Phoenix1 has come a long way in almost one year as an esports organization, and managing partner Michael Moore says there’s more to come.
After entering the North American League of Legends Championship Series last year when it bought the spot vacated by Team Impulse, Phoenix1 struggled through its first split but built a playoff team this spring. Phoenix1 finished third, and the org has also expanded into Super Smash Bros with the signings of James “Duck” Ma and Gavin “Tweek” Dempsey.
Slingshot’s Vince Nairn talked to Moore about evaluating his first year in esports, the effect franchising will have on the LCS and struggles to monetize as an organization. (Editor’s note: This is the second in a string of interviews with executives of esports organizations looking at the future of the industry and major topics within. Check out the first, a two–part interview with compLexity founder Jason Lake).
Vince Nairn: You’re coming up on the one year anniversary of starting Phoenix1. How would you evaluate where you are at the one year mark?
Michael Moore: Personally, I’m super happy with how our first year has gone. Obviously, our first split in League of Legends was super — not sure how to describe it — it was precarious, I guess. But we managed to pull through. And we knew that when we were getting into it, so we were able to build from there. So I’m super happy with that. We’ve been slow to expand from there. We’ve been really looking for good opportunities and aren’t looking to get our fingers in every pie and spread ourselves too thin. So I think this is just the beginning for us, and I’m super happy with how it’s gone so far.
VN: With this split for the LoL team, what did you guys do to help the Korean players and make them feel comfortable? It seemed like it was a relatively seamless transition. Arrow won MVP, etc. What did you guys try to do to make that transition a good one?
MM: Yeah, we were super conscious of that. We knew that it’s been something that’s happened in NA in the past where teams sign Korean players and they perform a lot worse than they had in Korea, communication issues and I guess homesickness. And the transition to living in NA is generally cited as the reason for those things. Our manager (Chad “HistoryTeacher” Smeltz) had experience with that on teams he’s worked with in the past, so it’s definitely something we were conscious of. So when we were scouting out players to recruit for this season, we just paid attention to people we thought would have an easier time to transitioning to living in NA.
Ryu had lived in Europe for a few years so he’s familiar with Western culture, speaking English. So that wasn’t a culture shock for him. Arrow is a super outgoing guy. Really good English and was excited to come live in North America. So we felt like those were guys who, based on their experiences and personalities, would fit in well. And then on top of that, we have a translator and interpreter on staff to help the players communicate and an English teacher that comes in and gives the guys lessons. We also made sure we hired a Korean chef, so they have food that they (are familiar with). So we did a lot to make sure they were taken care of.
VN: One thing that has kind of been interesting: One of your players said to Andrew early in the split that it was sometimes difficult to get scrims, whether that was a new vs. old thing or scheduling conflict. I think that might have corrected itself later, but did you find any difficulties with the scrim culture?
MM: I wouldn’t say there was really difficulty around that from my perspective. I think teams wanna scrim the best opponents they can. Every team is trying to. Every team wants to find the best scrim partners they can, especially (because) we were down at the bottom of the standings for the whole season (last year). So that wouldn’t provide good practice for the teams at the top. So that’s logical. It makes sense. It’s not something really to complain about; it’s just kind of what you work for to kind of prove yourself and climb the ranks both in the standings and getting better and better practice.
VN: With League of Legends, franchising has been the hot topic for the last month or so. It seems like the community has a weird understanding of what exactly it is and how it works. From an owner perspective, executive perspective, how much does franchising help an organization?
MM: I think it’s a big help to us. The stability is a huge thing. To the fans, they don’t see that as a positive to them as much. But for us, the stability is probably the biggest thing. And beyond that, it’s the ability to invest in players for longer. It’s the ability to invest in younger players without much experience because you don’t have to worry about your business collapsing because you took a risk on someone and six months ago you were doing great and now all of the sudden, you’re relegated. I think a lot of people, if you look back on Cloud9 in Season 5, where they played on the Finals in spring, and Hai (Du Lam) retired and they brought in (Nicolaj) Jensen, and they ended up at the bottom of the standings and the risk of relegation.
If things had gone differently, I don’t feel like anyone would feel good about Cloud9 having gotten relegated in that season. So I think there’s just a lot of negative things that can happen because they took a risk on a rookie player, who turned out to be great. He’s now one of the best mid laners in NA and the West and the world. So it definitely will benefit teams a lot to have the stability to invest in players like that, to not have to bench a player because they had a bad couple weeks and all of the sudden your season’s on the ropes. From the players perspectives especially, there’s going to be a lot of stability for them. That’s going to be good.
VN: Is there anything massaging that can be done to help the fans understand it?
MM: If and when Riot decides to officially implement this and announce it, there’s going to be a lot of, probably a lot of turmoil, a lot of discussion. I think discussion’s good. I think it’s good for people to talk about what they are worried about and want to see. One thing I haven’t seen a lot of is constructive feedback about franchising. I see a lot of people saying “This isn’t what we want. We think this is gonna be bad.” Personally what I’d like to see more of is people being like “The way people have talked about franchising, I wouldn’t like it. I’d like to see it done this way.” I’d like to see a lot more of that. I think that feedback would be really valuable.
VN: You guys have moved into Smash as well. What are the things you look for when you consider other games outside of League of Legends? And what’s the process, or what do you monitor in that space?
MM: For us, we’re about coming up on our one-year anniversary, so we’re still what I would consider a younger esports organization. So we’re not really looking at the cutting edge of up and coming games. We’re looking for games that have been around a while like Smash, which has been around for at least 10 years at this point with Melee. Games that have been around for a long time that have really dedicated fan bases. And to me that’s one of the biggest things: the fans and getting involved with games we’re passionate about as fans and have fan bases that we can get involved with. That’s the most exciting thing we’re looking for.
VN: I know you said you’re not looking to get involved with up and coming games as such, but have you paid attention at all to what’s going on with Blizzard and Overwatch League? It’s probably the most talked about topic in esports at the moment.
MM: I don’t know that I have enough intimate knowledge of what’s going on there from an overall perspective. I just know from our team, we kind of try to look at it if it made any sense for us to get involved with Overwatch, and we haven’t really.
VN: For you guys as an esports organization, so many owners have talked about esports being in this bubble and that it’s difficult to find sponsorships and monetize. As a newer organization, how have you met that challenge to this point?
MM: I guess there’s a couple pieces to that. In terms of securing sponsorships and that kind of thing, at first it was really hard for us. We had to prove ourselves and that we could stick around in League for more than six months. But now we’ve been around, we’ve been able to secure some sponsorships. It’s been a lot better for us, for sure. But I think the idea that there might be some sort of bubble is not completely unfounded.
Costs are going up and up in League of Legends especially right now. There’s a lot of competition. People really want to get themselves into the best position they can in League right now. So spending on players is going up — which I think is great because I think for the amount of talent these guys have and how short their careers tend to be, not paying attention to economics at all, I think it would be great if they could be paid even more than they are right now. But at the same time, the revenue opportunities are not keeping pace with the costs, so something’s going to have to change for sure, for it not to — not to say fall apart, but for things to become sustainable.
VN: Coming from the entertainment industry, what’s one thing that has surprised you about esports? Or one thing you think will be important to happen in the next year or so?
MM: I guess the biggest difference between working in marketing for the entertainment industry and working in esports — which I find really refreshing — is how much more honest we can be with the fans. It feels like there’s a real connection there, where marketing for Hollywood always felt a little — it always felt like you were trying to trick people a little bit to come see the movies. That always felt a little slimy, so really it’s been a nice change of pace for sure.
VN: Looking back historically in League of Legends, you guys obviously finished third in this split. I feel like every final except one has had two of CLG/TSM/C9. How badly do you guys wanna be the team that can break that string and get to a final?
MM: Yeah, pretty badly. It would be so exciting. As hype as TSM/C9 finals are, I think after a certain point, when that happens five times in a row, it gets pretty stale. I’m a fan of League of Legends too. So even from that perspective, I want to see some new blood in there for sure.
VN: I really thought you guys had a chance to do it in the spring split, too.
MM: I know. Even though we didn’t make it, it was still super happy with our team and how they did.
VN: What’s one general goal you have for the organization? And also what’s one you have specifically for the League team?
MM: I try not to be super results oriented. I think that’s not a productive way to operate our team. I of course really wanna win as much as we can. I feel like we wanna keep improving every year, every split, how we do things, our staff and helping our players to make sure we’re doing the best we can to ensure that we win. And to never be satisfied or sit on our heels with how we do things. I think that’s the biggest thing for us, for me, to keep improving the way we do things.
Cover photo courtesy of Riot Games/illustration by Slingshot