"YOU CANNOT LEAVE until you kill somebody," Jonas Jerebko says to me calmly. We're sitting in his apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts, just off Davis Square, playing Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. The Celtics forward is fresh out of basketball practice, lounging in gray sweatpants one day before a home game against the Bulls. Just as I'm aiming at a terrorist for what I'm hoping will be my first kill, blood spurts across the screen. For the fifth time in about a minute, I've been killed. Jerebko chuckles: "He was behind you with a knife." He's too nice to say it, but that's definitely the lamest way to die in a shooting game.
Diapers are stacked next to the heavy black PC, and when Jerebko minimizes the first-person shooter game, which he plays about 10 hours a week, a picture of his 10-month-old daughter, Izabel, appears. "This is where Jonas sits-between the diapers and the computer," says his fiancée, Johanna, from the doorway.
Counter-Strike, if you don't already know, is a first-person shooter that pits terrorists against counterterrorists in a quest to destroy or save the planet. It's been one of the most popular video games in the world since its 1999 release, and since 2013, CS:GO has drawn millions of viewers as an esport, with its rapid-fire, five-on-five format. It's also Jerebko's favorite pastime, so much so that he bought the Renegades, a team of pro gamers, in July.
That puts the 29-year-old Swede in exclusive company, as the only active NBA player to own an esports franchise. That's not to say he's the lone NBA mind thinking about investments in professional gaming. In early 2015, commissioner Adam Silver held a meeting with his board of governors, laying out the ownership opportunities in esports, an industry projected to be worth $1.5 billion by 2020, according to Newzoo. NBA arenas, with their tiered indoor seating pointing toward a large screen, are suited to the games; in October, Staples Center in Los Angeles sold out in under 45 minutes when it hosted the finals of the League of Legends World Championship.
Since October 2015, Rick Fox, Shaquille O'Neal and Magic Johnson have invested in teams, as have the owners of the Warriors, Wizards, Kings, Grizzlies and Bucks. The Rockets added a director of esports last December to explore investment opportunities, while the 76ers and Heat acquired teams that will be integrated with their NBA operations. Last week, Silver announced the creation of the NBA 2K eLeague, in which all 30 basketball franchises will eventually field -- and finance -- five-man esports teams battling for the virtual NBA championship, starting in 2018.
But despite this influx of basketball money, esports is still a volatile industry, and the NBA's attempts at establishing stability within it haven't been pretty. Shaq's team pulled out of League of Legends after being relegated from the first division, while Fox has become one of League's most unpopular owners, accused of trying to poach players and refusing to join in collective bargaining negotiations.
Jerebko thinks he can do better because, unlike the well-heeled owners or retired NBA stars, he actually likes these games. And he doesn't need Adam Silver to tell him it's a good investment; he figured that out on his own. Jerebko stands between the two worlds -- the NBA employee who might make the perfect esports employer.
If he can balance it all.
IT'S 1:30 ON a Saturday afternoon in Rochester, Michigan, an affluent town 45 minutes north of Detroit, and members of the Renegades' five-man CS:GO team sit sleepily in the basement of their six-bedroom house nestled between country clubs. Most other American CS:GO teams live in California, and the Renegades need the other clubs to practice, so they operate on West Coast time. Days start around noon; practice kicks off by 2 or 3 and continues deep into the night.
Outside it's snowing, the first time this group of Australians transplanted to the Midwest has ever seen the stuff. But it's barely noticeable in the basement, where computers line the walls, giving the room a casino-like feeling of timelessness.
Jerebko not only pays the rent -- estimated at $4,300 a month -- at this house, he also helped put together the tables on which players place their computers. They're height-adjustable, which is another example of the boss's hands-on care: Ergonomic support is essential when you play a game for more than 10 hours a day. During the NBA offseason, Jerebko and his family live outside Detroit, and he stopped by the CS:GO house nearly every day. "We had an extra PC set up, and he'd just play," says Chris Orfanellis, the team manager. "Or he'd sit on a beanbag and watch."
I ask the guys if Jerebko is any good at the game. They look at each other and laugh. "He's not too bad," says Karlo "USTILO" Pivac. "He's much better at basketball," adds Justin "JKS" Savage. "He plays a lot," says Orfanellis. "He might be good soon."
Jerebko's management style contrasts sharply with what the Renegades had come to expect. In May 2016, Riot Games, the publisher of League of Legends and de facto esports enforcer, banned the Renegades and their owners, Christopher "MonteCristo" Mykles and Chris Badawi, from competition for charges including "compromising player welfare and safety." To cite one telling incident: According to Mykles, after a player informed the owners of her intention to leave the team, Badawi threatened to withhold money from her salary to repay him for money he had previously given her for medical care.
Mykles and Badawi were forced to sell their spot in the League of Legends North American league, then chose to sell their other teams. That's when Jerebko and his business partner James O'Connor, a former CS:GO coach, came in. Jerebko knew that if he waited to invest until he retired -- which he doesn't plan to do anytime soon; he's in a two-year, $10 million contract with the Celtics -- he'd likely be priced out. "It would be way too late," he says. "By then it might be $20 million to get in. Esports is getting more expensive every day." By mid-July, the deal for Renegades was done, with Jerebko as the organization's majority owner.
He won't say how much it cost to buy Renegades or how much it costs to run. For context, though, Bucks owner Wesley Edens paid roughly $2.5 million for his spot in the League of Legends league, and for the right to negotiate with the players, in December. In the eight months Jerebko has owned Renegades, the organization has expanded to 17 players, three coaches and two managers competing in four games, along with nearly 20 staffers in video production, operations, marketing and analytics. He pays the rent and utilities for four team houses and fronts the travel budgets for tournaments around the world.
When I ask how he hopes to compete with people like Edens, whose investment management firm is valued at $72 billion, Jerebko, whose career earnings total roughly $24 million, is bullish. "By winning," he says. Despite the grueling NBA schedule, he is determined to be as involved as possible. That means a daily Renegades call, usually on the drive to Celtics practice, as well as talks with potential sponsors and contract negotiations with new players. While we ate at a Boston taqueria one afternoon, he sent a masseuse to the CS:GO team to help the guys relax after a trip back from a tournament in Malaysia. He tells the players and coaches to text or call him anytime.
"Before, all I did was basketball, and I thought about basketball all the time," he says. "It was too much. Now it's nice to take my mind off of it. It helps my game."
The cross-pollination is most evident in the Renegades' branding. Many esports teams cluster in one city: LA is a favorite for many North American teams, for instance. But Jerebko named his team the Detroit Renegades, taking after the traditional sports model of situating each team in a city. Jerebko believes the rest of esports will follow his model, giving fans outside LA a reason to stay loyal to a team beyond liking a player or two.
It's not hard to envision a future in which the Detroit Renegades compete against the Miami Heat's Misfits or the Philadelphia 76ers' Team Dignitas, in NBA arenas around the country, cheered on by millions of young fans whose loyalty -- and dollars -- cross between sports. That's the future the NBA is betting on, and Jerebko is determined to be at its forefront.
AS THE CELTICS and the Pistons warm up one night at the Palace, about a dozen Renegades make their way through the arena, most of them sporting matching black and red jerseys. Their boss checks into the game with five minutes left in the first quarter. A moment later, he sinks a 3. It's a tense affair, and Jerebko plays 18 minutes, nails all three of his shots beyond the arc and grabs six rebounds. With 1.3 seconds left and the game tied, Al Horford makes a layup to put the Celtics up 94-92. After a Pistons timeout, Jerebko comes back in. "They brought him in for the last second because he's good at defense," says Call of Duty player Steven "Diabolic" Rivero.
The Pistons' last-second heave misses, and moments later, the Renegades gather on the court to congratulate their boss, whom many call JJ. Jerebko has to go to a Celtics team dinner, but he suggests all the Renegades go over to his place to shoot hoops and hang out until he gets home.
Stability has been Jerebko's primary goal in his first year as Renegades owner. When he signed his Call of Duty players, some hadn't been paid for months. "Esports needs to be cleaned up," Jerebko says. "There are a lot of people out there who are just in it for the money, and they're signing these kids and they don't pay them. In the contract negotiations, I told the guys, 'You might get $500 or $1,000 more a month from someone else, but are you sure you'll always get it?' Here, they know that on the first of every month they'll have a paycheck."
He also insisted on signing his players to longer contracts than many were used to. When I asked Rivero and his Call of Duty teammate Troy "Sender" Michaels which teams they'd played on before Renegades, they asked, "The notable ones?" There were too many to list. Rivero said he was once on a team for about a week. Jerebko signed his players to the same type of contract he's on with Boston: one year with the option for a second. "These kids are jumping from team to team," he says. "'We don't want to sign a long contract,' they said, but we told them you can't jump from team to team and expect to be good. You gotta put in practice with the same guys."
After celebrating the win over the Pistons with his Celtics teammates, Jerebko comes home to his Renegades. He's in a good mood, and the guys talk him into a late-night poker game. They settle in around a heavy wooden table in the basement. It's a $20 buy-in, and Jerebko throws out a $100 bill to cover a few people. Some of his players are just a few years younger than him, and he seems like a cooler older brother. It's clear they adore him, or at least can't believe their luck.
"I've been on some organizations where I never even spoke a word to the owner," says Andrew "Ivy" Ivers, an 18-year-old Call of Duty player who joined Renegades in August. "Jonas has welcomed us into his home and is treating us like family. It's special."