After a long day of media appearances, Demetrious Johnson seemed excited for a change of pace.
Sitting in a Manhattan restaurant Tuesday afternoon, Johnson — the UFC flyweight champion who recently moved within one win of the record for most consecutive title defenses — interrupted a question to make sure he was on the same page.
“Oh, is this the esports one?” he asked. “Fuck yeah.”
In addition to being arguably the best pound-for-pound fighter in the UFC, Johnson has become a dedicated gamer, streamer and esports fan. He’s streamed six times already in May and plays a variety of games. He’s talked in the past about his desire to be a full-time streamer once his UFC career is done and has emerged as one of a handful of celebrities from traditional sports to endorse the esports industry.
Slingshot’s Vince Nairn talked to Johnson about parallels between esports and the UFC, how the industry thrives on violence and why he’s not interested in owning an esports organization. (This interview was edited for clarity)
Vince Nairn: You’re a couple weeks removed from the fight now, but how do you feel? Being one fight away from the record, has that set in at all yet? Have you had time to put into perspective what exactly that means?
Demetrious Johnson: No. I just stay focused and humbled. I’m happy that I won the fight, happy that the fight went the way it did, happy I got the submission to finish. But right now I’m just focused on doing media, getting my name out there, building my brand and training, and waiting until they call me.
VN: You’ve been streaming a bunch lately, a lot of it H1Z1 and Battlegrounds. What do you like about those particular games?
DJ: I like the aspect of the game where it’s like 150 people in H1Z1 and 100 people in Battleground, drop down, fight for survival, and may the best man win. I like Battlegrounds more because I like the shooting on it. It’s a lot better. I like the customization in the game where it always brings me joy to where I go into a house and I find a fucking AKM with a fucking AKM silencer. Oh, guess what? I just found an SKS with a silencer. I got the cheek pad and I got a quickdraw Mag. I’ve got a Level 3 helmet, Level 3 vest, Level 3 backpack and I’m sitting fucking pretty. That’s what gets me pumped up for that game.
For H1Z1, oh, I drop it down here. Oh, I found a shotgun. It’s the only shotgun they have. I got an AK-47, AR-50. These are the guns I get and I got a grenade and that’s it. I like the customization more in Battlegrounds. That’s what keeps me addicted and coming back. I was playing Heroes of the Storm last night, and that was actually pretty fun, too.
VN: The esports industry is one I know you follow a bit as well, and it’s interesting because it’s still kind of early in its existence. Do you see any parallels with where esports is now compared to where the UFC was four or five years ago?
DJ: Oh yeah. Absolutely. I remember UFC three or four years ago, it was just like that. Nobody talked about it. Nobody really cared about it. And now it’s blowing up. You look at esports maybe three years ago, nobody really talked about it. Now it’s blowing up. Fucking Dota 2 had a $20 million prize pool in Seattle, Washington for a tournament in Key Arena (The International 6). It’s definitely blowing up, and I just hope me streaming on Twitch is gonna get me a gateway. I’m actually working with WME|IMG with some games. I told them what I wanted to do. I kind of want to be a color commentator. An on-air commentator or host…I’d like to be an analyst a little bit. That’s kind of the role I want to go for, but understanding that when you want to go for that role, you have to pick one specific game. You can’t jump around everywhere. So I’m starting to buckle down and get focused for that.
VN: One thing about this industry is people seem to see pro athletes interacting with them as a form of validation for the industry as a whole. Do you buy into that? Have you had any moments interacting with people that gave you that impression?
DJ: I think the industry likes it because I’m bringing way more awareness and bringing attention to it. As for my fans who watch me stream on Twitch, they’re happy because they love when I’m playing video games and love to see me be successful in that area.
VN: Dana White, obviously, was somebody who really formulated the UFC and made it what it is today. Do you think esports needs a Dana White? Or will it grow on its own?
DJ: It’ll thrive on its own. It’ll thrive because there’s such a market for it. There’s multiple games, different games. You have Heroes of the Storm, Dota 2, League of Legends. You have ELEAGUE with Street Fighter V. You have Capcom EVO, Marvel vs. Capcom. You’ve got the new MvC Infinite, which they’re coming out with, and Tekken 7. It’s gonna get there, especially with Twitch doing an amazing job pushing all the stuff. I think it won’t need a big head figure or presence like that. It definitely needs investors. It definitely needs television to help, but I think it will get there.
VN: That actually leads into my next question. I know you have that sort of brand/affiliation partnership with Northern Gaming, but have you ever considered investing in an esports organization or starting you own?
DJ: There’s no money in it. And let me be clear about my affiliation with Northern Gaming. Right now, Northern Gaming, I’m an influencer for them. I try to push them a lot, and they’re gonna help me build my channel. Drop a couple hosts. That’s about it. So are they paying me? No. So if another esports investor came to me right now said “Hey, we want to give you $5 million dollars to basically be to own this esports team. We want to call it the Mighty Squad. We want to use your logo, make you the president, want you to speak on behalf of us and all that stuff,” I would say yes. Because I’m building that brand and I”m gonna take a percentage if I’m giving my time to it. But for me to use my hard-earned fighting dollars to do an esports team? No. How do you make your money back? You don’t…I hear stories about esports players not getting paid, and I don’t want that headache. I don’t make enough money in fighting to be able to own an esports team.
VN: This is a bit of an odd question, but you’re widely considered the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. Are there qualities you, as the best, look for in other people that you’re watching? Are there any that are plainly identifiable to you?
DJ: It’s too hard. It’s only one facet of the game because the guy’s sitting there (at a computer). So you can’t really tell by general expression. Some guys, the way they play, they’re either more aggressive or more passive or a little bit of both. You have that in Mixed Martial Arts. You have guys that are aggressive or are a little passive. You see a little of that in League of Legends, how some guys will be like “Oh, he’s pushing, he’s pushing and oh, he gets the kill!” Or he’s playing a passive game, and you see that a little bit in esports. A lot, actually. Even in Street Fighter V, you see guys testing the difference depending on the character they have, whether they have Ryu or Nash or Chun-Li. You see a lot of that.
VN: When ELEAGUE first came out, there was this talking point about if esports really succeed in a game like Counter-Strike, where it’s very violent and you have things like terrorists versus counter terrorists. You thrive in a sport that is quite literally violent. What do you think of the notion that violence in games can hold esports back?
DJ: I don’t think it will. I think it’s gonna thrive on (violence). Because no one wants to see someone play fucking Uno on TV. No one wants to see someone play Mario Kart on TV. They want to see strategic, brutal gameplay. It’s brutal, but I think it’ll be totally fine. That’s my personal opinion.
VN: Ending with two quick UFC questions: One, what do you think of the card for this weekend?
DJ: I think it’s gonna be fun. I’m just excited about it, man. I haven’t thought about it too much. I try to give myself a break and not analyze the fights, just enjoy it as a fan.
VN: Last one: Everyone seems to be wondering if this fight between Conor McGregor and Floyd Mayweather will ever happen. Do you think it’ll happen? And if so, who do you got?
DJ: I think it probably will happen eventually. And I’ll be rooting for Conor, but I think Floyd will beat him because it’s boxing. That’s my personal opinion.
Cover photo courtesy of UFC/illustration by Slingshot