Exclusive with CEO Rob Lee of the Pittsburgh Esports Team, The Pittsburgh Knights


First, how did you get your start in esports?

I ran into the owner of SK Gaming when I was in Hollywood at an In and Out Burger. I was working on video content then and was able to transfer my skills there. I climbed through the ranks of esports there and managed two amateur (Challenger)  League of Legends teams and helped them make it to the pro level – the League of Legends Championship Series to the national level (Renegades & Misfits). It would be like being a general manager of a college team and them winning the rose bowl to make it into the NFL if there were qualifications into the NFL – that kind of equivalent. – the Los Angeles Renegades later rebranded as the Detroit Renegades and Misfits Gaming in Europe.

I came back to the states and worked as the Creative Director with the Immortals, a venture backed company funded by the likes of Lionsgate, Crosscut Ventures, Linkin Park, and more. I took a year off after that and then came back to Pittsburgh. I saw a great opportunity to get involved in grassroots gaming. It was an opportunity for me to bring my childhood passion of Pittsburgh sports back to Pittsburgh in a unique way.

You have a number of teams under the Pittsburgh Knights umbrella. Tell me how the process works for starting teams and finding team members. Do you recruit? Do they find you?

It’s both, depending on some things. You have to follow who the most popular gamers and games are. You have teams for different games. You have to see where the most eyeballs are – where the opportunity is. For example, Fortnite just recently announced commitment of $100 million in their esports ecosystem.

Also, in traditional sports, for example in Pittsburgh, you have the Steelers, Penguins, and Pirates. Well, imagine if the Steelers could buy the hockey and baseball teams and they’d all be called the Steelers and have the Steelers brand. That’s what esports is.

We find the players globally. It’s not just about who sits at the top of the virtual leaderboards. There are lots of different pieces of information that go into finding the right player. Yes, you can go through the leaderboard route, but they may not be great in in-person competition and that’s where the competition happens. You need level-headed, good people. A lot of factors go into it.

Each game has its own rules and processes too. So you have to work knowing those processes and the rules each developer has for their games. We have a great staff that helps find that talent and a great process to do so.

What are the different avenues for earning money as a team?

Esports is diverse. Lots of different games have different revenue sources. Some work off of prize money. Some have sponsorships and prize money. And some publishers depend on media rights. Just like the NFL leverages its TV rights for revenue shares, it’s similar in esports. Teams can sell media rights and the likeness of players and streaming rights.

Any stars on the Knights?

We have a couple of stars yes. Lurn (Lauren Cetrone) is an up and coming PUBG player who is gathering a following. She’s one of the best on the planet at playing PUBG, which is like a virtual battle royale version of the Hunger Games.

Another is Jace Patras – the captain of our PUBG team. Jace is like our Ben Roethlisberger.  Our battle royale talent is our best known – the top in the world. We’re actually going to Kiev tomorrow to fight for $100,000.

Steve Abate is another guy too – he’s a marathon runner and the best Luigi player on the planet. A funny story. We had the Steelers Jordan Berry come to our place in Pittsburgh to visit us.  We pranked him and had him play an intern who he thought was Stephen, and he beat him. Then we had him play Abate for real. Abate beat him in under three minutes! Jordan was a great sport about it and we wish him and the Steelers luck this season!

Any other linkups with other Pittsburgh teams and athletes?

Franco Harris stopped by a couple of months ago and was wowed by the scene. He’s a supporter of the Knights. We talk to the other teams too at times. It’s all very respectful.

What do you say to people who say esports aren’t really “sports”?

It’s a controversial line as to whether it’s a sport or not. It’s a spectator event and people demonstrate their prowess, capability, and talent. That’s what sports is and that’s replicated in esports. It’s very similar. The glory, the adrenaline, and the heartache of loss. When you go to a Steelers game you see the emotional connection. It’s the same with esports when you see the players and fans react. It’s all very real.

What about the evolution of the sport. Can it continue to grow – where is it headed?

It’s a loaded question. The evolution of the past five years has been a rollercoaster. There’s going to be a huge demographic shift. We’ve already hit 80 million viewers for a single game. That’s only 30 million less than the Super Bowl and more than watched the NBA Finals.

When you look at the past, radio was the backbone of baseball and TV the backbone of the NFL. Livestreaming is the backbone of esports. It will surpass the Super Bowl because it’s a global language. I can’t throw a football to my friend in Korea, but I can load up a game and play with anyone in the world.

A lot of the popularity is due to the connection fans get with the players – an advantage you have over many professional sports that almost seem to discourage that player individuality. How do you leverage that further and why is that the case?

Well, we’re a little bit different. New technology has made things transparent to viewers about celebrities and influencers. Here’s an analogy. Antonio Brown is a celebrity on social media. But there’s a wall of separation. Maybe one out of a million viewers will get a Tweet back from him. But in esports there’s no wall. Imagine if Antonio Brown placed his phone on the field and you could watch him practice nine-to-five. You could talk to him and ask him questions about his day. For another five dollars you could be in a special club where you can chat with him on a private server. That’s where it’s different – that’s how esports is. You are engaged in the player journey. Also, teams are smaller. We have four-to-six players on a team. You don’t get that intimacy with traditional sports. New technologies make that happen.

You worried that those traditional sports will catch on and start implementing those same strategies?

I’m not worried, no. I challenge them to get involved in new sports media more. I don’t want a barrier to entry of non-endemic entities trying to get into the space. I challenge them to get educated. For the industry to grow we have to be inclusive. It’s time for them to learn about these opportunities.

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