SK Telecom is an esports organization with an incredible history in esports. Originally a team founded by the legendary Starcraft player, BoxeR, not only did they win multiple championships over the years, they continued on the legacy in multiple game titles, most notably League of Legends.
On October of 2019, SK Telecom announced that they have partnered up with Comcast and rebranded themselves as T1. As the second organization to have a Western corporation step into the Korean LoL esports scene, we at Inven had a chance to catch up with the CEO of T1, Joe Marsh, to hear about the direction of the organization.
It’s very nice to meet you. Can you please introduce yourself?
I’m Joe Marsh, and I’m the CEO of T1 Entertainment & Sports. I’m in charge of global operations of the joint venture between SK Telecom and Comcast.
How did the joint venture begin between Comcast and T1?
The whole journey first started with us in finding the right team in Korea, and we first assumed that it would never be possible to work with a large corporation. We were in Korea for Worlds in 2018, and it felt like the stars lined up, as SK Telecom T1 was making that transition from being just a part of their marketing division to becoming a stand alone entity.
Our parent company, Comcast, are in similar industries, in telecommunications and media. We were in the right place at the right time, as we clicked with Jason Lee and Charles Huh from SK Telecom. It took us about a year to get the transaction closed, and things are great so far. SK Telecom has a long and illustrious history, and we’re really excited to see how much further we can build upon such a solid foundation.
Now that Comcast is partnered up with SK Telecom, how do you think the organization will change from its former self?
From an outside perspective, the logo and the name change is something that’s the most noticeable and tangible. It was a necessary step to bring the two companies together. Having the team still be called ‘SK Telecom T1’ would not have resonated into every market that we’re going to get into, so to keep part of the name, ‘T1’ was also important for Comcast, even during the early stages of the partnership process.
However, our goal is not to necessarily change anything, but to amplify the things that we do well and provide new opportunities along the way. Some of those opportunities include building a commercial program in T1. Before our joint venture, the team was only a part of SK Telecom's marketing division, so there was no need in getting outside sponsors.
The Nike deal that we recently announced is a great example, as not only does it bring in funding, but it also shows that we’re looking to partner up with top tier brands and companies. We also have a lot more announcements to come in the coming months, so stay tuned.
Building a commercial program is how an organization is going to sustain itself, and you see a lot of other top teams around the world doing it. For us, that’s more of a traditional sports mindset, as it stems from our ownership of the Philadelphia Flyers in the NHL. As salaries rise and you invest in an infrastructure as we’re doing it with our new headquarters, you’re going to need resources other than funding from your investors.
Another thing for us is getting into other titles in games. Finding the right opportunity, both in NA, Asia, and Europe, where we can put together the right teams is a thing we’re doing. Mobile gaming, especially in Southeast Asia, is bigger than console and PC, so we’re looking to find the right opportunity in that aspect as well. We’re exploring where we can leave our mark. We don’t want us to just be mediocre. We want to win and be the best.
How is working in traditional sports different as to esports?
With traditional sports, there’s no learning curve that you’d normally have in esports. In traditional sports, when you go to talk to a potential sponsor, a brand, or partner and tell them that you’re a hockey team, they immediately understand it. However, with esports, especially when you’re trying to bring in more non-endemic partners on board, it’s an educational process.
They ask, “What’s FPS? What’s MOBA? What do you do? I don’t understand, so explain to me”, so the sales cycle is a bit longer in esports. Brands like Secretlab and Logitech get it, because they know the player base and they know where they need to be. However, when you’re talking about partnering up with Nike, it took months to get the deal done, because they needed to fully understand how it benefited them.
However, there are a lot of similarities as well. For example, player development, whether it’s training or scouting young talent, is one huge similarity. The goal for League of Legends is to have a strong academy team, where just like this year, when the young players are ready, they can be promoted up to the main roster of the team, and have players like Canna compete for the starting spot.
As a Western corporation diving into a Korean League of Legends esports scene, is there a certain culture you want to pursue?
For us, the culture of inclusivity is really important. Coach Kim and I actually talked a lot about building a family atmosphere. The players are with their teammates a lot, so from going to workshops to the great dinner we had last night, we’re pursuing to create an atmosphere where everyone’s getting along really well.
They’re all away from their families, and some of the players are young, so we hope to provide them with an atmosphere where they can think of each other and the staff and go, “Hey, these are my brothers and sisters”, as they will be the ones taking care of one another. I think that since we have a lot of roster changes this year, building that chemistry and comradery will also be really important for the in-game performance as well.
How often do you interact with the players and the staff?
Whenever I’m in the country, I always go to Ilsan to see the team, and it’ll be a lot easier for all of us when our new HQ is built. I spoke to the team couple nights ago about the Nike partnership and wished them well on their training for the season. I also receive scrim reports on a regular basis and talk with the coaching staff and analysts to see where the team’s at in terms of their training. Although scrims aren’t everything, it’s important for me to visualize where the team is.
When I’m not in the country, we message each other a lot. I ask the players for their opinions on various things that we’re trying to implement. I keep my hands off with in-game aspects of things, such as picks and bans. That’s not what I like to do, and I trust my coaching staff that they’ll do their jobs well. I do, however, want to understand each game that T1 is involved in and what we’re doing, so that everyone has everything that they need to win games and championships.
Can you share your first impressions with the players?
Not only is Teddy very funny, he’s always loud and boisterous. We talked and joked around about the content that we’re going to film this year, and he was very supportive. When we took him to China this year, he realized that he’s becoming more popular with his fans, and talked about what he can do to interact with his fans on his stream. I find Effort to be pretty quiet & shy, and he always has that same look, but when he’s just with his teammates, he’s a fun loving guy.
I had a chance to spend a lot of time with Faker at Nike HQ in Portland. Obviously, he’s the best to ever do it, but I found him to be a consummate pro. He knows that people want his time, and he knows that he needs to leave a great impression with people, so when he’s ‘on’, he’s ‘on’. He’s also a great leader, and when I sometimes listen to the voice comms of the team, I find that leadership to be a big part of his personality. We also have a lot of young players on the roster, and seeing Faker being that older figure brother and leading them is very interesting to see. Normally, although he’s usually quiet and likes to read books, he also enjoys filming content, just as he was on the show ‘Radio Star’ with K-pop star Kim Hee-chul.
Cuzz is a fun guy. We always joke around, and he does fun things like the dance video that we did for social media. Obviously, he’s a great early addition to the team, and he seems like a great guy overall. The chemistry between him and Faker is especially important, so based on the amount of work he’s putting in, he’s a very hard working guy as well.
For top lane, we have Canna moving up to the main roster, and coach Kim handpicked Roach as out newest top laner, so it’s great to see them competing and watching their personalities grow. In terms of coach Kim, he’s a world champion coach, and he’s the best for a reason. We could not have asked for a better replacement for kkOma, who’s been part of our team for many years. So far, he’s been great, and he’s super open about what he wants to do. Even with the implementation of analytics within T1, he’s been very receptive, so I’m excited to see how he’ll lead.
Hajin (the team manager for T1) told us in her interview with us that she found coach Kim to be a bit intimidating("head coach Kim had an incredible presence. I’m actually more nervous to work with him than Faker... "). Can you confirm if this is true?
(Laughter) Really? I don’t think so! I mean, he’s just a big guy! I think he has a lot of presence because of his stature in the game. Any time you’re around a star, especially in the coaching role, I think things can be intimidating. However, coach Kim’s been great! Our biggest goal during this year’s offseason was to find the coach that can successfully replace kkOma and continue on T1’s legacy, and I believe that he’s definitely the guy that can do it.
What’s T1’s goal for 2020?
Our goal is to get better every day. We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves and say “This is how things are going to go”, because that’s not how we do things. We want to get better every day, continue to build on our success, and also make our fans proud of what we’re doing. With my team and I coming into T1, we want to make sure that while there is change, things are going to remain constant, and the team will continue to be the focal point in the league, and that we’ll continue to support it to be the best it can be.
Can you share some long term goals of the organization?
The one huge milestone is the new HQ that we’re currently building. We’re going to put all our teams across different titles in that building for the first time, and when we do our media day in March or April, we’ll release more information on what our HQ will consist of. Also, while T1’s really popular in Korea and China, we want to take it further and bring it to NA and EU, so exploring other game titles is another goal of ours.
We’re also looking to experiment with things outside of gaming. Our parent companies come from media and technology, so overall, we’re looking to do things differently. We don’t want to be the next organization in anything, but rather, the first organization to achieve something. It’s important for us to be where the ball is going to be, rather than where it currently is.
We’re also excited to be working with Riot as well. They announced their list of games during their 10th anniversary, and some of the games are very enticing, so we’re looking forward to exploring those opportunities with them.
We know that you’re friends with Arnold Hur (Chief Operating Officer of Gen.G Esports). Being the heads of rival esports organizations, what’s the relationship like between you two?
Arnold was super helpful to me and my team since our day 1 in Korea. When we were looking for a team to partner up with, Gen.G were the first ones to take us out in Seoul. I’d say that it’s definitely a friendly rivalry. We’re competitive in-game, but we both know that it’s also a business, and that we’re also here to make content. We both want to show the fans that although you may be super passionate about either T1 or Gen.G, the players and the staff are friendly with one another, so it’s just a friendly rivalry with the same goal of winning.
It’s definitely all in good fun. Arnold texted me yesterday to congratulate me on the Nike deal, and I did the same when Gen.G partnered up with Bumble, so it’s good to have friends in the scene. We both hope that we become more friendly with other orgs in the league as well.
As the CEO of T1, what’s your goal in shaping T1 for 2020 and beyond?
2020 is the year of setting the foundation of where we want to go in the future. From big transition of moving into the HQ in the near future, to getting into more of a training regimen in partnership with Nike is a big part of it. We’re going to have the Nike gym in the building, so the players are going to have more of a physical training regimen as well. We hope that with it, it’ll not only improve their health, but also lengthen their careers. We’re also going to have chefs to provide the right nutrition for the players, so we’re going to change the landscape of what it means to be a professional gamer. The players told me that they’re going to sleep pretty late into the night, so we hope to develop healthier habits for all our pros.
Looking beyond it, we hope to continue to build on that momentum and on the legacy that was here before us. We want to make sure to honor the traditions that were here before us, but bring new ones as well.
Lastly, can you please say something to the T1 fans?
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