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In-depth interview with Cloud9 CEO Jack Etienne (Part 1): Building C9 and early esports impressions

As the founder and CEO of Cloud9, Jack Etienne has been one of the pioneers of North American esports for the last five years.

Cloud9 was founded in 2012 and has since been built into one of the most recognizable brands in esports. It started with League of Legends, and C9 has been a staple of the League Championship Series since its inception in 2013. But Etienne has built Cloud9 into a multi-title organization that has teams or players in nine different games.

As esports has grown significantly in the last year and a half, Etienne has continued to have a large role in the ecosystem. Slingshot’s Andrew Kim had the chance to sit down with Etienne during the LCS last month for an extensive conversation about building Cloud9, how esports has changed and what to expect in the future.

In Part 1 of the two-part interview, Etienne talks about how he started Cloud9, the important aspects of building an esports organization and what the industry was like when he first became a part of it. Make sure to check back Wednesday for Part 2.

Andrew Kim: Cloud9 is now considered one of the NA teams that has been in the LCS for a while and esports for a while. So my first question is how would you evaluate your growth as an organization? And what are some of the lessons you learned that have come through experience?

Jack Etienne: The key to doing well in this industry is having good staff with you. The players depend on it. My sponsors depend on it. I depend on it. Our partners like Riot depend on it. So I’ve spent a lot of time over the last couple of years trying to hire really strong staff to make sure that we’re well equipped to handle the needs of our players.

AK: You come from a background of being the VP of sales for Crunchyroll, marketing background. That’s kind of reflected with a couple of other owners as well who have jumped to the LCS. How do you find your experience in sales kind of traveled over when it comes to managing and owning an esports organization?

JE: So Day 1 with Cloud9, we’ve been pretty unique among most of the esports organizations in that we were profitable Day 1. I did this by knowing what my sponsors needed as far as packaging agreements I had with them to provide actual value that they could understand, and delivering on what I promised. I’ve done that from Day 1 with Cloud9, which is why I’ve had that consistency with the sponsors we’ve had. I think having that head start across the other esports organizations was really strong for us, and now we’re seeing that more guys with similar backgrounds to me are coming in. They are complementing my efforts, which is really good to see. Seeing other teams provide value to sponsors just makes the whole space healthier. So it’s a good change.

AK: From that standpoint, when you see a lot of investment from venture capital in teams, major NBA teams investing in esports and stuff like that, do you feel like those types of investments differ in the context of what you try to achieve with Cloud9?

JE: Yeah. One of the biggest concerns I do have is that the folks that are getting involved in esports now, they don’t understand that there is a delicate nature to the ecosystem that we have here. They have come in and spent a lot of money. There have a ben a few instances where they expected immediate returns, didn’t see it and have pulled out. Each time that happens, it does hurt the ecosystem. And so I hope with the new folks that are coming in, that they are here for the long haul. I expect to do this for the rest of my life. I love this. I would do it even if they didn’t pay me. And I just hope the new guys getting in aren’t expecting immediate results and are ready to do this for the long term.

AK: So if we want to take the conversation a little back in time, how was your foray into esports? How did it come to be? What was your journey or beginning interest in this industry?

JE: So I grew up playing video games and I helped run Guilds and World of Warcraft, which I spent far too many hours doing. So I was already very interested in competitive gaming, and when I was running Crunchyroll’s ad sales department, I was introduced to Andy Dinh (Reginald), who runs TSM. And I helped him make his business profitable through esports. That experience was a blast. I loved it. It was so much fun, working shoulder to shoulder with Andy and trying to figure out where this business was heading. Because it really was the Wild, Wild West. People say that all the time, but we didn’t know what the hell we were doing. It really was back then. How do we provide value to sponsors? Where is this going? There were no systems like LCS built yet. That experience was really fun, and when I saw the opportunity to build my own brand, Cloud9, I did it. I jumped for it. At some point, maybe a year or so after I started Cloud9, I realized I had to either chose Crunchyroll, which was a passion of mine as well, or Cloud9. And I chose to stick with Cloud9.

AK: Now that Cloud9 has expanded greatly — it’s not just an LCS team; you have multiple players and teams across different games — how does your experience change from managing a smaller group of people into this multi-team body?

JE: You can draw some parallels to my experiences at other companies. At Crunchyroll, I was like employee No. 7 or 8. There were like 10 folks around when I got there. And when I left Crunchyroll, we were around 120 to 150. It’s sometimes daunting having so many folks who are dependent on you. I still think of it as a small family and just trying to have a good relationship with all the players. I’ve done my best to try to move all my teams into, like the Santa Monica/West LA area, so I can have a personal relationship with the teams, because I think that’s really important. But we’ll see where it goes from here, but I’ve really enjoyed the process. I’ve been able to introduce, as we bring on new teams — specifically with Overwatch. A lot of these guys haven’t been on pro teams before, and they come to watch how the LCS team practices and how they interact with each other and how they review how they play. They walk away from it with a bunch of ideas as to how they can use some of the infrastructure we’ve already set up for the LCS and try to improve their practice environment. So there’s a lot of things they can learn from each other, and it’s been fun to be part of the process.

AK: Would you say that based on your experience from Crunchyroll that the expansion of Cloud9 came kind of natural to you?

JE: Yeah, I knew that as soon as I got into Cloud9 that there was no way I was going to stick with one game because there wasn’t any sort of stability built into LCS. You could be relegated, and it’s still that way. So until there’s more stability in the games that I’m working with, I have to expand and make sure I’ve got multiple games that I can point to to make sure my sponsorships are getting the visibility they need.

Cover photo courtesy of Riot Games/illustration by Slingshot