Jared Jeffries wanted no part of Michael Jordan’s poker games in the rear of the Washington Wizards’ team plane in 2002. Jeffries was a rookie fresh out of Indiana. Jordan was his boss, his teammate, the team president, minority owner, and to many the greatest basketball player of all time. The stakes were a little too high for the 20-year-old, 11th-overall pick, entering the professional workforce.
Fast forward to July of 2017. After devoting practically his entire life to basketball, spending 11 seasons as an NBA player and four more in the front office as a scout-turned-director of pro personnel for the Denver Nuggets, the 36-year-old Jeffries made the biggest gamble of his career. He parted ways with pro basketball and went all-in on competitive video gaming, leaving his cushy NBA life for the world of esports. Instead of rubbing shoulders with King James and KD, he’d be spending his time with guys dubbed Sonic Fox and Cure Mango in an environment where Jeffries bluntly states, “There’s not a lot of 6-foot-11 black guys walking around.”
Jeffries first became involved with esports through chance and timing. Hoping to move to Los Angeles, Jeffries asked his friend, Amit Raizada, if he knew of any opportunities out west. Raizada, a partner at Vision Venture Partners, a private equity firm that focuses on esports investments, relayed that message to another partner, Stratton Sclavos, the former co-owner of the NHL’s San Jose Sharks. Two weeks later, Sclavos met Jeffries in L.A. with a proposition to run Echo Fox, an esports franchise he co-owned with Rick Fox, another long-time NBA veteran.
“You can run this similar to how you run the Nuggets so far,” Jeffries recalled about the pitch. He was sold. Now the president of Echo Fox, Jeffries rosters around 25 players competing in various video game titles. In his relatively short time there, he’s helped to rethink and recast the art of roster construction in competitive gaming.
“He was so fluent at trading NBA players it was very easy for him to do the same in the esports space,” said Echo Fox general manager Jake Fyfe, who initially had no idea who Jeffries was. “We were able to get stars like Huni and Dardoch [League of Legend players Heo “Huni” Seung-hoon and Joshua “Dardoch” Harnett], just by calling them and saying hey, ‘I’m the new sheriff in town. This is how I’m gonna run it next year. We want you on the team. We’re gonna run things tight. We’re gonna win.’ And then we did.”
For as drastic as the change from NBA to esports appeared, Jeffries doesn’t believe the gamble was that great. Not only is esports a burgeoning billion dollar industry, but Jeffries thought the NBA would provide a fallback should his time at Echo Fox end prematurely.
“If I got here and I couldn’t figure it out and wasn’t good at it, it would set me back maybe a year or two in the NBA,” admitted Jeffries. “I could go back and be a coach or in the front office of the league.”
When Jeffries decided to transition to esports, he dedicated himself to the field. Before accepting the job, he studied esports business models in the months between the NBA draft and free agency. He contemplated using the same practices that found Nuggets star Nikola Jokic with the 41st overall pick in 2014, and applying them to League of Legends. The more he studied, the more excited he became for the new challenge.
The decision stunned his former boss and longtime friend, Tim Connelly, the Nuggets’ president of basketball operations who worked with the Wizards when they drafted Jeffries. “At first I was concerned,” Connelly recalled. “I knew what path was in front of him if he stayed with us. He was gonna do really big things. I knew little about [esports] but he’s a really bright guy and was excited, so all of us around him were excited.”
Jeffries’s interest in video games began long before he took the job at Echo Fox. He used to play “World of Warcraft” with Tim Duncan. He’d recreate his character on “NBA Live” because the Xbox version of him was a “bum.” But Jeffries admitted his transition was still jarring.
Sitting in his glass-enclosed Beverly Hills office that featured several stacked boxes of size 17 Jordan XXXIIs, the congenial, fledgling esports executive recalled his first day on the job at the 2017 Evolution Championship Series (Evo) fighting game convention in Las Vegas.
“I walked into Evo and I was like, ‘What in the hell is this?’” Jeffries recalled. “There was one little kid, I’ll never forget. I must’ve been there for 10 hours, and he never moved. I go, ‘Has he eaten today?’ He’d sit there, reach down for an energy drink and just drink it.
“But then there are other guys that I saw, like Sonic Fox [the gamer alias of “Dragonball FighterZ”/”Injustice 2” competitor Dominique McLean], who are very charismatic, engaged with his fans. I saw all sides of it. The reason it’s very similar to the NBA? It’s the same thing.”
Jeffries noticed similarities in more than just personalities. Just as traditional sports began implementing metrics into their scouting procedures years ago, Jeffries felt esports was poised for the same transition.
“It was so much eye test, which is what the NBA was for so long. You’d go into a gym and watch this guy play and he was nice. Problem with that is you might see him on his best day and then someone else would see him on his worst day. That’s no way to do it.
“I think that the future of esports, and all sports, is you have to have some kind of numbers around what you’re doing. When I took a closer look at leagues like Dota, Counterstrike, and the numbers and analytics behind those games, I knew I could figure those games out.”
“It blew my mind,” said Fyfe of Jeffries’s use of metrics.
The 26-year-old Fyfe is the first employee at Echo Fox, which was established in December of 2015. An esports lifer, he quickly realized Jeffries’s analytical approach would revolutionize the company. “Scouting was very one-dimensional previously and it still probably is for the majority of teams, where it’s a lot of word of mouth. We would put together this weird subjective [list], whereas Jared kind of created more standardized numbers.”
Many of those standardized numbers are reflected in a laminated 30-page booklet that recaps the team’s 2018 spring performance in the North American League of Legends Championship Series (NA LCS), the popular game that featured a $5-million prize pool in its world championship last year. The booklet is an in-depth scouting report that measures players’ individual and team statistics (like win rate - WR, average game time - AGT, kill/death/assist ratio - KDA), then compares them to top players across 16 key categories. Essentially Jeffries doesn’t just want to know how much LeBron James scored, but what other players are doing when he has the ball, and how efficiently the entire team is working together.
The eye test also still remains to a degree. “Confidence issues,” “avoids responsibility,” and “good for team environment” are some labels bestowed upon players. But Jeffries says the analytic approach to gaming is imperative now as investors and prize money swell.
“I can show that these [players] we had were like this,” explained Jeffries, as Echo Fox tweaks its NA LCS roster before the Thanksgiving deadline for the upcoming season. “These guys cost this, those guys cost this. They’re almost the same exact person but they’re cheaper. If I can save two- to three-hundred grand and have the same exact people here, why wouldn’t I do that?”
“He took a lot of the practices we tried to employ [in Denver with the Nuggets] and see which ones would be applicable to that industry,” Connelly said of Jeffries’s strategy. “Generally, the most successful athletes are the ones who are most self-motivated, have a feel for the game, and are role-accepting and coachable. Whether it’s Street Fighter, League of Legends or an NBA game, those things are consistent.”
Representation and results
In another real sports-meets-esports approach to finding talent, Echo Fox created a scouting program of 20 amateurs from across the globe and auditioned them. “We kind of hosted our own combine, which no other team has done in League of Legends, in North America, at least,” said Fyfe. “We found a lot of these gems and it came at a very low cost to us.”
While Echo Fox scours Twitch, YouTube and official game sites in hopes of landing the next Jian “Uzi” Zihao, Nike’s first esports ambassador, Jeffries is also conscious of other roster considerations like diversity. Of the nearly 150 current NA LCS players, none are female and only one is black. Jeffries, who is African-American, wants to use his position to foster change, but knows his job is to create the best team, regardless of race or gender.
“I struggle with that because then I wonder, am I being racist?” replied Jeffries. “Am I giving somebody else a chance at a job because they’re a minority? Is that fair? I try very hard not to do that. I try to go out there and get the best and to me that’s what’s important.”
His approach has worked so far. Since he’s arrived, Echo Fox has achieved its highest rankings in five different games, not including individual players’ career-best performances. They were the kind of results his old boss expected.
“I don’t think there was ever a question if he’d be successful because of his work ethic, his intellect, his natural inclination to connect with people,” said Connelly, who now closely follows Echo Fox.
But if there’s one thing that’s remains the same between the NBA and esports, success can turn as quickly as a game of poker. The best way to hedge your bets, Jeffries found, is to continually embrace new approaches and more importantly, know what you don’t know.
“The beauty of the NBA, MLB, NFL, there’s at least 50 years of information, best practices,” Jeffries said. “There’s no best practice [in esports]. If anybody told you they got it figured out, they’re probably lying to you. But that’s the exciting part. You’re not restricted by rules that tell you to run it this right way. You can make up your own rules as you go.”
Cary Chow is a freelance journalist and former host of ESPN’s “SportsCenter” whose work has appeared on ESPN, The Undefeated and NBC Washington.
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