The CEO of Super League Gaming is committed to expanding and diversifying esports competitions at the youth level

Professional esports have garnered considerable attention, and with good reason. The events at the top level have become spectacles and leagues continue to evolve to the point where players can earn a living and teams are attracting enormous acquisition fees. But at the entry level, esports are experiencing a similar evolution. And one of the leaders in the space is Super League Gaming, which traces its roots to 2014 offering competition for youth to experience the sport like professionals. In the years since, the company has attracted significant investment, including an additional $15 million last year from Nickelodeon and Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeffrey Vinik, among others. In 2015, Ann Hand took over as chairwoman and CEO and now leads an organization with 16 city clubs competing in events largely held in movie theaters. The league offers competition in Minecraft, League of Legends and Clash Royale, with plans to expand to more. In this interview with SportsTravel’s Jason Gewirtz, Hand discusses the group’s approach to gaming, the types of venues that might host events in the future and the surprising reaction that some parents have had to the competition.

Super League Gaming Chief Commercial Officer Matt Edelman will also be speaking about the organization at the eSportsTravel Summit, July 17–18, at the Luxor Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. To learn more about the event, click here.

How would you describe Super League to someone who is not familiar with it? Is it a pipeline to the pros?

With all the explosion of esports and all of these fascinating new investors at the professional esports level—you’ve got the Philadelphia 76ers who have bought a team, big sports owners like Peter Guber and Ted Leonsis who have bought professional esports teams—Super League was created to form the amateur league system underneath. We think of ourselves as a Little League up through the farm club system. If you think about it simply, it’s the kid who plays Little League that turns into a Major League Baseball fan and aspires to be a professional baseball player one day. That’s really what we’re cultivating through both our youth and young adult leagues.

You have a structure right now where people are competing by city. Why did you decide on that approach?

When we started running events in the early days we were just out there running events using movie theaters primarily as our venues. What we started to realize as we were running those events was that there was a real lack of locality to gaming. Gamers play a lot online in an anonymous way and they were really seeking more of these local connections and ways to find more people in real life to game with. What we also saw was this trend that the more you play together in real life or know the people you play with in real life, your skill progression is much faster. But also good behavior starts to kick in. You have each other’s back; there’s more teamwork and collaboration. Then as we kept running the events, we started to have the insight that the desire to represent and root for your hometown is kind of tribal. It’s kind of human instinct. Even in esports, it’s no different than traditional sports. We felt that we could add a really neat dimension to the game titles and experiences we ran if we could create a little bit of a city battle, city v. city component as well. So that’s what made us introduce our 16 city clubs that we have in the United States. Those are clubs that we own and operate and it means that all the people who play in a given city unify under that city club and wear their jerseys relating to that city club logo. So if you play in L.A., you are a member of the L.A. Shockwave and it doesn’t matter if you’re in our youth league, which is 6- to 14-year-olds, or you’re in our young adult league, which is 16 and over. Either way, you’re unifying under that city team.

The Dallas Dynamite were one of four teams playing for the chance to compete in the inaugural Red Bull Super League All Stars, which will held in Santa Monica, California, in July.

Are all of your events within that city structure or are you doing events outside of the 16 markets in the United States? 

We consider our premium product to be that city champs experience, which is that city v. city league. That has both an online and a live event component to it. That occurs in big seasons in spring and fall, which are multi-week seasons. But we also run other types of events that are online only so they don’t have that geographic restriction. We’ve started to run experiences as well online and live events with Clash Royale outside of the city parameters.

For your city events, are most of the participants actually from those cities or do you have any evidence that people are traveling at this point?

Oh yes. We have a gentleman in Sacramento who came down to be a member of the L.A. Shockwaves before we had announced our San Francisco Northern California team. We had a gentleman in Peoria, Illinois, who would drive a few hours each way to be a member of the Chicago Force. Because we’re introducing a different way to play these games that they’re super passionate about, everybody wants in. That’s why we’ve started to open up and run different types of online experiences and other types of tournaments outside of the city construct. We see such a great audience of people who really want us to open the doors. The thing about our platform is it’s a very automated way to spin up unique gaming experiences in all kinds of venues because we’re really venue agnostic. We’ve started to test with some large retail chains. We work in partnership with Microsoft retail because Microsoft’s also a partner on the game title side. So you’ll start to see us show that we can partner with a really wide network of venue operators and allow them to tap into our platform and run their own unique gaming experiences.

Let’s talk about the movie theaters. Initially most, if not all, of your events were run in a theater environment. Why does that space work so well?  

A movie theater is great because you’ve got the big screen. One of the unique things about our platform is we have a broadcasting spectating module to it, so there’s a really compelling view on the big screen. It shows a bird’s eye view of the game play, the dynamic leader boards and all kinds of other entertainment content. Movie theaters are empty most of the time. So it’s a  great way for the theater operators to draw in new foot traffic and to reposition their space beyond just traditional movies and the spectating of movies. We’re able to bring in 60 to 100 gamers on a Saturday morning or a Monday night and they’re all players. They’re all playing and almost turning it into an arcade but with this really spectacular broadcast view on the big screen. But with the platform, what that means is that all we really need to be able to spin up a gaming experience are seats for the gamers and some kind of screen, even a flat screen TV, anything that can broadcast a url. It makes it super easy to recreate that same experience in a variety of retail venues.

You don’t need much more from a technology end?

You need the network. Right now in a theater we’re actually installing that network because if you think about movie theaters, they are fundamentally designed and constructed so that you couldn’t turn your phone on or get WiFi. For us that’s been one of the challenges of theaters. So we’ve done that ourselves to make that a functioning gaming arena. But when you start to look at a distributed network of venues, there are a lot of venues that already have that infrastructure.

Are the players bringing their own laptops to play the games?

For Minecraft and League of Legends, which were our two primary games out of the gate, those are PC-based, so people are bringing in their laptops. Of course if you played in a Microsoft retail store, they already have consoles and laptops. Then Clash Royale is a mobile title so that’s as simple as people coming in with their phone.

“As we kept running the events, we started to have the insight that the desire to represent and root for your hometown is kind of tribal. It’s kind of human instinct. Even in esports, it’s no different than traditional sports.”

To be clear, when they’re at the movie theater events, this is not just 200 kids staring at their screens and not interacting with each other…

Oh no. They’re sitting organized in sub teams. They’re all playing for their city. But then there are teams of five or so and they’re communicating and staring at the big screen and playing. Especially with our youth league product, the volume level of laughter and chat is high from the moment the credits go up until the moment the closing credits go down. And I always jokingly say we’re kind of the antidote to screen time because we’re making kids social again through esports. It’s very interactive.

You touched on it before, but what other kinds of venues would work besides movie theaters?

Anywhere where gamers want to be. That could be restaurants. It could be other types of sports complexes no different than bowling alleys. LAN centers, internet cafes, other theater operations—the sky’s the limit there. And schools, frankly, are another important place. We’ve been running an afterschool pilot in Los Angeles with our youth product where kids have already organized afterschool clubs. They are sitting in libraries and computer labs and we’re allowing them to access our platform for an interscholastic experience.

What has that discussion been like with the school districts?

Right now this is kind of the initial pilot. We’re in 10 schools in L.A. and it’s relationships we have specifically with different schools. So we haven’t come in at the school district level, but we have worked in partnership with a company called L.A.’s Best, which manages a lot of the afterschool programs for the L.A. Unified School District.

You’re in 16 markets with your city product. What are you looking for when you’re entering a new market?

Certainly in the early days we looked at major metros. We looked at where we saw a good gamer density. With a game like League of Legends, it was local universities that have League of Legends clubs and they’re looking for the right venue. So one criteria is does it have easy parking, some of the amenities of restaurants and bars built in to the venue, because we find that gamers really like to socialize for a long time. They come in for an hour prior to the two-hour experience and want to strategize together and then they hang out for an hour afterwards and commiserate on their loss or celebrate their win. This is a very attractive audience to the venue operator. And they’re quite pleased with the stickiness that these gamers have. So we looked at a variety of angles that way. The intention is for it to be a 48-city global league over time. And yes, we do get a lot of requests. When are you coming to Kansas City? When are you coming to Indianapolis? So we consider those things as well.

Is part of the plan to expand internationally, and if so where are you looking?

Yes. Certainly the biggest gaming market is China and we do have some investors that are well established there so that is always the first consideration. We have a lot of active reach that we get from Europe and the UK as well. And Korea and southeast Asia is also such a big gaming market.

You started offering competitions in Minecraft and then expanded to League of Legends. Why did you pick those particular titles to start off with?  

Minecraft was a little bit of an unconventional place to start. But we really liked the idea of starting with the youth league and Minecraft is a very beloved game by teachers and educators. We felt that we could take a game that didn’t on the surface appear to be an esport and actually wrap a competitive layer around it. So we created a team and points and a leaderboard construct to Minecraft. In the early days Microsoft had just bought Minecraft. So you didn’t really need a license. There was a proliferation of Minecraft businesses all over the Internet. But of course that changed. So we got out of the gate running Minecraft events and then started active conversations with Microsoft about how to formalize the partnership. They were really happy with the way we had added a cool, different layer around the game that spoke to the real competitive Minecraft segment.

And, of course, League of Legends is kind of the crown jewel of esports. The guys at Riot Games are just a few blocks away from us and we started having a conversation with them. With that, we were able to create a league structure that really spoke to their more competitive ranked player. These are people who are sitting at that high end of the amateur LOL ecosystem that were calling for their version of a minor league. That was a huge validation stamp for us in the esports community that Super League was very credible as an amateur league operator because we were able to secure that partnership with Riot Games.

Darquesse of the Seattle Siege represents her city. The team will advance to the Red Bull Super League All Stars tournament.

Are you looking to add any other titles?

We’re running the Clash Royale experiences now. And we’re going to be launching some experiences with Rocket League.

All your titles in the city leagues have a national championship. Are people traveling to that event at this point or are they playing in their home city?

You play in your home city. And you’re playing in real time against another city for the finals. In late June, we’re bringing together an all-star weekend. We’re going to fly our best five-person team from each of our four divisions to L.A. to compete in an all-star experience. That will be the first time we take that next step toward having a postseason, so to speak.

That will be interesting to see, particularly for younger players. They’re likely going to travel with families, just like they would any other sports event…

Early on, for our youth league we wanted to give the kids jerseys because we wanted them to have that sense of belonging, and that real feeling of being a part of a team. But what we hadn’t fully been able to predict was how much it would then encourage parents and siblings and grandparents to come physically and spectate the events. We just have a huge amount of spectating audience. It was early on when I was talking to a parent at one of the events, I said, “Oh, thank you for coming.” And the parent kind of looked at me a little strange and said, “Well obviously it’s game day.” And it hit me that you may not go to your kid’s Little League practice, because then you’re kind of stalking. But if you don’t go on game day, or when they bring out the uniform, you’re kind of a bad parent. So we’ve really started to make gaming very permissible to parents. They’re cheering and we have the critical parent who’s taking it too seriously—all the same story lines that play out on the baseball field and Little League, the different personality types. It’s really making Super League Gaming an acceptable conversation at the dinner table. It’s neat to see how parents will often say things to me like, “Wow, this is my son or daughter that I thought that was the noncompetitive one. I had never seen that side of them before.”

There is still a segment of the population that says kids should be out on their bikes or playing traditional sports. Do you hear that argument a lot?

Yes. I feel like Super League’s opportunity is to lead the charge and the mainstreaming of esports. A lot of people don’t understand it as a category because it’s a new sport in a way. And there are multiple sports inside it because each game itself is its own sport. League of Legends is as different to Minecraft as soccer is to golf. A lot of it is people just understanding that gaming is now just another big slice of someone’s sports and entertainment life. There are lots of good things that come from gaming. Gamers in general have higher college graduation rates and average household incomes than traditional sports fans. There are over 60 universities now that offer esports scholarships. Games like League of Legends have very deep layers of strategy and critical thinking. If you’re good at League of Legends, it says a whole lot about your brain power beyond just being good at the game. And Minecraft is used increasingly in schools as a basis for STEM learning.

We’re excited that we have game titles that are not only fun but they’re challenging. We think there’s a lot of kind of good additional benefits that come from the game and playing it in an organized system. I played tennis growing up and I could have just hit the ball against the garage door all day long and learned how to play tennis. But real character building and leadership and skill progression comes when you join a team. And that’s the way we feel at Super League.

“I always jokingly say we’re kind of the antidote to screen time because we’re making kids social again through esports. It’s very interactive.”

I should have prefaced this entire conversation by letting you know I have an 8-year-old son who’s pretty hooked on Minecraft, so I get the interest in your events…

The thing that’s been a big eye-opener for me is just how wide the psychographic mix is of a gamer. Everybody’s a gamer these days. We have a high proportion of female gamers who come to our experiences and events. We’ve got the kid who maybe isn’t into traditional sports seated right next to the kid who is still wearing their uniform from baseball practice. And that’s really the richness of what Super League is doing. It’s starting to shine a light on that and debunk some of those myths that we have about who a gamer was 20 years ago and who they are today. If 20 years ago somebody said that their son or daughter was going to be a computer science major in college, we’d say, “Oh my gosh, they must be a bit of a nerd.” And today you say your kid’s going to be a computer science major and it’s like, “Oh my gosh she’s going to be the next Mark Zuckerberg.” In many ways, that’s a similar thing for gaming that it’s really become very mainstream and it’s just for all of us to catch up and realize that.

Are you making any added efforts in particular to get girls out to your events?

Absolutely. You know, we think gaming should be gender neutral and there are not enough of a percentage of female pros. It’s very topical for the publishers who want to get more people introduced to their game and make it a more inclusive, positive experience. Anything that’s “online only” has a toxicity risk. It doesn’t matter if it’s social media or gaming. A lot of times that is a turnoff for female gamers. So we do find that we attract a higher percent of females and that’s important to the professional teams over time, cultivating the best players regardless of whether they’re male or female, and for the publishers who want to introduce their game to a larger market. That’s one of the things we think is core to Super League’s success.

Your background was not in esports. How did you got involved in this in the first place?

After working in large public companies for most of my career, I met some venture capitalists who lured me into the early stage of this world. I ran another startup in the Bay Area for about five years but my home was L.A. so I was commuting. I knew some of the investors and board members at Super League. And my first reaction was to say no. I was a gamer growing up. The local arcade was in our hometown bowling alley and I lived there for several years of my life. I also played traditional sports. But I felt like gaming has changed so much and evolved and I wondered if to run this company it would be important that I was a hardcore gamer myself.

Then I started to meet with different game makers and the publishers. I went to some of our test events and the more I stood there and I talked to the players, I realized that a lot of this was about really understanding the customer and providing great experiences and building the right strategic partnerships with the big brands, with the venue operators, with the game makers themselves. That’s something that I felt I did have a lot of background in. So I’ve just made sure to have a strong team around me that represents these different customer segments so we can make sure we’re delivering a great product.