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Mon Dec 11 2017
Interview: Sebastian Park - Head of Clutch Gaming | Part 1

Sebastian Park is the Director of Esports Development for the Houston Rockets. But what exactly does that mean? Basically, he’s been in charge of the Houston Rockets’ push over the past year to break into the world of esports.

He’s now in charge of Clutch Gaming, one of the ten NALCS teams competing in the 2018 League of Legends season. Thankfully, between his busy schedule of scouting, player acquisition, and all the red tape that goes with starting a League of Legends team, he was able to sit down with me and discuss Clutch Gaming, esports, and even the fact that he was a masters level Terran player in StarCraft during his college days.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Jeff Yabumoto: First off, for those who aren't familiar with your background, how’d you originally get into the esports?

Sebastian Park: I got into esports back in early 2014. I actually worked for a company called Namecheap—the domain registrar. They’re very big into things like net neutrality and other interesting projects.

While I was there I was running user acquisition as well as sponsorships, and through that, we had this idea that esports is the thing to do. And so, that’s sort of where we went from. Just trying to make sure we had full acclimation to finding 18-35-year-old men. As it turns out, 18-35-year-old men are some of the best demographics for domain names—they’re also the best demographic for a lot of things—and as you might imagine, esports is heavily into the 18-35-year-old men demographic. We saw the one-to-one.

Back in 2014, esports wasn’t that valued. It’s crazy to think about that now because everyone and their mother knows about esports, and people are still learning, but back then we just did not know. You could get sponsorships for like CPM and CPCs (Cost-per-Mille (thousand) and Cost-per-click) for pennies on the dollar. If you might imagine, that’s what really led to a lot of these things happening. So that’s how we first started.

JY: So that kind of led into Team Archon and stuff?

SP: Yeah, if you fast forward to 2015—as esports started to go crazy—Team Archon reached out to me. So did a couple of other teams—we had sponsored a couple other teams: Team Liquid, Tempo Storm, Team Archon, and a bunch of streamers—Team Archon reached out and said, “Hey, we could use help leveling up our staff and business, are you interested?”

It sounded like a lot of fun so I was like, “Yeah, sure. It sounds like a lot of fun.” It paid no money basically. There was really no upside—there was a lot of credit card debt—but it was definitely something right up my alley.

JY: It seems to have paid off in the end.

SP: I mean look, it’s one of those things where—and I’ve said this a couple times—I’m really, really happy for the space to be where it’s at. And I’m glad that it has come to this point. But at the same time, I’m sure there are a lot of people who disagree with my assessment.

JY: You were hired as Esports Development Manager for the Houston Rockets over a year ago. What exactly have you been doing for the past year?

SP: I’ve basically been evaluating all of the different esports angles and esports related topics for the Rockets. I was originally hired by Tad Brown, our CEO—Daryl Morey, our General Manager of Basketball is a big fan of esports, and the previous owner, Leslie Alexander, really believed in esports.

What they thought, and I applaud them for this, is that they saw a lot of organizations going out and acquiring teams and infrastructure that way. And their conclusion was that that’s probably not the best way to go about this. The best way to go about this is to probably hire someone and build internally. Coordinate with our staff internally and go from there.

That’s sort of where we were at. The past year or so, we looked at a lot of different games: Overwatch, League of Legends, DOTA, Counter-Strike, StarCraft—we’ve done a lot of analysis and looked deeply into the metrics. Figuring out what’s the best way to do this. Creating a value function.

We talk a lot about this when we talk about acquiring our players and whatnot, but from the business angle it is unequivocally the case that you’re supposed to be doing this. That you should not be making bets when you do not understand the space.

This is one of the big issues I have with some of my friends and colleagues with bitcoin. If you understand what bitcoin is doing, that’s awesome. I hugely applaud you for investing, and on top of that if you can invest some of my money on my behalf, what little I have, please take my money and go invest it for me. I really appreciate that.

But what I don’t appreciate, and I honestly think this is going to bite a lot of people in the ass is that, if you are just doing something blindly because other people are doing it, it’s not going to work out for you over a large period of time. You have to be improving, you have to be thinking about things thoroughly.

We were in this situation where we were trying to figure out esports. Let’s figure out the value proposition, what games matter for us, and what types of things we should do. Once we were able to do that we found ourselves in this really cool situation where there’s actually this opportunity to apply for League of Legends. League of Legends is by far and wide the biggest game out there, so let’s see what we can do there.

JY: It almost sounds like you were taking a Moneyball approach to it.

SP: I would say that—first of all our staff knows Billy Bean… as well as just having Daryl Morey in our office—yes and no. There’s a lot of conflation when it comes to Moneyball. A lot of people think Moneyball is more, “let’s apply analytics or statistics to something.” The way I interpret Moneyball is that, it’s more really the overarching concept. Don’t be an idiot. Figure out what matters, and figure out how to leverage what matters for the betterment of your organization.

For example, on our esports side one of the things people have been giving us credit for, unduly honestly, is that we use analytics to pick our players. And that’s just not the case. We use deep-scouting to pick our players. As it turns out, most organizations in League of Legends don’t do deep-scouting. And so, the value add for us was let’s do deep, NBA-esque scouting of these players. Having even 5% more information let us make 5% better decisions. That was our thought process regarding that.

JY: Can you go ahead and define deep-scouting? I feel it’s a term a lot of people won’t be familiar with.

SP: Sure. There are a lot of things you can do. Just to provide some basis, the idea of hucksterism—which is a Dan sZymborksi term, and sZymborski is one of the baseball writers who created ZIPS, which does forecasting for player development and player outcomes in baseball. And he said it used to be the case in baseball that you just pick players who you knew. That you saw play well in that one match.

But we know now that basing your entire body of results on one match is not a good idea. You should definitely not do that. You should be looking at the whole picture trying to tease apart the biases, and trying to make sure you have an objective eye on someone.

People have bad days. You shouldn’t pass on LeBron James because he had a bad night. He’s still LeBron James. That’s sort of what we mean by deep-scouting. It’s just spending a lot more time on it. We’re talking about tens, if not hundreds on man hours per person. As opposed to watching a game and he (a player) played poorly in that game. Figuring out what happened that game and what they could have done, and then understanding from that perspective really allows for player acquisitions to be a lot smoother.

JY: Now you mentioned before that you were attracted to League of Legends because it’s one of the biggest markets out there. But why not Overwatch? What made League of Legends so much more attractive than Overwatch besides the population of it?

SP: Look, Overwatch is a great game and we have a lot of colleagues and friends that are invested in Overwatch and going into the Overwatch League. And don’t get me wrong, I will definitely watch the Overwatch League preseason. It’s a great game, but it’s like comparing apples to oranges. Or comparing a startup to Google. It’s not the same scope.

There is no indicator that Overwatch will be as successful or as big as League of Legends. We know that League of Legends is big already, and we know the trajectory of League of Legends. And yes, we know the trajectory of Overwatch, but look, there are some realities where we would have done Overwatch if things were slightly different. But at the end of the day, when we did our analysis and applied our value function to esports, League of Legends came out as our #1 option.

And when you have the choice to go after your number one option, or go after your distant number two option, you go for number one.

JY: Okay, but what about long-term plans? Are the Rockets planning to expand into Overwatch, StarCraft, DOTA?

SP: My previous team, Team Archon, had a DOTA and Hearthstone team. I’m a huge fan of StarCraft. I consider the content that Day9TV produces to be some of the best content in the world. There is that portion. I’m a huge fan of that portion. But at the same time, we just don’t understand League of Legends just yet. It would be very wrong of us, or very arrogant of us to think that we can understand all of these different esports at the same time.

JY: Just start with one.

SB: Not just start with one, but like focus on this one. Really ask that question only when we’re comfortable with where we are. Which is not right now, as it turns out.

JY: So that could be a year down the line or five years down the line. It just depends on what it takes.

SP: Exactly, and the honest answer is that we don’t know. And we’re never afraid to admit that we don’t know. Because that’s one of the most valuable things you can do is to admit that you don’t know. If you assume you know, you’re in for a world of hurt. If you state openly, and at the beginning, that you don’t know, that sets your mindset to be able to go figure out what you do and don’t know and figure something out.

JY: The open mind will help out a lot.

SP: Yeah. Look, I still love DOTA and Counter-Strike and StarCraft. You’ll still see me at Blizzcon and The International. It’s just a matter of the next thing.

JY: Okay, cool. So many of the League of Legends teams have existing fan-bases. How are you as an organization going to build your own fan-base?

SP: We’re going to do it slowly, to be completely honest you. We’re going to do it slowly and we’re not going to rush it. Being a fan of something is a commitment, it really is. Some people treat being a fan of a sports team more seriously than their personal relationships. Is that a mistake? Almost certainly, but it’s something that people do.

Given that, it’s one of those things where we’re sitting here and we’re like, “Hey man, that’s pretty cool. What are you guys up to?” and trying to be as transparent as possible. We really do think that the next step of League of Legends, and next step of esports, is some of the Monday morning quarterbacking that everyone does.

Like, if I was this team I would have done this. I would have done… etc. etc.. And we love to hear that, honestly. We actually enjoy when people talk about stuff like why they like this player choice or that player choice. Or why they expect this or that. We think it’s pretty cool. We’re really a fan of that kind of stuff, and we really want people to follow and to be invested enough that they do care about our wins and losses and the decisions we make. And we’ll be there to provide information as to why we made these decisions and try to be as open as possible.

JY: Okay, speaking of fan input then, there’s been a few threads on Reddit lately stating that you have a mid-tier roster. What would you say to that?

SP: I think, from their perspective, they’re probably right. If you look at the roster from the perspective of are we an unequivocal number one team? We’re definitely not. Are we a bottom two or bottom three team? Hell no we’re not. So from their perspective, they view third through seventh the same way. And that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with fans having that perspective. Look, at the end of the day, teams in ten or twelve weeks—teams will finish first, second, third, fourth, fifth—that is the outcome.

From a front office perspective, that’s not how we view the roster. From a front office perspective, we see this roster as having a playoff floor and a Worlds upside. We’re going to be disappointed if we don’t make Worlds and if we don’t improve to that point. At the same time, we also understand that it is more likely for us to finish fourth, fifth, sixth, than it is for us to finish first. But it’s definitely more likely for us to finish third than tenth, that’s for sure.

And this could all be wrong, by the way. Our assessment and projections are based off a very limited set of information of what we know about roster strength. It will get better over time. We can’t say for sure right now, but we’ll definitely finish somewhere in that range.

If you want to connect with Sebastian Park and/or Clutch Gaming on social media you can follow them on Twitter @Sebpark & @ClutchGaming.

To keep up to date with Jeff's work follow him on Twitter @Phsidefender.

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