It’s not every day that a Norwegian teenage jiu-jitsu star completely pivots his career to eventually own one of the world’s best-known esports teams. Then again, there aren’t many people like Joachim Haraldsen.
It could’ve been so different for the 29-year-old CEO of Heroic Group, who saw his world come crashing down at age 16. After being diagnosed with idiopathic scoliosis, and undergoing three years of life-changing surgeries, Haraldsen was able to overcome incredible odds to become the owner of one of esports’ best-known European teams.
After his life took a dramatic turn, Haraldsen responded to the cards he was dealt–becoming a janitor, then one of Norway’s best-known gamers, before creating Omaken Sports in 2020 and raising NOK 150 million ($17.7 million) to buy Danish CS:GO team Heroic. With it, he wants to take them to a new level, give something back to Norway, and bring a more positive outlook to the industry.
This month, Haraldsen is watching Heroic perform at IEM Rio Major 2022, a leading CS:GO tournament, where the team has advanced to the Champions round for a shot at a $500,000 grand prize. The amiable, Oslo-based CEO is excited about what the future brings, but he owes his life to the shocking events that changed him forever–even though he talks about them with incredible modesty.
“I still have much to learn, and I learn new things every day,” he says, “but what I am certain about is that if you work hard, never give up, and make decisions based on your heart, amazing things tend to happen.”
From fighter to fighting
In 2007, when he was just 16, Haraldsen was gearing up for the Stockholm Open in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. During a routine check-up, his life was rocked to its core by his doctor’s discovery.
“I remember it well because he did not even need to examine me to see that something was wrong,” Haraldsen says. “My back was visibly skewed. The doctor was surprised I’d not seen him earlier, but I was very used to being sore from my martial arts training.
“Several vertebrae were fractured and needed immediate treatment. The next day, I was on a surgery bench at Oslo University Hospital, shocked that I was in such a critical condition.”
The first of the two major surgeries that followed was, at the time, the biggest in Norwegian medical history, lasting 14 hours. Experts were brought in from other hospitals and countries. Most of Haraldsen’s vertebrae–around a dozen–were removed and replaced with metal brackets. All nerve threads and blood vessels were repositioned, and he had to be brought back to consciousness during the procedure to check if he still had a connection with his legs.
“There was a big risk I’d end up paralyzed from the operation, but the surgeons managed to get things right,” he says. “When I woke up, the first thing I asked for–still high from the drugs–was a kebab. Clearly, I was still passionate about food.”
Between 2008 and 2011, Haraldsen was in hospital over 70 times. He withdrew from school and learned how to walk again. After a long period of intensive rehabilitation, he returned to education–now two years older than his high-school classmates. Embracing what he loved once again, he began training for MMA. Then one of his back screws broke. While driving his car on the highway, his legs suddenly stopped working. He managed to get the car to stop, and had a friend pick him up, but a second surgery was unavoidable.
In 2011, aged 18, Haraldsen had the previous metal structure removed, and surgeons reconstructed his back using parts of his hip and thoracic spine–a process that saw him lose 10cm (4in) in height. As the first surgery made him intolerant to opioids, he had to recover without medication.
“The pain was so bad, I couldn’t move, swallow, talk, or breathe properly without feeling like hell was loose inside my body,” he explains. “The only comfort I got was eye contact from my doctor, hoping he could understand what I was going through.”
For a while, Haraldsen couldn’t walk, but he found the power to get on his feet again. His recovery was, physically, similar to his first rehabilitation, with one initial surprise: “I was shorter than my brain was used to me being. I remember getting on my feet and standing next to my mother, feeling something was different. I was missing doorknobs with my hand.”
Riding an emotional rollercoaster
Haraldsen is very open about the mental toll of his experience. “I was living in a cloud of extreme physical and mental pain,” he says, “and the latter was the most difficult. Life really felt like a black hole.”
During his recovery–which included withdrawal from strong painkillers–he was picked up by the police at home and taken to a psychiatric facility as he was deemed a threat to himself. “I did not spend too much time there, but I was given everything I needed,” he says, placing a strong focus on the network that supported him at home.
“Without my family and friends, the situation would probably be a very different one. It must have been difficult for them to see me go through this, especially balancing me with everything happening in their everyday life. I’m extremely grateful for all they did for me.”
Partially bedridden, but still driven by the desire to be the best at something, he turned his attention to World of Warcraft–something he already loved, and a game he could play with limited mobility as he recovered, where friends continued to support him.
“I couldn’t do the same grinds as the rest of my guild, and the drugs sometimes impacted my ability to be sharp and stay focused,” he says. “WoW has many different roles, and I was able to transition between them and still perform despite my daily condition. Switching between responsibilities gave me an even stronger understanding of the game. This adaptation was valuable for me as a professional gamer.”
After gaining full mobility once again, Haraldsen realized school wasn’t the right fit for him, and instead wanted to spend his time gaming–but he needed to finance his lifestyle.
“I was offered the janitor position through my family network,” he says. “I honestly really liked it, because it was what it was: predictable, with nice colleagues, and salary-wise, it paid enough for me to secure the best gear. I could return home in time to connect with the global community on my server.
“I have no idea what people around me thought of my job. I never really cared. My main social platform didn’t really take part in the outside world; we were living out our dreams in WoW.”
Social media stardom
While World of Warcraft saw him hone his early skills as a top-level gamer with a good following, Haraldsen’s transition to Call of Duty was his early gateway to industry stardom. A clan called Sons of Norway taught him the basics of content creation, at a time he was still nervous about publicly appearing online. While he was still healthy, many of the challenges he’d faced in previous years were still visible.
Crediting fellow successful Norwegian YouTubers Preben Fjell and Dennis Vareide for early collaborations–and the support, motivation, and knowledge they gave him to build and grow an audience–Haraldsen, who took on the pseudonym of “NoobworK”, became a pioneer of Norwegian YouTube live streaming, launching his first-ever live video just days after the service arrived in the country in March 2013. As one of the very few Norwegian-language content creators, it didn’t take long for him to make a name for himself.
Haraldsen soon realized he had to fully dedicate himself to become successful on the platform. “I had to work harder, post new things every day, be creative on what would be engaging, and give a lot of myself,” he says.
Having started to see his initial, small paychecks from YouTube, he quit his janitor job and went full-time as a streamer. Within months, he’d become one of the guys everyone was talking about in Norway’s gaming scene. “I leveraged what I had been doing so well as a professional gamer: grinding,” he says. “I was uploading two videos a day and rigorously working on my pipeline. I started moving outside my streaming rig, traveling, meeting people and fans, and creating casual content.”
This early success became the foundation for the next seven years: 1,800 videos, 200,000 subscribers in Norway, and around 150 million views at a time when YouTube was still growing, in a country of just over five million people.
Taking every opportunity he could to extend his influence outside of his native Norway, Haraldsen reached out to developers for YouTube collaborations, and his experience of playing different games–over 30,000 hours–led to him becoming a quality assurance professional and brand ambassador.
In the years that followed his initial YouTube fame, Haraldsen worked with Activision, Blizzard, Ubisoft, EA, Bungie, and Microsoft. He was among a select number of experts invited to Blizzard’s HQ in Irvine, California, to see Overwatch six months before its release. That same day, he had dinner with Blizzard’s executive team at the same table as Jeff Kaplan–the game director for his beloved World of Warcraft. “I had the time of my life,” Haraldsen says. “The World of Warcraft mug I received that evening is on my desk at Heroic Group today.”
Foreshadowing his career to come, Haraldsen crossed paths with some of today’s biggest names in esports, such as 100 Thieves CEO NaDeShoT, Team SoloMid leader Andy Dinh, and FaZe Clan owner Thomas Oliviera. He had dinner with Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg in London. He played games with former Norwegian prime minister Erna Solberg, and was invited to talk about esports with some of the country’s biggest businesses.
Crucially, he helped spearhead the InGame Norge project, a collaboration with Youth Mental Health in Norway that focused on the mental health of young males–the demographic most likely to commit suicide–by having them play their favorite games while talking about feelings and challenges they experienced in their lives. Haraldsen received the Cannes Young Lions Digital award, and since learned all its participants were able to overcome their issues.
“All these experiences stand out in one way or the other, but in total, I have experienced more than I could ever dream of when I was lying in a hospital hoping to one day recover and live a normal life,” he reflects.
Still in his mid-20s, Haraldsen set his sights on a new challenge. In 2020, he founded Omaken Sports, which aimed to become “a Nordic powerhouse within global esports.” With three employees, under $100,000 in funds, and a PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) squad from a previous venture, Haraldsen spent his first year looking for an opportunity to enter the biggest esports leagues going.
“Despite being a very small country, Norway has a proud history of performing well in international sports,” Haraldsen says. “Lifting a trophy or taking home a medal is something most people care a lot about.”
Combining this national desire for success, his recognition as one of the biggest gaming influencers in Norway, and a handful of established connections, Omaken Sports raised NOK 150 million, or $17.7 million at the time. Part of this was used to acquire Danish CS:GO team Heroic, which had gone through various ownerships since its creation in 2016–including BLAST, which once owned now-rivals Astralis.
During the negotiations towards the end of 2020, Heroic was ranked the number-one team in the world. “Heroic performed at the global elite level in CS:GO, and at the top of the leaderboards,” he says. “I also knew our in-game leader Casper “CadiaN” Møller from other gaming events, and I admired who he was as a person, leader, and athlete.
“At that point, the Heroic organization was relatively young, which made me believe I could add a lot of positive momentum, and I loved the brand and name. I honestly think the world needs more heroes, both on stages and in everyday life, and this strong brand and name fit so well with my vision of creating a platform for inclusion and a sense of achievement through gaming.”
Following the acquisition, Heroic effectively became Omaken’s competitive branch, through which all its esports teams would compete. Under its new ownership, Heroic recorded quick successes at ESL Pro League 13 and BLAST Premier in less than a year. Since its acquisition, Haraldsen has taken the company’s employee number from four to 40, with further plans to grow.
“Heroic Group is my biggest achievement, and what nearly all my focus is dedicated to,” he says. “I’ve been surprised many times about where my life has taken me, and I would never have imagined leading a company with people who have the same big ambitions as I do, and at the same time bring very different backgrounds and experiences to the table.
“Building a global esports brand and a healthy business is no easy task, and requires experienced professionals from outside the gaming world. I was lucky to hire some of my key people from management consulting firms, which has really made a difference. One day, when time allows, I might do a consulting internship to expand on my non-gaming CV and add some more suits and ties to my wardrobe.”
Whether it’s through winning performances on stage in front of fans, fulfilling ambitions, or being good to everyone meet through small or large actions, the Heroic team name resonates with Haraldsen every day.
“Heroic is an important name with a very relatable meaning,” he concludes. “Heroism is something positive that everyone admires, and something I strongly believe everyone should strive for.”