H1Z1, an action survival game still in its beta phase, is one of the next big esports. At least, that's what Echo Fox owner Rick Fox thinks.
Described as the Hunger Games of video games, H1Z1 is a computer title that parachute drops 150 players onto a map, and the rest is up to the competitors. Get weapons, hide, or go on the offensive as the battle royale wages on until one player is left standing as the ultimate survivor.
Fox, a multitime NBA champion, has already made his mark in the world of esports with his involvement in leading titles like League of Legends and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, but he doesn't want to simply follow the trend: he wants to be the one creating them. He wants to be at the forefront of it all.
"We're really excited about our relationship with H1Z1," said Fox. "As of now, we're in the midst of the [League Championship Series] summer split, but we got a chance last week to go down to [H1Z1 developer] Daybreak and really drill deeper into what's coming down the line in coming months with our partnership. I'm probably most excited -- besides the fact I love to play and compete at it on a weekly basis -- what it will evolve into."
As a game still in the beta stage, the future of H1Z1 as an esport is still completely up in the air. While it has its fair share of popular streamers and viewers, simply being a fun game to watch on Twitch with a few colorful personalities does not make it a surefire esport. Hearthstone, which is one of the most-watched games on Twitch, isn't necessarily one of the bigger esports going today. There are people who stream Hearthstone that possess a large fan base, but that viewership doesn't translate to a tournament setting. While people might be entertained by a certain streamer battling it out in the one-versus-all aspect of H1Z1, there needs to be an interest in a wide array of teams and players to result in a healthy competitive scene.
"It has to be interesting to watch," answered Fox when questioned what makes a competitive video game interesting to the casual mainstream audience. "That in itself is what you have here with H1Z1."
That's the beauty and upside of the Daybreak title as a possible esport in the future. For how popular the likes of League of Legends and Dota 2 are, they're difficult to understand if you're someone not familiar with video games. Even then, you might not even understand all the spells, different classes of characters, and the colorful, rotating objectives if you don't sit down and get a crash course on what's going on. H1Z1, on the other hand, doesn't share that trait.
A ton of people get dropped onto a map in a realistic setting.
The objective is to survive until the end.
If you die, your game is over.
The last person standing is the winner.
It's the type of survival fantasy we've seen portrayed countless times in television, movies and books. With the success of similar media like Hunger Games, the promotion of the game itself from a broadcasting standpoint wouldn't be difficult. When you force a bunch of people to fight to the bitter end, people will tune in to find out who wins. It's been that way since the age of the Roman gladiators.
"I'm obsessed with the idea of the competition of a group of teams competing all at one time, " said Fox. "Something I haven't seen anywhere out there in the landscape that I want to see come to life. There's so many different ways they can go with their esport expression. I keep pitching it every time I'm in front of Daybreak. I just know as a consumer of competition, this is at its purest form. As a consumer of that and the entertainment value around it, I know there is a home run, a touchdown, a slam dunk. You name whatever sport analogy you want. If you had such a league that set up the opportunity for these teams to draft off the leaderboard like Twin Galaxies and have them all compete every week, it's just epic."
After getting involved with League of Legends and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive at the start of his esports journey, Rick Fox's next move isn't in line with everyone else. You'd expect a Dota 2 team from him, or maybe even an Overwatch team (to capitalize on the huge groundswell of attention the game is garnering after its recent release). Instead, the move into H1Z1, while not limiting Fox in branching out to those games, is something where he, as a businessman and leader, can be the one to set the mark.
Before League of Legends became the world's biggest esport, you had the likes of Andy "Reginald" Dinh creating teams on message boards and forming grassroots brands from garages. Not a decade later, Dinh is the founder and owner of one of the biggest esports teams in the world and has become a self-made millionaire by being one of the first people in the space to build a team and brand correctly.
Fox, already established from his days in the NBA and on television, doesn't need to take risks, but he wants to. As a famous owner, some thought he'd be hands off and leave a lot of the personal work to people he hired under him. Through the first six months as an owner, all signs have pointed to the complete opposite, as his players praise Fox for being somewhat of a father figure and always talking to them before games, after games, and in-between when they're working toward their next endeavor.
Echo Fox doesn't want to just make money off esports. It wants to be the ones creating careers and revolutionizing the growing business of it. In H1Z1, Fox & Co. have found a game where they feel, if the correct choices are made and the right teams invest into it, can become a competitive title that breaks the barrier between casual and hard-core fan of video games. At the end of the day, traditional sports and esports both try to deliver entertainment, so why can't they coincide next to each other?
"Just because you call yourself an esport doesn't necessarily make you an esport," said Fox.
And that will be the challenge he and the rest of Echo Fox have in the coming weeks as they announce their first players and the fledgling scene of H1Z1 starts to take shape. After all, it wasn't too long ago that League of Legends was said to be too colorful, too chaotic and too hard to follow. Five years later, it's a flag-bearer for competitive games entering the mainstream.
H1Z1 isn't the first and won't be the last video game that hopes to become the next big esport. Rocket League, Heroes of the Storm and even traditional sport titles like Madden and NBA 2k are trying to break into the upper-echelon of watched games. And just like the game itself, Rick Fox will be dropped into a battlefield, and he hopes with his know-how, expertise and eye for a good investment, he'll be the sole survivor.