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.
Disclaimer: This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Jeff Yabumoto: What about the other teams? What’s your opinion on them?
Sebastian Park: I think the other teams are really interesting and showcase a very different set of philosophies. I applaud Andy and the decision making over at TSM. They clearly didn’t need to make any changes, but they thought that they needed to, to get even better. And you always have to respect that mindset—the mindset of, “Hey, this isn’t good enough. We have to get better.”
Team Liquid obviously has the—what’s the opposite of Moneyball?
JY: The Dodgers payroll is about the highest in the MLB.
SP: Right, I was going to say the Yankees approach. The Dodgers are interesting because I think they do both the analytics and the money. Team Liquid clearly has the most expensive roster maybe in the world right now.
The guys over at Golden Guardians have taken an interesting approach. They must value speaking English very highly. That’s their roster. It’s the purest North American roster. Maybe the only pure NA roster in the NALCS. We’ll see how that works out. We haven’t seen one of those in a long time.
JY: Now, we’ve talked a little about the analytics, but the Riot press release talked about your use of analytics when talking about League. What exactly does that mean? Is it just the deep-scouting and the value propositions?
SP: So actually—to say that our analytics doesn’t work right now doesn’t mean we’re not trying. We’ve been spending a lot of time investing into our analytic infrastructure for esports and League of Legends. A lot of time. A lot of time, money, and energy.
We have some great guys—Yuhan Fang, our Senior Fellow in analytics. He’s probably one of the smartest people in the world. Like the stupidest thing he’s done is join us, quite frankly. He should be out there making millions of dollars being a quant somewhere, but instead, he’s slaving away trying to figure out the next big thing in League of Legends.
And so, we’re investing a lot into that. That is sort of what we do. The Rockets are known for being a team that really cares about analytics and we do care about analytics. It’s just one of those things, that given that, we find a situation where we are unable to, right now, say that any of the things we’ve discovered really matter.
We think that 99 times out of 100 the paths we go down end up with nothing. But the one thing that provides value may be the most valuable thing for our organization. That’s sort of our hope right now—just a lot of experimentation and hoping for the best.
JY: How involved will the Rockets be with Clutch Gaming? Will they be hands-on, or will it just be your ship?
SP: That’s funny because I’m also with the Houston Rockets—so it’s actually very hands-on. It’s both things. Clutch Gaming is obviously an esports organization, but I’m also a member—an executive of the Houston Rockets.
And so, the marketing, budgeting, finance, and HR team, along with my own work in esports, are intricately aligned with Clutch Gaming from the Houston Rockets. Some support from Landry’s as well. Tilman Fertitta, our new owner, owns the family of restaurants called Landry’s, and owns a lot of different organizations out there. So those guys combined really do a lot of the work for us.
JY: We might see their hands helping out or helping make decisions at some points?
SP: That’s been the process throughout. At the end of the day, the final say when it comes to a lot of player stuff does fall onto me. But that’s never the case in any sports team. At the end of the day, people think the final say falls to the GM, but really you have to talk to ownership, you have to talk to management, and you have to make sure this aligns. Hopefully, you’ve done enough research and are strategic enough to really express why X or Y player is the right player to go for.
JY: Now, the Rockets, along with the Cavaliers and the Warriors, are spending a lot of money to get into the NALCS, but their teams aren’t going to be in their home cities. Is that something you think the Rockets and the other teams will be looking into in the upcoming years? Getting a home arena?
SP: Yeah, I mean look. We really like Houston. I can’t stress that enough that Houston is our home. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that esports needs to be regionalized. We think that there’s some really interesting opportunity there. But that’s a problem and question we just don’t know. But it definitely won’t happen in the next year.
And quite frankly, I have a hard time projecting two years in the future. Because if you told me two years ago I would have been in this position I would have thought you were crazy. I was still trudging along trying to get payroll paid at Archon, and now I’m here trying to min/max some of these opportunities. It’s very different, and so we’re very on top of that kind of stuff.
JY: Okay, so maybe in the future, but right now it’s just not possible.
SP: Right, I think there is always opportunity for it if esports moves in that direction. But right now, the big value of esports is just being a community with the entire world. Having fans not only in your home city—I want a lot San Francisco and Cleveland fans to be a fan of our team. They don’t have to be fans of the Golden Guardians or the 100 Thieves. Why not be a fan of us instead?
JY: Do you think it will depend on a lot on how the Overwatch League turns out in that aspect?
SP: I mean—that’s actually a really good question. The Overwatch League would be an interesting data point for sure, but I don’t think it would be so specifically key that a positive signal would necessarily mean we ought to move in the regionalization direction. Or that a negative signal meaning we should move in the opposite direction.
It’s probably the case that it would be a combination of the two. The signaling will be interesting because there’s not a lot of data there—not a lot of data points to look at, but I wouldn’t say that’s the biggest or only cause. We’d have to do our own analysis.
JY: Cool. Do you think there is a reason we see more basketball organizations hitting League of Legends while more football organizations are hitting Overwatch?
SP: Is that the case?
JY: It’s more basketball for League of Legends, and then you’re seeing stuff like the Rams getting into Overwatch—
SP: Oh, Stan Kroenke owns everything, though. He also owns the Nuggets and the Arsenal and half of LA and Wal-Mart. A lot of Colorado, too.
JY: We also see the New York Mets COO is involved with the Overwatch League.
SP: That’s baseball. Patriots are football—
JY: Patriots are Overwatch League, yeah. I guess it’s just that there’s such a concentration of basketball teams in League of Legends.
SP: I would say—I can’t speak to Overwatch League, but that’s a really interesting question. I’ll have to go back through and look who agreed to become the owners of Overwatch League. As you might imagine I haven’t exactly been paying close attention the last two months.
JY: I think the Kings are one of the few basketball teams involved with the Overwatch League. They’re with the San Francisco Shock.
SP: I’m a huge fan of the Shock. Actually, I would have to say if someone were to ask me who my favorite Overwatch team was it would either be the Shock or the Outlaws. I’m not sure why that’s the case, but it’s definitely one of the two.
In any case, the NBA team ownerships are generally entrepreneurs. They’re new money, not old money. They’re the types of people who have made their fortunes by making calculated risks, and really spending a lot of time and energy into investing into things.
That’s definitely the case where we’re at right now. I can’t speak for other organizations, but our owner right now—our previous owner Leslie Alexander had a very entrepreneurial spirit—Tilman Fertitta is 100% an entrepreneur. There’s really very few other ways to describe him other than entrepreneur billionaire.
Given that, I would say that’s probably why there’s a selection bias with the NBA teams, more than anything else.
JY: As opposed to Kroenke, heir to the Wal-Mart fortune and heir to his father’s sports venture.
SP: Stan I know made his own money.
JY: It’s Josh Kroenke.
SP: Sure. I mean Josh is also a very smart guy. I really can’t say because I have no idea what’s happening there. It’s probably a joint-venture through Kroenke Sports Entertainment group (KSE), and if that’s the case then I’m sure Stan is involved and Josh is involved. Stan is a very interesting person, and so is that entire family. I’m a Rams fan so I’ve been following along, and I’ve been enjoying what they’ve been doing recently.
JY: Now you attended scouting grounds last week. Can you talk about that at all?
SP: Riot put on their first 10-team scouting grounds—they did scouting grounds last year but this was the first one with 10 teams. It was fun. It was a lot of watching games and VODs. It was a great opportunity for our organization because our scouts and coaches haven’t met before in person.
That’s sort of where we’re at right now. We were pretty stoked about that. Scouting grounds itself is a super cool idea. There were some really interesting things we wanted to test out. We obviously acquired the Golden Guardians pick—Phillipe “Vulcan” LaFlamme. Do we think we know for sure if we’re going to sign these players? Obviously not, and they may not want to sign with us. But we’re going to try—we do like them. But there might also be better options elsewhere.
JY: With the Academy teams being required by Riot, where do you think the collegiate scene fits in all this?
SP: That’s a great question as well. First of all, I profess I am not an expert on the collegiate scene. I do know that a lot of the Academy level players were previously in the collegiate scene. I think the Academy league system is like a minor league system. I think it’s like a true, pure minor league system. Similar to what you might see in baseball.
In baseball, you can go take a signing bonus and join the team immediately. Or, you can go to college and play for a collegiate team and enter the draft later. With the idea basically being that you may move faster in the system as an older adult than if you were drafted straight out of high school.
They probably work hand-in-hand. I don’t think it has really been that thought through, and so I can’t really say I have many great ideas about it. I do think that the collegiate scene is important, though. I do think that the people viewing League of Legends at the competitive environment, through high school clubs, and middle school—up through collegiate or at the Academy league level, they’re all really useful things to have happen.
JY: Now your alma mater is Yale—do you think they’ll get into esports?
SP: I have no idea. I really have to say that if there is someone out there that is really working hard on esports, then hell yeah! I’m more than happy to support that. Hit me up.
JY: You think that if Yale was going to do it, it might be more user driven rather than Yale driving it?
SP: I would say I have no idea what Yale does. Yale does all sorts of things, and I support Yale because they really gave me a lot of opportunity. I’m really happy—in the last few years, especially starting around 2010, they switched up their scholarships and financial aid to becoming need based. Which I think is awesome. Which means that if you get into Yale and you can’t afford it, Yale will help you out.
For what it’s worth, I was in that boat. Yale was super helpful to me for paying off my college. Between that and poker I was very fortunate to attend school and to be able to enter esports. If it wasn’t for the fact that that was the case, a lot of my friends from university wouldn’t have been able to pursue their dreams, right?
I have a friend who was recently in The Big Sick and Master of None. I have some friends who became musicians. A lot those things used to only be doable if you came from a very wealthy family. And now it’s doable because you don’t have to pay as much for your tuition anymore, which is awesome.
Those are things I care about at Yale more than I have about esports, but now that you mention it that’s actually a really good point. I should reach out—see if there’s people at Yale that want to get involved. I really do want Yale to have an esports team and to field an esports organization.
I played collegiate StarCraft at Yale for a little bit. Back when there was collegiate StarLeague (CSL). That was fun. It was definitely fun beating up on my friends at Cornell. Or rather, them beating up on me because they were much better at StarCraft than I was.
JY: What race did you play?
SP: I was a masters Terran player.
JY: Any quick opinions about StarCraft?
SP: I love StarCraft. It’s probably one of the best games to watch in the world. I really wish that I was good at it.
JY: Finally, what do you want to see for League of Legends or esports in general in the next couple of years?
SP: Wow, that’s interesting. That’s actually a really great question and I know I’ve been saying this a lot, but you do have some good questions and I don’t say this very often. People have been so focused on gearing up to franchising that a lot of people haven’t thought about what happens after we franchise.
And that’s actually a really interesting question, right? Because now it’s building out the brand, building out the team—winning. Trying to make sure the ecosystem grows. And I don’t mean just from the player standpoint, but also from the money standpoint.
One of the things we’re really going to be involved in, is not only helping ourselves but the league and our partners in the league to find better sponsorships and to find better money. Because money for everyone is money for us, and so, we’re going to take where we’re at with the franchising and really push the envelope on it.
This concludes the two-part interview with Sebastian Park.
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