Following an accomplished basketball career that included three NBA championships with the Los Angeles Lakers, Fox now presides over Echo Fox gaming, an esports franchise that fields competitive teams across a number of video game titles. It’s an investment that appears poised to pay off handsomely, as the esports industry continues to blossom, garnering increasing attention and money. But Fox didn’t dive into the world of competitive gaming for purely financial reasons. Rather it was for reasons of family.
Fox’s time in the NBA had come at the cost of time spent with his son, Kyle.
“Ten months out of the year they [the Lakers] owned me,” Rick said, referring to his playing days, when his son was a child. Rick also took acting roles during the offseason, including a notable turn on HBO’s “Oz.” A difference in personalities exacerbated the problem, with the disciplined and competitive Rick a contrast to his laid-back son.
When Kyle decided to attend college in Los Angeles, Rick saw his opportunity to make up for lost time. And the repair work began with video games.
‘I’m supposed to support him’
In a conversation about potential careers with his father, Kyle mentioned an interest in video game developer Riot Games, which publishes the game “League of Legends” and runs its popular esports league. Rick suggested Kyle walk in and ask about any job openings. A month later, his son still had not visited, so Rick decided to give Kyle a push, driving the two of them to the Riot offices, at that time in Santa Monica. The owners were not in, but father and son received an invite to the League of Legends’ competitive circuit’s finals in New York. That’s where Rick said his future came into focus.
When they arrived at Madison Square Garden, Rick was shocked at the scene. The Garden was sold out and pumping with energy, he said. He got an additional dose of the event’s intensity when he was surprisingly asked to give a pep talk to his son’s favorite team, Counter Logic Gaming, who entered the event as huge underdogs. He left them with a line from Dean Smith, his former coach at North Carolina: “When you step across those lines, nothing happening anywhere else in the world matters.” The team went out and won, big, in front of an audience that included NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, then-ESPN President John Skipper, and Under Armor CEO Kevin Plank looking on.
The experience, shared with his son left a lasting impression, with Fox knowing his son had a strong affinity for gaming.
“A lot of parent-child relationships can be healed through videos games,” Fox said, adding that parents need to be open when it comes to their perceptions about video games. He points to the growth of communication, analytical, and coordination skills he believes gaming helps develop, as well as the growing number of career opportunities. “Parents need to understand that change happens, and if you’re not open to it, you are going to be late to the party."
After the tournament at Madsion Square Garden, Fox made his move. Only a few months later, Fox was the proud owner of an esports organization, buying the team for a reported $1 million.
When Kyle initially found out that his father had bought an esports team, he said he “ran away from it pretty hard.”
“It was like, ‘Hey I’m really into this, it would be cool if you were into it also, and then he was like, ‘Ehh, we bought a team,’” Kyle Fox said.
“This is his [Kyle’s] thing, I’m supposed to support him in the thing he wants to do,” countered Rick.
On a rainy afternoon at Echo Fox’s space in Beverly Hills, formerly occupied by Netflix, all 6-foot-7 of Rick stands clad in team apparel amid the memorabilia in his office that reflects his 13-year NBA career that included three championships while playing with legends like Larry Bird and Kobe Bryant. He points to a photo of a ticker-tape parade from the Lakers’ third title in a row, an accomplishment he said meant “everything” to him and his teammates.
“That’s my son, Kyle, as uninterested as could be. It was just time taken away from his video games,” he said, flatly.
In those days, the elder Fox was fully focused on chasing NBA championships, a trait he says he learned from his mother, Dianne Gerace, a multi-event Olympic athlete who placed as high as fifth, in the world, at the 1964 Tokyo Games. Fox said the lesson she took, and imparted to him, was that she had failed to medal, after coming so close. It was a message that stuck with him, that what he did was never enough. Rick said he enjoyed his first NBA title for about 48 hours before thinking about the next season. By the second title, he said, it was an even shorter celebration. The third he can’t remember celebrating at all, consumed as he was by how to win a fourth championship. It was an outlook that also colored his relationship with his son.
“Imagine having a dad who is that insane, imagine that level of intensity about cleaning your room,” said Kyle, now laughing with his dad.
Gaming was their common ground.
“My son and I connected for years over video games," Rick said. "That was our time spent together.” It was a passion Rick said he wished his own father, Ulrick Fox, had shared. Rick recalls that Ulrick, who passed away earlier this year, was very supportive but never really understood gaming. Even as his father bought an Atari 2600 after his family came to the U.S., he wouldn’t partake.
“I wish my dad would’ve taken an interest in what I was playing, or just played with me,” Rick said.
What Ulrick did provide to Rick was confidence. And it was a confidence he would need to invest in esports back in 2015, when the industry was exponentially more nascent than today, lacking permanent franchises, celebrity investors and mainstream media attention.
“I lived and tackled the world, I feel, because I had that security, that he believed in me,” Rick said. Rick believed, too, in his son, and that their relationship was worth a then-risky investment. Fox said his son is “1000 percent the reason” he is in esports.
Rick recalls thinking that his team’s journey towards mainstream acceptance and credibility would take decades, something he was willing to stomach because of in the underlying belief he had in the growth potential of pro gaming and the emotional connection to his son. The other motivation, he said, was the ability for esports to fill his need for competition, which he had lost following retirement from the NBA.
The early days with the team were not exactly smooth. Initially, Echo Fox was run out of the San Fernando Valley, in a space Fox laughingly described as a “basement-dwelling, dungeon and dark cavern-like environment.” Success proved elusive, finishing dead last in their first League of Legends split and then coming in towards the bottom of the league standings during 2017’s splits.
“It required me to be open, understanding that I wasn’t the smartest guy in the room and it required me to humble myself, a three-time NBA champion, to listen to a 23-year-old kid to tell me what was best,” Rick said, who is not fully committed to building a successful franchise. He completed a $38 million fundraising round for Echo Fox in February.
Echoing Kobe’s comments after winning an Oscar this year, Rick said, “Echo Fox is more important than my championship rings. For sure.”
“I’m in the conversation of esports," Rick said. “I want esports to succeed. I want the next generation of kids to own their passion and be confident about their careers in this industry,” as he also points to jobs in creative, business and other roles around esports and gaming.
In part, Fox’s entry into esports helped spur that growth. Among the earliest pro athletes to buy into esports, the investment brought mainstream attention, along with a scoop of traditional sports-based legitimacy, to esports athletes and teams. That industry is now worth close to $1 billion, is broadcast on network television, and has drawn investments in the past few months from athletes, celebrities, teams, and VC’s, including Michael Jordan, Drake and the Pittsburgh Steelers. But for Fox, that growth has been a side benefit to his primary goal.
The Fox men joked as they recounted the origins of their now-shared path, displaying an easy rapport, the son with respect for his dad and the dad absorbed by his boy.
“People look at our relationship like its awesome, but like we kinda f---ing worked for it in a lot of ways,” said son Kyle.
“Video games taught both of us about our relationship,” Fox said about him and his son.
Near the end of his day in the Beverly Hills office, Rick walks back to a working row of vintage arcade games, including Galaga, on which he holds the high score. The scene is a refrain from his youth, but this time there’s a difference. As he plays in the darkened corridor, his son comes around the corner to say hello. This time, Rick Fox has company.