Photo by Jason Bollenbacher/Getty Images for SXSW

 

Celebrities are Changing the Esports World

Emerging pro gaming market attracts famed investors

If you have been paying attention to the world of professional video gaming, you’ll know that today’s elite gamers aren’t sitting in dark basements, but are training in multi-million dollar facilities and raking in six-figure salaries. Yet despite the size and enthusiasm of its following, the esports field is still considered niche. That’s starting to change, thanks to the attention of celebrity names ranging from Michael Jordan to Post Malone to Mark Cuban.

Although most people would consider comparisons between pro basketball players and gamers a stretch, the NBA is actually one of the leading promoters of bringing pro gaming to the mainstream by launching a parallel league for NBA2K. The inaugural 2018 season featured teams representing 17 franchises, and four more have been added for 2019.

“They understand the importance of not only being professional on the court, but off the court.”

Indiana Pacers Gaming Director of Esports Operations, Cody Parrent, spoke at SXSW 2018 about the integration between the two leagues and says that he expects the same level of professionalism from his team members: “They understand the importance of not only being professional on the court, but off the court. Being marketable and promoting our franchise. The expectations are the same as the Pacers.”

The established basketball brands help build the gaming side, but NBA Players Association rules keep them from utilizing players to cross promote. That hasn’t stopped players such as the Los Angeles Lakers’ Lance Stephenson from tweeting his love for NBA2K, but the bigger trend is retired players investing in the wider industry.

 

Rick Fox at SXSW Gaming 2018. Photo by Jason Bollenbacher/Getty Images for SXSW

 

In October 2018, Michael Jordan invested in a $26 million round of Series B funding for Team Liquid, following in the footsteps of his former rival Earvin “Magic” Johnson, who invested in 2016. Team Liquid doesn’t play NBA2K but competes in other high profile games including Fortnite, PUBG and Dota 2. The group began as a Battle.net clan in 2000 before growing into a multinational company headquartered in a training facility in Los Angeles designed by its partners at Alienware, an industry-leading high-end gaming hardware company.

Rick Fox, three-time NBA champion, entered the field after seeing the industry’s potential while attending the 2015 League of Legends Championship at Madison Square Garden. His Echo Fox organization competes in Dragon Ball FighterZ, League of Legends, Street Fighter V and more. He has implemented a strict training regimen similar to his days in the NBA, with early morning practice, healthy diets and the same type of physical testing and monitoring received by traditional pro athletes.

Headset maker HyperX has teamed with a decidedly less-disciplined celebrity to help promote its brand: Post Malone. The chart-topping, hard-partying, face-tattooed rapper is its first brand ambassador, and in turn, HyperX sponsored his 2018 music festival in Dallas, Texas. Malone is a gamer himself and has attracted 370K followers on game-streaming site Twitch, where he has broadcast videos of himself playing Call of Duty WWII, PUBG and Call of Duty: Black Ops 4. A compilation of his “Funniest Twitch Moments and Rage” has racked up 4.6 million views.

Another musician who made headlines for an esports partnerships is Steve Aoki. Aoki began his career promoting DIY concerts out of his dorm room with a marketing savvy that eventually launched him into the upper echelon of touring DJs. In October of 2016, he purchased a majority stake in Rogue, a Las Vegas-based team that he has taken a hands-on interest in building into an esports powerhouse. In 2018, Rogue was acquired by ReKTGlobal, the fastest growing esports infrastructure company in the world.

 
Mark Cuban at SXSW 2017. Photo by Errich Peterson

Mark Cuban at SXSW 2017. Photo by Errich Peterson

 

Super investors like Mark Cuban have also dipped into the industry. Alongside Ashton Kutcher, Cuban has helped fund Unikrn, a site that serves as an online esports betting hub fueled by cryptocurrency. Despite his investment and belief that there’s money to be made from the gambling side of the industry, Cuban still has some of his signature critical opinions on the trend. When a midseason software update to Overwatch caused a leading contender to drop in rankings because of the introduction of a new playable character, he argued that the game changes too quickly to allow the type of mastery of traditional sports.

This is a sentiment that Coach Parrent from the Pacers has experienced as well, but one that has become less common as esports receive more co-signs from celebrities.

“There’s an education process of introducing esports to Central Indiana,” he says. “A lot of the first year of my job was explaining that people do play competitive video games for a living, and people enjoying watching them.”

The SXSW Gaming Festival will be held March 15-17, 2019. Your SXSW Badge or SXSW Gaming Wristband gets you access to all Gaming Expo, Gaming Awards, and Gaming Program events.

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