Zach Leonsis celebrates Wizards District Gaming's NBA 2K League championship
Zach Leonsis Credit: Monumental Sports & Entertainment

Late last month, Monumental Sports & Entertainment added another championship to its collection—this time in the burgeoning world of esports. Wizards District Gaming, the Wizards’ NBA 2K League affiliate team, defeated the Golden State Warriors-backed team, Warriors Gaming Squad, 3-1, to win the NBA 2K League Finals.

The executives at Monumental Sports & Entertainment, led by chairman and CEO Ted Leonsis, are betting that esports is the future. Four years ago, the company, along with a team of entrepreneurs and sports executives, purchased the investment group aXiomatic to gain controlling interest in Team Liquid, an esports organization that has professional esports players spanning various games.

In 2018, Wizards District Gaming became one of the first teams to sign up for the NBA 2K League, which now has 23 teams. All except one is affiliated with an NBA team. City Paper spoke with Zach Leonsis, Ted’s son and Monumental’s senior vice president of strategic initiatives, who says he became a believer in the massive reach of esports after he learned that a sold out crowd went to watch a League of Legends competition at Madison Square Garden in 2015. Like his father, the younger Leonsis believes that the world of professional esports, valued at just under a billion dollars, has only just begun.

This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.

WCP: How does winning the championship impact the team and your visions with the NBA 2K franchise?

Zach Leonsis: For every franchise that we own and operate at Monumental, our primary objective is to compete for championships, and obviously esports is no different. And so winning a championship in the [NBA] 2K League … while yes, it may not be an NBA championship or Stanley Cup, it’s still a great testament to the organizational structure that we have, the commitment that we have to trying to field high quality teams across the board.

And I can’t tell you enough [that] for these players and our coach, this was a life changing event. They won a significant amount of prize money. And this league truly is highly competitive, and they’re the best in the world at what they do. There are literally millions of competitive players out there … I obviously couldn’t be prouder of [our players] considering this has been an incredibly challenging year for a whole host of reasons.

WCP: What was the prize money for winning?

ZL: They won a total of $420,000 for winning the championship.

WCP: How special was this for you personally?

ZL: It’s great. We’ve been big believers in esports for going on seven years now. I first learned about esports when I heard that a League of Legends event had sold out Madison Square Garden. And I thought at the time, “Well, I hadn’t really played video games since high school, could that really be? What am I missing? I need to really do my research and learn.”

I met with likely 30 to 40 different parties, from publishers to tournament organizers, to team owners, to team managers, to players, to blue chip brands in advertising space. And I was really attracted to how organic these communities of interests have become. The engagement levels amongst audience members are through the roof. People who are avid esports fans are playing their favorite games anywhere between two and eight hours a day. And for a lot of these games, they’ve crossover from just being a form of entertainment to really being a social tool and a social network.

When I was a little kid I used to come home and turn on AIM and chats and talk with my friends about what had happened at school that day. Kids aren’t doing that anymore. They’re coming home and putting their headsets on and playing Fortnite. And so it really has developed this great online community framework, and it’s also an audience that I think is increasingly more difficult to reach. They’re the audience that had decided to not sign up for cable, and as a company that is primarily distributed through cable partners like ESPN and Turner Sports and NBC Sports and locally via RSN in partnership with NBC Sports Washington and now via OTT with Monumental Sports Network, I really felt like this is really important for us to learn from. I think that professional sports have a lot to learn from esports, and I think that esports have a lot to learn from professional sports. …

The NBA has always been one of the most progressive, if not the most progressive and innovative sports league in the world. And I think that there were other NBA ownership groups that were very curious about esports for the same reasons that we were. And we all came to the league and said, there’s an opportunity here, the NBA has such a great lead with millennials and Gen Z fans. This is a potential opportunity for us to extend that lead.

Credit: Monumental Sports & Entertainment

WCP: You mentioned you met with a lot of people. What did you learn from those conversations?

ZL: I think sometimes it’s an inherent human characteristic to want to surround yourselves with similar people, people who share similar thoughts, ideas, habits, hobbies, and the like. And there are lots of different audiences that are different from traditional sports fans. The esports audience is huge. You have quite literally 100 million plus people tuning in to watch the League of Legends World Championships, for example. Those are unbelievable, almost Super Bowl like numbers there. Now are those happening on a weekly basis? Of course not. But when you look at monthly active usership of some of these games; Fortnite for example has always been between 50 and 70 million monthly active users. League of Legends is even larger than that. And now League of Legends viewership has surpassed usage or the player base, which goes to show that it really is becoming a professionalized spectator sport.

There is an increasing number of people who don’t subscribe to cable. And this is a highly accessible, free to consume, and fun platform around games that people already spend a lot of time playing. One thing that I always think it’s a little bit funny is when people say, “Well, why would you watch people play video games if you could just play the video game?” Well, flip that on its head. Why do you watch NFL football on Sundays, when you could find 21 of your friends and play 11 and 11 in a field? You could just play football. Well, you go, “I can’t find 21 friends and we’re not going to put on pads.” Or even if you’re playing flag football, you go, “We’re not going to do that every Sunday.” Right? I still like seeing a sport played at the highest level, because the skill level is so awesome. And I fall in love with player personalities, and I’m a fan of this team or I’m a fan of this player. And the exact same thing is true in esports.

WCP: How do you bridge the gap of people playing games but who are not watching or spectating professional esports?

ZL: In the case of League of Legends, they’re actually more League of Legends viewers than there are players now. It’s an incredibly complicated game to master, and now it’s become so popular and relevant to pop culture that people want to tune in just to see what’s happening. But it is true for many other video game or esports titles, there is a bigger player base than there is a viewer base, it just depends on the title by title basis.

We can’t really group esports into one category. Grouping esports in one category is what would be like grouping sports into one category. The NFL is different from MLS, for example, right? Different size audiences, different types of audiences, different grassroots levels, different salaries, different systems, everything, right? So it’s a little bit different. And I think the other wrinkle that esports has, is there’s also, enabled via Twitch, a popular base of streamers … I’d rather watch Ninja tonight than the [Tonight] Show [Starring] Jimmy Fallon or something, right? This is alternative programming, if you will. …

And so, the most popular esports are multiplayer … and they have viewing angles, where you can see large parts of the map, you can see the entire set of play, it’s a really easy way to view it. And then it’s obviously got a large organically driven player base. And when you have such a large organic driven player base, the cream of the crop rises to the top and you start to develop a professional scene. You start to see prize money put up, you start to see sponsors wanting to put dollars in front of tournaments and whatnot because the eyeballs are growing to such a dramatic point in time. And maybe the same way that some people are interested in watching golf, they want to see how might a golfer get out of a tough fairway bunker or whatnot. I want to learn and prove my game and see how the pros do it. It’s very similar to like esports fans watching their favorite teams now, too.

WCP: Your dad said last year that he believed in 10 years an NBA 2K player “will be more well known, popular, and better compensated than LeBron James today.” What are your thoughts on that? Do you have the same prediction?

ZL: I think what my dad is trying to say here—and let’s not miss the point—the point is esports is growing so rapidly that esport athletes can and likely will be paid just as much as professional athletes in the major leagues within the next 10 years. And Ninja is the perfect example of that. Ninja is a streamer who’s getting paid $40 million or so per year. That is as much as a Bradley Beal or a John Wall.

We have League of Legends players who over the past five years, their salaries have grown from $200,000 to $2 million. And that just that’s been in the span of four to five years. So that trajectory does seem to present itself that that there will be top talent, top tier esport athletes in some form or another in certain titles or another who will likely be paid as well as athletes in the major leagues that we’re used to.

WCP: Do you foresee or predict that trajectory for NBA 2K players?

ZL: I think that obviously the prize money in NBA 2K is quickly growing. Right now, NBA 2K players are paid similarly to how G League players are paid. Obviously, the NBA 2K League still really a startup and it’s growing quickly, though. But I think narrowing in on the quote on NBA 2K is missing the point and trying to play ‘got you’ and a little unfair. And the point is really that an esports athlete could one day really be in the same conversation in terms of compensation.

WCP: What’s next for Wizards District Gaming?

ZL: We’re heading into the offseason and our team has some difficult decisions to consider in terms of how many players we can retain. We’d love to obviously keep as much of the team together as possible, so we can try to make another run at a championship. I think our players really loves being a part of the organization. They’d all like to stick around and we’d like to keep them as well. …

We’d love to continue to develop a female gamer platform. We had intentions of rolling something out this season. But then of course, the pandemic had other plans for us. We are sincere in our efforts and wanting to raise the profile of female gamers. I’ve always thought that esports and video games is a great platform for equality. It’s the ultimate meritocracy; your score’s your score, regardless of your race, sexual orientation, gender, religion of choice, whatever. And we want to continue to push esports in a way that is a very tolerant and accepting community too, so working to push the cause forward as well. …

The draft will come next year; we’ll have to see how things shake out and who’s available and what positions are needed, what our roster needs are. But if there’s a great female player available, and it fits our needs, we would love to draft a female gamer next year. And it remains to be seen if that’ll be a possibility for us, but we certainly would love the opportunity to do that.