Immortals CEO Noah Whinston on his org: 'our name is not chosen just because it's cool. We view our goals in esports as long term'

by theScore Staff Dec 9 2015
Thumbnail image courtesy of NA LCS / IMT video

Immortals owner Noah Whinston is very proud of his newly-signed League of Legends roster, but he also had a lot to say about the eSports world as it stands.

Among some of the topics he spoke to theScore eSport about is how Immortals came to be, existing growing pains in the scene, and where he sees League of Legends heading in the future.

First of all, would you tell us about your background and what interested you in investing in the LCS?

Absolutely. I've always been a geek at heart and always enjoyed playing video games and watching sports since I was young. Prior to the LCS, I worked in Magic the Gathering and owned a store and a website based in Chicago. Doing that gave me a good idea how to operate in industries that are still in their infancy. I think eSports is still breaking into the mainstream. Given that and how much of a fan I am of League of Legends, I saw an opportunity to make a positive impact on an industry that I cared a lot about and that could be a lot of fun.

Speaking of the LCS' growth, we've had a lot of teams selling their spots recently and perhaps not as many buyers. Given recent announcements about Gravity and TiP, do you still feel confident about your decision to enter the LCS?

I feel incredibly confident. To be honest, even though I don't think any organization should ever be forced to sell a team if they don't want to, I do like to see professional ownership groups coming in. Sure, they don't have a lot of League of Legends experience, and if they come in a little too arrogant they're definitely going to get cut down to size.

At the same time, these are organizations that have a lot of experience with traditional sports, traditional media, and while that's certainly not the same thing as esports, they can bring in a lot of lessons and experience that the industry doesn't already have.

There has been concern on the outside that these teams have huge price tags and could create a market where people are building challenger teams and selling them when they make LCS. Do you have concerns about that? Do you think eventually it will level out, and we'll have a set of franchise owners?

Honestly, I think it will level out. The reason making Challenger teams and selling them might exist is if there's a big discrepancy in League knowledge between big ownership groups and smaller endemic ownership groups. Some groups don't have the experience to run their teams effectively and avoid relegation, so they'll have to insource some of that league-specific talent, and ultimately that discrepancy is going to go away.

What side would you place yourself on? Someone with good knowledge or someone on the outside looking to contract talent to give you more information?

I think the way I would describe myself is that both in business and in league I have enough talent to recognize when other people are really talented. I don't want to meddle with the coaching staff and override them, I also don't want to override business staff on anything. I want to find the best people to run those sections and kind of be hands-off.

If there is a conflict between players and coaching staff, what do you believe is your responsibility?

In the ideal scenario, I never have to get involved in any aspect of the competitive side of the team. Obviously there will be conflicts. In most situations, it's up to the coaches to decide. If a coach says "No soda in the house," even if I disagree, that's what goes.

That is not to say there won't be higher level conflicts. There are elements of player treatment that aren't the coaches' domain when it comes to salaries, contracts, and sponsorship obligations. That's all my job. I do think that the coaches are qualified to handle a lot of player concerns. I also do think there will be times when I am required to be there to address player concerns. Those times will be few and far between.

Would you describe your talent in this case as the ability to bring the right people together then?

I think, especially on the league side, it can be hard to find the people who walk the walk and instead of just talk the talk. Given the staff and the roster we put together, that's something I'm very confident we found.

You brought in a rather large investor group for Immortals, how did that come about?

I think a large part of that was as a result of my business partner, Clinton Floy. Clinton is a former COO of Square Enix in North America, and he's currently a managing director at Crosscut Capital in Los Angeles. Clinton is really a unique kind of person. He's a venture capitalist. He's incredibly good at business. But he also has a child-like glee over geek culture. Just a few days ago we were talking about a business deal where I had to cede something to somebody else, and he told me to "Let the Wookie win." This is a guy who takes a lot of pleasure in things.

I think that that's something that's really the same across the board for our investors. Of course our investors want to make money, of course they want this to do well financially, but at the end of the day, they're in this because they have that passion. A lot of them talk to me about how they bought sports teams because they wanted their kids to think they were cool, but their kids weren't watching sports, they were watching League of Legends. Now they're getting out of traditional sports to get into the new things their kids want to watch. They're adapting with the times and channeling their inner child in a good way to do something they're really passionate about.

Do you think that there's something that Immortals as a team and an organization can bring to competitive League of Legends?

I'm going to say a few things. What I feel is most important is that when you look at the most successful sports teams, the most successful esports franchises, all of them have succeeded because they put the health of the organization over everything else. Korean teams work because the team comes first.

A lot of people will interpret what I'm saying as "players don't matter," which isn't true. Everybody matters, but for an organization to work, the individual goals of everyone need to be subsumed by the organization. I don't just mean players and coaches, I mean owners too. Owners need to take the lead in this organizational revolution where teams become much more than who the owners are.

I think a lot of owners have done that well. I think a lot of owners have some room to grow in making sure their brand and team are more differentiated from their person. As the scene develops, the owner can't just focus on the competitive side or just focus on business, they need to be able to handle both. I think TSM has done a good job of that, CLG has done a good job of that. Liquid and C9 have done a good job of that. I mentioned I was excited to see more professional ownership groups because that's something that already exists in the business world.

Business owners are already qualified to kind of differentiate the roles of the CEO and staff under them. As the scene grows, we'll see the organizations themselves become stronger. Two or three years ago, if Regi had left TSM, TSM would have been done. I think now, if Andy wanted to retire, TSM would be okay. If Steve or Jack wanted to take a step back for Liquid or C9, they could do that, and their organizations would still be stable. I think that's why I don't believe esports is a bubble.

As far as competitive League, this isn't unique to Immortals, but I'm a big fan of analytics, and I look at generating advanced statistics for hockey, for instance, and I think that's something we're going to be doing.

The overall ideal that people should take from Immortals is that our name is not chosen just because it's cool. We view our goals in esports as long term. While we have goals for making MSI and making Worlds, short term goals are not what drive my decision-making or that of my investors.

We believe that esports is not an investment position that will be sold off in a year or two years. We view this as something we'll be in for five-ten-fifteen years. The game probably won't always be League of Legends. I'm sure games that haven't even been made yet will become new esports. I think that too often, players and owners and fans will see esports as something you do for three or four years, and then you're done. I don't think that's the way it should be.

The way we treat players and staff needs to change. I'm going to use a strong word. It is disgusting the way we treat players to the extent that they retire after three or four years of professional play. They don't retire because they just want to go do something else, but because they're burned out mentally. They retire because the amount they practice means that they're developing repetitive stress injuries. They retire because they lose their passion for the game.

If you look at professional athletes, they do this for 10-15 years sometimes. Jaromir Jagr is in his 40s and still playing professional hockey. That's incredible. Why don't we have those people in League of Legends? We have older people playing CS:GO. We have older people playing DotA.

In League of Legends, the culture we've developed for some reason is that by the time you're 23, your mechanics obviously aren't good enough. I don't think that's true. That culture needs to change if this is going to last. We can't just burn through our best players and have complete turnovers every three or four years. If we keep doing that, we'll lose fan favorites far too soon.

If we are seriously talking about esports like traditional sports, we need to ask why the expectation is to practice 16 hours a day when we would never ask that of a professional basketball player. Why is it the expectation that we need to stream for 80 hours a month even though no baseball player would have 80 hours of sponsorship obligations? Why is the expectation that players should be willing to sacrifice everything, when in basketball, people have realized that if you make people practice that much, their bodies won't hold up?

In esports, we've taken this view that the team winning is worth the sacrifice. In reality, that's not a choice that has to be made. You can change your practice regimen, you can change the way that you interact with the players and staff to enhance the longevity of the scene.

We hear people say we need to take better care of our players, but what's something you specifically are implementing to make that come through?

It can't be anything I implement. There are several things that need to happen, but if they were implemented by a team owner, they'd be corrupted. People have talked about a Player's Union. I like the idea of a Player's Union. Before that, we need player agents. A player agent is someone whose interests are inherently aligned with the interests of the person he represents. An agent more than anyone except the player wants the player to make the most money and have the best conditions.

Having collective bargaining is nice, but until we have individual bargaining, collective bargaining is hard to establish. So first, player agents, and those will appear as salaries increase, a player's union for collective bargaining, and then when the scene matures, we want to see a salary cap as well as a salary floor.

The reason that's important is that a big thing that went into our thought process was we wanted to avoid large salary discrepancies between teammates. Nothing destroys an environment like knowing the guy next to you is making three times as much. When you have a salary floor and a salary cap, you create more parity between superstar pay and entry level play. That way, team dynamics aren't dependent on what you're paying your players.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for theScore eSports. You can follow her for Song "RooKie" Euijin gifs on Twitter.