Esports spotlight with Dignitas CEO Jonathan Kemp: Franchising enables 'us to have some certainty around revenue and with that comes the ability to commit into our teams'

by theScore Staff May 4 2017
Thumbnail image courtesy of theScore esports

Team Dignitas CEO Jonathan Kemp is in the midst of a difficult juggling act. As the head of the first NBA-owned esports organization, all eyes are on him as each decision he makes could impact any number of Dignitas' five different esports teams.

The various dilemmas that Kemp faces on a daily basis range from how to justify investing more resources into a team that might lose its league spot, how much time and money Dignitas should commit into the "next big thing" and how to bring in new fans without alienating the old guard.

But between a surprise expansion to Facebook Live and an ambitious plan to lengthen his players' professional careers, Kemp and his management team are not about to walk away from that challenge.

Scene stability and franchising

Considering his prior work as a managing director at Eidos and working with the IOC around interactive entertainment for the London Olympics, Kemp is no stranger to fast-paced work places. But even with all of that experience under his belt, Kemp says that the blistering pace at which esports are growing is a continual challenge for him and his team to keep up with.

"The beauty of esports is that it's moving at such a speed that one of the things that we've been trying to around the speed in which things are changing, and just trying to make ourselves relevant in the right games and so on."

While League of Legends and CS:GO might be at the top of the dog pile, it wasn't too long ago that StarCraft was sitting on that particular Iron Throne. Even more recently, we've born witness to the stagnation of the Overwatch scene as every team, player and tournament organizer outside of Korea collectively hold their breath until Blizzard makes some sort of announcement regarding their upcoming Overwatch League.

With the way such fortunes can turn on a dime in esports, Kemp says the decision to expand into a new game can be taxing.

"We now have teams in five games and we [will] continually assess the teams that we have or the games that we're in. And we will add teams in games that we think are relevant," he said. "And I think that's one of the challenges, just the environment around which games are going to be successful and which you want to make a commitment to and which you are making a bet on, if you will, as to its degree of success."

More than just making it difficult to expand into new games, Kemp says that the mercurial nature of any esports' ecosystem makes it difficult to justify investing in infrastructure for a roster that they may have to drop in six months.

One measure that Kemp says could help orgs when it comes to committing resources and infrastructure to their teams would be the development of franchising in esports. He says that such a system would give people on the management side peace of mind and encourage a greater level of commitment to their teams.

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"When we look at franchising generally, what it does is enable us to have some certainty around revenue and with that comes the ability to commit into our teams and therefore commit to the long-term future of those teams," he said.

"So I think at the end of the day, for me franchising is really good for us as a team and ultimately it's good for commercial partners, it's good for players."

The unique reach of Facebook Live

If there's one thing Field of Dreams taught us, it's that "If you build it, they will come." However, will that adage apply to Facebook's 1.23 billion daily active users?

In April, Dignitas announced that they would expand all streaming operations to Facebook Live, in addition to Twitch. While the choice might seem odd to hardcore esports fans, Kemp says that partnering with the social media giant was simple arithmetic.

"They've got 1.8 billion people on Facebook of which fifty million are gaming in some capacity," said Kemp. "That's a huge demographic for us, a huge audience for us to go and engage with, so it really became a pretty simple decision for us to work with Facebook."

In addition to trying to expand to a larger audience outside of traditional live-streaming viewers, Kemp also said that Facebook makes it easier to reach out to non-endemic sponsors, calling the platform "something that everybody understands."

However, he cautions anyone from reading too much into the move. While Kemp says that Dignitas would be willing to expand to even more streaming services such as Twitter Live and YouTube Gaming, that doesn't mean that Twitch is going anywhere.

"Twitch has a very fervent fanbase and a very historically strong esports fan base and I think that Twitch still will play an important role," Kemp said.

"I think what we're seeing is that it's really important to us and our players, but what's equally important is for us to go and broaden that demographic out with Facebook and hopefully other companies that we'll be able to partner up with. I think it's gonna be a blend rather than an either/or situation."


Right now, traditional sports teams have a major advantage that most esports teams don't: the stability that comes along with tying your franchise to a major US city.

By contrast, few esports organizations have the "home team" appeal to fall back on, which can be especially problematic if a team's star player or entire roster quits on them or if they have been suffering from a string of poor results. However, Kemp says that factor is offset by the potential for streaming to create a fan-player relationship that traditional sports can't hold a candle to.

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While streaming can create a tight bond between players and fans, another roadblock emerges. To date, player careers have been better counted in dog years than actual ones, something that Kemp says is hardly an insurmountable barrier.

"I think once you have a player playing on a team for three years, four years, five years if not longer, then you start to build up a lot of fan loyalty, because they're loyal to the player and they're loyal to the team," Kemp said. "So the way we're looking at that is how do we grow that player's playing career?"

While conventional wisdom says that players in their mid-to-late twenties just don't have the reflexes to compete with teenagers, Kemp doesn't think that enough testing has been done to test that hypothesis.

"I think our view is that if we are able to better manage our players' careers and we are better able to help them manage their careers around training schedules and nutrition and sleep schedules and travel and so-on-and-so-forth," he said. "And if we're able to work with them around providing a structure which enables them to operate in an environment which is ultimately better for their performance, then over a period of time we'll be able to understand what impact that has on their playing careers."

With that in mind, Kemp says that Dignitas are rolling out an ambitious plan around player wellness in the next few weeks, bringing each of the organization's five teams to Philadelphia to discuss training and infrastructure.

"We have a process that we are pulling together, our teams will start to run through that in the next couple of weeks," he said. "We will be bringing in Philadelphia to spend some time with them, talking about training and nutrition and health and we have a sort of supplemental training program for them and we'll draw together those areas of sports psychology, wellness, health, nutrition, rest and start to look for ways in which we can help players just lengthen their careers, be more successful, and just take away some of those viewpoints that may have existed previously."

Sasha Erfanian is a news editor for theScore esports. Follow him on Twitter, it'll be great for his self-esteem