Editor’s Note: The following is a Q&A between Michael Brust, deputy sports editor of The Daily Californian, and Andy Miller, co-owner of the Sacramento Kings and the San Francisco Shock, in reference to the Shock’s upcoming homestand at Zellerbach Hall on March 28 and 29. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Michael Brust: Can you describe your history with esports, how you started NRG and how that led to the creation of the SF Shock?
Andy Miller: I’m a co-owner of the Sacramento Kings with Mark Mastrov. Mark was the founder and CEO of 24 Hour Fitness. We bought the Kings five, six years ago and we started becoming fast friends. We have a bunch of kids and they had gaming in common and they were able to become great friends just by playing together — and we started to just watch that evolve and watch them watch other people on Twitch back in the day. We saw how many people were watching people play games, and thought ‘Gee, this is really interesting,’ so we started looking at the competitive side, and we were really cocky and figured we could do this ourselves. So we went out and bought our League of Legends team and got started. We brought on Shaquille O’Neal as a partner, who both of us had done work with in the past, and we got into esports. One thing led to another, we kept adding teams and eventually we purchased the Northern California franchise for Overwatch League.
MB: Your team, the SF Shock, has made it pretty apparent that Cal is a part of your core fan base. You’ve had watch parties, signing sessions, appearances — and you’ve also sponsored programs like Cal Esports. What makes Cal so significant for the Shock?
AM: No one has ever really teamed a professional sports team with a college. We said, ‘Wow this is perfect!’ Cal has an insane gaming community and they were super motivated, and we already had a bunch of fans right when we got going. So we approached them and we wanted it to be our home base. We also have Marshawn Lynch as an investor and he obviously is from the area and it made total sense, so we wanted to make it our home base.
MB: The Overwatch League is moving toward a more traditional sports model with homestands and traveling to and from different arenas rather than having every team play in the same arena all season. Can you talk about that change and what the future of that model looks like?
AM: For the past two seasons, all the matches were played in Los Angeles at Blizzard Arena and then broadcasted to the world. And this year, we are going to our home markets. There are 20 teams around the world: four in China, one in Korea, a couple in Europe and the rest in North America. And everyone is holding a number of home matches. This is more of a traditional sports model on some level — because there are regular season matches — but the difference is that they are really weekend festivals. What we are doing at Zellerbach, we’re having a party there. We are having cosplay competitions, a DJ, a ring ceremony. It’s more of a festival and an event than it is another regular season Kings game.
MB: You guys are defending champions and have had a good start to your 2020 campaign. How did your team create a winning culture?
AM: We took a much different approach than everyone else. We tried to have a mix team of Korean players and Western players, which most people said would fail because of culture and communication. We took a big risk by getting our two big U.S. stars Super and Sinatraa when they were too young (and) ineligible to play. We threw the first half of our first season knowing that we had to wait for them to play, but they watched and participated and learned and along came the real culture glue — our coach, Crusty. He’s the best coach in the history of Overwatch and a mastermind at the game. He and Chris Chung, our general manager, built up a culture where players wanted to play for Crusty because they wanted to learn like Belichick with the Patriots. Chris built a real team environment no matter what was thrown at us — we were a really flexible team. Sometimes some guys were going to play, sometimes others, but everyone was really supportive. They really liked each other and learned how to communicate really well with each other, which is the key to Overwatch. They built a winning culture.
MB: How important are championships in creating a reliable and consistent fandom? And how much of a boost has the Shock seen after winning the Overwatch League last year?
AM: Winning is super important especially in OWL. Our goal was to win season two. We wanted to win knowing that we were going to our home markets in season three and we wanted to be able to sell out Zellerbach. It’s an interesting phenomenon where we haven’t had a situation where you grow up (a fan). I’m from Boston, so how can you not be a Red Sox fan? Or in Sacramento, even if you don’t like basketball, you know about the Kings and care about them — and that never really happens with Overwatch, so now we are developing that. Getting the Cal students to come and support us in our first match is huge for us.
MB: Last year, NRG sold its CSGO team and you said publicly that the CSGO esports environment wasn’t really a sensible or a sustainable investment for organizations. What about the Overwatch League model is better than the CSGO esports model?
AM: It boils down to the franchise league model versus the anything goes model. There is a lot of tinkering to be done with Overwatch League, League of Legends and Call of Duty, for sure. Lots. But we will get there because the interest is there. With Counter Strike, there are no rules, no commissioner, no standard contracts, no anti-tampering. We had guys calling our guys under contract all the time. There were multiple leagues, and now even more leagues, and you just don’t know where to turn. The salaries were extremely high for those games. And then you had organizations that raised money that didn’t get in, or didn’t want to get into a franchise league, so they were pouring their money into this game. It became economically dumb.
MB: You have some of the most exciting players in Overwatch League. Sinatraa, for example, is a household name for a lot of Overwatch fans. What is it like to have star players and such charming personalities as representations of your brand?
AM: Well it’s great, because both Super and Sinatraa didn’t want to talk because they thought they were trash in the first season. They were kids and they were 17 years old. Now they are turning 19, and they have matured. They are adults and confident and they are fun and creating legacies for themselves, which is amazing and we have a lot of guys like that. We are an all-star team to bottom. Moth is a great player, great personality. Rascal is hilarious, Architect is adorable, all the way down the line — even our new player ANS is really big in Korea and China with his Youtube, because he’s hilarious. That’s something the Overwatch League needs, they need personalities and we need stars. We need that because you fall in love with players and teams.
MB: Obviously the Shock and the homestand event are going to appeal to gamers and the Overwatch League fans, but what do you say to casual fans and those outside of the esports world as to why they should support the Shock?
AM: If you’re a gamer, if your roommate is a gamer, if your kid is a gamer, if you’re interested in Overwatch, videogames or that lifestyle, come to the event. There is a ton to do outside of the matches. Saturday, we are going to unveil our championship banner and Marshawn Lynch is going to help me give out our championship rings to our players and coaching staff. If you have nothing to do, come out — it’s not that expensive, meet some folks and hopefully you’ll have a great time. And there’s a discount for Berkeley students if you use your ID at Shock2020.com.