Joe Montana said he doesn’t take losing well, and after getting beaten by his kids in video games he lost interest in playing. But investing in esports, however, is a whole different ballgame for the NFL Hall of Famer. Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
The Cloud9 organization and its co-founder and CEO Jack Etienne are no strangers to winning, having won the North American LCS in its inaugural season in the summer of 2013.
Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback and Hall of Famer Joe Montana is also no stranger to victory, just on a different playing field. He was named Super Bowl MVP three times in his career and lifted the Vince Lombardi Trophy on four occasions in the 1980s and early ’90s.
Together, they both hope to continue their winning ways. Montana and his seed stage fund Liquid 2 Ventures invested in Cloud9 over the past week, along with other notable athletes such as Hunter Pence of the San Francisco Giants and Andrew Bogut of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
For Montana, one of the winningest players in NFL history, the rapid growth of esports was an opportunity that he and his partners couldn’t pass up, even if his children continually beat him down in the world of video games.
“[My background] in video games has been very limited,” Montana said. “[It’s] because I hate to lose.”
Montana’s four children, in their mid-20s and early 30s, passed up the MVP quarterback when it came to video games, and made him a less-than-active participant. As an observer, however, Montana has already made moves to enter the video-game scene, helping create Montana 17, a mobile virtual reality football game for VR systems like the Samsung Gear.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Etienne has been in the esports scene for five years now, first a manager for Team SoloMid before co-founding Cloud9. Even during his days while working at Crunchyroll, the leading streaming anime service, the C9 CEO knew one day esports had the potential to be as big as it’s getting now.
“I did believe we were heading in this direction” Etienne said of his team’s growth over the past few years. Starting as just a League of Legends club, the organization has expanded across the esports landscape, having players and teams in such large competitive titles as Overwatch, Dota 2 and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.
With the added funding, Cloud9 is always on the search for the next big esport, and for Etienne, it’s the fans, not the game publisher or title itself, that interests the organization in terms of expanding.
“Twitch is a fantastic tool to find what people are watching,” Etienne said. “There is a lot of research you can do on Twitch. H1Z1 and games [in the same genre] are getting a lot of attention.”
In the day and age where every game publisher with a new multiplayer title wants to become an esport, Cloud9 believes in trusting what the fans support instead of simply backing the video game with the most marketing behind it. If the fans flock to a video game on Twitch, C9 takes notice.
With that being said, though, Etienne says that although the organization is looking to expand, the added investment will also be a boon toward its already established teams, giving them more funds to help them improve.
“We believe in the team. We believe in the space.”
In the whirlwind of traditional sport owners and stars investing in esports over the past year, the NFL has seemingly lagged behind the competition. The NBA has had the biggest impact in competitive gaming, with stars and former stars like Rick Fox, Magic Johnson, and Shaquille O’Neal becoming faces for various organizations. Montana, the biggest NFL name to attach himself to esports, says he believes there are a few factors for that.
“Part of it is the NFL, part of is coincidence,” Montana said. “On average, until recently at least, NBA players made more than players in the NFL. Also, NBA players are traveling all the time, and are on the road three-to-five days a week.”
In the NFL, players can have more of a stable home life. They play on the road only eight times a season, not counting the playoffs, and when you’re a family man, being able to play games is a luxury. NBA players, especially younger ones, bring their favorite consoles along for long road trips, playing with their teammates in the hotel to kill time while away from their families. Additionally, the NBA has fewer traditional owners compared to the NFL, so it’s not surprising why it’s now that the NFL and its representatives are discovering the potential of esports.
A similarity Montana found between esports and NFL is the newfound training regimens. When asked how he felt about esports moving away from the old stereotype of players sitting in a room guzzling Mountain Dew and devouring Doritos, Montana said, “Anything you do, you’re better when you’re healthier. That [stereotype] is what linemen used to be.”
As esports advances to match traditional sports in mental and health training, it also appears to be heading toward a franchising system. Blizzard, for example, announced the upcoming Overwatch League in North America would be built around geolocation and owners bidding where they would want their team to play.
Etienne sees this as the inevitable future of competitive gaming if it wants to reach its full potential. “I think for esports to evolve, these franchises need to happen,” he said. “Franchise models are critical.”
On the topic of fan support and the difference between esports fans primarily following teams because of personalities over any sort of allegiance with a city, Montana isn’t deterred. He cites a story about meeting a die-hard 49ers fan in the heart of Miami Dolphins country, so he says he believes fans can come in all different shapes. “To [esports] fans, it’s the same as a [traditional] sport to them. They’re crazy. It can survive the way it is.”
Montana knows that profits won’t come easy or right away. He and his group, especially when coming into a space so early, are aware of the risks and are confident that their investment in Cloud9, and esports in general, will bear fruit sooner rather than later.
“We believe in the team,” Montana said. “We believe in the space.”