2017 has truly been the year that the worlds of esports and traditional sports have collided. With our ESI Super Forum – a one day conference which will focus on the industries’ convergence – on the horizon, now is as good a time as any to take stock of exactly who is behind the teams involved in two of 2018’s hottest new prospects: Blizzard’s audacious, international Overwatch League, and Riot Games’ revamped North American League of Legends Championship Series.
Overwatch League (OWL)
Split into two divisions, the OWL’s inaugural season kicks off on the 10th of January. It will feature twelve teams (nine of which are based in the USA), and run through until the finals take place at the end of July. Franchise slots reportedly sold for $20 million (£15m), and each team was required to create an original brand, irrespective of ownership. With that in mind, let’s take a look at who will be behind the heroes competing in the 2018 tournament:
The Massachusetts-based org is owned by the Kraft Group, the same investors behind multiple sports teams in the region, such as the MLS’s New England Revolution and the NFL’s New England Patriots.
The east coast line-up is owned by Misfits, the team which surged in popularity in League of Legends after a surprising showing at this year’s Worlds saw them take their quarter final against defending champions SKT to the wire. The team features Miami Heat of the NBA as an investor, and also competes in CS:GO, amongst other titles.
The Houston Outlaws are owned by OpTic Gaming, who also secured a NA LCS franchise spot this year. OpTic is well known for their notorious fan base nicknamed the ‘GreenWall’, and have competed in a slew of esports, most notably Call of Duty – where they are World Champions. Owner Hector Rodriguez said they were looking forward to bringing their “historical dominance in esports” to the OWL in 2018.
Owned by Cloud9, London Spitfire are the only European organisation in the OWL, and they demonstrated a commitment to engaging their local fan base when they partnered with local agency Code Red, which features esports icon Paul ‘Redeye’ Chaloner as Managing Director. That could prove a shrewd for an American company with an all-Korean roster; although as one of the most recognisable esports orgs in the West, Cloud9 are no amateurs at winning over fans.
New York Excelsior
New York’s franchise is owned by Sterling Venture Capital, which is in turn partially owned by the majority owner of the New York Mets baseball team, Fred Wilpon. His son, Jeff Wilpon, is the other name behind this brand, which also features a Korean team. He commented that representing the city was “an amazing opportunity” upon the team’s announcement.
The Comcast Group’s Comcast Spectacor is the owner of this team. They also own the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers, and Comcast Spectacor’s CEO Dave Scott said that they were “thrilled” to join, and that the org’s orange-and-black were “colours of passion” in Philadelphia.
Another team owned by an organisation endemic to esports, Team EnvyUs can find solace in the fact that they will be competing in the OWL in 2018, after they were denied the opportunity to continue playing in the NA LCS. A reported $35 million investment from Hersh Interactive Group (who are also invested in the MLB’s Texas Rangers) in September was followed by recent headlines that poker pro Fedor Holz has also invested in the org.
Los Angeles Gladiators
The first of LA’s two Overwatch League slots is owned by Kroenke Sports & Entertainment, led by Stan Kroenke, a shareholder in a whole host of sports teams: including franchises in the NHL, NBA, MLS, NFL, and NLL (the National Lacrosse League). The Kroenke family is also famous in north London for being majority shareholders of Arsenal Football Club since April 2011.
Los Angeles Valiant
The Gladiators’ local rivals are led by Noah Winston of Immortals. The esports organisation’s recent unceremonious exit from the NA LCS made them the most noteworthy club to fall short of making Riot Games’ franchise list. The org also fields teams in multiple other titles, despite only being formed in 2015. Immortals has several formidable investors, including film giants Lionsgate; Steve Kaplan, the co-owner of the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies; CrossCut Ventures, who last week raised $125 million (£93.7m); and their most recent public investor, AEG, one of the world’s largest sports and live entertainment companies.
San Francisco Shock
NRG Esports are the owners behind the last of the Overwatch League’s Californian contingent, the San Francisco Shock. Their chairman, Andy Miller, is co-owner of another NBA squad, the Sacramento Kings. A further sporting affiliation exists in the form of co-owner Shaquille O’Neal (who also might know a thing or two about basketball). The team made an unusual sponsorship partner in the form of Washington D.C. in March of this year, when the city’s official convention and sports authority made NRG a partner. September saw the org close a reported $15 million (£11.2m) funding round, with Jennifer Lopez among the investors.
South Korea’s Seoul franchise spot is owned by KSV Esports, the American-Korean hybrid company. The organisation branched into PUBG in early November, and later that month acquired the illustrious League of Legends World Championship-winning roster, Samsung Galaxy. KSV is also involved with Blizzard’s MOBA, Heroes of the Storm.
Rounding up the OWL participants is the Shanghai Dragons squad, owned by NetEase. The company is certainly familiar with Blizzard, as they have been Blizzard’s main licensing partner since 2008. Their ongoing relationship has led some to question whether there is a conflict of interest which disrupts the competitive integrity of the League. NetEase will hope to put such concerns to rest in order to focus on representing Chinese Overwatch well.
North American League of Legends Championship Series (NA LCS)
After their 2017 season came to a close, Riot Games revolutionised the NA LCS, shaking up the format and introducing franchising to the league. Existing teams were forced to compete with fresh applicants for spots in the new system in order to be a part of the NA LCS from 2018 onwards. Last month, after weeks of rumours and leaks, the ten successful applicants finally confirmed their positions. Let’s take a look at the business behind the big ten:
TSM is something of an anomaly, proving to be one of the last bastions of traditional, endemic esports structures as the industry develops; founder and ex-player Andy “Reginald” Dinh retains sole ownership. That’s not to say they don’t have wealthy friends – TSM have an impressive list of partnerships, including Twitch, Red Bull, and GEICO, and they most recently forged connections with T-Mobile and Gillette.
Former TSM manager Jack Etienne acquired Quantic Gaming’s roster in April 2013, and since then the organisation hasn’t looked back. Under his tutelage, Cloud9 raised $25 million (£18.9m) in their first round of venture capital financing in October of this year, and then capped off 2017 by taking home the ‘Best eSports Team’ award in a fan vote at The Game Awards. Among their investors are WWE, the Beverly Hills Sports Council, and Raul Fernandez (co-owner of Monumental Sports & Entertainment).
Counter Logic Gaming
Longtime TSM rivals and the oldest known League of Legends team still in operation, CLG’s endemic ownership came to an end earlier this year when the Madison Square Garden Company purchased a controlling stake in the org. Founder and ex-player George “HotshotGG” Georgallidis said he expected the deal would “bring us to the next level of growth”.
Formerly known as Team Curse, Liquid sold its controlling interest to entertainment and sports management company aXiomatic in September 2016. Members of the aXiomatic investment group are also affiliated with Cloud9 and the Golden Guardians, an ownership dispute which has caused Riot to hand the teams a one-year ultimatum to iron out.
FPS esports powerhouse OpTic Gaming is owned by Hector “H3CZ” Rodriguez. Already famous in the Call of Duty and CS:GO scenes – amongst others – the organisation has had a gargantuan 2017, with announcements of new teams in the NA LCS and OWL being followed by an Esports Industry Award trophy for Team of the Year.
One of the biggest franchises in the NBA, the Golden State Warriors, are bringing their sporting pedigree to the NA LCS. The Golden Guardians will hope to replicate their owners’ success, and they’ll compete under the guidance of Hunter Leigh, the former head of esports operations for Yahoo.
Former NBA star and television personality Rick Fox is the popular owner behind this team, who will look to build on two years of League of Legends experience to make their mark on the new NA LCS. This year, the team hired another NBA icon, Jared Jeffries, to rule the roost as President of Echo Fox.
Clutch Gaming are backed by the Houston Rockets, yet another NBA team looking to make serious moves in esports. In fact, the basketball organisation committed to the industry a full year ago, when they brought on an endemic figure in Sebastian Park to be their Director of Esports Development. Their League of Legends roster was built on the back of some serious analytic insight, with the team evoking plenty of ‘Moneyball’ comparisons as they look to fully utilise the resources of the Rockets.
Starting out as Cloud9’s second team, FlyQuest can now claim to be a force in their own right, with the team owned by the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks co-owner Wesley Edens and Fortress Investment Group. The roster will look to build on some historically mediocre results to make a real swing at the NA LCS in 2018.
100 Thieves have the aura of a wildcard heading into the NA LCS. The esports brand of Matthew “Nadeshot” Haag, backed by a multi-million dollar investment from the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, 100 Thieves combines the industry expertise of one of Call of Duty’s biggest personalities with the NBA team’s sporting know-how and financial clout. Utilising a unique, heart-on-sleeve managerial approach dedicated to making content (Nadeshot has almost 3 million YouTube subscribers at time of writing), 100 Thieves are sure to attract fans to the brand.
That rounds up all of 2018’s Overwatch League and North American LCS teams. Remarkably, of the twenty esports organisations behind the line-ups (only Cloud9 and OpTic are involved with both), nine have public affiliations to the NBA, proving that American basketball teams have really been on the ball in forging an esports connection.
It’s a connection not lost abroad either, where football clubs have also been making the plunge into esports investments. With over 175 traditional sports clubs already on record as having entered esports, 2018 is shaping up to bring in even more.
You can head on over to the ESI Super Forum at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge on 22nd March 2018 to learn more about the convergence of traditional sports and esports. Here we’ll be delivering six panels, 30 speakers, an esports exhibition zone, as well as workshops and ample networking with some of Europe’s biggest football clubs, those from the wider traditional sports worlds and esports stakeholders.
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