There was a time when the only link between traditional sports and video games came from titles like Madden, FIFA and NBA 2K. As the eSports industry nears $1 billion and viewership grows into the millions, traditional sports news outlets and athletes alike have taken notice because a bevy of pro ballers are entering the lucrative world of eSports. It’s not just about the money, although that certainly doesn’t hurt—after all, these athletes are in it to win it. Here are some key players in the traditional sports realm who aren’t afraid to embrace a new age of competition.
The Los Angeles Rams offensive lineman and entrepreneur is the proud owner of the team Rise Nation. Rise Nation has competed in global Call of Duty competitions against major contenders OpTic and Evil Geniuses and are branching out into other games like Overwatch as well. “I put myself out there, too, to use me and my following to help raise awareness of what eSports is, to try to get the NFL kind of involved, you can use me . . . you get eSports, you get the NFL and now we’re taking over,” Saffold told [a]listdaily. “That’s the whole part of this; we’re taking over. We’re literally growing at an alarming rate—almost too hard to handle.”
In December, the three-time NBA champion bought an eSports team previously known as Gravity Gaming and renamed it Echo Fox. The team focuses on League of Legends, among other titles. “The deciding factor [to invest into eSports] was cellular,” Fox told [a]listdaily in an exclusive interview. “Once I walked into a sold out crowd at Madison Square Garden, everything in those two days spoke to me as a professional athlete. I knew it was the next generation.”
The Dallas Mavericks owner is literally betting on eSports through the startup Unikrn in which he invested in. The billionaire, who also appears on Shark Tank, has invested in a platform focused on betting in the growing competitive gaming industry wherever it’s legal. “There is no reason to try to legitimize eSports to anyone,” Cuban told [a]listdaily. “ESports is a real industry. People can choose whether to connect to it themselves. The participation numbers and the online viewership numbers speak for themselves. What matters is that people who love eSports really get into it. They watch clips and matches. They play the game. There is no need to try to convince those on the outside.”
The Utah Jazz star, another current NBA player and avid League of Legends gamer, recently told Forbes that he’s also looking into the eSports business. “I’m looking into partnering with some people in the business side of eSports. I think there’s all kinds of money to be made in the industry.” He even penned a column on The Players Tribune to make a case for gaming. HyperX, a division of Kingston Technology Company, added Hayward to its roster of champion athletes in May to promote their headphones.
Andy Miller and Mark Mastrov
The co-owners of the Sacramento Kings invested in the new eSports franchise NRG ESports, which specializes in League of Legends. Miller, who previously served as vice president of mobile advertising for Apple, has gone all-in with eSports—the Kings’ new arena was designed for eSports.” He told [a]listdaily: “We wanted League of Legends right off the bat. I researched it and loved the energy. And you can’t deny the size of the audience. It’s massive. We play in front of so many people every week, whether on our own streaming with our guys or on the weekend at Twitch. And then you stack those numbers up against the NBA and NHL and other sports and it’s worth it. So that was a no-brainer for us.”
The retired NBA superstar invested in Miller and Mastrov’s NRG ESports along with baseball players Alex Rodriguez and Jimmy Rollins. The team participates in League of Legends and CS:GO video game competitions. “It is a result of multiple years of education on our part and other publishers’ parts to let people know that this is not a fad, this is not something that’s going away,” Whalen Rozelle, director of eSports at Riot Games, told [a]listdaily. “There is a large generation of sports fans, a new breed of sports fans whose ‘sports’ are the games that they love to play. While there are some potential pitfalls of having so much mainstream media attention at once, in general, it’s a positive thing and will be good for the ecosystem that we’ve built.” Shaq, now an analyst for Turner Sports, home to televised ELEAGUE competitions, has already filmed eSports promos.
We went there. We @Shaq-ified CS:GO.
— ELEAGUE (@ELEAGUETV) May 17, 2016
The Brooklyn Nets guard was one of the thousands of fans who packed the KeyArena for five days leading into the Dota 2 tournament final this summer. Lin has been playing Dota since he was 16 years old with his brothers Josh and Joseph. He says he still plays three to four times a week, even during the NBA season, especially on the road, when he’s in his hotel room.
“There’s no ceiling in terms of how big it can get,” Lin told ESPN. “I think e-gaming is going to follow the trends of society, when you look at Pokémon GO and how accessible iPhones and iPads are. Now everyone has access to iPhones and iPads around the world, and that’s going to make e-gaming grow even more. Everyone is investing a lot of money in tech. I have no idea how big it’s going to get, but I do know this is only the beginning.”
The Black Mamba is an integral part of 2K Sports’ promotion with NBA 2K17, which also recently announced that it would be hosting a new service called 2K Streamcast, where players compete in a Pro-Am for a $250,000 cash prize. When asked if he would consider investing in eSports like many of his industry colleagues, he replied, “It depends, depends if the right opportunity comes along, and I feel like it’s something that we should invest in, and if it’s something we feel like we could add value to, then yeah, that’d be something that we’d consider.”
Fox, Bryant’s former-Lakers teammate, wants to recruit the future Hall of Famer into the business, telling [a]listdaily, “Kobe has an interest [in eSports]. He and I have scheduled a sit down and talk about it. I’d love to get him involved. I’d love to pull him into Echo Fox. That’d be quite the coup because I know the value of his competitive fire, his expertise in terms of just leadership, and understanding how to tackle business. He’s got the time now, so he has an open door with us, for sure.”
The Boston Celtics forward and seven-year NBA veteran purchased the eSports franchise Renegades—a growing brand that competes in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) and Call of Duty. The Renegades CS:GO team participated in the inaugural year of ELeauge, a show broadcast through Turner and Twitch.
The Brazilian pro soccer player traded his cleats for a controller, making the move from real-life soccer star to FIFA eSports hopeful. Lira cited mounting injuries as his reason for retirement, but also announced plans to pursue a career in eSports. After winning the Puskas Award in 2015, Lira was challenged by 2015 FIFA Interactive World Cup winner Abdulaziz Alshehri to a game of FIFA. Lira destroyed the champ, 6-1. “I had pleasant moments I’ll never forget,” Lira told Brazilian site, Globoesporte.com following the announcement. “I played alongside big stars, too. I had pleasure being a guy who was actually accomplished at football. And I had the dream of being a gamer, I always had this desire to live it. It is almost impossible to stop playing football to live as a gamer, but God gave me this opportunity. It is not the end of a dream. In fact, God has given me the opportunity to have this job as a follow-up in my life, being happy and continuing with that smile.”
The former-Seattle Seahawks superstar has the distinct honor of being the first professional athlete to appear in a Call of Duty game. Lynch plays a villainous gun-for-hire who shoots up a Singapore tavern with his gang. The football star is a big fan of video games and had a lot of fun acting out the motion capture scenes for Call of Duty: Black Ops III. “You’re shooting up everything but always fighting for a bigger picture,” he said while ESPN was on scene at Activision. “The whole game is Beast Mode.” In June 2015, ESPN put Lynch on the cover of a special eSports issue, detailing the rise of video games into the world of competitive sport.
ESports startup company Matcherino found an enthusiastic investor in the Denver Broncos offensive tackle. “I had some interest in the eSports industry for a while now,” Okung told The Seattle Times. “It’s just like people coming to watch us.”
Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson
This UFC star loves to play video games and hosts live Twitch streams for a variety of games, but the pasttime is becoming more than a hobby. “Since I’ve started streaming I spend at least 15 hours a week playing games, maybe more,” he said on an episode of The Three Amigos podcast. “My brain needs to be stimulated. I look at streaming like a side project, and I take my side projects and my jobs very seriously.”