Madison Square Garden is synonymous with a cavalcade of sport’s biggest moments: the Willis Reed Game, the Fight of the Century, WrestleMania I, Michael Jordan’s double-nickel—et al. The World’s Most Famous Arena always brings out the best in athletes and entertainers.
For former Celtics and Lakers star Rick Fox, you can add one more event on top of that list: the North American League of Legends Championship.
Fox played a mountain of meaningful New York minutes at the Mecca of Basketball for 13 years as a bitter rival of the Knicks. His life on the hardwood is defined by winning three championships as a central piece to Shaq and Kobe’s Lakers dynasty. But it wasn’t until last August when Fox walked into a sold out arena at MSG for a different kind of five-on-five game that made him run a fast break into what he calls the next generation of professional athletes—eSports.
In a career that’s had more acts than a Broadway show—Fox has made an off-court killing using his made-for-TV looks to act, model, dance and serve as a basketball analyst—video games is the next big thing tickling his senses. In December, he paid $1 million to purchase Gravity Gaming, which has since been rebranded into Echo Fox in the League of Legends Championship Series (LCS).
“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.”
Fox’s fascination with video games didn’t happen overnight—he’s been an avid gamer since he was 12 years old playing Atari—nor is it another case of “retired athlete invests in hot trend.” The 46-year-old studied the eSports industry for three years, highlighted through an up-close-and-personal look at Riot Games, before he felt safe about pulling the trigger on owning a team. He’d also been a partner at Twin Galaxies, the official video game world-record and player-ranking authority.
In three whirlwind months since his purchase, he’s learned eSports “moves at a warp speed.” Echo Fox has already expanded into the ELeague and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive with plans to add additional teams. He says that in the first year, they’re “looking to total four teams, with representation in the fighting community as well.”
The recent wave of momentum made Fox proclaim that eSports will “be on par with the NHL” in two years. In comparison, the League of Legends World Championship final was watched by over 36 million people; the NHL Stanley Cup Finals reached around 38 million.
His bold prediction is not a knock on hockey; it’s just how he currently feels about the blue-chipped industry—and basketball gets some of that shade, too. He’s donated his three championship rings to the fundraiser #Right2Game, a campaign that seeks to promote positive perceptions of gaming. But would he actually trade winning the NBA title only if Echo Fox wins a world championship and is recognized as the best eSports team in the globe?
“Yes,” Fox says. “I would trade one as I would still be left with two others.”
And if he has two tickets for both an NBA Finals game, and the LOL World Championship, fuhgettaboutit. “For me having experienced the NBA Finals on and off the court 10-plus times, I would have to say the LOL Finals with Echo Fox competing would be a first.”
Fox has always had a soft spot for video games. When the former-first round pick out North Carolina left the Boston Celtics and signed with Los Angeles Lakers prior to the 1997 season, it meant leaving his family behind in the East Coast. Although the move signaled a stretch of winning basketball and newfound opportunities in Hollywood, a 10-month NBA season and a coast-to-coast relationship with his son Kyle led to what Fox calls a broken home.
One way he was able to combat that and forge a better bond with Kyle during his formative years was through sessions of World of Warcraft and League of Legends where Fox would teach him life skills through the characters they’d create. Video games quickly became to be the fabric that wove their relationship together.
Now, Kyle is a sophomore in college and a professional video gamer with a desire to pursue a career in the industry. Considering the sizable cash flow eSports is promising—Newzoo is projecting $463 million in revenue this year—jumping into uncharted waters was made a lot easier for Fox knowing that his son has a vested interest, too.
“It didn’t hurt when I decided to invest,” Fox says. “The passion for video games was passed down to my son as a shared love throughout his childhood all the way up to present day. It was and still is how we share father and son time together.”
The eSports market is currently worth $747 million, according to SuperData Research, and it’s expected to grow 150 percent by 2018. And there won’t be a shortage of funds anytime soon. Leading brands like Nissan, Intel, Pepsi, Coca Cola and Red Bull will be pouring roughly $325 million into the space this year, per Newzoo.
In addition to the corporate clout, a recent wave of people in pro sports are rushing to get a slice of the eSports pie. Earlier this month, Shaq, Alex Rodriguez and Jimmy Rollins invested into NRG eSports, the team owned by the minority partners of the Sacramento Kings, Andy Miller and Mark Mastrov. Miller and the Kings are so high on eSports that their new basketball arena was designed for it. On the other hand, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban invested $7 million into Unikrn, which lets consumers bet real money on the outcomes of video game competitions.
“Professional athletes and owners admire and appreciate the talent, dedication, discipline and mastery of their crafts,” says Fox. “As a business model, eSports mirrors traditional sports with rapid growth.”
The Bahamian-Canadian Fox, who currently works as a basketball analyst periodically dropping video game knowledge on NBA TV, is a big believer that eSports players mirror “athletes” too, likening it to how a doctor or actor would recognize a peer as an equivalent.
“The same disciplines that go into the mastery of a craft are present—talent, attitude and skill aligned with unparalleled repetition that leads to mastery can only be attained through an unwavering focus, dedication and discipline,” says Fox. “Athletes compete with their entire mind body and spirit. Ranking and debating which sport uses a greater percentage of the three is irrelevant. In the end there is no denying the best in each field separate themselves from the average to become the top of their field. Professional gamers are athletes and deserve a seat at the table.”
Although Fox has filled an IMDb page just as well as the back of a basketball card, the sentiment should not appear as scripted soliloquy. A who’s who list of athletes, including Utah Jazz star Gordon Hayward and UFC champion Demetrious Johnson, back his sentiment: pro gamers are athletes.
As an eSports team owner Fox has already experienced the highs of an inaugural victory on the opening day of the season and the lows of forfeiting a game when his squad didn’t have enough eligible players available to compete.
His mission is to eventually return to the court of which he was coronated on—the 2016 League of Legends World Championship will be held at the Staples Center in Los Angeles this October.
Whether or not he’ll have his Jerry Buss moment remains to be seen.
Follow Manouk Akopyan on Twitter @Manouk_Akopyan