How to build an organization like a player: Rick Fox on Echo Fox, player salaries and the smell of success

by Daniel Rosen Jan 30 2016
Thumbnail image courtesy of Navneet Randhawa / theScore eSports

A former professional basketball player turned actor turned eSports team owner, Rick Fox doesn't seem like the type of person easily distracted during a meeting. But halfway through shaking hands, he looks up and sees a stream of Wednesday's H2K vs. Vitality game, Rick Fox notices Marcin "SELFIE" Wolski subbing for the team and immediately pulls out his phone.

"There's my player! There's SELFIE."

SELFIE, formerly known as Kori, is signed to Echo Fox, but was standing in for H2K's Ryu "Ryu" Sang-Ook. Fox posed as his brand manager took a picture of him in front of the tiny square showing SELFIE's player cam as soon as the match started. He called it "a selfie with SELFIE."

He was just excited to see his player get a chance to play.

A former basketball star and longtime sports personality, Fox might be new to the world of eSports, but he says he's not just dedicated to the scene, but to his players as well. He says he's setting up an internal scholarship program at Echo Fox, something to support the players who have competed under the Echo Fox brand.

"They're young, but they need to be supported, because the more rounded the athlete is, the better results you get from them," Fox says. "Look, I had a college coach in Dean Smith who cared about me beyond just what I could do for him on the basketball court, and he was a mentor and friend long after I played in North Carolina. And that to me is very important, that my relationship with players [who] come through and represent this organization stand longer than just a one year, three year contract. You talk about an infrastructure? They become our infrastructure, that they would want to stick around."

College-level eSports aren't new to the scene. Heroes of the Dorm has crossed over into the mainstream world just a bit, as its finals were broadcasted on ESPN2. Meanwhile, Riot has the NA Collegiate Championship, which awards $30,000 in scholarships to each player on the top four teams. Other games also have collegiate systems, like the Melee Games, which recently had its finals event at Genesis 3 and the Smash 4 Collegiate.

"I love what they're doing (with Heroes of the Dorm), that competitive league within the scholastic environment of the NCAA, I don't see why that can't grow into something larger," he says. "Why not create scholarships for professional gaming athletes? We see what Heroes of the Dorm just announced today, they're coming back again for a second season, and some very skilled participants will get their college tuition played for in success. I think that's very exciting."

Echo Fox launched its organization in December, when Fox purchased Gravity's spot in the the North American League of Legends Championship Series. But while the players are close to Fox's heart now, they weren't the first thing on his mind when he got into the eSports business, especially not when he went to the All-Star event for his first owners' meeting.

"I just missed the owners' meeting by two hours, believe it or not," he says. Fox was first introduced to competitive League of Legends by his son, then ended up going to the North American 2015 Summer Split playoffs, where he says he gave Counter Logic Gaming a pep talk before they beat Team SoloMid.

"I came in in the afternoon, and the All-Star game was going on at Riot, and I was there as a fan, but also as an owner, so it was hard for me to split the focus," he says. "I asked for advice along the lines of, 'Should I rebrand? Do I rebrand the team from Gravity to a new brand?' which they were like, 'Yes, we suggest you do that.'"

"To do a full rebrand in a week and a half was intense, but we did that. Immediately I started to get a sense of taking stock of what Gravity, what assets were there, what they were before us, what infrastructure was in place, which was very minimal."

In the end, Fox didn't hold on to too much of Gravity. He kept Jake "Ginko" Fyfe on as General Manager, someone he calls a "godsend," and David "Cop" Robertson, whose relationship with Ginko and expertise got him the job. After they were in place, Fox started reaching out to other owners, but it wasn't smooth sailing just yet.

"Some of them helped me acquire players because they transferred them to me, that's how I got some of my players," he says. "They were difficult negotiators. It took a while, understandably so, and then I was competitive with a number of them for players like Froggen. I immediately became a threat in success. And then, as I found out really quickly, when the season begins, it's survival of the fittest."

"I've gotten from owners great information and great help, and I've also gotten less helpful information I wish I hadn't paid attention to, because quite frankly, it's a competitive environment and they have to survive as well."

Those challenges didn't end with his conflicts with other owners, Echo Fox was immediately thrown into the fire. He jokes that he and the team got their first win and loss of the franchise out of the way right at the start, but it wasn't the loss that shook him. The team was plagued by visa issues in week two — Henrik "Froggen" Hansen, Anthony "Hard" Barkhovstev and Park "KFO" Jeong-Hun were all absent from Echo Fox's week two LCS roster, and will not be starting in week three. Fox doesn't mention when they will be coming back, but takes an immediate stance against allegations about the legality of his players' documents.

"I want to be clear. They were in the country legally," he says, tapping his hand against a table to emphasize each word. "So I'm gonna start there. No one is breaking any laws."

However, he did offer a look into why this disaster hit Echo Fox so early into his career as a team owner, and a potential silver lining.

"But that's a part of business, that's a part of getting up off the ground," he says. "With more infrastructure in place ... you know there was just carelessly hiring people with the wrong character and the wrong experience and having them enter our close-knit space without knowing fully if they were right — [hiring more carefully] might have given us more hands on to avoid certain pitfalls."

The rough start hasn't deterred Fox's entry into eSports, though. Earlier this week he announced his acquisition of a Counter-Strike: Global Offensive team, featuring former Cloud9 star Sean "sgares" Gares and Mohamad "m0E" Assad, a player best known for his outspoken personality on stream. On his youtube channel, m0E features a video titled "m0E ROASTS CS:GO!" in which he curses and trash talks his way through some games of CS:GO.

m0E is known for that sort of brash, perhaps R-rated personality, but Fox sees that as secondary to what he really cares about: his competitive nature.

"In my career I've had numerous teammates, some less graceful than others, some very entertaining, some pretty bland," he says. "Pros take on numerous demeanors, and he has an entertaining side to himself, but he also has a competitive side, and I wanted to speak to him about the competitive side, because that's where I'm most concerned about his relationship with Echo Fox."

Fox and m0E met at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this month, when Turner and IMG were holding the Road to Vegas qualifiers as part of ELEAGUE, their upcoming televised CS:GO league. Fox, an employee of Turner and a client at IMG was aware of what ELEAGUE was and wanted in, but his own personal history was in League, not CS:GO. His son introduced him to LoL, but Fox needed a different path into CS:GO if he wanted in on ELEAGUE, and something about m0E did it for him.

"We got a chance to talk for a few days about his vision, his passion, his space, his ideas of where he thinks it can go," Fox says. "His belief in building a team, some ideas of players he wanted to reach out to, and immediately, I fell in love with his energy, his passion, and I thought, 'You know what? I want to lock that up and work with him.'"

m0E led Fox to sgares, which led him to the rest of Torqued, and Toronto-based player Armeen "a2z" Toussi, who Fox was on his way to meet for the first time, at a Toronto Raptors game courtside. a2z later tweeted that he was "blown away" by the experience, but that's the kind of personal time Fox seems to want to spend with his players. When he speaks, he exudes the confidence of an owner, but he often talks about his teams from his perspective as a former player himself, and sometimes, as a father with children his players' ages.

Fox says he's spoken with the parents of players he signed, talking them through the process and explaining what it would be like for them. When he speaks about those meetings, he slows down. He stutters a little.

"It takes the owner's hat off and moves me back into a parent of a son that's in college, or a daughter that's 15 — like, I have kids," he says. "And when I'm having a conversation with a mother who has a concern for her son's housing, his food, his transportation, is he gonna be able to come home and visit his family? Is he gonna eat junk food? Is there gonna be alcohol around? Everything a parent would be concerned about their kid going off to college and experiencing.

"I'm now as a owner of a team, taking on someone's child."

Fox points out that they're professional athletes making substantial salaries, and players who are 18 are adults in the eyes of the law, but they are still people who needed legal guardians one year earlier, and he's now taking on that role.

"My organization is a steward of this person's son or daughter," he says. "So there is nothing more important for me than if I take that on it doesn't just stop with me writing a check...I-I-I...I've gotta be invested in that person's growth."

And from a former players' perspective? Fox says he understands the desire for player salaries to be more public, but he's worried about the pressure that brings. He's worried about making his players into targets.

"I know what it was like at 21 to walk into a city to not be protected, to be worth millions of dollars and to all of a sudden be a target," he says. "I don't want my players to be targets ... I understand the interest, I understand that we will get there and we should get here, I'm not opposed to it, but I'm not subscribing to it yet."

As for when he will subscribe, Fox is hoping for more infrastructure that can keep his players safe. When he speaks about the future for his players, he speaks quickly, throwing out ideas and hopes one after another and adding some possibilities that may be closer to fruition.

"Look, I was a former player. If you ask me do I want all players to get paid? Yes. I want them to make the most money they can make, as quickly as possible for as long as possible," he says. "But where do I stand on whose business that is to know? I think it's between the player and their representative and the owners to work that out ... at this point in time until there is a players' union, until there is an owners conglomerate.

"There's infrastructure and franchising, some of these things coming down the pipe are gonna be set up like professional leagues, where there's drafts, and seasons, and when you have that kind of infrastructures, then yes. I say pull back the curtain and players will have agents, they'll have lawyers, they'll have managers, they'll be protected. Right now, as an owner of Echo Fox I've gotta protect my players. I don't want people coming at them."

Fox is looking to expand elsewhere though. Echo Fox isn't going to be limited to just CS:GO and LoL. In an interview with Fox, ESPN's Darren Rovell writes that he expects to have teams in Dota 2, Heroes of the Storm and Call of Duty.

"I have a country," he says. "Echo Fox is a country in the Olympics, where I hope to have a number of teams and players carrying the Echo Fox flags that represent us in different fields and publishers and leagues. And that may span ten different publishing companies with leagues."

But if Echo Fox is a country in the world that is eSports, Fox still feels it has room to grow. He's a player-focused person at heart, and he wants to keep moving in that direction. But if you want to be a part of Echo Fox, the number one thing Rick Fox is looking for might surprise you.

"Character to me, regardless of the sport, is where I would start building a franchise from," he says. "I know that some people start with talent, you want the most talented people, you want the most mechanically successful, talent-driven people.

"Some people go with experience. I felt I needed a blend of hunger, character, I needed a vet. I wanted a star who could show the young talent what it's like to be a four or five year pro and be a leader. I wanted to have that person's voice to be strong and respected."

For LoL, that person was Froggen. For CS:GO, it was m0E and sgares. For Fox it all starts with character and passion, and he says that's part of his management style as well. It's unorthodox for a team owner to be so involved with the day-to-day operations of the organization, but Fox says he's been non-stop, to a point where it scares some people.

"Right now, I daily am focusing on not strangling the life out of it," he says. "Suffocating the life out of it. I am so immersed in it, in every aspect of laying the foundation that I know at times I must appear intense to those around me."

Fox says it comes from his background as an athlete, but there's more to it than that. That feeling of victory and success, he can sense it. It's visceral for him.

"I know what it smells like," he says, "I know what it sounds like. All the senses to me, I want to feel and touch and hear and taste. Everything about the organization is gonna have to have a rhythm to it. An ethos and at the end of the day, a mythology about it."

It's hard to say what that mythology might come to be. Right now, just a few months into his career as the owner of Echo Fox, Fox is worried about infrastructure, about growing the scene from the roots up, about ensuring his young players' safety. But, when you put the brand aside, Fox still has the heart of an athlete in him, someone with pride in the players wearing a logo with his name on their uniform. He glances continuously at the H2K game, waiting to see what happens to SELFIE.

Halfway through a sentence, he stumbles before pausing. "Now I just wanna know what happened to H2K. Did they win?"

When H2K wins, gets up for a moment. He looks at the TV, where SELFIE is joining the team in a group huddle before walking over to shake Vitality's hands. He mutters about how Terry "BIG" Chuong did well back when he was on Team Imagine when he looks up.

"My guys are winning everywhere else but with us!"

Daniel Rosen is a news editor for theScore eSports. He has a guy for the back of his head, because your really need one these days. You can follow him on Twitter.