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In-depth interview with Cloud9 CEO and founder Jack Etienne (Part 2)

As the founder and CEO of Cloud9, Jack Etienne has been one of the pioneers in esports for the last five years.

Cloud9 was founded in 2012 and has since been built into one of the most recognizable brands in esports. It started with League of Legends, and C9 has been a staple of the League Championship Series since its inception in 2013. But Etienne has built Cloud9 into a multi-title organization that has teams or players in nine different games.

As esports has grown significantly in the last year and a half, Etienne has continued to have a large role in the ecosystem. Slingshot’s Andrew Kim had the chance to sit down with Etienne during the LCS last month for an extensive conversation about building Cloud9, how esports has changed and what to expect in the future.

In Part 2 of the two-part interview, Etienne talks about nurturing players and looks to the future as to what Cloud9 has on the horizon. (Click here to read Part 1). 

Andrew Kim: What is an aspect of being an owner of an esports team that a lot of people don’t really know about what it entails? But something you would hope fans had a better understanding of?

Jack Etienne: I think that the Reddit hive mind style of thinking is very dangerous. For every game that you see on stage, we’ve got dozens of games in between to draw information and conclusions on about certain players. It’s sometimes really hard if a player has one game on stage to see the entire community lash out against that player and not realize that the teams have a lot of time spent with that player and see a lot more than the fans do. It’d be nice if the fans would have a bit more faith in their team that we’re doing our best to do right by our team.

AK: You mentioned earlier that you were hoping a lot of new investments or investors would be a little more in it for the long haul. Obviously you have a very growth-centric idea on how esports works in terms of player investment and stuff like that. How do you make that kind of calculus in terms of who to bring in at what times and how much investment or time you have to give to a certain person in order for them to realize the type of potential that you’ve seen in them?

JE: That’s a super hard question because people are all different and there’s no formula that’s “Oh, I’ve got this formula. I’ll apply it to all situations.” And this is why it’s important for me to have a lot of interaction with the team, or staff that does. There’s so much to team chemistry that’s not formulaic. You have to understand the mentality of the player, what motivates him. How he interacts with his teammates. You have to design your system and redesign your system for every person in the organization because they’re all unique. They’re not the same. If you can get some formula down that you use for every team, you’re gonna be in trouble real quick.

AK: The nature of how you approach your team and business has been very hands on, clearly. But I’m sure there are frustrations that come with interacting with people who are much younger than you are and sometimes have egos, immature thoughts — as comes with the territory. What are some of the more frustrating things you’ve encountered, and how do you kind of deal with that element?

JE: I think the most important thing that we have to get across to our players is that looking good on stage is important, but it’s more important to make sure we’re good brand ambassadors for our sponsors. We need to take the time to thank them, make sure we get the visibility they require. Every single thing we do is going to be analyzed, reviewed upon as if it’s a pro or a con for our sponsors. So you constantly have to be thinking of when you’re out there making public statements, is this going to hurt my company? Or hinder our ability to have business? Or can we bring in more? I think it’s just the sponsors are our lifeblood, and it allows us to be able to give our players raises. It allows us to travel to events, and one thoughtless comment can actually remove an entire sponsor from our entire organization from one of our teams. And we’ve got like eight teams. So if one of my teams hurts one sponsor, it affects not just the five guys on his own team, not that one player. But it affects like 40 people. So I try to spend a lot of time with my players as I bring them on board to make sure they understand that they are representing all of Cloud9, not just themselves. And I hope that they respect that.

AK: Reginald made an interesting comment during Week 1 of the LCS between games in the match between Cloud9 and TSM. He said he didn’t feel like the owners of organizations who have imported talent from Korea or elsewhere don’t really know what they’re doing, and that he had doubts about the effectiveness of the imports. Obviously, Reginald is somebody who is a veteran owner when it comes to League of Legends. What are your thoughts on that sentiment?

JE: I can’t really speak for Regi or what he’s trying to say. But I do know that if you do import, you need to go all in. You can’t just bring on a dude and hope it’s gonna work. You need to understand the culture you’re bringing in, make sure the team has an understanding of what you’re doing. If the player doesn’t speak the language natively, be ready for a whole host of problems that are going to come along with it. I know that TSM has made a concerted effort to try to avoid any foreign language speakers because of the communication issues that are part of it. And I did the opposite. I just dove all in, and I found the best translator I could to work with them and the smartest coaches. And I found the best players regardless of their location. It’s had some stumbling blocks along the way, but I think we’ve got something that’s working really well.

AK: So Cloud9 has impressively crowned into one of the bigger brand in esports, and obviously this is not a point where you feel comfortable. You want to grow further and into an even larger enterprise. What are some of the goals that you have as an owner for Cloud9 that you want to reach?

JE: I want to, there’s a few things I want to do. I want to build some sort of partnership with a major university here in southern California where my players, if they have free time, can work toward a degree. So they don’t have to give up on any educational goals they may have. I think that it would be an exciting opportunity for some of their students to provide access to my team, and I think it would be really valuable for me. Sometimes when I’m talking to players and signing, and they’re in their teens, (I wish) I could tell their parents, “Hey, have your child get a GED, but while they’re with me, we’re gonna have them take classes at some major university that’s local here.” Should they not want to be a manager or coach or involved in esports later on, they’re gonna have other opportunities. That’s something I really wanna make happen in the next year.

AK: What’s something you find being the most enjoyable part of owning an esports organization?

JE: Today, we 2-0 against Immortals, and I’m sitting there listening to my team communicate because I can hear the in-game audio. To hear the entire team participating in that communication and really having a full grasp and confidence of the entire game of what they’re doing was just reflective of just the now year of work to try to make this team happy. Because we’ve gone through a lot of changes. And so, the countless hours that have gone into that, it’s exciting to really see it come to fruition.

AK: My last question for you is, what has been your biggest triumph so far?

JE: I’ve had a couple of moments that were really special for me. Winning IEM in San Jose with my LCS team, which is in my hometown area, with my dad in the audience was sure memorable. I’m never gonna forget it. Absolutely love that experience. Winning the ESL Pro League finals for Counter-Strike, one of the first large Counter-Strike events I attended. A North American team hadn’t won in nearly a decade or something like that. To be able to put that together was super exciting. Those events are super special, and they just stick with me. But on a daily basis, the management team with Danan and Reapered, Cain, Beth. I’ll give you a list of names. They’ve all made this happen with me. My wife, who’s also COO of the company. I’m super proud of what we’ve done. It’s amazing to think about.

Cover photo courtesy of Riot Games/illustration by Slingshot