in – all private friends of friends of whoever. So in reality, regarding the TV channel itself, Aleksey was more or less the junior partner and Natalja had his balls somewhere in her office in Moscow.”
Crucially to the story, it was because of this she had been given a blank checkbook, something she had been used to having in previous roles at other businesses. “She was not interested in any monetization or profit-making whatsoever,” the employee recalled. “Which was normal, given her career. She has been all the way around big Russian TV. Heavy money, government involvement, never any financial pressure. Spending without limit is normal for these people.”
So, no questioning her expertise and contacts then but unfortunately for all involved, she was part of a much smaller operation than any she had previously been attached to. Whether or not she had been deceived about the finances available to her doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things; the outcome was ultimately the same. With Burdyko being reliant on her contacts to keep high-profile investors involved and happy with the project, all accounts state that he was never in a position to say no to anything and any uncomfortable truths might have caused a catastrophic break in a relationship he desperately needed to keep whole.
The scale at which they were now operating was a clearly significant jump. In November they held a Dota 2 tournament, the Game Show Global eSports Cup Season 1, that had a prize pool of $330,322 distributed across eight teams. They also announced a $200,000 CS:GO tournament involving 48 teams from 3 different regions and LAN finals in Vilnius, Lithuania. This type of scale and scope were unlike anything they had done before and put the company on the map heading into 2016.
While the community was distracted by two high-profile tournaments, the smaller ones that were being held through the GSL.tv website were all producing an identical outcome. They would finish, the prize money wouldn’t materialize and teams would have to go to public in order to get paid. There was no consistency in who was given the money and who wasn’t but whatever the game, no matter how much the prize advertised, there would always be a portion of it that disappeared into the ether leaving only empty promises of payment in its place.
Players from a Russian CS:GO team called PARTY, who won the Game Show Open Season 2 in November, said they had been waiting six months to get their share of a sum of 100,000 rubles, approximately $1150 at the time. Around the same time, this was made public that the winner of a Hearthstone tournament held by Game Show in October 2015, Egor “Tvist” Belkovets, had not received his money by the following May. In a blog post, Belkovets not only spoke about how he had been lied to for months on end about the prize money supposedly coming his way, but he also collated other people with similar complaints.
For a company that was now holding tournaments with hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money, it was strange to see a lot of the complaints revolve around very small amounts by comparison. An amateur Dota 2 player, who now spends his time streaming Path of Exile, called “Kezwikthemovie” made a post on the Russian social networking site VK about being owed money in May 2016. In the replies were other players from other teams who also claimed they were owed money too. These tournaments typically paid out prizes in the hundreds of dollars. When Cybersports.ru picked up the story in a now deleted post someone who claimed to be a contractor working with Game Show also turned up claiming they were owed wages.
Commentator Vlad Subachev said “I worked there, commented on their weekly tournaments. Worked for almost a month, commented on everything that was needed. They promised to pay the money, I did not wait for the salary, I left it for a long time. A very strange organization, when I left them, the admin still called me names, was rude and not flattering.”
There were many more complaints from around this time, too many to collate, but due to the teams involved being amateurs or semi-professional, and the amount of money being so small, it was mostly ignored by the wider esports community. Mostly it became common knowledge among the CIS scene that you entered a Game Show tournament at your own risk, the likelihood of the money being paid a coin flip at best. The reality about esports is that a lot of smaller operators are run this way, a constant cycle of deferred payments as they desperately rob Peter to pay Paul until they eventually go under. As long as the premium, prestigious events were paid out, the reputation hit would be minimal.
Of course they weren’t.