ESL’s James Lampkin on WESA, Ken Hershman, & League Competition

James Lampkin VP of Pro Gaming at ESL talks about WESA, Ken Hershman, & League Competition w/ Mark Register

Mark – What’s happening with WESA & Ken Hershman?

James – The idea behind WESA way before it was even called WESA was a bunch of teams and a bunch of leagues starting to talk to each other saying “We understand what’s going to happen in the next couple of years with all this money flowing in, is there a way to start to align people’s values and bring in the players in someway to start to build some foundations so that this doesn’t become Boxing or Cycling or something, because there’s too much money coming in and you can have corruption problems.”

That was the foundation of it.

I understand that Redditors and other people saw this as some evil power play.

I think it would have been the worst evil power play imaginable because it would be so obvious because you would see it.

Second of all, the way we saw it was, we’re not the only people on the playing field here.

First of all we knew there were 9 or 10 other teams that were not going to come into what eventually became WESA because the negotiations fell through with some of them in some cases. We assumed they would go with another league or start their own thing.

So with the PEA league we knew that was coming for a long time, we knew that was coming before WESA was even announced.

We didn’t blow up their spot but from that whole information war of how evil WESA was… you know there’s like 2 or 3 more of these and 4 or 5 more of these down the pipe because it’s the nature of the market.

When there’s all these different players coming in and a single team owner, say they’re making a million dollars in revenue a year and you’ve got Magic Johnson coming into the space, they go, who are my friends… that’s natural.

How do we protect what you’ve been building for 10 years and is there a way to align your values together so you can create something that is better than the sum of it’s parts. Then you’re more competitive so you can get more money, so you can get more players, you can get better players, and build better products.

I’m not involved in WESA. My job on WESA was to negotiate on behalf of ESL and once we got WESA signed it was “Wahoo! We’re good to go! Now let’s find our commissioner.”

With Pietro Fringuelli the goal was a temporary commissioner position just to get us off the ground to work on all these foundational documentations. He got a fantastic law firm to help write hundreds of pages of what the codification would be behind WESA.

Bringing in Ken Hershman was important because he was the former president at HBO Sports.

When you have NBA owners and those types of investors coming into the space, they bring not only the experience, but the connections out into the entertainment space & sporting industry.

Ken is one of the most connected people in all of sports.

He brings so much knowledge and understanding of traditional sports and what makes it successful as an entertainment product.

When you marry that with what we’re doing in this digital space… he was really excited by the opportunity to dive in head first into trying to get this thing off the ground and make it one of the best products in the world.

Mark – You talk about the information wars about WESA… I didn’t have enough information to understand the situation. It’s tricky because you guys are just blazing forward no matter what, you’re making the right moves, you’re not making every single right move but your mistakes are pretty minor in the scheme of things. Why didn’t you jump out and say “hey guys calm down we have this under control you guys are overreacting and not looking at this the right way?”

James – People typically don’t like incumbents. I remember when we were going through it earlier in the election cycle and I said “We’re kind of like Hillary Clinton. We have a lot of power in the space, we just have to be honest about that.” A lot of people resent that as far as our competitors go. There’s a tendency to be like hey screw ESL! I’ll watch their shows, maybe I’ll go to their event but… you want to hate the man. You know who everybody hates in the NFL? The NFL commissioner. You know who everybody hates in the NFL? The NFL league. The team owners.

It’s natural.

I don’t think we’re perfect, I don’t think we make all the right decisions… I think we all have our hearts in the right place, and we’re pretty open about the fact that this is a business first. Before it’s fun in Esports, before it’s me sitting at home in my jammies watching video games.

This is business, this is people’s livelihoods and there are competitors.

The teams are competing against each other on the playing field, but they’re also competing against each other for sponsorship dollars, they’re competing against each other trying to sign the next new players, trying to figure out what next new game I need to get involved with…

The leagues are the same way with each other.

We don’t see it as this nefarious thing, we just see it as a competition… “let’s go, let’s get after it, let’s defeat the competition!”

And by the way… every single league in this space has been trying for 6 or 7 years to try and get this thing off the ground.

When I was at Team Liquid there was talk of this type of organization with a different league I won’t get into but for us this wasn’t new.

For a lot of people when they first saw this thing they were like, “oh you’re just trying to come in and dominate the space.”

When our position, our thinking was, “no we’re just the first ones out to market.”

So of course what you saw when PEA was announced was everyone went, “ugh”

Well I shouldn’t say that, I think they were pretty excited about the organization but the reaction wasn’t “this is the dreadnaught coming in to destroy the entire landscape.”

I hope people are now are able to look at that situation, and when I say there’s 2 or 3 more of these things coming because do you think that the NBA owners or the Bundesliga owners that just announced their federation are going to go, “hey how are we going to get into PEA?!” No let’s just start our own thing.

It’s going to happen in Asia, it’s going to happen in Russia, and it’s probably going to happen in South America like it already did where a bunch of South American teams banded together.

It’s in the nature of the market.

And you’ll probably see maybe that North American Union and that South American Union merge or maybe they merge with WESA.

That’s going to be the nature of the business for the next 5 or 10 years as these regions start to consolidate themselves.

And that’s ultimately good for players because the cream rises to the top in the business sense.

More money is coming in and there’s a competition between those organizations that is valuable to the players.

Because they get to leverage those organizations against each other in the same way they get to leverage teams against each other.

In many ways it’s healthy for the players.

You also have the publisher side of this, where the publishers have a big say in what goes on with the relationship between teams, players, and the finances.

I think it’s healthy, I think it’s natural, and you’re going to see more of it.

You’re going to see more money and more players coming onto the field.

Get your notebooks out because you’re going to want to tell your grandchildren about this when you were seeing this first hand.

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