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Why are pro sports teams interested in esports? It’s the gambling, for one

Team owner says CSGO skins were just a sideshow

ELEAGUE: Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) Major Championship - Final Day Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Andy Miller, chairman and co-founder of NRG Esports, said he thought the growth of gambling on esports was “inevitable.” In fact, he thinks it’s a big reason why professional sports teams are interested in the space at all.

Miller was sitting on a panel at the Game Developers Conference with other team owners, including Splyce CEO Marty Strenczewilk, Team Dignitas CEO Jonathan Kemp and Cloud9 board member Dan Fiden. During the question and answer portion of the panel, one audience member broached the topic of gambling. Miller seemed excited about the prospect of its growth, while the other panel members nodded along.

“I think of gambling as in daily fantasy,” Miller said. “I think it’s going to be a big part of esports. I think, frankly, it’s one of the reasons why we’re seeing a lot of traditional sports teams interested in [the space]. It’s a big opportunity.”

A sort of land grab began in 2015 when NBA star Rick Fox paid more than $1 million for Gravity Gaming. In 2016, the Philadelphia 76ers became the first North American sports team to acquire an esports franchise, merging Team Dignitas and Team Apex under their banner. Then 2017 started with news that the NHL’s Boston Bruins had invested in Splyce.

Andy Miller, chairman and co-founder of NRG Esports, Jonathan Kemp, CEO of Team Dignitas, Party Strenczewilk, CEO and co-founder of Splyce and Dan Fiden, a member of Cloud9’s board of directors.
Charlie Hall/Polygon

The trend, say the panelists, is likely to continue because of simple demographics. It’s a fact that esports fans are younger and more engaged that traditional sports fans, and there are more of them every day.

One of the pillars of making money off them, Miller said, will be gambling.

“[Pro sports teams] missed the opportunity with daily fantasy. The NFL should own fantasy football, and they don’t. ... But, I think it’s an inescapable part of esports and could probably... be a real positive if harnessed for viewership.”

Miller said that he saw skin trading and gambling in Valve’s Counter-Strike: Global Offensive as just the beginning.

“I think we started a little bit with CSGO, we saw it start in the wrong way and I think it will come back in a way that’s productive and safe.”

Miller also said player unionization was just as inevitable as the growth of gambling.

“It’s just going so fast,” Miller said. “A few years ago, the teams were all run by the players on the team. Now, we’re talking about billionaires who own NFL teams. It’s expansion. It’s incredible.

“Most of our players each have their own lawyer. ... So we’re starting to see with CSGO, the players getting together. And we welcome it, as owners. It’s a really important thing. Because if there’s a player’s union, then there’s rules about contracts and they’ll hold their contracts. It’s really hard to hold a 16-year-old to his contract.”