He may have retired from the NBA more than a decade ago, but Rick Fox is still winning championships. The towering athlete/actor/businessman is getting handshakes and high-fives from friends and colleagues in a California convention hall — not because of a big Lakers win, but because one of the players on his pro gaming organization just took the top spot in a tournament for popular survival game H1Z1: King of the Kill.
Fox is all in on eSports. Late last year, he founded a pro team dubbed Echo Fox, which now competes in top titles such as League of Legends, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Street Fighter V. This competitive journey recently brought Fox to TwitchCon 2016 in San Diego, where Echo Fox's Radek Pozler defeated every fan, streamer and fellow pro gamer in his path to win $40,000 in this year's H1Z1 Invitational.
Fresh off the team’s victory, I spoke with Fox and team CEO Jace Hall about eSports, technology, and how the latter is helping the former reach all-new heights.
It's All About the Stream
When I asked Fox and Hall about the kinds of technology they consider integral to eSports, livestreaming came up instantly. After all, thousands of folks witnessed Radek take home the gold live in San Diego, but that was just a fraction of the tens of thousands of fans watching from home on Twitch.
"The ability for an individual to broadcast their gameplay has reopened what's always been there," said Hall, an industry veteran who once ran his own studio and currently oversees gaming world-record archive Twin Galaxies. "Because if you're old and crusty like me, you remember being at the arcades in the '80s and everyone would gather and watch [good players] play video games."
Hall continued, "the minute livestreaming technology comes along and people are like, 'oh my god, I can't believe people watch video games,' I mean… what are [they] talking about? It's always been there."
Fox, on the other hand, appreciates the way platforms such as Twitch allow him to keep up with his players no matter where he is.
"My [Counter-Strike] team will pop up and I'll be out on a walk somewhere," said Fox. "It runs up my data package, but I want to watch! I've seen my CS: GO team and my League team play in many different places."
Finding the Right Game
Whether you're streaming to Twitch or looking to win championships, picking the right game is important. Echo Fox was one of the first teams to make a big push towards H1Z1: King of the Kill, a competitive spinoff of popular survival game H1Z1.
Whereas many competitive games have teams face off in tight, symmetrical arenas with clear sets of rules, King of the Kill quite literally drops players into sprawling suburban landscapes and forces them to salvage guns and gear — which usually results in tense late-game standoffs. It's an oddball by eSports standards, and that's what makes it so appealing.
"My first response to it as an eSport is I can sit and watch it for an hour and a half and be completely enthralled," said Fox. "The randomization of what can happen keeps you on edge whether you're playing or watching, and that to me is a true eSport."
Naturally, Echo Fox is already looking to expand into other titles that it can't talk about quite yet. But Hall was quick to point out that spectator-friendly games will always take priority.
"The more and more that eSports grows, the more important it becomes that it's understandable to someone who doesn't know the game," said Hall.
The Next Step for eSports
Professional gaming events are already selling out sports arenas and drawing in millions of online viewers, but Echo Fox thinks this is just the beginning. According to Hall, eSports is going to become "enormous," largely because anyone watching has the chance to someday be a player. And with the wealth of new controllers, microphones and webcams aimed at streamers and competitive gamers, going pro seems less intimidating than ever.
"You watch Rick Fox on the Lakers court, and if you're 5'1", you're never going to be a Laker," said Hall. "But you watch people play video games and you're seeing all genders [and] all age groups. The accessibility and the ability to participate is what makes it much wider and much more likely to grow bigger than anything else that's come before it."