Andy Miller knows traditional sports as the minority owner of the Sacramento Kings, but he was early into esports with NRG Esports, which fields teams across Overwatch, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Super Smash Bros., Hearthstone, Rocket League and Vainglory.
NRG recently raised an additional $15 million in a Series B funding round from celebrities that include Jennifer Lopez, Marshawn Lynch, Michael Strahan and Marlon Byrd. Additional funding comes from Twitter’s chief operating officer and former NFL chief financial officer Anthony Noto, Kings minority owner and Sacramento Republic owner Kevin Nagle, and Fortress Investment Group chairman Pete Briger. NRG already had enlisted Shaquille O’Neal, Alex Rodriguez and Jimmy Rollins in March 2016 in its Series A round.
NRG Esports is one of the inaugural city-based teams for the Overwatch League, which debuts December 6 with a preseason competition at the new Blizzard Esports Arena in Burbank, California, ahead of the January 10 first season competition. Blizzard assigned NRG as the league’s San Francisco team, which encompasses a fan base from San Jose to Oakland to Sacramento.
Miller told AListDaily that Overwatch League is opening unique opportunities for brands and sponsors interested in connecting with the millennial and younger audience.
“We’re having a lot of conversations on the brand side, which has really been an evolution in getting non-endemics interested in esports,” Miller said. “A lot of brands are still trying to figure out how to get involved and whether they should invest in a team or a league or work with a publisher.”
Miller said that the companies he’s speaking with see the global reach of esports teams. NRG Esports is currently seeking a title sponsor for its Overwatch League team, which Miller would love to recruit from a local Bay Area brand.
Activision Blizzard is taking a page from soccer with its new Overwatch League jerseys.
“It’s more of a clean design like Premiere League soccer jerseys and not the NASCAR look with all the team sponsor patches,” Miller said. “This presents a great opportunity for a title sponsor to be extremely visible in front of millions of well-educated Gen Z and millennials globally with disposable income. It’s a neat and different approach.”
Miller’s team designed the logo for the jersey and all teams have submitted their names and logos to Activision Blizzard. The Dallas and Shanghai teams have already revealed their names and logos and other teams will soon follow suit.
NRG Esports is still scouting locations for its home arena, while preparing to move its Overwatch team to LA for the first season of competition at the converted Burbank Studios.
“It’s been a really well-thought-out plan, where we have a league and all of the teams have a chance to get our houses and coaches and players going,” Miller said. “It’s great having a uniform place for broadcasts for the first year, complete with practice rooms for every team at Burbank for pre-season and season.”
Miller has high hopes for the Bay area territory, which is home to a slew of tech giants that include Apple, Google and Oracle. He said, “We already have a great culture here and tons of players who play Overwatch. We’re really primed for season ticket holders and building out a local fan base.”
Miller has learned a lot of lessons from his involvement with the Sacramento Kings, including best practices with ticket sales, social media and how to engage with the younger audiences.
“Right now, it’s about defining what our gaming culture is,” Miller explained. “We created a pre-season calendar for our Overwatch team and have focused on how to bond and communicate as a team, how to take care of themselves physically and mentally, and how to work with our coaches.”
With the Overwatch League, Miller has watched as his organization has evolved from just “winging it” and doing things economically to building a sustainable business with a team that has the potential to become perennial winners.
On the merchandising side, Blizzard is in charge of the outside market, while each team will focus on sales within its territory.
“We’ll have to do a good job of having events in Northern California and getting people interested in what we’re doing,” Miller said.
Miller likes the fact that the rules haven’t been written yet for esports.
“My team loves San Francisco and we get to have 20 home games coming up and our own theater and arena to put our footprint on,” Miller said. “It’s not like MLB, where you know what’s going to happen. We’re going to create a different type of entertainment offering with these events.”
Having so many celebrities invested in NRG Esports also helps with the marketing message for this brand.
“The athlete investors came first because when you dig in and see these esports players are athletes with all of their dedication and training, there was an obvious parallel,” Miller explained. “Now we’re seeing Hollywood understand that here’s a giant audience behind esports and a lot of content there.”
Miller said Rodriguez, who has joined the board and become much more active with esports over the last six months, brought Lopez into the fold.
“We love having Jennifer involved because she’s interested in women in gaming and she’d love to be known as one of the first high-profile owners,” Miller said. “We’ve talked about getting a female team together. She also has over 100 million social media followers, and that’s a great way to get our Overwatch name out there.”
Strahan, Lynch, Lopez and O’Neal were all involved recently in revealing the Overwatch roster, which Miller said helps paint the team in an interesting light.
“The profile of esports has risen so much in the last six months due to the games and competition being great, but the audience was always there,” Miller said. “Having mainstream TV distribution has also helped. But most importantly, the sea change in esports has been the switch from a PGA style of competition—where the focus was on turning pro and winning at majors to generate money—to a more traditional NBA style with revenue sharing and city-based organizations. It’s a shift to establishing something permanent with enterprise value.”