Record investment is pouring into esports. Venture capital and private investors have flocked to pro gaming companies, especially tourney organizers and business in the burgeoning fantasy esports scene. And now, the newest team in the biggest competition in League of Legends will be funded by venture capital and angel investment, a first for the esports scene.
New esports organization Immortals revealed today that it has acquired Team 8, one of the franchises that competes in the League Championship Series (LCS), Riot Games’ premiere Western competition for its hugely popular game. Immortals is funded by an impressive list of investors and even some venture capital firms.
The list of investors includes power players in the sports and technology industries. Peter Levin, the president or Lionsgate Interactive Venture and Games, who previously built the Nerdist into a geek empire; Allen Debevoise, a chairman at Machinima; Steve Kaplan, a co-owner of the pro basketball franchise Memphis Grizzlies; Brian Lee, famous for co-founding startups with celebrities like Kim Kardashian; Paul Rappoport, COO at the XPRIZE; and many more comprise the ownership group. A group called Machine Shop Ventures is also investing—it’s better known as the business alter-alias of band Linkin Park. (That’s right: Linkin Park, the band whose music was pretty much the soundtrack of mid-2000s frag videos, now co-owns an esports team.)
Serving as chairman for the team is Clinton Foy. He’s the managing director of Crosscut Ventures, a firm that’s already invested in esports companies like Vulcun and Super Evil Megacorp, the company behind leading mobile esport Vainglory.
Fantasy esports are already making money in the space. But top esports franchises aren’t seeing soaring revenues, even in the midst of the industry’s boom . Venture capital typically targets investments with a high chance of a significant return, but Immortals offers the opposite. Turning a quick buck isn’t what this project is about. “This investor group sees esports as a marathon, not a sprint,” Foy said in the announcement.
That’s encouraging for long-term esports fans who have seen big money interest jump into the scene to capitalize on its growth and leave destruction in their wake. Immortals, as its name implies, plans to stick around for a long time.
The team is actually already off to a good start. They’ve secured a big partner in chip manufacturer AMD. And the Team 8 acquisition gives the them a hold in one of the biggest and most stable esports scenes. But it may take a sprint to maintain Immortals’ position in the LCS; the Summer season wasn’t kind to Team 8, who boasted a 6-12 regular season record them forced them into a relegation battle to survive. The roster lacks star talent, especially with the departure of top laner Steven “CaliTrLolz” Kim, who is leaving esports for pharmacy school. But it’s also a roster that also offers a clean slate for new management: None of the starting players are contracted through the end of this year.
Immortals will announce its plans for the roster and coaching staff in the “near future.”
Building a competitive roster will be one of the first challenges for Noah Whinston, Immortals’ CEO. While the team of big-name investors takes center stage in Immortals’ announcement, Whinston is the man at the helm. He’s the mastermind who pitched the idea to Foy and brought together the high powered team of investors, and he’s the one who will handle the day-to-day operations.
Whinston, a former Northwestern University student who dropped out to pursue esports full time, has experience both running a company and in building a competitive team. As founder and CEO of MTG Card Market, an ecommerce site for Magic: The Gathering, he learned how to run a company while putting together a competitive Magic team and sponsoring live streams of players. And he’s already tackled a challenge bigger than many others in esports: Bringing together a diverse group of investors for an unconventional project.
Many of those investors may not have been that hard of a sell. Take Foy, the first person Whinston convinced on the Immortals idea. A former COO at Square Enix, he has a long history in gaming that dates back to 1979, when he first stepped into an arcade. In an interview with the Daily Dot, he remembered watching his first tournament, the Space Invader Tournament hosted by Atari, which Wikipedia labels “the first electronic sports event,” a year later.
Esports has certainly come a long way since then, with millions of dollars in prizes, competitors from around the ground, and entire stadiums filled with screaming fans.
“I love the energy of esports events,” Foy said. He points to the 2013 League of Legends World Championship hosted in the Staples Center, what he called “one of those watershed events.” He attended a Beyoncé concert in the same venue a few weeks before and he was blown away. “The concert was amazing but the energy of the esports fans, the international exposure, and the thrill of the crowd just crushed the concert,” he said.
Foy is now an unabashed esports fan who watches League of Legends, Dota 2, and Counter-Strike while cheering for dominants teams like Fnatic in Counter-Strike and scrappy underdogs like Team Impulse in the LCS. Next year, Immortals could be that scrappy underdog, and Foy plans to be there in the stands cheering them on as much as possible (though the roster likely won’t include his favorite players, who will be playing for opposing teams: Team Liquid’s Diego “Quas” Ruiz of Team Liquid and Cloud9’s Zachary “Sneaky” Scuderi.)
That kind of passion seems to fuel many of the other people involved in the Immortals project. This doesn’t appear to be your typical investment, driven more by numbers on a spreadsheet than adrenaline.
“Investing is best done rationally without a lot of emotion,” Foy told the Daily Dot. “Sports are different. And this investment is different.”
He thinks Immortals can make a difference in esports.
“This is a passion project and the chance to help build something great,” he said. “I’m investing alongside some other passionate fans who want to create not just a strong team but help esports realize its potential as a true international sport.”
Foy and Whinston see the potential to not only compete as an esports team, but to help develop an industry that’s still struggling through growing pains. Just last week, many large esports team franchises banded together to demand certain standards from events, a first for the industry. There’s a lack of structure and regulation that’s still holding the industry back.
“We want to work with the publishers, leagues, owners, coaches and players and the whole ecosystem,” Foy said. “That excites me, building a next-gen international NBA.”
Esports should continue to grow exponentially next year. Broadcasting giant Turner will host its own league and broadcast it on live television. Mainstream fantasy sports sites FanDuel and DraftKings see esports as the next frontier for their billion-dollar-a-year industry—and they aren’t afraid to throw money around to advance their cause. Twitch is not only one of the biggest websites on the internet, but one of the biggest networks for live broadcasting—even compared to live television. But there’s still plenty of work to do in what Foy calls “the early days.”
“Honestly, I think everyone in esports needs to level up,” Foy said. “Some of the owners like Steve from Liquid and Jack at Cloud9 have done a fantastic job of building brand and teams. Riot has invested a ton in esports. But we all need to work harder as owners and coaches and collaborate with the leagues to elevate esports.”
“We can create sustainable leagues and durable brands by sensible regulation, training pro players for careers after they retire, and working with sponsors, broadcast channels and streaming channels to help the entire industry. It’s early days. That’s what’s exciting.”
Whinston echoes those sentiments. He’s ambitious. He wants Immortals to help set standards that bring the industry into the next stage of development.
“We recognize that the best way to grow the Immortals franchise is to work in conjunction with other team owners across every title to help the entire esports ecosystem expand in a healthy way,” Whinston said in the announcement. “We look forward to industry-wide conversations about sustainable business practices, competitive regulation, and player treatment and representation.”
Immortals has a long way to go before it changes the landscape, but it has the backing, connections, and expertise within the gaming and tech industries to get things done. Buying into the LCS by acquiring Team 8 gives them a place at the table of one of the most prestigious leagues in esports. That’s just a start, however. Whinston plans to expand “rapidly” into other popular esports like Dota 2 and Counter-Strike.
The group’s name, in case you were wondering, is meant to invoke both the Immortals, an ancient Persian military unit famed for its prowess on the battlefield and indomitable nature, and the concept of immortality itself. Whinston isn’t sure exactly what image the name should bring to mind, though the team has adopted a logo featuring the helm of an ancient warrior.
Whether his players can develop the same record on the battlefield as the ancient warriors that helped build an empire or whether the franchise can make a mark on esports that truly lasts forever remains to be seen. But the Immortals are here, and they’re planning, at any rate, to live up to their name.
Image via Riot Games | Remix by Jacob Wolf