Slingshot’s Andrew Kim had the chance to talk in-depth with Phoenix1 co-owner Michael Moore during a visit to the team’s house last month. They talked about why he jumped into the North American League Championship Series when he did, putting together an imperfect roster and the dynamics between teams, Riot Games and the community.
Andrew Kim: You have a very interesting back ground before esports. I know that you’ve been involved with Hollywood films, so how did you make the decision to jump from that to esports?
Michael Moore: I wasn’t involved in any production of movies. I was the marketing side of things, making movie trailers and that kind of thing. The role I was in was mostly a management role, managing people, that kind of thing. I’ve just always been a big fan of esports. I’ve been playing League since it came out in beta, basically. It was always just something I wanted to do, so when the opportunity came, presented itself, we just jumped on it. I was super happy how everything turned out, and just to tie it to the background, I think the history I have with managing people and working in a super fast-paced industry has been super helpful for me in getting this rolling when we got involved last split.
AK: When you first joined the LCS as Phoenix1, you inherited a roster, as well as saying in interviews that you wanted to set the record straight with the players’ payment issues. Did you find that kind of situation to be the one moment you could jump in positively, or were you looking for some other ways into esports prior to that?
MM: Well, I think our plan was maybe to get involved a little bit later, but the whole Team Impulse thing happened and it was pretty spur of the moment. It was just kinda like, this is something we’ve been planning to get involved with, this isn’t what our plan looked like, but it’s still a good opportunity to jump on it. Personally, I was happy that we were able to, like I said, try and come in for players who had kind of a bad situation, rectify that a little bit. On a personal note, I enjoyed that.
AK: You are also one of the organizations that are candid with the fans in regards to how much money goes into managing a team. Has it gotten any better since then or is it still in the twilight zone?
MM: Our situation is basically the same. One point of nuance I want to take the opportunity to add to that: that’s kinda what we expected getting in. We knew that this was something that was going to take some time to grow and build, and most startup companies, you lose money for a long time before you become profitable. So these were all expectations we had going in. I was just trying to dispel the perception that every LCS team is making money hand over fist, that some people have, which isn’t the case at all. There were some comments being thrown around like “Oh wow, they must be so irresponsible with their money,” or “Yeah, when you buy an LCS slot, of course you’re going to lose money,” but the figure I gave was like, not even counting the price we paid for the slot itself. That was just our operating costs for the six months against what revenue we had. I think our spending is pretty conservative compared to some teams. I was just trying to make a point of, “Hey this isn’t the gold mine some people necessarily may think it is,” not to try and complain. Some people I thought were coming out and saying “Oh I can’t believe it. They must be burning their money if they’re losing that much.”
AK: When you’re coming from the standpoint of a team that struggled in the 2016 LCS and going into 2017 with a new roster, what was the process of making that call? How did you go from “We’re not doing that well” to “Let’s import two players and a coach?”
MM: Obviously, there were hard decisions we had to make around that stuff. I think that the approach we took was trying to build the best core of three North American players that we could and then see what foreign talent we could reasonably pick up. We decided that we wanted to keep moving forward with Zig (Derek Shao) and Inori (Rami Charagh), who we see a lot of potential in. Last summer split was both of their first splits in the LCS, and especially Inori only ended up playing half a split. So getting players that have a lot of experience was very important to us, so Arrow and Ryu are perfect fits for that. Both have been playing since Season 3 on a professional level, and both of them have really really great English, so those were the two of the biggest deciding points in picking those players up. They fit in well with the team. They have great attitudes, better experience, and good communication in game.
AK: I’m sure you remember the comments made by Andy “Reginald” Dinh made on the first day of the LCS regarding teams and imports. I have to ask you, do you see the train of thought he was trying to convey?
MM: Yeah, I think his points are valid. I think there can be a lot of things that can go wrong when you import players. There can be culture shock. There can be communication issues. I like to think that we were able to navigate that and avoid those potential problems by doing a lot of bootcamp in Korea. I flew out myself and talked to the players. We were able to find players — Ryu specifically had been abroad before/ He’s already been in the European LCS for two years. So I wasn’t concerned that culture shock, homesickness wasn’t going to be a major issue, and then Arrow, whose English is super advanced for a Korean player who’d been playing in the LCK his entire career. He’s a super super outgoing guy, excited to live in America, so I felt confident those serious potential issues that you definitely have to account for and be conscious of, I felt like we were able to navigate those and make decisions with those things in mind.
AK: When it comes to owning and managing an esports team, what is something that not a lot of people understand or even know about that you would hope they could understand just a bit more?
MM: I guess maybe that how much, I don’t think there’s a single person running an esports organization in the LCS who doesn’t do it because they love the players and want to see them succeed. I wish there would be a little less antagonism towards “Teams vs. Riot vs. players vs. the community,” and I think we’re more aligned in what we want than people think, and I wish we could be on the same team more (in the public’s eyes).
AK: Do you mean you want less antagonism from the community about the Riot versus teams thing?
MM: I think there’s a perception in the community maybe that it’s teams versus Riot versus the players, and I think there can be perceptions like what the owners want are at odds with what’s good for the players, which isn’t necessarily the case.
AK: As an owner, it’s a very interesting situation for you to be in as much personal contact with players and support staff. How often do you find yourself interacting with the team outside of a professional context?
MM: I’d say pretty regularly. I think running an esports organization, you have to be conscious what kind of culture and what kind of environment you might have because you’re not only providing a job and support, but also a home for all your employees and players. It’s important for it to be a very homey and comfortable, familial and family like environment. I think that’s pretty important, so I try to help outside of work contexts, also help everyone working for us. And our players feel like this is a family, a place that they want to be, and a place that’s enjoyable and comfortable to work.
AK: In South Korea, the BBQ Olivers got a brand new sponsorship from a fast food chain and made the rounds lately. Given your background in marketing, is there a major opportunity for North American businesses to jump into esports?
MM: Yeah, definitely down the line. As esports continues to grow, I think the sky’s the limit. Anything you can kind of concieve of it as being possible probably is possible, you just have to see how things pan out. I don’t think given how fast esports is growing and how many people want to be a part of it, almost anything you can imagine is within the realm of possibility for how big esports can get.
AK: You said you played League for a long time. How long was this an aspiration for you, to own an esports team?
MM: It probably was something we started considering at least seriously at the beginning of 2016. It was when the numbers of how huge the world championship in Season 5 was, and it just had continued growing year over year. It was just like wow, this is an industry that not only I’d like to be a part of, because that was always been the case, but wow we should get involved in this. Not just this would be fun to do, a fun thing to do, this seems like something we try to get in on now.
AK: If you have a philosophy when it comes to owning and managing a philosophy, what are some of the things you believe you need to do?
MM: I think a lot of people say putting the players first is the most important thing, but I try to really take that to heart and make that the core of all the decisions I make, because I think we live and die by our players. Like I said, since we’re providing a home for them, this is not just their place of work, it’s their home. It’s really important to me that it’s somewhere they like living and somewhere they really enjoy working, and that they enjoy working with me, and the staff. Putting the players first I think is important to the success of our team, but also on a personal level that’s the most important thing to me, not just from a business perspective. Personally, I really want to make sure that our players are well taken care of and enjoy working here and aren’t stuck in crappy contracts and stuff like that.
AK: With the advent of player agencies and representation growing, do you think there is a need for those types of services for players across all regions?
MM: Definitely. I mean, it just makes sense when you’re negotiating contracts and you’re a kid who’s just played video games his whole life, never dealt with a contract in your whole life, it’s important to have someone who has your back and can help you and make sure you are not getting screwed over. A lot of people who do contracts look at it like negotiation is something you’re trying to win, and that means getting everything out of the other side that you can. So I think that’s important that players are protected from getting screwed over if they don’t necessarily understand what they’re signing sometimes.
AK: From the owner’s standpoint, what was the moment you realized you were having the most fun?
MM: I think it was the first time that the players came to the house, the new team house, after leaving the Team Impulse team house, and I just like, helped them build IKEA furniture for a day. When we were getting running, there’s so much to get done that it didn’t matter what it was, I had to help out whether it was putting furniture together. Oh, we don’t have towels, let me run to Bed Bath & Beyond to get some towels. I think there was a real shift in the guys when they saw this was going to be different from the situation they were in before, where they didn’t have anyone supporting them and it was a crappy living situation. Like I said, on a personal level, it’s important to me for the guys to feel like they’re well taken care of and are in a good environment, and be able to see it click for them like “Oh, OK, this is going to be a better situation for us,” that made me happy to see that.
AK: The creation of Phoenix1 has rebirth as a theme, and it seems like in 2017 the same narrative is happening in the context of a team that didn’t do well but will be entering the scene rebuilt. What is your goal in 2017 apart from just winning?
MM: I think that’s fitting because that’s kinda the idea of the phoenix, it’s a cyclical thing. I think that’s good for us, but for me personally. OK, maybe we took this team that was falling apart, revitalized it a little bit, but that’s not enough, and that’s not the end of it. But it’s something we keep building on every year, every split. I think that’s good motivation to try to keep that fire lit and keep that as motivation to keep trying to improve what we’re doing, and to never be complacent or satisfied with the ways things are. Because things can always be better. We can always improve and optimize things. I think it’s a fitting image that it’s something that keeps repeating. My goal is to keep improving what we’re doing and never be satisfied.