When Michael Prindiville started at NBC Sports Ventures in 2015, esports was still a twinkle in the eye of most traditional broadcasters’ eyes, but he shepherded several competitive gaming broadcasts to NBC’s traditional and digital platforms. Then, in 2018, he took the helm of the venerable esports organization Team Dignitas—which is owned by the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers—where he’s gotten a look at esports management from the inside. Quartz asked him for his perspective on player rights, market corrections, and the difference between sports stars and esports pros.
Quartz: There’s been a lot of crossover between traditional sports owners and esports. You’re obviously part of that because the 76ers own Team Dignitas. What do you make of that trend?
Prindiville: I think in the last 100 years or so we’ve seen traditional sports lead the way in terms of building valuable franchises and properties. They’re very much analog, and with the wave of evolution and digital competition, I think a lot of these traditional sports entities see this as the future. They know they need to continue to diversify their business and advance their existing business. Any traditional sports owner that gets exposure to esports and gaming, they see the same excitement and engagement as what they have in traditional sports. They just know that that’s where they need to be.
Going forward, do you think existing sports brokers will own esports organizations, or do you think there will still be room for independent esports organizations to thrive?
I think it’ll be a mix. I think you’ll see most large traditional sports entities have holdings in the esports world, but what those holdings look like might be different. It could be strict investments, it could be incubators like what the 76ers have, but I think there’s an incredible intelligence to the people in the esports space. These kids become professional gamers at 15 and retire at 25. These are incredibly smart tech entrepreneurs. The startups in the space without any traditional sports backing are running these incredibly captivating businesses. On one hand, I think it always helps to have the backing of more traditional sports franchises, and the guidance they can provide. But I don’t think the entrepreneurial nature of those growing up in the gaming space will change, and I don’t think they’ll stop looking to go about it themselves.
You’ve worked with soccer stars at NBC and players on the Dignitas roster. When you’re interacting with individual esports pros, what’s the main difference you notice from your time interacting with traditional sports pros?
I think the biggest thing I notice is the psychological aspect. The mental game in sports will always play a huge role, but in esports and gaming it’s another level. You need to develop the skill set, you need to put in the 10,000 hours, but the level of attention over an extended period of time is also incredibly high. The ability to psychologically convince yourself to get to the next level, or come back from a deficit, is just that much harder in gaming. An esports training program requires a physical aspect, a mental aspect, and a psychological aspect. In traditional sports, it probably skews more to the physical side, but in esports it skews more to the psychological side.
Last year there was a report that an Overwatch team was sinking 100-plus hours a week into practice sessions, and there’s been some concern over the lack of regulation for an esports roster’s workweek. What are your thoughts on workplace health in this industry, and what we can do to improve it?
I think it’s huge. It’s fast evolving. It’s interesting, I don’t know the specific article you’re referring to, but you hear these crazy numbers of like, ‘Hey, we practice 18 hours a day.’ We’d never go past double-digit hours a day. That seems crazy to me. Frankly, if you look at teams that are highly successful in this space, they’re very known for practicing during the day versus practicing at 2 am, for being physically fit. We look at our resources at the 76ers practice facility, and we’re able to craft programs for our players. We have a sports psychologist, and I think it’s going to be game-changing for the health of these individuals.
You mentioned the 76ers facility. The players on the Dignitas roster share the same amenities that players on the actual 76ers roster share. How does that work?
Before any tournament, we like to bring our players to Philadelphia, and during that time they train together as a team. They’ll be with their coach, and in addition, we’ll dig them into our practice facility and pair them up with other team resources. In esports, common injuries exist in the wrist, the arm, and the neck, so it’s about coming up with exercises to strengthen those muscles. Sitting with our sports psychologist, they talk about all the tough moments they’ll be going through, and what they have gone through in the past, and how they can best conquer those. It’s even about getting them in front of people like our PR team, and getting them media trained. We teach them how to properly run their social media account—what to say, what not to say. We just hope we can develop them into professionals.
Esports still bridges the gap between sports and entertainment. So many of these guys stream on Twitch. Going forward, as players develop themselves into both esports stars and Twitch or YouTube stars, where do you think the industry will eventually land between those two fields?
When I think about esports, I’m talking about competitive gaming. I think the competitive gaming side will continue to grow. I’ve said this before, but I think within the next 20 years you’ll have two dominant sports and a new dominant industry. I think the NBA will continue to be a global powerhouse, I think soccer will continue to be a global powerhouse, and I think esports will be the third bucket. It’s simply evolutionary. We’re all attached to our phones; it’s what the younger kids are consuming. Gaming has always been huge, it’s just become more accessible with technology and with more free content. The heroes have changed.
Last but not least, recently there’s been some buzz about a potential market correction in esports. There’s speculation that maybe some of the valuations we’ve seen are a little overblown, and that the industry might contract and squeeze out some of the lesser organizations. Do you think there is any truth to that?
I do see a market correction. I think you could look back at 2018, that was the year of FOMO. And FOMO causes some people to make some rash decisions. If those don’t pan out in the future, that could see some retreat. But I think the value in esports and gaming has yet to be truly recognized. So I think as the industry continues to advance, it’s really going to come down to those who have played their cards right and have made the right bets. But you’ll probably see some contraction, some startups that might not be generating enough business to stay alive, or leagues that don’t pan out as well as others. But for any one of those that fail, you’ll see something new that comes up. The exciting thing about this industry is that we are learning on the fly. Those who see this as a long-term play, for three, to five, to 10 years, those are the ones who will establish themselves as leaders going forward. Ultimately I think a market correction will be good for the industry.
This interview has been edited and condensed.