At first glance, Philadelphia 76ers small forward Ben Simmons and Team Apex support Alex (Xpecial) Chu would not appear to have much in common.
Simmons is 6’10”, Australian, an exciting NBA prospect but still unproven as a pro; Xpecial is 5’8”, from California, a veteran League of Legends...legend, if you will. But as of early Friday morning, they’re teammates.
The Sixers’ ownership group has acquired a controlling stake—an undisclosed percent for which it spent an undisclosed sum—of Team Apex, which has a League of Legends team, and Team Dignitas, which fields teams in the video games Counterstrike and Overwatch, among others. (As part of the partnership, Apex’s League squad will operate as Team Dignitas.)
The move makes the 76ers the first North American professional sports organization to own an e-sports franchise. (Last October a Memphis Grizzlies executive purchased the Immortals and in November members of the Sacramento Kings’ ownership group founded NRG, but never has an entire traditional sports franchise acquired one.) It’s been a year in the making, although, as Philadelphia CEO Scott O’Neil points out, in the e-sports world, that seems like two decades.
O’Neil attended an NBA Board of Governors meeting with principal owner Joshua Harris and part-owner David Blitzer and found himself stunned when commissioner Adam Silver and CFO Jason Cahilly began a presentation on e-sports.
"Higher viewership than the BCS national championship game...67 million people playing League every day...3% of worldwide bandwidth used for the game…"
“Blitzer leaned over and said, ‘Maybe we should take a look at this?’” O’Neil says. “I said, ‘Uh, ya think?’”
The unprecedented merger seems to make sense on both sides. The Sixers have a piece of an industry that is projected to surpass $1 billion in revenue some time next year; Dignitas has access to an organization with extensive resources and a long institutional history. But there are other potential perks as well: E-sports fans are a demographic long coveted by advertisers because they tend to be affluent 18- to 34-year-old males who are not watching traditional sports and are therefore difficult to target.
“We’ll do promotions that are fun and cute,” says O’Neil, “but the opportunity is really in offering sponsors an opportunity to reach a base they cannot find.”
O’Neil, who by his own admission hasn’t played a video game since Pong in the 1980s, promises that the brass will stay out of the Xs and Os on the e-sports side, but he contends that athletes both traditional and e-stand to benefit from the partnership. Basketball teams have been focusing for years on how sleep, hydration and nutrition affect performance, a link that has been less studied in e-sports; but no one can energize a fan base like an e-sports team, which is sometimes a challenge in traditional sports.
It may come as a surprise to some Sixers fans that ownership considers junglers on par with point guards, but the new partners say they think they can convince basketball fans that professional gaming has emerged from the basement and is worthy of their attention.
“I understand what some [basketball] fans think,” says Michael (Odee) O’Dell, the president of Team Dignitas, who got into gaming after tearing his ACL on the soccer field as a child, “but they’ve probably never seen e-sports.”
They plan to do something about that. And it can’t stop at awareness, they say—they also have to figure out a way to increase the accessibility of games whose fans take pride in their complexity.
“How do we help people understand the nuances of the game even if they haven’t played it for hundreds of hours?” says Team Dignitas chairman Greg Richardson.
In the end, they’re betting that they’ll figure out how to bridge the gap between two disparate fan bases. They’re expecting that they’ll be the first of many traditional sports teams in the e-sports space. And they’re hoping that someday the answer to, “Are you watching the Giants game this weekend?” will be “Football, baseball or e-sports?”