In more than half a year as president of NRG Esports, Brett Lautenbach has endured a sizable shift in the organization’s focus.
NRG, which entered esports at the tail end of 2015 by purchasing a spot in the North American League of Legends Championship Series, was relegated from League of Legends over the summer and later exited the game. NRG had since expanded into other titles, and that would become the org’s new focus in its post-LCS world.
NRG has now has players/teams in Counter-Strike, Overwatch, Hearthstone, Smite, Rocket League, Super Smash Bros, Vainglory and For Honor. The org has made a concerted effort on trying to capitalize on lesser known games that might have room for growth.
Slingshot’s Vince Nairn talked to Lautenbach about NRG’s philosophy, Overwatch League, over-saturation in Counter-Strike and growth areas in the industry.
(Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a string of interviews with executives of esports organizations looking at the future of the industry and major topics within. Check out previous editions with Splyce co-owner Marty Strenczewilk (Parts 1 and 2), Phoenix1 managing partner Michael Moore and a two–part interview with compLexity founder Jason Lake).
Vince Nairn: First, how would you sum up your time since taking over as president or NRG?
Brett Lautenbach: It’s been a great experience for me personally, and I’ve really enjoyed the org and working with all the folks behind the scenes as well as our chairman, Andy (Miller). For us, it’s definitely been a big growth period. I came on last fall. We had just been relegated out of League of Legends, and we had to look internally and say “OK, what is our next step? What are we going to do here? How do we stay relevant to our fan base and more and more esports fans every day?”
So we looked at it and asked if we could make an impact in games that we weren’t already looking at, whether that’s us entering into Smash Bros with Nairo (Nairoby Quezada) or Rocket League. We’ve had a really good experience expanding into new titles, Vainglory most recently. For Honor, even. It’s been really cool. It’s been nice to kind of step back and look at the landscape, see what’s out there. See what games are popping up and see where we can really have a positive impact for the community and for the games themselves.
VN: What was that initial post-LCS period like? You came on after the team got relegated, and that’s obviously a big transition point. How did you go about figuring out the best way to plan the next era?
BL: I’ll speak a little bit for Andy here because I wasn’t there throughout the whole League of Legends process, but I think what Andy told me is we learned so many valuable lessons from our time in League, and League is a tremendous game. It’s a hell of a lot of fun to be involved in. It was a crash course for us in a lot of ways. We learned what worked. We learned what didn’t. And we kind of just distilled that into et’s take what we’ve kind of figured out as this function for how you run an organization and start looking into new titles and really imprinting that on every roster we get involved in, from Overwatch to CS:GO, Vainglory, Rocket League and the rest. I think Andy and the staff took a lot away from that experience in League, and it’s been super valuable to us.
VN: You guys have really made a splash with sort of the “lesser known” esports. Rocket League, Smite, Vainglory, etc. How did you guys decide that was a space you really wanted to own?
BL: I think we saw there was a lot of upside for teams to be involved in the space. Frankly, you look at something like Rocket League, and a lot of our peers in other esports are still not involved with it, and it’s a great place to be. The developer’s support, the tournament support is all really first class there. That’s a huge thing for us as an organization looking into new titles. Is this supported already? If not, can we help build the system there? It’s been a really great working with some of the folks at Hi-Rez and Psyonix and Twitch as well for Rocket League.
Hi-Rez does great work. They’ve done a tremendous job with Smite year over year. A lot of people sleep on it because it might not be their esport or their personal choice. And that’s the beauty of esports as a whole. We have hundreds of millions of fans worldwide, but at the same time it’s like traditional sports. Your football fan might not be your tennis fan, might not be your golf fan. And that’s always going to be the case in esports. There’s always going to be some overlap, but a lot of the communities are siloed in their own unique ways.
VN: With how much attention goes into the top tier games — League, CS:GO, Dota — does that almost make the space beneath it more appealing because it’s not as crowded and costly, if that makes sense?
BL: Yeah. I think you get involved with a game that’s kind of on its upswing. There’s an inherent difference. The costs aren’t gonna be the same. If you go to League now, it’s a huge crowded market place. If you go to CS:GO, it’s a huge crowded marketplace. Costs are gonna go up because there’s a huge competition for it. It obviously makes it appetizing, but I don’t think we look at it from the standpoint of if it’s a cheap investment. We’re obviously smart about it and we think about ROI a lot, but at the end of the day, it’s about so much more than that.
It’s about looking at the community. Is this a community we want to be involved in? Is this a community that we want to talk with every day through social media, content, all the ways we talk to fans? Are there tentpole people in those places we can go work with? Our Rocket League team is incredible, and they’re really standard bearers for their community. You look at people like Jacob, Garrett and Fireburner, and they’re incredible. They’re such a pleasure to work with from our end. Fans love them and they get a lot of results, too, which is an added bonus.
VN: Overwatch is obviously the game that has everybody’s attention in the industry right now. What is your take on the scene? Obviously esports has been kind of stagnant, and that’s hurt your organization with regards to Seagull…
BL: I think Contenders has been recently announced, which we’re really excited about. That’s gonna be a really cool tournament circuit to see how it goes out. When you launch a title with an esports focus, a lot of people now, I think there’s an expectation for things to come out of the gate as strong as anything else, which I think is a little unfair. I think the community around Overwatch is really tremendous. It’s cool to see.
We were at BlizzCon last year, and it’s just such a rabid fan base, and people care so much about not only the esports aspect of it but also the characters, which is kind of rare in esports. A lot of times it is really focused around the individual player, which is great. We need to champion these individual players. But it’s also cool to see this increasingly colorful, lore-filled world on the back end of it that’s slowly being pieced out over time. It’s a really cool community to be a part of. We love our fans there, and we’re excited to keep the ball moving forward there.
VN: There’s this sentiment, and Richard (Lewis) reported it recently that endemic people in esports are worried about not being invited to the table in Overwatch League. What do you make of that assertion?
BL: I think Richard is a tremendous journalist and is a great asset to esports. He knows I think that of him. What I would say is we’ve had a really healthy relationship with Blizzard for a long time as an organization. Even me personally working outside of NRG. We support more than one of their titles. A lot of teams are in communication with Blizzard and talking to them. I think it takes time, and this is not an overnight process. It’s tough to get a big league off the ground. I’m confident in what Blizzard is doing in trying to put this together. I think ultimately everybody will be happy with the results. That’s my hope and what I’d bet on. I’m sure they’re doing a ton of work behind the scenes to make sure that’s the case.
VN: Your CS:GO team, I think, played Cloud9 something like three days in a row last week. There’s this year-long debate about over-saturation. What’s your overall take on the issue?
BL: It’s a double-edged sword. It’s amazing that as a fan of Counter-Strike that you can watch as many competitive matches as you can. There are matches going on all the time. It’s head-spinning the amount of competitive matches going on, whether it’s tournaments, minors, online — there’s so much going on, which is great. We always do worry for our players to make sure they get the rest time and that they’re not burning out. That’s super important for us, as I know it’s important for just about every other org out there. The only way to keep track of that is to have orgs that are very in tune with what their players are doing and how their players are feeling. We’ve really stressed that. “Let us know how you’re feeling. If you ever feel like it’s too much, please come talk to us.”
We’re looking out for those signals to make sure we’re really helping them as much as we can. It’s a super crowded landscape for CSGO. It’s a great game and it looks like viewership isn’t dying out because there’s too many events, which is kind of amazing. I’m excited to see where it continues to develop. At this point, I’d be shocked to see another tournament series pop out of the blue. I think that’d be a little too much. But I think the players love competing, and that’s a huge part of it. We need to continue to make sure their well-being is taken care of and put first and foremost above all else.
VN: How has your team started to piece itself together during the course of this year?
BL: It’s been super interesting. The team has done incredibly well, and I think it’s been a really cool team to watch develop since we kind of brought them all on board. You’ve got some veteran players, younger players, and that dynamic is so helpful because the thing about CS:GO is you have such a range of players in it and you’ve got a lot of new players coming up, and there’s so many valuable lessons that players who have been around the block before can offer. People like PTR, he’s having the year of his life in terms of play right now, which has been awesome to see. You’ve got Brehze, who’s a young and huge rising talent in this space. He’s been fun to watch. Daps in the IGL spot, FugLy as well, LILMAN. Those guys, they mesh well, sot that’s super important for us, that cohesiveness and the fact they can lean on each other.
VN: For as much as over-saturation exists, and it very much exists online and LAN for the top tier teams. For the lower tier and teams in the middle, there’s a lot of online CS but not a lot of LAN. How does that make it difficult to get guys experience?
BL: There are local events and it’s clearly not the same. It’s about as much as you can get out of it. And that’s the hard part about it, to be a young player to be young up-and-coming players in this scene, it is tough to get that major LAN experience. At the same time, they’re young and up-and-coming for a reason, and they’re getting there. Eventually they’ll be on that main stage, and that’s one of the cool things about CS and its history. There’s always been room for guys to show up to the table. I think that’s a really compelling narrative for the game, fans and players, too. It’s really awesome.
VN: Likewise, with Smash and the FGC, they’re kind of off separately in the sense that having someone as a member of your team is different than in team esports. With Nairo, how have you guys tried to embrace that and bring him together with the rest of the team?
BL: It’s always difficult when you run a team because you have all these different rosters. But something we’re really pushing for over the next year and starting to take up is really bringing players across different rosters together. I think we’re gonna do some cool activations this year with some of our partners where we have that experience. We’re gonna have guys like Nairo hanging out with the CS:GO team and things like that. I think that’s super important because at the end of the day you’re building an identity. It’s super important everyone feels like they’re invested in the family and culture we’re trying to create here. When you look at the fighting games community and Smash, we’re very sensitive to that. When you look at any sort of 1-on-1 community, people really care about those individual players. We noticed this with Smash and we kind of reverse-engineered it to our other titles, but you really want to take these players and give them the spotlight and really shine a spotlight on them and make it about them.
Through our support in them, that’s how the fans end up enjoying us and liking NRG, and that’s a huge component of it. You definitely see it in the Smash community and FGC community. No matter how many players you have and who’s on your team, it’s always about those champions and those people. Nairo has an incredible fan base. They’re rabid. They’re awesome. We love them to death. We’re so stoked for Nairo Saga coming up. Our job is to be there to support him, help him achieve his goals and get to the next level.
VN: At NRG, your ownership of course is connected to the Sacramento Kings. Traditional sports ownership in esports has taken a big step forward in the last year and a half or so. What are some ways that impacts the organization and this industry that fans might not realize on the surface?
BL: I think there’s just a lot of knowledge that it brings. You have people like Mark (Mastrov) and Andy, those guys have seen traditional sports on so many levels. They learned a lot of life lessons from seeing stuff that, quite frankly, if you haven’t lived it, you don’t know it. That knowledge base is invaluable. It’s not something that translates necessarily to something a fan might see, but it helps us avoid mistakes and helps us know what things might work. That knowledge, I can’t even put into words how valuable that is. To be able to lean on people like Shaq and the rest of the advisor group and the investors is super helpful. Any problem that comes up ever for NRG, there’s not a person I can’t find to pick up the phone and call who has an answer for NRG. As a president of an organization, that is so insanely valuable.
VN: What’s one area you think in the entire esports industry that has the potential for really strong growth?
BL: I might be an outlier in this, but I do still believe there’s room for more events in the US. It started off and there were a lot of West Coast events, a lot of East Coast events, but we’re slowly permeating into the center of the country. We’ve got events like Austin down south. I’d love to see some midwestern events. The only time events come through the Midwest is when MLG did the CS:GO Major in Columbus and League did a stop in Chicago (for worlds last year), which I was happy to see because I’m from the suburbs there. I still think there’s more room. It’s tough to be an esports fan and have to travel all the time to events. It’d be cool to see events pop up in your backyard.
That’s definitely something I’d like to see more of in esports. If you’re a fan of esports and you’ve never been to an event, it’s a once in a lifetime experience. It’s truly incredible. I was going to events before I worked in this space, and you end up talking to people all the time. I remember going to StarCraft 2 events back in college, and I’d meet people. We’d exchange Battle.net IDs and we’d play with each for two years. That’s such a cool experience, and it’s one I don’t think you get other places in sports entertainment. It’s not like you’re going to a football game and end up becoming friends with a guy you wait in line with for a beer, and you end up playing touch football. You get that in esports, and it’s super cool. That’s something I’d love to see more of.