Gen.G Arnold: "Competition is sacred. I have huge respect for our players and coaches. The amount of stress they go through would break 99.9% of people out there."

The regular season of the 2021 LCK Summer split is nearing its end. With Gen.G locking in their playoff spot, they’re on track to grab the championship this split, and also punch their tickets to Worlds this year.

 

On a very hot day in Seoul, we at Inven Global had a chance to speak with the COO of Gen.G, Arnold Hur. In an hour-long conversation with Arnold, he addressed the current business direction of the organization, the state of Gen.G’s League of Legends roster, franchising in the LCK, and his favorite Twitch streamer.


You always go back and forth between LA and Korea. What brings you to Korea this time around?

 

It’s definitely a business-related trip this time around. It’s been a while since I’ve been in Korea. The biggest thing I wanted to do is make sure that we’re heading in the right direction, such as sponsorships and whatnot, as our LoL team heads into the playoffs and is working towards going to Worlds.

 

One of the key things that I want fans to understand is that a lot of the decisions that we make as a business impact how we do competitively this season and onwards. At this point, top players’ salaries are over a million dollars a year. Sometimes, there are multiple players that receive that much money; we’re now at a point where things like sponsorships and content are critical. Those things require us to have a plan that we execute a year into the future. It’s a lot of money.

 

I always think like this: the players think about winning the game, the coaches think about how we win the season, and the organization thinks and acts on how we can win going into the future. Number one: Are we taking care of our players? Do players want to join Gen.G? Two: Which players want to join Gen.G during the FA period?

 

I wasn’t confident enough to say that they’ll join our organization three years ago, but now I’m confident that they want to join because we know we take care of our players. They know we have great facilities and even personal trainers; I think CuVee didn’t like our food [laughter], but generally, the players are satisfied with our food. The most important part is, “Do you have the money to be able to afford these player salaries?” In terms of player acquisition, we’re now competing globally. 

 

A lot of what you’ve said ties in with Gen.G’s unique academy system as well. I’m curious how Gen.G approaches finding rookie talent as well.

 

In terms of going into free agency next year, we’re in a very lucky place. We’ve got great players under contract that we can either extend or make changes to, and we have great up-and-coming rookie talent as well. I think the moves we make are going to determine not just next year, but 2-3 years ahead as well. I view this as another great opportunity that comes from tough decisions because we’re deciding between a bunch of talented players.

I would say that if we don’t make the right business decisions right now, we won’t be able to extend the contracts of any of these players or sign new ones because the market has shifted so much, especially with franchising in the LCK. A lot of teams are going all-in on building a strong roster, and with 10 teams going after all these players, the market’s going to be very competitive. I think that businesses that try to get ready for them at the end of the year won’t have a shot.

 

We’ve been making sure that we always have a plan. We were only able to do that because I trust the coaching staff and the players to make the adjustments they need to be successful in the playoffs and Worlds.

 

What are some of the growing pains that the organization faced in its early days compared to after the LCK got franchised?

 

I think there were a lot of growing pains, but there were a lot of great opportunities as well. We’ve noticed that our fanbase is actually very global and at the same time, our Korean fanbase has grown quite significantly as well. A good example of a mistake that we made was when we had our Puma jerseys for sale. We based our projections based on our previous sales history of our jerseys, especially here in Korea. 

 

We blew through that so quickly. The mistake on our part was underestimating how much momentum and fanbase we had. We were already locked in to make the Worlds jersey available for sale to fans this year. The way the cycle works is that a lot of this is pre-made. If we don't make it, it's useless. And we're already on the next jersey, it's way more cycles in advance than the smaller industry was doing. We're talking much bigger numbers now.

 

At the same time, the merch business is not a real business. I don't know of a single team in the LCK, including the top ones, that has a profitable merch business. I want to push the team to do even more, but at the same time, the cycles that we need to adhere to now are very different now compared to the early days.

When I think about how much we're willing to invest, how serious we are about winning, and that we haven't won — I'm upset.

I'm curious how you built the star player brand. If the players don't like doing content, as you told me, then how does the organization build the franchise star? Is it through the All-in series, or through alternate methods?

 

There's no one answer. The biggest answer is "They have to win". I know our family is small, but in League of Legends, we haven't won anything. And what do we expect? Am I satisfied with our performance over the last three years? Absolutely not. If we think about it, we're paying one of the top payrolls within the LCK — and I've looked at the payrolls globally, we're in the top as well. But when I think about how much we're willing to invest, how serious we are about winning, and that we haven't won — I'm upset.

 

Of course, it'd be stupid not to make changes if we can't be successful. But I try not to be upset about individual wins or losses, I care about the approach and the evolution of the team and whether that's been happening or not. And I have to be honest, I haven't been satisfied with the evolution of the team thus far. Especially right now, the opportunity for us to change is going to be critical for us to be successful.

 

When it comes to the big challenge, I'm excited to see it, but ultimately, we gotta win before we can have a franchise star. When we talked to Ruler and we signed the extension, that was the first thing I told him: "Look, I'm not gonna promise things will be easy and win everything. But I can promise that we'll build a business that will enable us to go and get the biggest stars in the world."

 

Will we get all of them? You know, there are esports teams that spend stupid amounts of money. We're not gonna make bad financial decisions that jeopardize our business, but at the same time, I feel very confident we have the financial chops to go out and get great players.

I love the direction franchising is going. However, I hate the pace. That's something I've always been frustrated by in esports.

Even though franchising is a thing now, the general public doesn't know the fine details of it. Can you share, at least from the Gen.G side, what those finer details are?

 

I love the direction franchising is going. However, I hate the pace. That's something I've always been frustrated by in esports. When we were getting the new building, separating the training facility from housing, I thought everybody would do it by that year, 2017. Nobody did it. And I was so shocked and disappointed that everyone was moving so slowly. When we started doing content, I expected all of the team to do it.

 

And now with franchising, teams are finally recognizing that if you want to get the best players, you need sponsors. Sponsors require content, so you have to go do that, otherwise, you'll never have a good team. When I see some of the teams that don't do that, what I see is a team that is not committed to winning.

At the same time, when teams abuse it and don't show the amount of respect that a professional athlete needs... If Giannis, who is my new favorite player in the NBA, has a really important game the day before, I guarantee you I'm not distracting him. Competition is sacred. I have huge respect for our players and coaches. The amount of stress they go through would break 99.9% of people out there.

 

When it comes to the LCK, I love the direction, the new playoffs format, but we aren't doing enough to make the viewership interesting enough. I want us taking risks, experimenting, trying new ideas on the broadcast -- we aren't doing that. We are starting to, but it's moving too slow. The way I see it, we have this limited window where people care about the LCK globally. When they care, we shouldn't take it for granted. We should be trying our best to press the advantage. I'm anxious that we're sitting too comfortably. I hope other teams feel that urgency too.

 

How does Gen.G stay ahead of the curve on this one?

 

We have this phrase, "We want to change the game." But we aren't going to do that with a team that sucks. We have to be competing for championships... there's only one team that wins Worlds, but we have to be out there. That to me is the most important.

 

But also, what I tell players here, being the team that helps the industry moves forward means taking risks, doing things people may not understand, but knowing in your head that the organization is doing it responsibly.

Here's my prediction: Every single team, and the league, will be thoroughly unprepared for how big of an opportunity to do something exciting this will be when fans come back safely [to the studio].

 

Eventually, the fans are gonna be back to the studio after COVID. How do you envision the league will be when that happens? Do you think there will be a boost in selling merch? Are there new business opportunities that involve the fans?

 

Here's my prediction: Every single team, and the league, will be thoroughly unprepared for how big of an opportunity to do something exciting this will be when fans come back safely [to the studio]. But we have to know it's a tough situation right now. We have a ton of ideas for when fans can meet the players... but it's not going to happen this split, and by the time the split is over, it's Worlds.

 

Going into the off-season and the next season, what I'd push the league to do is make an experience that's worthwhile to go to, but also bring your friends to. Right now, our core fans love to go to LoL Park, but it's not a great experience for fans that are brand new. And we have to think of the next level. We're not there yet. Even the small things: there's nothing to do during the game breaks when you're there. We need to rebuild it from the ground up.

I remember the backlash that Gen.G received from the Korean community around BLM due to the org’s use of the Korean flag. Since then, how does the organization view the juxtaposition of the communication between the Korean community and the Western community?

 

The way our company handled it here in Korea was a mistake. Mistakes can be made, but let's make sure we don't make them again. That's what we're always committed to, and that goes back to the risk-taking mentality I spoke of. When you take risks, it's important to do it out of a sense of responsibility and then you take responsibility for your actions when you make a mistake. And I can guarantee it won't happen again.

When I look at our players, they're working their butts off, and a lot of them come from very low income or poor backgrounds. This isn't a bunch of rich kids playing with a toy. This is life or death for them.

What kind of cultural and societal movements resonate with Gen.G the most?

 

There's something that's very important to me in Korea, which is around providing opportunities. When I look at our players, they're working their butts off, and a lot of them come from very low income or poor backgrounds. This isn't a bunch of rich kids playing with a toy. This is life or death for them. This is their opportunity to go to the next stage. Now that we've been a couple of years into it, I realize a lot of players don't make it. A lot of coaches don't make it. And there's nothing for them to do. There's a joke among players, "If I don't make it, I'm gonna open a chicken store."

 

At first, I took it as a joke, but once I looked deeper, it's the truth for a lot of people. If I was in this situation and wasn't given opportunities, I'd be angry, I'm not sure what I'd do or who I'd become. For us, we've been working hard not just to take good care of players — that's easy — but also to be the first to provide opportunities when it doesn't work out. We're among the first that go and convert post-career players into streamers. And we were very lucky with CuVee, with Ambition, and it's fun to see their evolution. They've been so successful. They're probably making more money now than when they were players.

 

Speaking of streamers, who’s your favorite streamer?

 

Anybody that uses my name and gets to the highest rank — whatever that might be — would be my favorite streamer. [laughs] That opens the door for Ambition to change his name to Arnold 2, CuVee can be Arnold 3... [laughs]

What is your relationship with the players on a personal level?

 

I think more than anything, if you think about a player's life, every single person around them — their girlfriends, parents, friends — all they care about is whether they are winning, what match they're playing. I think a lot of our players lose sight that this, at the end of the day, is still just a sport, just a game. I try not to ask too many questions directly to the players about in-game stuff, plus it's not like I'm gonna be of help to Ruler. [laughs] So I usually ask how they're doing personally, what's new in their life, so that they have this ability to understand that they still have this broader life. If you can figure out how to take care of your broader life, you can be more successful in your professional life.

 

You'd be surprised how many people don't ask these things. They want to talk about how their build was, how their pick/ban was. And, of course, I do care about those things too and I talk about it with our GM and coaches, but with the players, I tend to keep it light.

 

One thing I noticed that was pretty cool was how Gen.G interacts with the K-pop stars. With stuff like that, new approaches to content and branding, what kind of a brand do you see Gen.G becoming in five years’ time?

 

I've spent a lot of time thinking about this, especially about what can resonate with our competitive needs the most, and try to find what are examples that can really help us. We have a history working with Korean hip hop artists and people think, "Oh, they're doing that just for marketing money"... No. People need to understand that the brand is really important. Players care about what kind of brand a team has. It's not the #1 thing — the #1 thing is always money. The #2 is how competitive that team is. And after that, it's the brand.

For me, with a juggernaut like T1 in the world and their incredible brand, we can't ignore that our brand needs to continue to get bigger and better. One of the things that I've noticed and I really like about Korean hip-hop and pop is that it's what the players want. Players want to do content with these artists because that's the music they listen to. It's actually not that complicated for me. I look at the way Korean hip hop grew from this industry that people looked down upon to this huge global industry.

 

There are a lot of things we can learn from that and apply to esports. If you look at where esports was 3-5 years ago and where it's now — it's crazy. I'd be the first to tell you, when I first started here, I was like, "We need a jersey sponsor". I couldn't even get a meeting. I had to pull every single personal string to go sit down with marketing managers of apparel companies and they didn't give a shit. Now, we have incoming calls. The fact we have Puma — that's f*****g crazy.

Now, we know where the problems are. Before, people used to just disagree with the problems. And if we fail now, I'll know that at least we've tried. That feeling I like.

The LoL team is now in its second year of sticking together as a unit. What kind of a team were they at the beginning to what they're now?

 

One area of growth I've seen is how the players and coaches have bought into the idea that there's no more time to be stubborn about anything. Everybody knows what they need to do. Everyone's on the same page and it's a matter of can we do it or not. That's kind of a great unifying force in the end. But I have 100% belief that we can adapt to the new meta, even though we are behind.

 

Now, we know where the problems are. Before, people used to just disagree with the problems. And if we fail now, I'll know that at least we've tried. That feeling I like.

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