Since being acquired by PEAK6 Investments in May 2019, the 21-year-old Evil Geniuses organisation has made major moves, including appointing Nicole LaPointe Jameson (from PEAK6) as CEO, entering Riot Games’ League of Legends Championship Series, and launching a rebranding effort that drew criticism at first but ultimately landed well once fully finalised.
Even amidst the turmoil of the COVID-19 pandemic, Jameson tells Esports Insider that Evil Geniuses has expanded its staff and added new sponsors, all while pivoting to support existing partnerships as live events were put on hold.
We caught up with Jameson to discuss the team’s prosperity in a challenging time, ultimately finding its way with the rebranding, and how she’s put her own stamp on the organisation thus far.
Esports Insider: How has this year been leading Evil Geniuses through the challenges posed by the pandemic?
Nicole LaPointe Jameson: This year has been interesting. COVID’s impact on esports has been, I’d call it, bifurcated. EG internally, I think, deviates from the norm. By the blessing of pivoting and being thoughtful on how to continue to deliver value to partners and demonstrate value as a product, we’ve actually brought on four new partners this year – even though marketing budgets have been halted and spending is much more cautious.
In terms of retaining current partners, we’ve had to be very creative around things that historically revolved around in-person activations or events. How do we pivot to continue to keep, not just the partnership happy and show value, but also keep the dollars? It’s been an exercise that none of us have had to go through before, as have many in the world.
This is where the beauty of esports was able to shine, because the core of what we do, the competition, was able to continue relatively congruously. The beauty of a global, digital product, especially in juxtaposition to professional sports today, really worked in our favour. We’ve been able to continue on our growth trajectory – probably not at the magnitude we were hoping, but it definitely wasn’t an impediment – while being thoughtful to what’s happening in the rest of the world.
However, how we’ve tackled partnerships and cultural initiatives, knowing the new nuances that exist in remote environments, especially when the esports employee base skews younger and more global – we’ve had to flex muscles we haven’t had to flex before. But I am grateful for my team and all of us in that we’ve been able to continue without layoffs. We’ve been able to hire and grow and expand in this time, which I know is very atypical from the norm, even in esports.
ESI: Can you talk a bit more about those pivots you’ve had to make in terms of digital deliverables and how your partners have responded to that?
NLJ: There are two trends in terms of how we’ve pivoted and flexed to continue to bring in partners and drive value for partners. The first is that direct marketing spend, especially for consumer product goods where supply chain or demand has been impacted, has shrivelled up or halted. We’ve had to pivot into ways where budgets were functionally untapped or not stuck, as well as hit value in what I’ll call the emotional sentiment of this time. A lot of our partnership activations previously would have been competitive, like player meet-and-greets, or coming to the facility. They’ve now had a charitable goodwill or community engagement angle, highlighting how esports and our brands care about community impact and recovery.
Esports is also able to shine in how we’ve had to pivot some activations. For example, Razer, one of our longer-tenured partners, has been generously building out a scrim room and VOD room in our facilities that now no one’s seeing. So making sure we capture it in content rather than a public-facing event has been critical.
When we bring on new partners, in particular Motorola and LG, who are non-endemic brands to the space, we were some of their first entrants into esports in the US. We’re showcasing value and making sure: OK, originally we were hoping for an event where everyone could see [LG] monitors, but now it’s remote giveaways and streams, and things that can be done through the digital access of our platform. That’s where we’ve had to really focus and hone in on.
Immersing myself in Viking fantasy #AssassinsCreed Valhalla thanks to the picture quality and responsiveness of #LGOLEDTV. It is the best TV for next gen consoles! Stay tuned for my project with @lgus and @AssassinsCreed. #LGZeroIn #LGPartner pic.twitter.com/ylfIxjRLxI
— Artour Babaev (@Arteezy) November 10, 2020
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ESI: Do you think esports is well-positioned to continue weathering the impact of the pandemic as it stretches on?
NLJ: This is where I think EG is a bit different than probably the mainstream of esports, and bear with me as I put on my private equity hat more than my esports CEO hat here. The problem with esports is that the funding structure, generally, is venture money or traditional sports money. Both of those fields have been pounded heavily in COVID times, as traditional sports and live events have ceased and venture money is looking for dividends and liquidity in uncertain market times.
While esports at its core is still able to do what we do, the source of money is shaky. Then you add a product like esports that – to not be overly impolite – is still developing and still finding its own legs to be self-sufficient from a monetisation and revenue standpoint, it’s a relative on paper higher-risk situation to be in. That being said, I am by position an optimist and I’m biased.
What I think is beautiful is that the pandemic has made everyone question and revalue what is valuable from an asset perspective, in terms of investments and partnerships. Esports, the core product, is the most sticky thing that’s existed so far in an entertainment sense, and there probably will have to continue to be pivots on what is important and valuable. Does the geo-affiliation tournament strategy make sense? Do big facilities and arenas make sense? Those will be questioned but esports as its core, I still firmly believe, has only shown that it’s strong and robust to change in this time.
ESI: Can you talk a bit about leaning into the “Evil” part of the team’s name and making that a central part of the identity?
NLJ: This was a fun exercise for us when we redid our branding and honed in on not just how we visually appear, but how we want to tonally appear, and our values that we wanted to make much more public-facing. This is an identity. When we were doing our discovery period, finding our brand voice was not just about where we want to go, but who we’ve been.
Talking to previous EG alumni, our players, and our competitors, how we’ve been perceived in this space over our 21-year history helped develop and define what our voice is today. The notion of the “team to beat,” the “heel”, the “beat of their own drum” identity was something we found transcended almost any time period, any ownership group, and any team that EG ever had. There was this unspoken, and now spoken culture, of: We promote individuals to be their best, and we support the individual.
That translates really well into what I’ll call the redefinition of “evil”, almost like “wicked”. We don’t use it maliciously; the little bit of the avant-garde, the anti-hero-esque personality. We try not to forget the “Genius” side either. It’s not evil to be evil or punchy to be punchy. It is because we have a plan and are thoughtful of where we want to go, and we let the results speak for themselves.
That’s a fun identity to play into, right? It’s a higher-tension character archetype if you were to define a brand as a character. As organisations struggle to have identities beyond their players, which are high-churn, having a brand name and face that is distinctive and shines uniquely has been a really fun thing for us in how we’ve been able to operationally and creatively play with it.
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ESI: What sort of takeaways did you have from the process of getting the rebranding to its final version?
NLJ: Never underestimate the amount of time it takes and the amount of iterations. There was a solid three-month period where we essentially went through two rebrands. We rolled out a partial version and it didn’t land very well; we really had to hustle to flesh out the rest of our brand identity. The first time, we leaned heavily on external experts, but we really showed that the value of the endemic voice was a critical component to how we need to shape something that helps us move forward. Because we didn’t change for change’s sake, we had to change for both design reasons as well as identity reasons.
Our old brand didn’t serve us in the manner we needed it to, but we also had to be thoughtful to our legacy and our history more linearly in order to continue to engage and not isolate our fans or our community, because that’s not what we wanted to do whatsoever. The second time around, I think we hit that balance much more successfully. That was a much deeper process in understanding the emotion, as well as the design and the values that people care about as it relates to an esports organisation.
Read the full version of this article in Edition 7 of The Esports Journal.