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NBA deal was long time coming for Dignitas’ O’Dell

Michael O’Dell paused — just for a second — when realizing the landmark deal announced a few hours earlier had taken almost a year to come together.

“I guess that’s a while,” he said with a laugh.

He never thought the moment would come when Team Dignitas was founded more than a decade ago. What did a few months matter?

O’Dell has owned Dignitas, purchased Monday by the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers, since 2003. He was one of the pioneers of the current esports landscape and put in more than a decade building his organization from the start.

“I’ve been running the team since 2003, just growing it on my own, using credit cards at the beginning,” O’Dell said. “Obviously, the number of people watching what we do now has grown so much. It’s attracted the attention of the mainstream.

“I think 13 years ago when we started, we were literally hoping we could get some money, a couple hundred pounds to go to a tournament. I couldn’t have envisioned 13 years later that we’d be signing with an NBA team.”

The Sixers acquired and merged Dignitas and Team Apex, another esports organization, on Tuesday. O’Dell will remain with the organization as president. Apex general manager Michael Slan will become vice president and general manager for the organization, which will carry Dignitas’ name going forward.

The deal includes Apex’s League of Legends team and Dignitas’ teams in Counter Strike: Global Offensive, Overwatch, Heroes of the Storm and Smite. O’Dell said he was approached late last year about a possible deal. It took nine months to iron out all the details.

“All the ins and outs, and obviously this is new to them, the esports world,” O’Dell said. “They have to understand it fully themselves. We have to carry on and do our due diligence now. With these guys behind us, they’ve got lots of plans. Just having the backing of the whole group just means our players are going to have the ability to have everything possible to perform at the highest of their abilities.”

Few have been in a better position to speak to esports’ rising status in the mainstream than O’Dell, one of the most respected executives in the scene. He called this “a fantastic day,” and said it was a long time coming.

“I’ve seen the good times. I’ve seen the bad times,” he said. “I’ve seen people come in, try to make quick money. (Today) is quite mind-blowing.”

The Sixers’ acquisition is the latest example of the NBA’s growing interest in esports. Former NBA player Rick Fox owns an organization, as does Andy Miller, a minority owner of the Sacramento Kings (with Shaquille O’Neal as an investor). Jonas Jerebko of the Boston Celtics recently purchased an organization. The Sixers, though, are the NBA’s first organization to acquire a team.

The next step on the way to further expansion and growth of this industry is education, O’Dell said, and instances like this sure help.

“Still now, some people question, what is esports?” O’Dell said. “It’s still something new. It needs a little more infrastructure on the whole. The fact that the 76ers are coming in now will help me legitimize what I’ve been doing for such a long time. All of the infrastructure.”

Cover photo courtesy of Riot Games