Turning a top Esports franchise into a successful business

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Turning a top Esports franchise into a successful business

John Kim, COO of T1, poses for a photo in his office at T1's headquarters in Gangnam, southern Seoul on Sept. 2. [PARK SANG-MOON]

John Kim, COO of T1, poses for a photo in his office at T1's headquarters in Gangnam, southern Seoul on Sept. 2. [PARK SANG-MOON]

It may have only been a year since John Kim joined T1, but the Esports team's chief operating officer (COO) is already thinking global.
Kim started his career as the founder of TSB Communications in Vancouver, before moving more firmly into Esports as founder and advisor of an Overwatch team. While Kim is no stranger to gaming himself, he decided to focus more on the business side of the industry to cement T1's legacy.
Founded in 2003, T1 already has quite the legacy. The organization originally earned its stripes in the Starcraft world, winning numerous world championships in the popular game. 

For years, T1 operated under the sports marketing arm of SK Telecom. It wasn't until last year that T1 in its current format came into existence, after the old Esports teams were rolled into a new joint venture under SK Telecom and Comcast Spectacor in 2019. At the helm of that new venture are CEO Joe Marsh and Kim.

While the players have competed in and won numerous titles to continue the team’s legacy, Kim had been working around the clock to build T1 on the business operation side.
As the joint venture is still less than a year old, Kim considers his company a start-up. T1 may have already cemented its legacy in Korea long before the current iteration came into existence, but Kim is thinking bigger.
The Korea JoongAng Daily sat down with Kim to discuss the history of T1 and its goals moving forward.
Q. Tell us a bit about T1. You mentioned the organization started earning its recognition with Starcraft, but people seem to be a lot more familiar with T1’s League of Legends team. Can you tell us about it?

A. We won three world championships and we won two other global championships. That aside, we’ve won nine regional titles within Korea. We are by far the most successful organization in Esports in the world. 
Before, [the team] was part of SK Telecom's sports marketing division, [and we were] just a division branch of them, like part of their team. Then last October, we embarked on a joint venture with Comcast and SK Telecom to create a new company called T1. That’s sort of how we’ve come along until now. 
Of course we have sort of the greatest player of all time, named Faker. He’s considered the best player in all of Esports. He was there for all those titles I’ve mentioned. He continues to be great. He started at a young age and to this day, he is still considered to be one of the top. That’s really hard to do. So we have him.
We were kind of founded by a guy named BoxeR, Lim Yo-hwan. He’s considered the godfather of Esports. He’s the first celebrity star Esports player. He also hails from T1. He was one of our first signings when we first started.
Q. As COO of T1, what does your role look like?
A. Like I mentioned with the joint venture, [T1] became its own independent standalone company [in] October, so it hasn’t been that long. A lot of what I do is establishing that standalone business, an actual company. That’s a lot of work.
Besides that, [I] run the operations here in Korea. We have several amazing teams. We have a business division, operations that takes care of this new headquarters. We have a cafeteria that they run, we have all the sports teams. We have amazing managers who take care of these players and make sure they get their support. And we have an amazing content team. I kind of oversee all that in Korea and focus also on business development.
Q. Some traditional sports fans still see Esports as just computer gaming. How did you get into the field?
A. I always loved video games when I was younger, playing on the Nintendo with games like Street Fighter and 007. But I describe myself as an entrepreneur. I had [my] own company in Vancouver, ran it for about 10 years and was looking for new areas to invest in. Esports, at that time around 2014, was on the rise. It was one of those areas people thought would be a growing market in the future, and it has been.
So I invested — I purchased a team here in Korea. I started a small media company focusing on Esports and gaming. I started a technology company, sort of artificial intelligence [AI]. Through that I took over an Overwatch team — there was a new franchise league by Blizzard based on a game called Overwatch. I had a team there in Korea. Through that, I got connected to a guy name Tucker Roberts, who has an actual team in that franchise, the Philadelphia Fusion.
Of course Comcast Spectacor was the parent company of his organization. Whenever they came to Korea, I showed them around, got to know Joe [Marsh], at that time the chief business officer. Now he’s the CEO of T1. When the joint venture came up, they asked me to take over the Korean operation. That’s how I got into this job.
Q. Do you play League of Legends?
A. Yes I do. For research purposes, yes I do. I actually didn’t play for a long time when I was running my business [because] it’s so crazy and busy and hectic, I just didn’t have time. But I always loved video games. I played Starcraft a lot when I was younger. When I took over the Overwatch team, I started getting back into PC gaming.
Q. As the COO of T1, do you get lessons from the players?
A. I've played Overwatch with some of the pros before. You've got to be careful though. When you play together online, it could look like they are boosting you or carrying you up. So that’s not good in a competitive team. But I have played with the pros on an Overwatch team [before]. It’s really fun.
T1’s League of Legends team poses for a photo at the 2020 LCK Sumer League at the LoL Park — LCK Arena in central Seoul. [OFFICIAL RIOT KOREAN FLICKR]

T1’s League of Legends team poses for a photo at the 2020 LCK Sumer League at the LoL Park — LCK Arena in central Seoul. [OFFICIAL RIOT KOREAN FLICKR]

Q. Would you say the front office work in an Esports team is different from other sports?

A. We are essentially like a start-up. We are still new, getting everything established. Esports is also new, but there are parallels to other sports. There are similarities like sponsorship, media rights and that sort of thing. But we do have to really innovate and find new business opportunities. So there are those parallels. 
But Esports in general, it’s right now mostly an online sort of model — streaming. So there are differences for sure, and similarities. But in our specific case, because we’re all so new, we’re running all over the place. I'd say we are less established than tradition sports organizations.
Q. Does your schedule change on game days?

A. We’re always a little nervous on game days. We’re always eagerly anticipating and watching [games] together. But you know, it’s just a kind of day in the office. Our days get a little longer because the games go late into the night sometimes. But the front office doesn’t usually get involved in the day-to-day, with the particular head coach or coaches [taking care of] the team. We just get updates. That sort of thing.
Q. As COO, how much would you say you are involved in player scouting?

A. There are scenarios where we are very involved. We are involved to a certain extent. I mean last year, when we began the joint venture, we were kind of in a situation where we didn’t have a head coach. It all depends on what contracts are expiring. Last year, the CEO and I were actually running around, trying to sign people. We do get involved in the signing, but after the signing, we usually don’t get as involved.
Q. Speaking of signing, there are always headlines over whether Faker will re-sign with T1 or not. He’s been with the team since its beginning and has now become a part owner of the company. How did you guys manage to retain Faker for such a long period of time?

A. He is T1. He embodies T1, all the values. He’s won all the championships with it so we feel it's important that he gets a share of a company he built. That also, from a business perspective, keeps him connected to the company for a long time. He’s very important to us. Once we started working, one of our first subjects was to sign him and bring him into the company and ownership.
Q. How do people go from being a normal computer gamer to a pro? How does it generally work?

A. I’d say it is similar to sports. There are casual people playing basketball that love it. But there is that top-tier who is phenomenal at these games. There are, I think, 10 million daily active users who play League of Legends and a very, very small percentage is at the top. An even smaller percentage gets to join T1. So I guess you just have to have that talent and ability. After that, it takes a lot of practice and discipline.
Q. What is the most important skill T1 looks at when scouting players?

A. Excellence in the game is just straightforward. Most of these games have this competitive ranking system. You can see who is ranked near the top. Sometimes those players are not on the pro teams yet. That’s one way, we call it the ladder. To scout them directly off the ladder and through statistics and data, it all shows. 
One of our players, Cuzz has been on top of the ladder twice and runner-up one time as well. That is one way we can initially pinpoint who we want to look into. Another way is in terms of character, I think just relentlessness. Just not giving up and always trying to get better. I think that’s a good characteristic in everybody.
Q. What was the most unforgettable moment in your career with T1?

A. I’ve been part of T1 since last May, so it hasn’t been that long. But in that period of time, we’ve won three regional titles. I’d say our last spring title, here in [the League of Legends Champions Korea] was the most special for me. That was our first title as a fully independent T1. We lost a sort of legendary coach. He went over to China. We lost several of our top players at the time. And there were some criticisms about losing these players. To win the spring title, it felt really good doing that.
Q. What was the proudest moment for you as COO?

A. From the game performance side, when we won the spring split, that felt good. A lot of the players Joe and I personally signed [were on the team]. 
From the operation standpoint, just putting together an amazing team that we have here. I believe we have the best Esports employees in the world. Our content team is phenomenal. Even from a viewership standpoint, there’re killing it. They’re getting amazing results. We have an amazing streaming program. That’s improving. 
We have an amazing business team and we’ve solidified relationships with Nike, Samsung, BMW and other premium partners. Putting together an amazing team here is what I’m most proud of.
Q. So what’s next?

A. One of our jobs, as a business, is to make money. That’s something that I don’t think Esports teams have done well so far and they’re still trying to figure out. There is a question mark out there over how that happens. We are working really hard to find a formula for that. We have a lot of new exciting projects that are coming out.
I can’t share everything, but there is a lot. We’re like a start-up. Everybody loves their job. We have to tell people to go home — they’re here late at night. But we have a lot of cool things coming up.

One thing we did was launch a membership program for our fans through YouTube. That was quite successful. We are testing that out. We’ll continue to find ways to grow T1’s fan base and expand outside of Korea as well as go international.
BY KANG YOO-RIM  [kang.yoorim@joongang.co.kr]
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