The San Francisco Shock and NRG Esports made their footprints in the esports space. They have seen success in Overwatch, Rocket League, and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. A significant piece to the org's success is President, Brett Lautenbach.
After his IGEC panel on engineering teamwork, Lautenbach spoke with Inven Global about working with various investors, involvement with the Shock, and what he learned in his time with NRG.
For those unfamiliar with you, what is your background prior to working in esports?
I was actually at a talent agency called WME back in the day, now it's just called Endeavor. I started in the mailroom going through film school. Everyone who wants to work at WME or any talent agency in the Hollywood landscape starts at the mailroom level and works their way up. While I was there, I was working in their nonscripted department, mainly with the focus around newscasters — people on CNN, CNBC, MSNBC, etc. That was a great experience learning how to manage talent and helping them succeed. Ultimately, I had this passion for esports — grew up playing StarCraft religiously. It was one of my favorite games of all time. The scene was hitting another level, where I never thought I could be working in this, it would be a passion and hobby of mine.
I started talking to folks at WME about it and they were interested. We ended up acquiring a small esports management and some great guys over there who helped spin up a joint venture with Turner Sports called ELEAGUE. It was originally all Counter-Strike, which is really cool to see TBS embracing it, a game that's been around for 20 years. I think it's the 20th anniversary. If I'm wrong, Scoots will comment on the article and tell me I am.
Then, I got hooked up with Andy Miller, who is one of the founders here. I talked to him for a while and they were looking for someone who can do daily business ops. I thought it was an awesome opportunity and working for someone like that would be cool.
What are your thoughts on the growth of NRG Esports and the San Francisco Shock?
I joined NRG about three years ago. It's been up and running in the League of Legends scene before I got there. It's grown tremendously, it's been a joy to be a part of. At the highest level, we have way more staff and players involved in way more games. I think the audience as well has grown massively.
I look at Instagram this year as an amazing platform for us to grow on and see what's happening there — engaging an audience where three years ago, there was not a lot of conversation about gaming and esports happening on Instagram. It was low on the totem pole; now, it's huge. The growth of the entire industry has been really cool.
We've seen great, new operators come into the team side. Additionally, we've had so many new partners enter the space, people you wouldn't have thought would be here. They've been supportive and help make this thing run properly.
Working with the Stars
NRG has so many celebrities investing in the team ranging from Alex Rodriguez, Shaq, to Jennifer Lopez. How did the team acquire these celebrities to investing in esports? How has the relationship been since then?
I think for us, it was always trying to find people we thought could help the org than just signing a check, be passive, and disappear. We wanted people who are really interested and curious about the space, whether or not they were lifetime gamers like Shaq or people who weren't around the gaming space before. People had an interesting take on entertainment and culture in sports.
We have a huge roundtable of that between Alex [Rodriguez] who's absolutely incredible and done a really good job in a post-pro sports life in building a life outside sports. It's invaluable for these players. We had Marshawn Lynch who was with the Shock and spoke with them about surviving the pressure in the championship stage.
Shaq is an amazing example who would literally call players we're looking at to sign — convince them to sign with us. He would also sit down with them. I remember a year ago he would sit down with HookGangGod, who plays Dragon Ball FighterZ. They're both from Jersey and grew up in less than ideal neighborhoods. Shaq is a fun guy, he's hilarious to talk to. He's also one of the best Centers to ever play basketball.
Are there any investors that you would like to work with in the future?
I mean there's a limitless number of options I could go with there. Most of those people across the [investor] board have been so open and honest to me, which is refreshing. You can just call up those people and ask them anything at any time. I'm always interested to see people with expertise in other areas ancillary across entertainment, brand partnerships, media, and sports who are interested in this space and might not have that knowledge. They can get as excited as I am.
Growing with the Shock
Let's switch topics and talk about the Shock. Can you tell me how involved you are currently with the Shock?
I'm super involved. I remember when we first started, the original NRG squad with Seagull and Gods. They were just playing in ELEAGUE in my first week that I joined. Andy was super keen on the game, he really liked it. We started to hear more about the Overwatch League and had a lot of conversation if it was the right move for us. We both agreed it would be a cool opportunity and there's going to be a lot of cool people involved in this. I've worked day in and day out ever since then, whether or not it is giving my perspective on marketing ideas for our marketing team or talking with our coaching staff and GM.
What's been great is that we've found tremendously dedicated hard working people who want to work in every level of it. Because of the dedication and intelligence there, it's been an amazing blessing. There's been so much trust across the board.
Andy and I are brutally honest people. We expect everyone to have opinions and lock horns over those opinions. We've hired people similar in that regard, and people who I think have really smart ideas on how to compete and build a winning team.
I want to go back into the past in Season 1 of the Overwatch League for the Shock. It was a rough year for the team. What lessons did you learn heading into Season 2?
I don't think we went into Season 1 thinking the team is ready to win a world championship. We had a lot of young players and veteran players who can help coach those guys along and part a lot of wisdom to them. We learned a lot of lessons.
Last year, we did basic stuff in terms of housing. We did this apartment situation with the players and we weren't sure this year how we're going to do housing. The players came to us and wanted to do a team house. They wanted to be a band of brothers this year and they wanted to do everything together. That was a huge shift for us.
That can cut against you though. I've heard every argument for and against team houses. At the end of the day, one of the things we need to do is listen to the players and if the players are wrong, we need to explain why. They were passionate about this and the coaches were on board with it. With that, comes a lot of structure for those guys.
The ability for us to create a structure for them I think has increased massively based on everything. Crusty is an incredibly structured guy in practices, running it in a particular way. NineK, Junkbuck, Crusty, and Chris are a 4-headed giant who say they don't have the same opinion, but by the opinion gets to me, they are in lock step with each other.
So the team hired Crusty to be the coach towards the end of last season. What was the thought process behind signing Crusty?
We picked up Crusty at the tail end of Season 1. It's a tough thing to do as a coach. You're coming in where players were being coached a certain way for the whole season. I love Brad to death and I think he was great. Crusty was just the right guy at the right time. There was probably not much Crusty could change at that point but made tweaks to run it the way he wants.
Looking at Crusty, he had an impeccable record. He is incredibly smart and wants to be the guy behind the steering wheel. Andy and I had conversations with him in terms of how much control do I have. We're not going to stop Crusty from implementing the system that he thinks would work — we would support him as guard rails.
If he does something crazy, we're going to say so and we're also going to challenge him. By challenging him, we're not saying he's wrong necessarily, we want to make sure he's thinking through everything. He's been an incredible collaborator at that. One thing is that we've been able to give him a lot of space to focus and build this to his vision. It's really paid off.
How do you instill so much trust into Crusty?
He had a great track record where he had an undefeated stage last season with the Uprising. I think players really trusted him, not only in Boston but everyone. He knows what he's doing and you listen to him.
You mentioned that the team banded together in wanting a team house. Who among all the Shock players is the most outspoken?
Oh god, they're all so outspoken. That's one of the things I love about these guys is like they have their own way to get what they want to say across. Very obviously, sinatraa is a very outspoken guy. It's been very interesting to watch him this year. He's dealt with a lot of hardships last year, in terms of community feedback and what he felt like was not living up to the expectations. This year, I think he's not as publicly outspoken as he was last year. Yet, he's crushing it infinitely more.
He's always willing to put himself out there and say what's on his mind. All those guys talk so much and give a similar vision for how they like things to run which is why this team functions so well. They trust each other.
What's next for the Shock moving forward?
We won the Stage 2 championships which is awesome. That was an incredible experience. I think when I was on stage, we were taking a team photo. Andy turned me and he told me I was literally shaking and excited that I could barely keep it in. It was though and a cool experience to watch those guys from where they started in the season.
What's next for us is let's crush Stage 3, Stage 4, and let's play in Philly in the finals and win it. That's what I want. That's what all those players want. This was a nice benchmark but this is just the beginning.
Thank you for taking the time out of the day for this interview. Are there any words that you want to say to all the Shock and NRG fans out there?
Thank you for your support whether it is NRG or Shock or anything. This is all possible only possible because we have fans who are dedicated, interested, and love this stuff as much as I do growing up. That's the coolest part about it. The esports and gaming communities are amazing. It's a great way to find people who you can connect as friends. I've made some of my best friends in this space. Thank you because it's not possible without that community involvement and love.
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