76ers CEO: Team Dignitas will be 'the best place in the world' for esports

Kristian "k0nfig" Wienecke and Team Dignitas compete during Season 1 of ELeague. Turner Sports-USA TODAY Sports

On Monday it was announced that NBA basketball team Philadelphia 76ers purchased two esports teams, Team Dignitas and Apex Gaming, which will both merge under the Dignitas banner.

The 76ers and their new staff of esports hires, including former Bioware CEO and Electronic Arts VP Greg Richardson, former Dignitas owner Michael "ODEE" O'Dell and former Apex general manager Michael Slan, will now run teams across multiple esports titles. These games will include League of Legends, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Overwatch, Heroes of the Storm and Smite, mixing together squads from both Apex and Dignitas.

"We aim to be the most dominant, winning franchise across the [esports] space," 76ers CEO Scott O'Neil told ESPN in an interview about his team's new venture. "I think having the opportunity to put some real resources behind an unbelievable, rapidly growing property will be amazing."

O'Neil, who also serves as CEO for the NHL's New Jersey Devils and the Prudential Center, has lofty ambitions, which were clear throughout the course of the interview. Putting money behind Dignitas, one of esports' oldest organizations, will likely elevate the organization that has fallen behind in certain esports -- mainly due to a lack of financial bidding power -- over the past few years.

The 76ers and O'Neil first began to court an opportunity in esports in 2015, when they first met ODEE, who has worked in the space as the head of Team Dignitas since 2003. O'Neil said that ODEE gave them a personal view of an industry that had already piqued their interest. After assessing their options, both O'Neil and the 76ers believed that acquiring Team Dignitas was the right move.

"In a space that's changing rapidly, to have a solid, strong, confident voice in ODEE was really comforting," O'Neil said. "He approached the partnership with a very long-term approach like we did, very focused on understanding that the landscape changing as rapidly as it is. He was looking for a partner capable of bringing real resources. He was looking for partner with whom he could build a dominant, championship-winning team."

But despite ODEE's strong reputation among the business, hiring Slan and acquiring Apex comes with baggage.

Slan is best known for his time as the manager of Team Coast, which he co-owned with his father, David Slan. During his time with Coast from 2013 until it was sold to NRG Esports in 2015, that organization's reputation plummeted, as it made ill-advised roster moves and had a knack for being involved numerous disputes, which were later published. In 2016, Slan and his father launched a new esports team, called Team Apex.

Richardson said that working with the Slan and acquiring Apex from his father was ODEE's suggestion. ODEE had worked with the Slans in the past as a colleague during Team Dignitas' time in the League Championship Series and recently gave his team's Challenger Series spot to Apex in April.

Richardson, however, said his main motivation to work with Slan came after seeing his history of finding talent in League of Legends, where Coast has qualified for the League Championship Series with multiple different lineups.

"Michael Slan at Apex has a unique ability to find top talent," Richardson said. "Working with ODEE in the Dignitas culture is going to make great things happen for him and our LCS team."

For O'Neil and Richardson, they both said they want to make Team Dignitas the most prestigious option for potential players in the esports world, something the organization has never been able to accomplish alone.

"We have to very clearly communicate that Dignitas is the best place in the world for players to play seriously, where they have the opportunity to build really amazing careers, be well compensated and have all the things they need to be the best," Richardson said.

As O'Neil added, "We have experience in terms of creating an environment where athletes excel and develop. If you talk to any of our players at the New Jersey Devils or Philadelphia 76ers, you'll find it's an incredible experience for them, and we have no doubt we can build on that for players who commit to Team Dignitas."