There's the likes of NBA Hall of Famer Shaquille O'Neal and multitime NBA champion Rick Fox investing heavily in esports, and then there's L.A. Rams offensive guard Rodger Saffold. Saffold, who co-founded Rise Nation, not only is one of the few athletes to own an esports team but also is still playing full time in the NFL. As the aforementioned investors are all retired from professional sports, this means Saffold finds himself in a challenging but perhaps uniquely advantageous situation. And he's using his background as an athlete, and as a gamer, to lead his team to victory.
ESPN caught up with Saffold before his match against the Minnesota Vikings to get some insight into what it's like to be an active professional athlete and owner of an esports organization.
First, Saffold has always enjoyed playing video games. "I love puzzles for your brain," Saffold said. "When I was growing up, that's what I did." But it wasn't until college that Saffold found the thrill of competitive first-person shooters. "I would even say before college; I started playing 'Call of Duty,' and then 'Call of Duty : Modern Warfare' came out... I just was so overboard on it, I could literally play the game all day long," he recalled.
As Saffold entered the NFL, he kept a close eye on the world of video games. "When I started figuring out that esports was growing, and I saw they were all over the internet on Twitch -- when I saw that there were these huge events -- I was like, 'OK, I need to get into this.'" That's when Saffold, along with his friend and business partner Kahreem Horsley, started Rise Nation. They leveraged industry connections to form their first Call of Duty team and, in their freshman outing, were able to qualify for the Call of Duty Championship 2014: U.S. Regional Final. There, the team made a valiant effort but ended up placing seventh. This was still a remarkable result, considering the high caliber of competition, and it convinced Saffold that he had a legitimate stake in esports.
But being fully invested in sports and esports is a challenging proposition. "It's tough to do the day-to-day operations," said Saffold. "Most of your day is pretty much filled up with, you know, football." Saffold does have the structures in place to manage Rise Nation while he's playing, but that doesn't mean he ignores the team. Rather, he can use his time where it's most effective. "When it comes down to when I get a chance to speak to the players, when I get a chance to speak with the sponsors, it really shows that I'm dedicated to this and that I'm giving them time."
Saffold's background in the NFL might offer certain advantages when coaching his team. "The best thing I can do for these players is show them the intangibles," Saffold said. "Being a leader, grinding [through practice maneuvers]... they always say prior proper planning prevents piss-poor performance." Even with Saffold's sports background, however, esports can still feel like unfamiliar territory at times. "Actually, [compared to] most of these organizations that already have their business plans together, I feel like I'm a step behind them."
Owning an esports team while in the NFL has given Saffold the curious role of de facto esports ambassador to his fellow athletes, since he's investing his time and energy into something that's far from the norm. Luckily for Saffold, his teammates are very supportive. "I always get questions like 'Hey, how is our team doing?' [and] like 'Hey, what's going on, what's going down this weekend?'" he said.
Well, this weekend the Call of Duty World Championships are being held in Los Angeles at the Forum. Sixteen teams are competing for an impressive prize pool of $1.6 million, big enough to perk the ears of even non-esports fans. "I got a lot of my teammates on the list to come and enjoy and see what I got involved in," Saffold said. "That's kind of my job, to try to broaden the horizons of athletes to kind of get into this and see a new sport forming."
Considering that the Forum will have a few players from the Rams roaming around, it's quite possible that more athlete-led esports organizations could start to appear in the scene in the future. "They're definitely curious," Saffold said, "but once I tell 'em what you have to do as far as salaries, you know, how you have to handle your business ... you can try to invest, but I have to see how serious you are about this."
Saffold made it very clear that Rise Nation is more about his passion than an investment; it was a passion he held even before he entered the NFL. Said Saffold, "Now, seeing it's growing and going into the right direction, I'm going to want to try and hold on to this as much as I can."
There's one subject that any professional athlete knows something about, and that's sponsorship. "Beer goes hand in hand with football. and now, because of beer, it's become part of the deal with football," Saffold said. For Rise Nation, where Saffold often deals with the sponsors himself, it's about quality over quantity.
"You don't want to get too many sponsors," Saffold said. It's more about "getting the right people that fit your organization, people that care about your team just as much as you do."
KontrolFreek, a video games controller accessory manufacturer that sponsors Rise Nation, follows the same philosophy. "I think finding a great team, and honestly great management and leadership, beyond sort of how the teams performs, is No. 1," said Ashish Mistry, president and CEO. "And so once we knew that the Rise Teams were using the KontrolFreek products, it made it very easy to pursue a working relationship with them."
While nonendemic sponsors such beer companies are starting to take notice of esports' growth, they are proceeding with caution. "Esports is still highly fragmented," said Mistry, and that is a possible reason many sponsors are still waiting on the sideline. Unlike traditional sports, esports is usually referred to as a whole, even though there are multiple teams and players in various games with their own specific audiences. "But as you see things like the Call of Duty World Championship, things that are sort of more tentpole events, their ability to push corporate dollars downstream and to scale is making it a lot easier for these brands to participate," Mistry continued.
No matter how the field might appear now, the consensus is that the world of sponsorship will only expand. As more nonendemic sponsors jump in, players will see larger prize pots, helping them create sustainable careers out of gaming. For Saffold, that's a major plus for building out his team and for growing esports in general.
Although the marriage between professional athletes and professional video gaming might seem unlikely, it actually makes a lot of sense. While many others are quick to shrug esports off, those in sports see its potential, as well as the hard work and skill required to play at a top level. These athletes don't view esports as a novelty or a gimmick. They know that these games require great presence of mind, skill and teamwork. And for them, that's enough to want to devote their time, money and passion to something they see as a play for the future.