Ehtisham Rabbani SteelSeriesEhtisham Rabbani, CEO of SteelSeries

In the competitive gaming peripheral space, which continues to see double digit growth, SteelSeries has wooed M. Ehtisham Rabbani away from Logitech. The former SVP and SMO of Logitech, who oversaw the company’s games division, is now the CEO of a company that has embraced eSports from the early days. SteelSeries is best known for its line of PC keyboards, mice and headphones. Rabbani explains why sponsoring teams like Fnatic and Navi has helped the brand and what opportunities bigger brands entering the space means for gaming companies in this exclusive interview.

What impact has the rise of eSports had on gaming companies?

It’s not been news to anyone that has been involved in this space that eSports is popular. SteelSeries has been involved in it for years. It’s news to mainstream outlets like the New York Times that have suddenly discovered the vibrant eSports scene. But people in the industry have been seeing this for years and we’ve been participating in this for years. The numbers are staggering with more people watching eSports’ League of Legends Championship last year than the Stanley Cup and NBA Finals. When you add all of that up, there’s a lot of passion around eSports and it’s only going to grow. It’s interesting to see more and more games coming into eSports, offering a greater set of diversity. The first breakout eSports game was StarCraft that really wracked up the numbers. That was an RTS game. Now there aren’t a lot of RTS franchises. There is a lot of development in different genres today because of eSports.

What impact has livestreaming opened up for brands like Logitech and SteelSeries?

The opportunities have been in better understanding and better appreciating what it takes to win. You see a lot of streamers talk about their strategies and their tools and what they’re looking for in a great gaming mouse or headset. It all comes together for a gamer to feel confident that they’re going to win. It’s changed the equation for the gaming hardware business and increased the appetite of gamers who want to learn more about what makes a great gaming mouse or headset. We see a lot more traffic to our website and more people who want to learn about our products. Brands interested in innovation and bringing tools to help gamers win get more respect, rather than those who release cool looking products that don’t enhance the gameplay experience.

What’s the value of working with pro gamers and eSports teams?

They’re valuable because they’re 100 percent focused on winning. They’re professionals. As pros, their entire career relies on having the right tools and winning championships. If we can help individuals win matches and teams win championships, it validates what we’re trying to do. They also have huge audiences — hundreds of thousands of people following them. They’re critical opinion leaders. We work closely with them at every stage in the development of new products. The teams we work with is not a relationship that’s only about giving them money only. It’s about them helping us with product development and design and providing feedback before a product hits the shelf. So by the time a new product is released, it’s been vetted by pro teams. That role for us is an important as them as spokespeople for our brand.

Is there a direct correlation between eSports teams and sales of your products?

I’d love to have an answer to that. We’re making great products and we do a lot of social media and advertising, so it’s hard to figure out what percentage of sales comes from eSports. It’s a bit of a leap of faith, but it’s very natural for us.

What are your thoughts on bigger brands entering the eSports space?

I think that’s a good thing. If eSports can become a place where young gamers can come in and make good money and have pro careers, that helps gaming as a whole. It helps all the businesses that are associated with gaming. I welcome deep-pocketed companies. We have pro gamers who are making six digit salaries today and it’s only a matter of time before that goes even higher. I don’t see a Coke or an AmEx as a threat. They’re not in the business of providing amazing tools to gamers and I don’t see them getting into our business. We have a unique role to play in eSports.

What’s the competition like in the crowded headphone space with new entrants?

There’s no secret that the gaming peripherals business — when you look at electronics in general, very few categories are growing by double digits — and gaming peripherals is one of those categories. A lot of companies are entering that business. They’ll learn that if you’ve been making traditional mice and headsets, the jump to gaming is not simple. You can’t put red flames on a product and call it gaming. There’s some real science that these companies don’t have and gamers see that. I don’t feel threatened by them. We have a decade-long lead in developing great gaming products.

ESports helps differentiate us. These days, major brands like SteelSeries have to be associated with eSports to be an established brand. All my major competitors are involved in eSports in one way or another. You have your brand logo on different teams, but at the end of the day comes down to how good are your products. Our emphasis is on using eSports relationships to make the best products possible.

What are your goals at SteelSeries moving forward?

It’s an authentic gaming brand. We have no ambitions of going beyond servicing gamers. There are very few brands now that can claim that. They’re in search of growth in all sorts of business. But for us it’s gaming, and gamers are our north star. We’re not moving away from that. Our whole organization is laser-focused in delivering things gamers need. We don’t put out products unless there’s a real need for it. That mission is what attracted me to SteelSeries. That purity of vision will grow the company. We’ve seen double digit growth for several years and we will accelerate that. We’re Number 3 in the world today and we hope to move up.

If you look at our history of headsets and simple things like the self-adjusting headband suspension design, gamers needed a different way to wear a headset that you could comfortably wear for hours. Now a lot of companies are trying to copy that. That’s the kind of innovation that we’re doing — it’s need-based. We were the first mouse with an on-board 32Bit Arm processor and that came out of a specific need. New products that we will be launching will address needs in the market.