TNL Podcast 032: Brett Lautenbach, President NRG Esports


TNL Podcast 032: Brett Lautenbach, President NRG Esports (Graphic: The Next Level)

TNL Podcast 032: Brett Lautenbach, President NRG Esports (Graphic: The Next Level)

TNL Take: On this edition of The Next Level esports Podcast 032 we speak with Brett Lautenbach, President of NRG Esports. 

We chat about:

-Role and responsibilities with NRG

-NRG's expansion to other games and the first with For Honor

-No PUBG or Fortnite announcement yet?

-Overwatch League and the San Francisco Shock

-Hiring Brad Rajani as Overwatch team coach and roster

-Overwatch's new spectating mode and what else is needed for the fans?

-Overwatch World Cup Viewership

-Events DC Brand Partnership

-Hired David Swartz, a five-time Emmy Award winning producer and the importance of shoulder content

Enjoy the conversation!

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eSports Franchising: Who Made The Cut Part 2 - Overwatch League


eSports Franchising: Who Made The Cut - Overwatch League (Graphic: The Next Level)

eSports Franchising: Who Made The Cut - Overwatch League (Graphic: The Next Level)

TNL Infographic 062: eSports Franchising: Who Made The Cut (Infographic: Jordan Fragen)

TNL Infographic 062: eSports Franchising: Who Made The Cut (Infographic: Jordan Fragen)

Today we'll take a look at the teams currently announced for Activision-Blizzard's Overwatch League.


In late September, Blizzard locked in the final franchises for their Overwatch League resulting in a final count of 12. There are several familiar faces in this list, but notably there's an even split between Endemic and Non-Endemic teams.



We'll begin with two teams that were accepted into both leagues: Cloud9 and OpTic Gaming.

Cloud9 is one of North America’s premiere esports organizations. Since the team’s inception in late 2012, Cloud9 has been a fixture in the scene. They also have the best designed logos in all of esports and Yes, I will fight you if you disagree.

Of all the teams to be included as franchises in both the NALCS and the Overwatch League, Cloud9 was the clear favorite. Cloud9 is one of the only esports teams that hasn’t operated at a loss during its lifetime, though it did receive a round of funding from a slew of athletes and pro team owners this past March

[Edit: To show how quickly this space moves, Cloud9 received $25M in Series A funding this past week from more athletes, owners and media.]

In League of Legends specifically, Cloud9 has consistently been at or near the top of the NALCS. They were the first North American organization to defeat a Korean team at Worlds and they are one of only 3 teams to ever win a NALCS split.

For Overwatch Cloud9 has had a bit of a rocky start. Since the game’s release, the team has had at least 3 different rosters including both EU’s Laser Kittenz and South Korea’s KongDoo Panthera (now Cloud9 KongDoo) in addition to an NA roster.

Despite this messiness, Cloud9 made a smart decision and acquired the London Franchise. This means the team holds the unique distinction of being the only team based in the EU. It is likely to give the team a significant marketing advantage as they will have little to no direct competition in their home region.



OpTic Gaming is one of the most recognized esports organizations in North America and arguably the most dominant team in Call of Duty over the past few years.  However, LCS fans may be less familiar with the team as they have exclusively competed in games from the FPS genre until recently.

With an investment lead by Texas Ranger’s co-owner Neil Leibman in September, OpTic gaming also met the traditional sports roots sought after by both Riot and Activision Blizzard.

While the team acquired a Dota2 roster in September, the team has no prior history in League of Legends. It remains to be seen how far the Green Wall will expand into MOBAs, but OpTic has the opportunity to reach an entirely new audience of esports fans.

When it comes to Overwatch, existing OpTic fans will be greeted with games that fits more closely into the team’s specialty - Shooters.

However, OpTic has not actually competed in Overwatch until now. 

Given the brand’s prestige in other games, they may be able to attract talent familiar with their dominant record. But unlike Cloud9, OpTic will find themselves in a crowded market. It’s no surprise that they acquired the Houston franchise given the Ranger’s backing, but they’ll have to compete with Dallas’ Envy for regional fans.


Now on to the teams just in the Overwatch League



NRG  is one of the first organizations that brought in traditional sports teams and owners into esports. Both co-founders, Andy Miller and Mark Mastrov also happen to be co-owners of the Sacramento Kings as well as other sports organizations. The team has weathered many setbacks including the loss of their LCS spot in 2016, but they have also seen many highs. The team made headlines when they announced several prominent investors including Jennifer Lopez and Marshawn Lynch this past month.

Despite the team’s roots not being located there, NRG’s Shock will be based in San Francisco. While they have cleverly tried to obscure this by claiming they represent the entire Bay Area, it is doubtful that Activision Blizzard would hesitate to include a franchise based in San Jose or Oakland should the opportunity arise.

[Edit: Since release, a representative of NRG has clarified that their territory covers a wider area that we thought. Other teams may have more difficulty acquiring San Jose or other Bay Area locations in the future]


Team Envyus has about a decade worth of history behind it, making it one of the older teams endemic to esports. Similar to OpTic, their past mainly lies in Activision’s Call of Duty series. However, they are also one of the 4 teams that were not accepted for NALCS franchising despite currently holding a spot. Their generally poor record may be the cause, but no official reason has been given as of now.

However, signs point to future success for Envyus’s Fuel. Their current roster took home the grand prize in Overwatch Contenders Season 1. Additionally, they also have picked up Seagull, one of the game’s top streamers right out from under the nose of NRG.

The team’s formidable record points to future success, but marketing will be critical to the team’s success. Based out of Dallas, the Fuel will have to contend with OpTic’s unnamed Houston franchise.



One of the original 7 teams announced by Activision Blizzard in July, Misfits acquired the bizarrely large region of “Miami-Orlando.” While Miami makes sense given the team’s major investment from the NBA’s Heat, Orlando seems to have come along for the ride.

Similar to their EULCS roster, Misfit’s current lineup is made up of all European players, mostly Swedes. Recently, the lineup took second in Overwatch Contenders Season 1: EU.  This chemistry may serve them well given the short timeframe until the official start of Season 1.



Now, it’s time to address to obvious elephant in the room: Immortals. To the surprise of many, Immortals were rejected from NALCS franchising despite the team’s strong brand and performance in recent splits. There’s tons of speculation for the reasons behind this decision, but no officials ones have been given. Some have pointed to monetization issues, while others cite their Los Angeles spot to be in conflict with the LA-based NALCS. Regardless, this came as a shock to fans and players alike.

However, not all is gloomy for Noah Whinston’s team. Los Angeles is a coveted market and in most leaked early documents it was listed as the most expensive. They are also backed by AEG who own the Staples Center. Whatever advantage LA may have conferred is diluted somewhat by it being the only location to be claimed by 2 of the 12 inaugural teams.

This week, Immortals revealed the branding for their newly dubbed Valliant. Cleverly they have made allusions to their original branding in their new logo. Afterall, heroes (and strong organizations) never die.






Stan Kroenke may be familiar name to some as the owner of the newly re-relocated Los Angeles Rams. You may have also seen this fabulous picture of him, Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick, Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Cloud9’s Jack Ettiene from almost a year ago spectating the first year of the Overwatch World Cup before the announcement of the Overwatch League.

Along with his son Josh, Kroenke acquired a second Los Angeles franchise in August. While not an endemic team in the traditional sense, the two have reportedly brought on Phoenix1 to operate their team. Notably, P1 is another team that lost their NALCS spot.

Competition between them and Valliant is sure to be fierce as they look to embed themselves into the fabric of Los Angeles.




Love them or hate them, the Patriots have long been a force to be reckoned with in the NFL. Now, Robert Kraft is looking to similarly dominate the Overwatch League. Perhaps he is one of the less surprising tranditional owners to have bought into the league. He too was wooed personally by Bobby Kotick a year ago at Blizzcon after all.


Very little information about the Patriots roster or organization has been made public. So far, our only clue is that Chris “HuK” Loranger of Starcraft II fame is the President of Gaming at the Kraft operation.

While Kraft obviously understands the Boston Market, time will tell if he will be able to adapt his NFL success to the world of gaming.

[Edit: After publication, this Franchise's name was revealed to be The Boston Uprising. This fits the theme of Boston's revolutionary past and coheres with the Patriots branding. Overall, this is a smart move by the Krafts.]


New Yorkers rejoice! You too will be represented in the upcoming Overwatch League.

Jeff Wilpon, COO of the Mets, was one of the original 7 owners announced in July. Despite a lack of experience with both gaming and esports, Wilpon has stated that Bobby Kotick was the primary reason for his investment.  Wilpon's Stirling VC will be integral in helping run the organization and investment.

In an Interview from August, Wilpon stated that he believes his experience running the Mets facilities and operations will translate into a successful esports franchise. Little news has surfaced from the NY team, but given their premiere market they may have a useful advantage compared to smaller market teams.



In September, Activision Blizzard announced the final teams to be included in the inaugural season of the Overwatch League. As one of these late additions, very few details have emerged about the Comcast Spectacor organization. We do know they acquired the Philadelphia franchise which makes perfect sense. They already own the Philadelphia Flyers and their stadium, the Wells Fargo Center. Likely this will also exclude the 76er’s Dignitas for the foreseeable future as well. 

With Blizzcon around the corner, expect a lot more details to emerge on teams that have revealed very little so far.



Chinese Internet powerhouse Netease was perhaps the most out of place in the 7 originally announced teams. Given China’s protectionist economy, most western companies must partner with Chinese operations to do business within the country.

It just so happens that Netease are the company that distributes Blizzard’s titles in China. 

Many have cited this as potential conflict of interest, but no actions have been taken on this claim as of now.

In fact, very few details have emerged about the team, its owners and its potential players. As of now, were merely know the overarching owners, the location of the franchise, and the team’s name, logo, and color scheme. However, they do have the largest market in the world for esports viewers all to themselves which should prove to be a significant advantage (especially if the passion from the crowd at Worlds 2017 is anything to go by).



Kabam CEO Kevin Chou acquired the Seoul franchise as one of the original 7 owners announced in July. While his roots are in the gaming industry, he does not have a personal history in esports.

However he may be in the best position to dominate the league. Seoul is already a hub for eSports internationally, but that may just be icing on the cake. In August, KSV announced that they had acquired Lunatic Hai’s roster which had won Overwatch Apex seasons 2 and 3 and recently took the Seoul Cup over Cloud9 KungDoo. Not only are these excellent players, but they are also all originally from South Korea. They are perhaps the best embodiment of a “home team” in the Overwatch League.


They may be the safest bet as of now for the Overwatch League’s most dominant team.

Exclusive: Chat With Andy Miller About eSports First City Sponsorship


Washington DC's Convention and Sports Authority Sponsors NRG (Graphic: The Next Level)

TNL Take: We still have a few weeks left in the 1st quarter of 2017 and eSports has already seen 25 brands invest in the space - for all of 2016 there was just over 50.

2016: 50+ Brands Invested In eSports (Graphic: The Next Level)

While it's great to see blue chip brands renew like Coca-Cola, GEICO, Audi, Pepsi and Gillette; we've also seen new entrants like McDonalds, Dollar Shave Club, Samsung and Old Spice.

The brands come from across the usual spectrum - Auto, QSR, Beverage, Entertainment, CPG - however on Friday, eSports broke an entirely new category.

Events DC, the convention and sports authority for Washington DC, announced an exclusive partnership with NRG eSports.

Although the sponsorship is with Events DC, it's essentially with Washington DC.  While Vegas has seen many eSports events, tournaments and gambling legislation; Events DC wants to make the city an eSports destination as well.

Why would a city sponsor an eSports team?

Here are the reasons that Events DC mentioned with my added translation:

  • eSports Tourism: More tourists obviously equal more revenue
  • Industry Infrastructure: More jobs and more events
  • eSports Relevance: eSports is the hot new industry, platform and opportunity.   Aligning with eSports changes DC's brand from just a political city to becoming a tech city and becoming "cool" - same reason brands invest as well.

While I think this is fantastic for the industry, I wanted to know a bit more about the partnership. 

So I went straight to the source.

Andy Miller, co-founder of NRG eSports, gave me some further insight.

Andy Miller, co-founder of NRG eSports (Photo: Jay Watson)

TNL: Andy, congrats on the deal and thanks for taking the time to speak with me.  Over 50 brands invested in eSports in 2016. We’ve already seen 25 so far this year. However, this type of partnership with Events DC has never been done before. How did this happen?

AM: We met the Events DC folks at the White House when our Rocket League team was invited to play at the first eSports event ever held there. One of our investors, Justin Siegel, has a relationship with the DC team and we all sat down and started brainstorming on what a relationship might look like for 2017.


TNL: That's amazing. How will Events DC and NRG eSports work together to drive this sponsorship outside of the usual jersey logo?

AM: We are working through our plans now, but the idea is to use the NRG platform to introduce eSports fans to our nation's capital from a millennial perspective. DC has so much to offer and is an exciting place to live these days. NRG will bootcamp in DC as well as do events and local activations. 


TNL: Vegas has seen many eSports events, tournaments, and casinos getting involved.  eSports team Rogue is based there as well. Why do you think DC was the first city to work directly with an eSports team?

AM: The Events DC crew is a very forward-thinking group. They see the power of eSports and the mass engaged audience that is attached to it. They want DC to be viewed as progressive, tech savvy and a fun place to live and play. There has not been any major eSports events in DC and they want this to change. Sponsoring NRG is an authentic way to learn and become a part of the esports community.


TNL: You’re co-owner of the Kings which is based in Sacramento. NRG also has a house in LA. Any chance of DC NRG?

AM: We have a CSGO house in LA, but we have players all over. Our executive office is technically in NYC. No plans to be the DC NRG at this time. 


TNL: During our podcast, we talked about how your new Golden1 Center was technically designed to be a world class leader to host eSports events. Vegas recently opened a 200 seat dedicated eSports arena.  DC is going much bigger – a $65M 4,200 seat arena.  Are these new, dedicated smaller arenas a new trend?

AM: Yes. Makes sense. You need big arenas for championships, but eSports is 24/7 and fans want to watch their favorite players and teams where they live which means more frequent, but smaller events.


TNL: So which city do you think will follow DC next?

AM: We will see a bunch of announcements with Blizzard's Overwatch League I imagine. Should be some exciting news there in the next few months. 

TNL: Thanks for your time Andy.


ICYMI, here's the previous podcast with Andy Miller.



TNL eSports Guest Podcast 001: Andy Miller (Photo: The Next Level)

Shaq, the White House, eSports and Healthcare

Shaq, the White House, eSports and Healthcare

White House Game-A-Thon (Photo: Twitch)

TNL Take: I'd never think I'd write those words in my life.

On Monday, Shaq along with Twitch worked with the White House to host an eSports event to help Americans sign up for the Affordable Care Act.

Having an entire family of doctors - I'm Indian - I've heard so many sides of the healthcare "debate" in this country.

I also like facts and here they are: 

Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, 20 million Americans now know the peace of mind and financial security of having health insurance. Young adults had the highest uninsured rates before the Affordable Care Act and have seen the sharpest drop in uninsured rates since 2010. But millions of millennials remain uninsured, and many of those uninsured young adults could qualify for tax credits on the Health Insurance Marketplace to keep insurance affordable. In fact, most consumers can find a plan for under $75 a month, less than their cell phone bill.

Shaq believes in eSports and I believe in him.

I maybe biased, but in college many, many years ago i interned for the Miami Heat and I bleed Black and Red - and they would never have won in 2006 without him.

And Kobe - you wouldn't have that many rings either. Now just invest in eSports also. 😎