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From the hardwood to the rift: an in-depth interview with NRG and Sacramento Kings co-owner Andy Miller

by Sean Tepper Nov 16 2015
Thumbnail image courtesy of NRG

Following the news that NRG eSports have acquired Team Coast's spot in the LCS and the announcement of their new roster and coaching staff, theScore eSports had the chance to talk with Andy Miller, one of the team's co-owners.

Miller, who also co-owns the NBA's Sacramento Kings and the Modesto Nuts, a minor league baseball team for the Colorado Rockies, spoke to theScore eSports about why he decided to acquire an LCS team, what eSports needs to do to continue its massive growth, and some of the plans he has for his LCS team going forward.

How did you first hear about the LCS and League of Legends? When was it that you decided that you wanted to get involved?

I have two boys, two teenagers, who play it a little and their friends play. One of the first things I noticed was my younger son, who’s 12, he's on a very competitive baseball team and they play in these tournaments. They'll play two or three games on a Saturday, and they have a couple of hours in between depending on how the games break out. And what I don't see him talking about between games was how Bryce Harper was doing, or Mike Trout, or the Red Sox or the Giants. They're talking about League of Legends. It was pretty amazing. These aren't your typical gamers. These are the jocks at their schools. It really made me think ‘wow this is super mainstream and very interesting.’

So I've been looking at the space a bit, and we, the Sacramento Kings, are opening up a brand new, beautiful, amazing, state-of-the-art arena in October of next year in downtown Sacramento and we were thinking what are some of the things we want to put in there outside for events, outside of Kings games. And so this arena can show off its technical superiority that we’ve designed for this thing, we can hold League of Legends tournaments, that’d be just phenomenal.

How did you go about acquiring a team? How long have you been thinking about it?

I've been thinking about it for about six months. I started looking at the space almost as an investor, seeing ‘hey what's out here, where's the opportunity to get involved’ and then my competitive juices kicked in. Having been an owner in professional basketball, I also co-own a minor league baseball team for the Colorado Rockies up here in Modesto, California called the Modesto Nuts, which is a high Single-A team for the Rockies. So I’d been looking at it for a good six months or so. I thought ‘you know what, being involved on the team side would be really fun.’ It's really exciting to see the growth and seeing how Riot is starting to professionalize.

The ownership groups, the player side of things, the tournaments, eventually the distribution rights, really reminded me a lot of the early days of the NBA and the ABA and I really wanted to get involved. So I kind of networked my way around for a while, met up with Gerard Kelly, who had a Challenger team, and knew a lot more about it than I did, and we found a couple folks willing to have some conversations about signing their teams. And the team we ended up buying was Team Coast, which was a Challenger team that Gerard was pretty familiar with, that won the Challenger Series and got a spot in the LCS.

Going forward what will your role with the team be on a day-to-day basis?

Gerard's going to run the team, so he's our present GM. He's put together a great roster, and a coach that we're pretty pleased with that we were able to pull over and a whole bunch of infrastructure things. I'm more on the business side, sponsorships and to just trying and sort of professionalize our team and hopefully [if] the things that we do [are] good and productive other teams can do them as well. So trying to bring some things from the NBA and MLB that we're involved in into gaming.

What are some of those things?

Well, a lot of it is sort of sponsorship packages, ideas for distribution. So we've been talking with Riot. Riot was really, really excited to have us join. We don't have all the answers, but we can bring perspective on some of the conversations and negotiations about distribution and everything from shirt deals, if you will, uniforms or whatever you want to call it. They've been great reaching out to myself and our third partner Mark Mastrov. Mark's also a partner with me on the Kings — and Mark is the founder of 24 Hour Fitness among other things — and he was involved in a lot of our deals. So our deals for the arena, our television deals with Comcast, sponsorship, naming rights, lots of just ideas on how to package things and do things how traditional sports are done. Really for just Riot to get our opinion on things, obviously for us to do things a bit differently from the way things are done and maybe bring a little bit more attention to League of Legends and the game in general.

What are some traits you've picked up as an NBA owner that you think are transferable to the LCS?

Well the NBA does a great job of creating brands out of their players. If you think about it, if you look at the NFL, if you look at MLB and you take the Top 10 guys in Major League Baseball and you have them walk down the street here in San Francisco, I'm going to bet you almost all of them are not recognized. What do you think? If you took the top football players outside of maybe Peyton Manning and Tom Brady because they're always on TV in commercials and other things, do you think people would recognize the top players in the league.

No, I think it would be difficult.

No chance, especially in baseball. Amazing right? And it's just because they're wearing a hat or a helmet. Because the NBA is just about 10 players, and they're so visible, and they've done such a great job with social media, they've created so many brands.

Even with the Kings. We're a smaller market, we've got DeMarcus Cousins, who's one of the best players in the league and you've got Kevin Durant in Oklahoma City and he's one of the most recognized players in the world. So they've done a phenomenal job creating brands out of their players and using social media, and obviously I think League of Legends and all eSports are perfect for it. Granted it's a digital sport, but there's so many personalities and so many interesting guys out there who are playing and who are on these teams that there's so many stories that have not been told at all and I think it's a great opportunity to create a global brand with teams which is what we'd like to do with NRG eSports as well as create global stars with these players. There's no reason why Kevin Durant in Oklahoma City should be recognized around the world when some of these guys who have bigger viewership are not.

On that note, I wanted to ask you about your thoughts on internet fan bases. Unlike the NBA and the NFL, you don't have the New England Patriots or the Sacramento Kings. There's no city names attached to it as it's more of an internet fan. What are your thoughts on that and do you think that helps or hinders LCS's growth.

That's a good question. I know that's something they're talking about, so maybe that'll change someday. In my opinion, it was one of the things that was attractive for me in that there was no geographical base. The Sacramento Kings are obviously extremely popular in our kingdom, in and around Sacramento, and individual players are popular elsewhere — we have a big fan base around the world. But there is not much opportunity for the Sacramento teams to become Manchester United or Barcelona. These are global brands because soccer is played everywhere and I think it's the same with this. Because there's no geographic boundaries, there's no reason why a kid in China or a kid in Sacramento can't be wearing an NRG jacket or following our guys around or having a passion and a connection with us. So it does give yourself, from a marketing perspective or a smart marketer, to really have the opportunity to do something that crosses geographic borders. I think that's interesting.

Jumping off of that, what are your thoughts on the growth of eSports and do you think that it will be able to one day, maybe not surpass, but match traditional sports in terms of it's popularity?

I think it already has on some level. The viewership of the World Championships last month, were bigger than any night of NHL, NBA and MLB’s championship series. That’s pretty interesting. Granted it's global, but it has it's challenges. Everybody can pick up a basketball and play but not everyone can play League of Legends I guess. You have to have a level of sophistication and equipment. It will be interesting to see how this breaks out because there's lot of cool games and lot of interesting platforms for people to play and to get attached to. But I think it definitely can and the two, three, four most popular games will I think rival most any sports out there and it's a really great market right now. Obviously it's mostly teen and 20-something guys which is a very hard market for an advertisers and marketers to attract and get in front of in an authentic way. So it has a lot going for it.

Are NRG considering acquiring more than just a League of Legends team? Are you guys looking at delving into other eSports?

Yes. So we are incorporated actually as Hard Carry Gaming but we're NRG eSports. And out first team is a League of Legends team and that’s where we’re going to spend most of our time, but we are already talking about another team now to folks. We want to create a brand across multiple platforms.

One thing I wanted to ask you was about professional sports organizations coming into eSports and League of Legends. Will we see the Sacramento Kings play in the LCS? Or the Los Angeles. Dodgers, kind of like a sister team?

Absolutely. I would bet you very soon. I already know that they've been asking around and sniffing around, and Mark and I's involvement in this is kind of a test case for people who are interested. We know Mark Cuban's already made an investment in the space and there are other folks on other teams. There are a lot of people from multiple teams from the United States looking to buy Premier Soccer League teams. I think it's really the next frontier.

Do you think your team will be renamed the Sacramento Kings one day?

No. This one's all mine but I wouldn't be surprised if they get involved. I know there's a conversation, they're super interested. It's such a progressive ownership group that I'd be excited for them to get involved.

Are we going to see DeMarcus Cousins or Rudy Gay front and center for some League of Legends action?

That would be cool. I can't speak for them, but I'll definitely put it in front of them. DeMarcus especially, he's into all this stuff. He's into every gadget.

Oh, he's a gamer?

I don't know if he's a gamer per-se. I know like Jeremy Lin is, some of these other guys are. But, we have our players' lounge and they spend a lot of time on the Xbox and everything else we got in there. This is what they do in their free time.

Coming in as a new team and new owners who are new to this space, is it a little bit intimidating to go up against some teams that have established brands and have been in the LCS since Day 1?

For me yes, absolutely. The coolest part so far is that I've talked to a few of the other owners in Europe and in North America and they've been super cool and loved the fact that we're coming in and have been really helpful in giving us advice on what we're doing here and how to package up the team and how to get going. I think they like the idea that we're helping level up the sport and are bringing some new perspectives in, but we're going to take it slowly and see what we can do. I think we've added a great new roster, but from what I understand we'll be pretty well-perceived as far as a new team. We're pretty active. We'll be competitive. We'll be very competitive.

Coming into the space with a traditional sports background, what are some areas from the outside looking in that you think League of Legends and eSports as a whole can use to grow even bigger than it is now?

Well I think Riot needs to figure out a way to monetize. So they really have done an unbelievable, unprecedented job of just re-investing in the game and the community, and that's why it's been so successful. But as a next level, when you get a bit more sophisticated folks involved, they're gonna want to see how they can make money when you own a team. I'm sure the salaries of the players is going to go up and the organization of that group as well as Riot and their investors so it'll be very interesting to see what conversations go on with sort of macro-sponsors and global distribution deals and franchises.

I mean the future is very quickly coming for this sport because it's just getting so big that it needs to organize itself that way. That's why we really wanted to get in now because we love what Riot's got planned, we think that it's the class of the space and it'll be a lot of fun to be involved.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Sean Tepper is a Supervising Editor at theScore eSports. You can follow him on Twitter here.