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Shaq discusses the origin of his esports investments, favorite video game

(The Washington PostThe Washington Post illustration; Photo by Bryan Steffy/Getty Images for Tyler Robinson Foundation)

NBA Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal was part of the first wave of traditional sports stars to get involved with esports with his early 2016 investment in NRG Esports, an organization co-founded by fellow Sacramento Kings co-owner Andy Miller, who now serves as CEO of the organization. NRG supports teams in the Overwatch League, Call of Duty League and for “Rocket League,” among other popular game franchises.

Shaq’s history with gaming goes back at least as far as 1994, when his (in)famous title “Shaq Fu” was released. A crowdfunded sequel to the game came out in 2018.

The “NBA on TNT” analyst and prolific business investor spoke Monday with The Washington Post following the recent announcement of the naming rights deal with The General Automobile Insurance Services, for whom O’Neal is a spokesperson, that will rebrand NRG’s “Rocket League” team as the General Insurance NRG.

The name rights deal comes amid a spate of such esports agreements, including a reported $210 million deal between TSM and a cryptocurrency exchange. Other deals include those between Dignitas and a “digital bank” in addition to JDG Gaming and Intel.

Monday, O’Neal discussed why he believes in the future of esports, what has surprised him most about the industry and his hopes for us “Earthlings.”

The following has been edited for brevity and clarity.

As one of the first big-name athletes to invest in the esports industry back in 2016, how do you feel about your NRG investment at this point?

O’Neal: Well, one, when I make investments, it’s never because of the monetary things that can or cannot happen.

I was in California, I was spending time with the kids and they said, “Dad, there’s an event at the Staples Center [League of Legends Season 3 World Championship]. We want you to take us.”

So you know, I know people at the Staples Center. I call over there. I said, “Hey, you guys got an event going down.” They said, “Yeah there’s this new thing called esports, blah blah blah, come, because I’ve never heard of it.”

So then, when I get there, it feels like a basketball game. It’s 30,000 little kids screaming. And then watching these two kids play on screen, I asked myself, like, what is this? And [my kids] said this is the future, Dad. Esports.”

I looked into it. And then when I got the opportunity to invest in an esports team, I thought it was the right thing to do. Because you know, especially when it comes to technology, kids dictate what’s going to be and what’s not going to be.

For example, Tik Tok. When that first came out, it was you know, it was it was third or fourth in the space, but then kids started getting on it and doing videos and doing this. Now, you know, if we don’t do Tik Toks, especially when dealing with these brands, they’re looking at you sideways. The kids really dictate a lot.

When I saw it was 30,000 kids involved with this esports thing, I just knew I had to get involved.

Is it still the case that your kids and younger folks are pushing you in that direction? Or have you started to follow the industry yourself? Are you watching Call of Duty League or “Overwatch” or any games like that at this point?

O’Neal: I must admit, I do not watch any of the games. I do keep up with NRG and who’s hot, what they’re doing. But, you know, I got a lot of other stuff going on.

At some point, I would like to like just sit down and take a couple of weeks off and just you know, especially like “Call of Duty,” I always wanted to play “Call of Duty,” but never really had an opportunity or the chance.

Since you invested in 2016, is there anything that has especially surprised you in terms of how the industry has evolved or that has just kind of struck you as interesting in terms of the development of esports?

O’Neal: The [lack of player] longevity has definitely surprised me.

I think I saw a stat that said most professional esports players only last three to four years. That was surprising.

I notice a lot of these kids when they just keep playing, keep playing, keep playing, they get burned out. And there’s a lot of stars emerging every day. I went to an esports event, and they were naming these kids’ names and the crowd was going crazy. It was actually a fun event.

These guys are the Kevin Durants and Stephen Currys and Michael Jordans and all that.

Speaking of Michael Jordan, I would argue that you are actually more associated with video games and with esports than he is, despite the fact that you’re both investors. What are your thoughts about that association? Are you happy with it? Do you think it’s fair and accurate?

O’Neal: I think that I was one of the first. Yeah, as an alien being, I don’t want to get worried about what other Earthlings are doing [smiling]. Wish them well but, you know, when I, when I do investments it’s all about partnerships. It’s all about learning. It’s all about growing. And again, it’s never about the monetary.

When I went to that I saw something and felt something that I knew would have longevity. This was just playing one game. And then a guy explained to me, we just play games, we create leagues. I was like, this will work.

A lot of kids are at home, sitting down playing video games. [It’s] much safer that way now. But you know, that this thing has, you know, emerged into something I never thought it would be.

You believe in the longevity of esports. That’s why you invested into it in the beginning. How far do you think this industry can go in the sense of, you know, one day potentially becoming more popular than the NBA or becoming more popular than a Hollywood film? What do you think the upside is for this industry?

O’Neal: I know that it’s one of the fastest-growing industries and it just appeals to so many people. Now, we’ve seen a huge increase in both gamers and viewers. And now that’s why you know, brands like The General, we thought it was a great fit.

Now, there’s a lot of people engaging there. But you know, I really wish I was the expert that can answer that question. But I do know that it’s appealing.

People like it. People like playing. People like watching. Hopefully it’ll last forever.

Do you think that geolocated franchises, like in the Overwatch League and Call of Duty League, are something that could catch on and where those sorts of relationships we see in the NBA and NFL could develop between teams and fan bases?

O’Neal: Of course. Any league that the fans like to be associated with? It always works. Definitely. I think esports is here to stay.

Favorite video game?

O’Neal: My favorite video game back in the day would be “NBA Jam.”

I gotta ask your pick this season for the NBA championship?

O’Neal: Since all the big dogs are out, I wouldn’t mind seeing two underdogs go for it.

Because this year was kind of a rebounding year from the covid thing and a lot of people got hurt or whatever, we got all the big names out. There’s only two big names left, Giannis [Antetokounmpo] and Chris Paul. But I would like to see Atlanta versus Phoenix or Phoenix versus Milwaukee and then the little dogs taking on the big dogs.

Do you have more allegiance toward Phoenix because you played there? Or not so much?

O’Neal: I have allegiance to no team except the Sacramento Kings.

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