Interview | NBA Great Rick Fox Explains Why He’s Investing In ESports

Photo courtesy Riot Games

Rick Fox is investing in his favorite pastime, and it’s not basketball-related. The three-time NBA world champion has been busy with eSports. That’s professional video gaming, for those quite in tune with the global phenomenon. According to research firm Newzoo, there are 131 million eSports enthusiasts, who follow games and events regularly, and another 125 million occasional viewers who tune in mainly for the big international events around games such as Valve’s DotA 2 and Counter: Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO), Riot Games’ League of Legends, and Activision Blizzard’s Call of Duty.

Also: New eSports Channel Set to Broadcast Events 24/7

Fox’s son, Kyle, was one of those fans. And prior to his father launching Echo Fox late last year, Kyle was a huge Counter Logic Gaming fan. Fox spent a reported $1 million to enter the League of Legends competitive landscape. His company also owns a CS:GO team and is launching an H1Z1: King of the Hill team.

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The former Celtic and Laker sees a great upside to eSports, which SuperData Research forecasts will grow from a $750 million business today to a $2 billion business by 2020. He’s out there on the road with his teams, helping to coach them based on his own gaming and real-world sports experience.

Fox has been gaming since he was 12, but that was back in the old arcade days of Pac-Man and Centipede, and long before sold-out eSports events at arenas – including his former home court at Staples Center. These days, he’s more accessible to fans than ever before. He recently synced up with the TipTalk app, along with all of his Echo Fox players, allowing gamers to go one-on-one via text, photo, and video.

Fox talks about the rise of eSports and how he sees these early machinations following in the footsteps of the NBA in our exclusive interview.

Why did you decide to get involved with TipTalk?

The engagement in the community of eSports between fans and owners and players is one that’s been demanded by the fan base. Unlike any other traditional professional league or sport –although it’s grown through social media — the lines are blurred with eSports. And that engagement with our fans is important to me, especially as we are an early stage franchise new to the community of eSports. We want to continue to tap into what people know of mainstream eSports, but also now traditional eSports, a group that has been here for years and years. I want to connect both of them. I want our team to be a bridge. I felt it was important to continue to blur those lines and TipTalk gives me the opportunity to do that by actually using this app to empower my fan base and power our team to grow closer with our fans.

What similarities are you seeing with the explosion of eSports when compared to traditional sports like basketball?

The similarities for me start with the way my body reacts emotionally on a personal level when I step into a Madison Square Garden and I recognize everything that I’ve experienced for the last 20 years of my life being in professional sports. That happened for me firsthand eight months ago. And so it was in that moment that I looked around at the many fans that were in the arena, how they were interacting with competition, the fact that there was merchandise, the fact that it was being broadcast globally — everything that paralleled traditional sports was represented in that moment. It was at that point that it was easy for me to see this as the next expression of professional leagues as we move into another generation.

 

What role do you feel the TV coverage Turner and ESPN are giving eSports playing in educating the older, or more mainstream demographics, that still don’t “get it”?

It will give them an opportunity to digest it in the form that they’re either most comfortable with, or they’re most trained to experience content. There’s obviously a generational gap in myself and even my kids, who actually watch everything through their digital devices. I asked my son when he got to college if he wanted a television in his room and he looked at me like I was crazy for asking that question. The most important thing to him was Wi-Fi so that he can live his life through his computer. I fall into the category of an individual who grew up watching all of my content through a television, so the thought of not having one is really a strange thought. But discovering that more and more of my traditional channels that I grew up – Turner and ESPN — are now giving eSports an opportunity to reach an audience of an older generation of gamers that didn’t know that eSports has been accepted in this way. This is an opportunity for that generation to get a taste of eSports and see why their kids or grandkids are so invested in it.

I enjoy it so much because I come from a generation that gamed. I was a gamer, and it’s why I still am invested in it because it never left my life even though I had a job, and had a lot of responsibilities. Gaming was still an outlet and a release for me, and that release always connected back to my competitive nature at heart. We’re all pretty competitive somewhere, it’s just finding that thing that you’re most competitive at.Historically the NBA has been an early adopter when it comes to technology. Do traditional sports leagues need to worry about eSports directly competing with the younger demographic if you look 10 or 20 years down the road?

Historically the NBA has been an early adopter when it comes to technology. Do traditional sports leagues need to worry about eSports directly competing with the younger demographic if you look 10 or 20 years down the road?

Traditional sports have fought amongst themselves for the hearts and minds of kids around the world for decades. ESports, as an industry, is the new kid on the block. We’re just an expression of the next generation’s interest and where they choose to put their attention. But in no way would I say those leagues need to be afraid of us. If anything, I would hope they would embrace us as an added expression into the competitive nature of our fans and their desire to compete. I’ve met many an athlete that is a soccer player or a basketball player or baseball player, but is also a gamer. So they don’t need to be insulated in any way. You can have all forms of interest, especially when you’re growing up.

Andy Miller from NRG Esports told me that his new Sacramento Kings arena was designed for eSports. What role do you see sports stadiums playing for esports moving forward?

Seeing as Andy and I are having more conversations than I’ve ever had with another Sacramento King individual… We tease each other about the rivalry going back to my Laker days and the Sacramento King days, which is kind of fun. But to hear that is exciting because I’ve seen eSports played in traditional arenas for sports. Madison Square Garden, Staples Center, and the likes around the globe, but to have arenas starting to be sculpted and architected with eSports in mind is the next wave. It’s the next move, and it is exciting because I hope for years to come Echo Fox is competing in those very same arenas — even if it’s in Sacramento.

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Photo courtesy Riot Games

Is there anything you can compare this dawn of eSports to traditional sports, or even entertainment, and the trajectory that you see?

I think back to the early years of the leagues, where regardless of what the league was, you had six and eight and 10 teams in an NBA form or fashion back in the ‘60s and ‘70s and that grew to what it is now a 32 team global game in its own right. ESports is already global in that regard, but as we start to see leagues form, as we start to see greater expressions from different publishers in their own right into eSports; I hope to see one strong governing body of team owners that come together to give a fan base something to root for like we see in the NBA or the NFL. There’s an opportunity to have that develop in the coming years around eSports.And as things develop, what role do you see as a former player and now a current owner, for a players’ union in eSports in the future?

And as things develop, what role do you see as a former player and now a current owner, for a players’ union in eSports in the future?

What I’m interested in seeing is the industry taking shape with more stability in general, so more stability for the players is a definitely out on the horizon there. I think more stability for the owners is out there on the horizon. And more stability in general for publishers and their eSport expression. Everyone is searching for strength and security and longevity and that has to come in partnership. I look at my own NBA game experiences where the league and the owners have collective bargaining agreements with the players. That is something that as an owner myself, I welcome and look forward to getting to with our current professional gaming athletes. I’d welcome it because I know it creates stability and security for the players. It creates stability and security for owners, and the landscape as a whole becomes more safe to invest into as a fan because you recognize that there’s staying power. All things look to be valuable to spend your time, your money, your energy, your focus on because there’s no threat or fear that it’s going to disappear in six months.