Imagine a group of people standing around their friend, showering him with a loud, late-night rendition of “Happy Birthday” at a midtown Atlanta bar. It’s easy to do, as that’s a scene that has been recreated hundreds of times. It’s one that would also be common to see in esports, an industry many within it see as a sort of a fellowship.
The seemingly abnormal part of this particular interaction, as the gathering after Group B of ELEAGUE Season 2 approached 1 a.m. in the early November morning, was the subject. It wasn’t a player, caster, team owner or tournament organizer. Not even a production worker or manager, other common “unsung heroes.” The excitement was instead for the birthday of Kenny Sugishita, an ELEAGUE employee anonymous to the public but beloved by the players and vital — perhaps more than many — to the success of each event the Turner Sports/WME|IMG venture produces.
With less than a year in the industry, esports is still relatively foreign to Sugishita, though he’s adapted well. He’s essentially a player liaison for ELEAGUE’s events who works closely with the players to fill their needs, coordinate their travel and appearances, and do whatever it takes to ensure the event goes as smooth as possible.
“I try very hard to meet their accommodations, and I certainly hope the teams feel that and recognize that as well,” Sugishita said during a break in matches at last month’s ELEAGUE Major. “You can’t always deliver. It’s not always something I can do, but I certainly am confident that I can try to provide whatever they’re asking for as long as I know the right people to help with what they need as well.”
Sugishita studied sports and entertainment management and accounting in college, where as an undergrad he competed in track and field for the University of South Carolina-Upstate. He also coached track at USC-Upstate, so he’s long been a member of the competitive world.
He draws from his experiences as an athlete to help relate to the players he now deals with, but esports was not initially the plan for Sugishita. After earning his Master’s Degree from South Carolina last April, he began working for IMG as the administrative assistant for Min-Sik Ko, the commissioner of ELEAGUE, and was eventually brought on to his current role.
“Having Kenny has been invaluable for ELEAGUE,” vice president/general manager Christina Alejandre said. “Kenny is such an industrious fellow that he can go and find anything you need at all. And (the players) love him. We love him.”
During the ELEAGUE regular season, Sugishita was in charge of booking travel and hotel accommodations for the attending teams, working through conflicts with dates if teams had events before or after their ELEAGUE weeks. Once they arrived, he orchestrated shuttles for them to go to and from the ELEAGUE studio. He’d take them for breaks between games and usher them to and from practice rooms, the stage and all interview requests.
Need an extra chair? Kenny could find it. Specific food requests? Kenny can do it. Need to know where to relax after the games? Kenny will try to figure it out.
“Kenny is great. He’s probably one of the better player (reps),” OpTic’s Will “RUSH” Wierzba said. “He does really good things for us. And I only hear good things about him from everyone else, so he’s doing really well.”
Sugishita gives all the players his direct line, so there’s no delay if someone needs to contact him. That’s a big part of his appeal to Spencer “Hiko” Martin when coming to an ELEAGUE event.
“Usually a lot of these people don’t really give their numbers out, or they give it just to the manager,” Hiko said. “If you need something, you have to go through the manager (first). So he gives it to everybody. I have him on Facebook. I know I can message him. He’s on top of everything.”
For the Major, the job was a bit more hectic for Sugishita, especially during the group stage. Instead of four teams in town over the course of a week, he was ushering 16 teams in and out of the building, to and from the hotels, practice rooms, stage, interview area and players lounge for 14 hours every day.
The other fascinating part of Sugishita’s job is his demeanor. He’s normally quiet and kind of introverted by nature, so making himself available and constantly communicating with a lot of people was a bit of a personal challenge, especially at first. Witnessing the cultural differences between teams from different parts of the world, though, has been perhaps his favorite part of the gig, he said.”
“It’s definitely not by any means comfortable,” he said with a laugh. “I’m always learning something. I always try to learn something new every time, and I try to remember certain things about certain teams, but at the end of the day they’re all a bunch of really good guys.”
The actual act of communicating can also be a fun venture. He eliminates English slang because it can mean different things to players on non-American teams. He tries to communicate as efficiently as possible so that there’s no room for misinterpretation. (“I say ‘You. Shuttle. 10 a.m.’ That kind of thing.”)
The players can be difficult to approach, especially after losses, so Sugishita has gradually learned the best way to broach certain topics. With two seasons and a Major under his belt, he continues to get a better understanding of his surroundings.
“I think at first in Season 1 they were kind of testing the waters with us a little bit, but they know we’re trying to take care of them the best we can,” Sugishita said. “Sometimes, I know I still get on their nerves. When I’m knocking on the door every couple minutes saying, ‘I need your stuff. I need your stuff,’ that would get to all of us.”
Sugishita’s role is interesting in the context of the current state of professional Counter-Strike. There seems to be more events than ever, which means more tournament organizers are all trying to converge on the players and get them to come to their events.
Some players and teams already mentioned at the end of last year about possibly scaling back the number of events they plan to attend, and that’s why people like Sugishita is important: Every element, positive or negative, could influence a team’s decision on which events to attend.
“The staff can make a big difference to choosing some tournaments because players care about how they’re taken care of,” FaZe Clan’s Fabien “Kioshima” Fiey said. “If you have to chose between two tournaments, even if there is more money, you’re going to choose the one you’re more comfortable going in, compared to one you don’t know or they don’t take care of the players.”
Cover photo courtesy of Turner Sports/ELEAGUE