T1 has always been a team that’s been at the center of attention from the fans. Their incredible legacy stems from their long reign of domestic and international dominance throughout the history of LoL Esports; as such, they garner attention from practically everyone around the world.
Joe Marsh has been the CEO of T1 since last year. The last time Inven Global interviewed Joe was late 2019, around the time when the merger between Comcast and SKT T1 was announced. From T1 settling into their new HQ in Gangnam, to having a different set of infrastructure within the team, there have been many changes since then.
There have also been changes that fans deemed to be questionable. From changes like bringing in foreign coaching staff during this past off-season to the seemingly endless rotation of their 10-man roster during this Spring split, Joe was honest about why he made such decisions. Furthermore, Joe talked about the future direction of T1, and what he wants to achieve as the CEO of the biggest esports organization in the world.
It’s been a while since we heard from you. The last time we interviewed you was late 2019, and a lot has happened since then. How’ve you been?
I’ve been good. I’ve been busy. Obviously, we’re now here at our new HQ, which was one of the big initiatives in 2020, even with the pandemic going on. Prior to having the HQ built, we were in Ilsan, which was away from everything; it was really great to centralize everything. This is the first time that the players and the staff are in the same building; easier communication, the ability to collaborate, and just get them everything the players need.
Other than sleeping quarters, having all the amenities in the building is very beneficial for player development. From having the gym here to get the mandatory workouts that the players have been asking for, the three chefs to cook for our players, the rooftop, the player lounge for the players’ relaxation, and to the streaming floor, it’s all here.
In 2020, the pandemic shut down live events, but we were able to bring on great partners, both local and global. From Nike, BMW, Red Bull, to Samsung as well, we’ve done a great job of building the foundation for our organization, and driving revenue to invest back into the game teams.
We got off to a good start with a championship victory in 2020 Spring, but ultimately, we failed to make it to Worlds, which is a goal we want to achieve every single year. People saw that we made heavy investments in the off-season to make sure that we’d have a much better shot of securing a spot at Worlds. We’re really happy that we were able to sign with someone like Daeny and Zefa, who both came off fresh from a World Championship win in 2020. It’s kind of like a puzzle or a recipe; we can all have the same ingredients, but the way we put it all together is different. The way that Daeny thinks about the game, takes care of his players, and his processes really sold me on his ability to lead an organization like T1, which has the spotlight at all times. Whether we win, lose, or draw, all eyes are on T1, and a distinct personality like Daeny can handle that pressure.
We’ve heard that you’ve visited Korea quite frequently. What’s the main purpose of your visit this time around?
We had our first board meeting of the year, which I attended last week. We had some meetings with our sponsors as well, with Samsung guys coming to the building later today. We’re also panning out some projects that we’re working on. I met with Faker to have dinner with him, to talk about 2021 and beyond, and to see how he’s doing. Faker’s a part-owner, so I have to give him briefs and updates about the business side of things and where the company is going. I also met with Polt to create a game plan for the rest of the year, what we’re doing with the rest of the teams, and our plans for 2022. Also, it’s Faker’s birthday tomorrow [This interview was conducted on May 6 — Ed.].
Lots of fans are curious about what the players are up to during the off-season. Can you share to the fans what the T1 LoL players have been up to?
After the season, they took a short break. Some went home to be with family; all the guys are back now. We’ve already started scrimming to prepare for the Summer split. Next week, Daeny’s taking the players on a workshop; they’re going to get away for a day or so to solidify their partnership and do some bonding for the Summer. They were also able to do some sponsor activations during the off-time, so we can spread it out instead of having it during the season. When I talked with the players, they said they feel really good about the meta and excited to play in the Summer split. Canna even dyed his hair back to blonde.
In my personal opinion, Keria’s the best support player in the world.
During the Spring split, which player stood out the most, and why?
Keria. I think Keria was as advertised. We knew he was very good, and he proved that he was good. Support, as a role, isn’t very known to be very “flashy”, but he was just consistent. I know that people joke around and say, “When in doubt, give the Player of the Game [PoG] to the support player”, but in my personal opinion, Keria’s the best support player in the world.
We knew he was good, we watched him be good from afar last year, and watching him be that good in person was really fun to see. He’s a kid that takes losses very hard because he wants to win at all times, so seeing him bounce back from a tough game and just take over the next game was really great for his personal growth.
This season, not only did you bring Choi “Polt” Seong-hun to the team, but also multiple personnel with overseas esports experience to join the coaching staff. Why did you make this decision and how did they contribute to the organization’s growth?
A lot of it stemmed from interviews we conducted with the players during 2020 Summer; the feedback we received was that they wanted more personal attention and more hands on deck, especially the younger players. As the GM, Polt is having the right conversations with other regions, other owners in Korea, talking with and about the players, and etc. We have three rosters now; the main LCK roster, the Challengers team, and our academy roster; now that LCK is a franchised league, so he has both short and long-term conversations about the up and coming players, and the contracts that we have to deal with.
All this was traditionally the head coach’s responsibility, and Polt takes those responsibilities from Daeny, which allows Daeny to focus on the team and the game. That’s why you see him do a lot more of the interviews because we want the coaches to focus more on the game. This doesn’t mean that Daeny won’t do any interviews down the road, but it was important to have our GM be like those in traditional sports; to be out there and someone that’s more readily available, because he’s not doing anything in-game related.
As for the other coaches, it was all about targeting specific areas. For example, when Faker and Teddy asked for mandatory workouts, we needed a coach that was for player development and player wellness, and that’s the role that Hajin serves. For Cella, not only is he running the academy roster, he’s also in charge of scouting. He’s working with younger kids; kids that are 14-16 years old, and developing that next generation of players for us. His role is to find the kids that will match the way we want to play.
For example, if we want a hyper-aggressive jungler, he goes to find the players with that latent potential; those that are able to become that top-tier pro, and eventually climb their way into the challengers team and the main roster. We were searching out someone that had the skill set to run a younger team; for Cella, he just happened to be bilingual.
Stardust serves as an assistant coach. At the behest of Daeny, he’ll do one-on-one coaching with players as needed, helps implement Daeny and Zefa’s game plan, and chips in and makes sure that the second squad of the main roster is ready to play at any time.
T1 had a very topsy-turvy this past Spring split. From what was said by Daeny and Zefa, what was the most memorable conversation you’ve shared with them?
Before the season started, I had a meal with Daeny and Zefa. Daeny laid out his thoughts on how things would shake out given where we were from a developmental standpoint; he knew that Faker would need more time, given the fact that the season started three weeks early. He correctly predicted that we’d finish 3-4th place. This doesn’t mean that we don’t believe that we’re the number one team; at the time, with the meta shift and where we were as a team, there was no time to catch up.
The roster that everyone saw towards the end of the Spring split is more indicative of where we’re going to be starting in the Summer split — a more consistent team. Daeny was very committed to giving everyone an opportunity to play. While it was to the ire of many people watching, the reason why we experimented so much was by design. It’s important to be able to showcase what everyone can do, especially if you’re running a 10-man roster; you don’t want someone to just rot away. Daeny fulfilled that promise.
"Moving forward, I think everyone can see much more consistency with the starting five."
Once we were gearing up for the playoffs, we fielded the same roster, game after game. You can only take seven players into Worlds. Everyone knows this, so you can expect to see less of the switching around. It doesn’t mean that backup players won’t play here and there, but moving forward, I think everyone can see much more consistency with the starting five.
Obviously, there was a lot of chatter behind the operation and the shuffling of the 10-man roster. From the CEO’s perspective, what did you think about it all?
I had the benefit of being able to watch scrims; this was the disheartening part because what was happening in scrims was different from what was happening in matches. I didn’t lose any confidence because I saw how well we were playing against the team that’s sitting at MSI [DWG KIA — Ed.], so I knew at some point, the team would be able to play just as well in matches.
T1 played against DWG KIA better than any other team did all split. I know Gen.G beat them once, but when it comes to consistency, we were one or two plays away from beating them both times. For me, I thought things were eventually going to make the turn, which they did towards the end of the split.
I think what was working against us was Faker coming out of the starting roster to fix what he needed to fix, so naturally, there was going to be that period where the optimal lineup towards the end of the split wasn’t going to be able to play together. However, I knew that once he was ready, he would be in peak form and ready to go, and that’s what everyone saw. It felt good to see how they progressed towards the end; obviously, the semifinals match against Gen.G was unfortunate, because we just didn’t play well. It was a bad day for us. However, where we were leading up to that match is more representative of how well we can play and continue to improve. That’s why I’m excited for the Summer; to be able to see how well they can build up from that momentum. That version of the team is going to get us to Worlds, and once you get there, all bets are off; it’s just the luck of the draw there. I’m confident that we’ll get to Worlds this year.
Since you joined T1 last year, has your thought process about operations changed at all from when you first started?
Investing in infrastructure was really important; making sure the players have everything that they need. Bringing in the right people to do the job was critical; not just from the back office, but from getting the right content team to even social media was important. Even on the player/coaching staff, you want to find the right people with the right mentality.
When you look at someone like Keria, who was our top target this past off-season, he’s a kid that “gets it”. Not only is he a strong player, but he also has a great personality, and the willingness to continue to improve; he works well with both Teddy and Gumayusi. Finding people that will not only do their job well but also be communicative felt very important.
The way it’s set up is that Polt acts as the conduit between team operations and myself and John [COO of T1 — Ed.]. I don’t bother the team during the season in any way. Whenever I want to know something about the team, I just go to Polt, because he’s in those meetings with the team on what’s happening with the team.
It’s a better setup than what we had during my tenure here. Having that person that can seamlessly work with the organization on the leadership and the team operation side is invaluable; it doesn’t take away from what the team needs to do, but I also get the information that I need, whether it’s to understand where the team is in their progress, but also to share that with the board and whatnot.
That was the biggest change that we made on the team structure side of things. I think it’s been really successful because it allowed us to have better communication between the team and management, which was one of our biggest focuses during this past off-season.
T1 VALORANT, Philadelphia Fusion, LCK franchising, and more
Philadelphia Fusion relocated operations from the U.S. to Korea, while T1’s VALORANT team is being operated in the States. What are some of the reasons behind the teams operating in different regions?
Initially, we started with two VALORANT rosters; one in Korea and one in NA. We think that the game has the potential to be as big as LoL. The VALORANT player base is four times the LoL player base already because you’re pooling from CS:GO, OVERWATCH, and Call of Duty. We wanted a “tentpole” team that could rival the LoL team, and we wanted it in the West. It’s also why we decided to jump into VALORANT so early; I think we were the first organization to sign players. We have Won Joon Choi [Wawa — Ed.], who’s a great GM that’s building that roster, and David Denis, the head coach of the roster that comes from a sports psychologist background. He understands the inner workings of the players; having someone like him is very valuable for them.
In terms of Fusion, it really came down to the pandemic. It was very difficult when we made the decision, because we had to decide early to relocate. The league was looking for teams that had the infrastructure in Korea to make the move for the two divisions. Obviously, with Comcast owning Fusion and being an investor in T1, it just made sense to leverage the capabilities of T1’s facility and the staff here to have a solid base in the Pacific League.
Carpe has been a part of the team since the beginning days of the Philadelphia Fusion, and is the franchise star of the team. From your perspective, how do you view his growth?
Prior to this interview, I actually saw Carpe on the street, so I opened my car window and said hi [laughter]. He’s grown so much. If I compare him now to how he was in 2018, he’s become so much more extroverted, in the sense of his level of communication; his English became exponentially better as well.
His mechanical skill has always been there, which was why he’s been with us for so long. When you watch someone like him, he’s someone that’s very similar to Faker; he just takes over games. Having someone that can consistently carry games to rely on makes the game very fun to watch. The excitement that you get from watching his plays live is contagious. It’s been a pleasure to watch his growth over the years, and am excited that he wants to continue staying with Fusion.
The T1 LoL team also has a franchise star, Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok. Faker and Carpe have even shown support through social media. What are some similarities that these franchise stars share?
Their drive, the way they put their work into their craft, and their singularity focus to win are very similar. Whatever game Carpe is playing, whether it’s Tekken or even a board game, he wants to win, and Faker’s wired the exact same way. They also believe in themselves; if you ask them, “Are you the best player in the world?”, the answer is “Yes”. People with that mindset gravitate towards each other.
In our last interview, you stated that “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”. Is T1 still exploring options to dive into that market?
COVID has delayed that initiative quite a bit, because we weren’t able to fly over and find what we’re looking for. It’s changed slightly; China, Indonesia, and India is where my head’s at in terms of mobile games. When it comes to specific game titles, it’s TBD. It’s just the matter of, ‘Who has the most sustainable viewership? Who has the best player base in that region? And which country is investing in the game?’, so that it’s a sustainable business for us and not a cash burn. I think mobile gaming is the future of competitive gaming.
Maybe Wild Rift?
It’s definitely an option; anything with Riot Games, really. I’m really excited for their new fighting game to come out as well. We also have someone like MKLeo on our roster, who’s already the best at Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. Riot knows how to build global games, and make it feel big, so I’m excited to see what they can do.
Before franchising, esports teams struggled to generate revenue just from operations. With franchising now in full effect in the LCK, can you give us more insight on what’s at the center of T1’s revenue streams (viewership, broadcasting rights, merchandise sales, etc.)?
While the revenue share from the league is great, you can’t run a business based on just the revenue share. T1 has sponsorships, advertisements, partnerships, media rights deal with Twitch and other streaming sites as well. We generate significant revenue from our Youtube operations, from the various channels that we operate.
Obviously, to a lesser extent, the prize money adds to the pool. Then, it’s merchandise and licensing; whether it’s the T1 chairs, anything from the merch store on our first floor, or selling e-commerce online, we’ve diversified our revenue streams so that we’re not heavily relying on just one thing, and we’ll continue to do so in the future as we expand our business.
Right now, I’d say that the media deals and the partnerships are the two big drivers. From the time we joined in 2019 to now, the market has gotten more educated when it comes to investments in teams. Before, it was only trade deals, or giving out equipment. But now, I think teams are getting savvier to ask for extra cash, which is going to help them in the long run. Most of the teams in the league can’t just rely on their parent company; that company would want to see the team generate revenue on their own. It’s good to see other teams not set the bar low and raise their own expectations. T1’s been at the forefront of it all, and making sure we’re doing market setting deals, so that we’re not hurting our competitors in the LCK and taking a non-market break deal.
As the CEO of T1, how do you want to operate this organization in 2021 and beyond?
I want to have a global perspective with a local approach. What I mean by that is, we are a global organization, but especially this past Fall, what I’ve learned is the method of communicating what you’re trying to achieve needs to be localized. How I would communicate in Korea is undoubtedly different from how I would communicate in the West. For T1, it’s always been threading that needle, because we’re never going to be a meme organization and dunk on ourselves if we lose, but we also don’t want to beat ourselves up for the rest of our lives and tell everyone we’re going to practice for the next 24 hours.
There’s a happy median, and I think it’s finding that voice that can guide us to two different styles of fanbases. Our core fanbase is from Korea, and they’ve grown accustomed to a certain level of success and standards at T1. Our Western fans are just starting to get to know us as a T1 brand, rather than the SKT T1 brand. I think we’ve done very well in going global, but take the localized approach and making sure we’re not alienating any of the markets that we serve in, and do a better job of communicating with our fans and where we’re going.
It’s still a competitive business, so there will be times where you can’t tell everyone everything, and be open as much as the fans might like. We just hope that they understand and trust that we’re not trying to be deceitful; it’s more of just trying to maintain the competitive edge that our team has what they need to win.
Disclaimer: The interview has been shortened and edited for brevity.
Striving for perfection to achieve excellence in esports