- Jan 2008
DreamHacks VD avskedad
By Richard Lewis on October 29, 2014
Robert Ohlén is one of the most recognizable businessmen in esports. Outspoken, gregarious and with an acute understanding of gaming culture, he was the charismatic face of one of esports true success stories: DreamHack.
In 2006, he took a gamble and purchased the gaming event from its two young founders. Under his stewardship, DreamHack continued to grow and break records year upon year. Its events have made it the biggest LAN in the world—records set to be smashed again when it hosts its 20th anniversary event next month. Ohlén, however, won’t be playing any part in those celebrations. After nearly a decade building the company, he's out, “relieved of his duties” on Oct. 24. The move represents a major power shift at the top of one of the most important and influential esports organizations in Europe—and on a more personal level, Ohlén's likely departure from the esports industry as a whole.
When we speak on Monday, he cuts a pretty dejected figure. It’s easy to see even across a pixelated Skype call that there are bags under his eyes. He's shaved off his trademark beard, but he looks older somehow. Ohlén and I have known each other for five years, and I've worked at DreamHack events as a coverage journalist. We've become firm friends. Which is part of why I was the only journalist he was willing to speak to.
We exchange some small talk. When a natural pause occurs, I put on my interviewer's voice and he sparks a cigarette. Then with a hoarse, strained voice he tells where all the drama started. It began in 2009, he says, when his then partner in the company David Garpenståhl, tried to "oust" him.
"That came out of the blue and I had to conclude he was, as you Brits might put it, a bit of a nutter." For what Ohlén calls "tactical, legal reasons," he gave away all his shares—50 percent of DreamHack—to his father. "I did this with the tacit understanding that the shares would be returned to me as soon as the difficulties subsided. Those troubles ended two years ago.”
Ohlén had weathered the storm, giving him his first harsh lesson about the business – “trust nobody.” Unfortunately, what he didn't realize was that this same lesson would soon extend to his immediate family.
About a year ago, Ohlén finally approached his father about those shares. “It didn’t seem too pressing and DreamHack was doing well," he said, so he'd felt no rush to handle the matter earlier.
“I asked my father to transfer back the shares I had given him and thanked him for the help," Ohlén says. "But he just flat out refused. Not once either.
"Each time I’d press the matter he had various, silly reasons as to why it wasn’t feasible to give me the shares. These ranged from excuses about timing, to how it would impact on finances, things that I knew weren’t true or made no sense. I sadly had to arrive at the conclusion that my dad was also a bit of a nutter and I had made a big mistake.”
That mistake wasn't going to be easy to fix. With no recourse to get back what he'd given away, Ohlén had only a few of options, all equally unpalatable. One was to try and fight, to browbeat his father into doing the right thing. The other was to wait it out, to continue working and see what materialized. Ohlén chose the latter. And it soon became clear that the situation was indeed resolving itself—except at Ohlén's expense.
Internally, he says, there were already discussions to push him out.
"I expected to have some allies, someone to have my back, but instead the staff seemed mostly to go along with my father. I have nothing against them for doing that. But it’s hard not to think of them as anything other than spineless worms.”
Ohlén admits to his own mistakes. Unable to get past this dispute with his father and feeling stupid for creating the situation, he struggled to find as much joy in his work as he once did. He explained to us:
“When I realized I wasn’t going to have my shares returned to me I had started questioning what I was going to do. It took away a lot of my focus, made me not quite as on the ball as I used to be.
Ohlén says that, far from trying to hide this from the company, he soon held a meeting with staff. "We all agreed we needed a change in structure, including me. I was happy to stand down as CEO because it wasn’t working anymore. The focus had become not about operations, but about the stupid, internal bullshit.”
Even with the staff going along with these plans, the consensus still seemed that the company should keep him on, because he was a great asset to DreamHack as a whole. Internally, people told Robert that there was a position for him as chairman of the board—"a role where I could still advise and influence without being quite so much hands on."
There were even plans to make a production out of it, to make it "a cool thing, like I was passing the torch." But at some point, and without his knowledge, that plan changed drastically. According to Ohlén, most people within DreamHack, and even a few partners outside of it, knew what was coming. But word of this either never got back to Robert, or he had dismissed it out of hand as gossip. Even up until a few weeks ago, he still fully expected to be part of the board, to be part of DreamHack.
Ohlén finally found out when he had a meeting with the current chairman of the board, Mats Liliecrona. “We talked about who would be a good successor for me and I gave some input. Then I asked when we’d have a shareholder’s meeting to change the chairman of the board to me. He looked at me funny and just flatly told me that wasn’t going to happen and I had to ask 'what?'"
Ohlén, of course, had a lot of questions about just what went down. But the answers weren't forthcoming. It was clear, however, that the decision was final, and that others in DreamHack were surprised about his shock. The company presented it as a group decision, one that was made for the greater good. Ohlén saw it as a family grievance, a way for his father to make life a little easier for himself. "The chairman was telling me it was nothing to do with my father, which struck me as utter bullshit because he now controls 70 percent of the votes.
"The penny dropped at this point and I realized just exactly what was happening. I was about to get froze out of DreamHack. I had no shares, no influence on the board and no recourse if they decided to fire me. I was fucked.”
There wouldn’t be any graceful exit either. Robert joked that the way he was treated on the way out was more akin to how you might treat “a temp” or an intern as opposed to a CEO.
“Even when I had started to accept what was happening I still couldn’t believe the way they went about it” he says with a humourless laugh. “One day they just deleted my email account and everything in it without even a heads up. They were so paranoid that I was going to do something crazy they just continued to act in a way that continually stripped me of my DreamHack identity without having to confront me directly to do it.”
Then came the official notice. Far from a glowing thank you note, it read like an NDA.
“I got a clinical letter a few days ago, just reiterating my legal duties and telling me that I’d get six months of severance pay. It may as well have just said 'fuck off.'"
After he found out, Ohlén took to Twitter, where he dropped a series of cryptic tweets about the events. Many who read them presumed that he was either drunk or that it was some elaborate joke. After all, with the 20th anniversary looming and DreamHack’s unofficial mantra (coined by Ohlén himself) that they “are serious about not being serious,” it seemed nothing should be taken at face value. I had figured that something wasn’t quite right, however. Ohlén seemed uncharacteristically maudlin and hostile. When he told me that he’d been fired, I still didn’t believe it until the Daily Dot received an email from the DreamHack press officer.
Running his hand across his head, Ohlén now says he regrets those tweets.
“Those tweets were half me and half 'BossDH,' my online persona” he says. “Of course I don’t want DreamHack to fail. You know, there’s some people there now whose failures wouldn’t upset me in the slightest but I don’t want something I poured my heart and soul into to fail, no matter how much it has turned out to be a disappointment. It’s like a child. No matter how they treat you, you will always love them.”
He spent the weekend deep in thought and deeper in a bottle of whiskey, waking up Monday to read a press release issued by DreamHack. Perhaps it is a testament to his popularity that far from being a simple piece bland PR work, it was instead presented in the style of an FAQ, explaining the reasons and rationale behind the decisions. One part in particular stood out to Ohlén:
Why is the board relieving Robert as CEO at DreamHack?
"At the end of the day its about the faith and confidence internally for Robert Ohlén as CEO was missing. DreamHack has had great development and growth with Robert as CEO but we’re sure that in order to continue development we needed these structural changes that have now happened.”
“That is just PR bullshit” he responds. "It wasn’t an issue. We had all agreed that I was going to stand down as CEO anyway and that it would actually be the next great step for the company.
I’m 47 years old now, in three years I am fifty. No spring chicken. I was always going to take a backward step at some point in the near future. For me it made more sense to do it after DreamHack Winter as it was a landmark event and it would have felt like a natural transition.”
I explained that most people reading that would see another clear meaning, namely that the staff no longer had faith in him. It was quite a damning statement, especially coming from long-standing co-workers and family. I asked if he could look at it from their perspective and maybe find a reason why their faith had suddenly dissipated.
“Maybe the reason was that I had, obviously, lost my passion” he says. “I'd agree for the past six, maybe eight, months that I haven’t pulled my weight as much as I used to. It took the wind out of my sails to have this situation with my father, to be cheated like I had by putting my trust in my own flesh and blood.”
He maintains, however, that despite everything, he still had performed well as CEO and feels that he can be proud of his DreamHack legacy.
As it became apparent that he was going to be replaced, Ohlén says began to get freezed out of internal communications. "I was even finding out about things in the company when I would get CC’d in on emails by mistake and I’d have to ask what was going on." That made his job even harder.
"This feels like a betrayal in the sense that people I had worked with for years, people I had recruited directly and gave opportunities to, didn’t go with me; they went with my father.”
It has been a lonely few days for the former CEO. With his wife and children away, he says he's been staying inside, trying to resist the urge to react on social media any more than he already has. Instead, he's been watching marathon sessions of The Sopranos, joking that the show resonates with him now more than ever. When I ask him about what he plans to do next he shrugs and avoids any reference to the future. As he explains, the present is problematic enough.
“I got more pressing problems right now” he says. His wife is a student at the London School of Economics and he has four children to support. "I’m having to sell my second home to make ends meet. Obviously this all sounds like first world problems but I’ve got to pay the bills and all of this has put a doubt over my capacity to do that long term.”
Eventually, I ask a question I never imagined I'd have to: Would the face of DreamHack ever work for another company in esports?
“It’s hard for me to even think about staying in esports at the moment” Ohlén says. “All my instincts are telling me to change my name and go open a taco stand somewhere. But seriously, I have no clue what I am going to do right now. DreamHack has been such a big part of my life for so long I’d never got to a stage where I thought about how it’d be if it wasn’t in my life anymore."
He's about to travel to London, where he expected to get a better idea of what to do because he'd to meet with his "consigliere"—his wife.
"She always knows what to do," he says. "I have a feeling she might be inclined to say “fuck it.'”