VICE Sports Q&A: Former Laker Rick Fox talks about his new Esports team
Rick Fox used video games to bond with his son while he was playing in the NBA. Now he's investing in the growing Esports movement.
Welcome to VICE Sports Q&A, where we talk to authors, directors, and other interesting people about interesting sports things. Think of it as a podcast, only with words on a screen instead of noises in your earbuds.
Rick Fox is a NBA champion, NBATV personality, and the owner of a surprisingly diverse acting resume. He has also recently taken up another serious post-career hobby by investing in the growing world of Esports; his organization Echo Fox includes League of Legends and Counter Strike teams. Other athletes—including, recently, Alex Rodriguez, Shaquille O'Neal, and Jimmy Rollins—have followed Fox into the field. Fox spoke to VICE Sports about his love for gaming and his decision to bet on Esports.
VICE Sports: You've had a lifelong passion for video games. Where did it all start?
Rick Fox: Talk about going back. My mom would wear my dad out about taking me out on a Saturday, because he had a business. She'd tell him "you need to spend time with your son." His idea of spending time with me was taking me to a bowling alley and dropping me off with $20. And I'd bowl and then I would play Midway games like Pac-Man and Galaga and all the different games at the time.
So I spent hours on end playing games; that was my time with my dad and he wasn't there. That was the reality of it. And I remember the Sears catalog, and growing up in the Bahamas you'd go Christmas shopping in Miami. Back in 1970 we didn't have a lot stuff so we would read the Sears catalog and pick out items and circle them and then our parents would travel to Miami to shop for them. I remember the Atari coming out and we got one of first Atari and I started playing that. I would sit in front of TV hours on end playing Atari. That was my own personal first experience with games. So, for me, I wasn't a parent that thought games were a waste of time—I actually enjoy playing them with my son and using them to connect with him.
What led to you playing so much with your son?
A broken home led to that, quite frankly. My son lived on the East Coast and I was under contract with the Lakers for six years. He and I spent summer and spring break with him coming out to LA, and we picked up World of Warcraft together when he was about 10, and it first came out. We started to play the game together, and in playing the game together we created a character. It was also one of his first ways he could be online often and we could both affect character growth and have something to talk about and work on it together. I started teaching him life skills through our character. That's kind of how we bonded for eight or nine years through his high school and middle school years.
Why World of Warcraft?
We went to the GameStop looking for Gameboy games. I was checking out, and having played a lot of video games throughout the course of my life, I saw this game behind register and had to ask "what is this?"
I literally came home, loaded it on the computer and we started playing. I'll never forget—we spent the rest of the night. It was just this new world for me. I played a lot of Madden and sports games for years in college and starting with an Atari in the Bahamas. I grew up with video games. But this was different, this felt next-generation for me.
So for you it was more than just a game, it was a way of forging a relationship with your son?
I'll tell you, as a father away from my son for years in stretches, being able to connect with my son and have a conversation around something we did together...I didn't get to take him to the park as much as I would like, because of an NBA season being 10 months out of a year. What I was able to do was be a dad with him and share something with him online. And I'll tell you video games played a huge role in my son and our father-son relationship in that regard.
How did playing together for fun turn into you pursuing the competitive side of video games?
He got into Loyola Marymount and started coming to school [in Los Angeles], so when he got out here it was the first time we could spend a ton of time together. I was retired, he moved into college and didn't like the dorm life, so he moved in with me. And I was okay with that since I got to spend more time with him. At that time he wasn't playing WoW as much anymore, and I asked him 'where are you spending your time now?' And he was playing League of Legends. He showed me a game, and I was like 'okay, you've got to tell me about this.'
It was at this point he decided he wanted to take a semester off from school. He said 'Dad, I want to be in the video game business.' I said, 'okay, well let's take a second to kind of recalibrate, you have to get a job.' So he got a job at Helen's Cycles in Santa Monica, and it happened to be right across the street from Riot games at their first studio. Here I am, he's coming home he's telling me about he's playing League of Legends but he's next to door to Riot Games working at Helen's bike shop. I said 'Look Kyle if you want something in life, you've got to go after it.'
I said just go next door and walk next door and start talking to people and he says 'I go eat lunch over there and I see people with the Riot sweatshirts on and I want to be friends with them, but I don't talk to them.' I'm impatient, so I said 'Look, we're just going to go over there.'
You just stormed the gates?
So we literally went over to Riot and I walked in and I see this big picture of the Staples Center and I'm thinking, 'wow, they're basketball fans this is cool.' And I look and don't see a basketball court so I said, what is this, UFC or something? And they say no this is the world championship of League of Legends. I said 'what?' They said it sold out in minutes.
So I go to the desk and ask for a tour or to speak with someone and someone comes out and says, 'Our owners are in Korea and they would love to meet you, they're huge basketball fans.' I said 'why don't I come back when they're back in town.'
We get home and we start playing the game and I remember the first time I started watching I couldn't follow anything. Minions were spawning, fights would break out, the item shop was overwhelming and I couldn't build stuff. Kyle's greatest joke was that I'd buy like three pairs of boots. I was selling items but I didn't have enough money to buy the next thing. I was making all sorts of mistakes. I would feed before minions spawned. Now my understanding of the game is much higher, I know what I'm doing. We spent some time playing and him teaching me and getting me to level 30. This went on for about two months and then we started streaming the game together.
It was at that point Riot reached out to do a documentary featuring a father and son playing league together and invited us to Madison Square Garden for the North American Finals. It was sold out both days.
Madison Square Garden is a place you're more than familiar with. What was it like returning not just as a spectator, but a spectator of a video game competition?
I'll tell you, my sensories of having been in professional sports were all triggered and spiked, because here I was in Madison Square Garden, an arena I've played in 30 or 40 times and everything about it just resembled professional sporting experiences I've had in the past.
Were you already a fan at this time, or did you just go because Riot invited you?
Kyle and I were fans of CLG (Counter Logic Gaming, a successful Esports organization) for a while, probably about a year.
What attracted you to CLG?
Aphromoo (Zachary Scuderi). Him and my son look like they could be brothers and he was a fan of Aphromoo so I became a fan of him getting to know him through my son and we became CLG fans. We were all in on CLG. We went to Madison Square Garden on behalf of being CLG fans and I gave them a pep talk and they ended up winning the North American Championship. It was really cool being there and being backstage and in the locker room and then celebrating with them afterwards. It was a great experience.
So how do you go from watching your favorite team to now owning one?
That same day, I saw Adam Silver, the commissioner of the NBA. We had a conversation just about League of Legends and Riot.
What did you talk about?
He was curious about what I was doing there and I said 'I've been in this world for a few years now, I'm more surprised to see you here.' He just said that he was there to try to understand it and wrap his mind around it and what Esports and League of Legends was. We agreed to get something to eat and talk about it more later on in the summer.
When did you start thinking about moving into ownership?
It wasn't until I got into one published game and actually being asked by CLG to come in as an advisor. It was in those moments that I started to really explore the business of the team and eventually deciding on just getting my own team. My son was aware that I was exploring it and was pretty excited about the idea of me joining CLG in some capacity as an advisor.
That turned into, after a few months of discussion with everyone, saying why don't you just get your own team? Other owners in the league were encouraging me, it was an invitation almost. Riot even contacted me and asked if I had thoughts of considering potential ownership. That's when I really started thinking that maybe it's time I really dig deeper. I did that, and I decided 'that's it, I'm going to get a team.' The pursuit of that took about a month before we actually locked in on one.
Being behind the curtain a little bit with CLG and being privy to some of the conversations after the North American Championships I just saw how rapidly the market was changing daily. I didn't want to wait another six months or another year.
I knew, getting in now, I'd be up against it in terms of rebranding, getting players, building infrastructure. I asked a couple of people at Riot if I had time to rebrand. I had a week and a half, and people were me 'this is ridiculous, we can't do this in a week' and saying we should take our time and plan it and come back in the summer. It just didn't feel right. I felt like if we were going to have the maximum push out of the gates, one time, it had to be now.
Why Echo Fox?
I can't tell you what I originally wanted it to be due to trademarks, but I was pushed by a few people to have Fox incorporated into it. I had a name and then literally like a day before a trademark came back and we couldn't use it and my buddy goes 'What about Echo Fox?'
So it was just a random thing?
To him. Honestly I wouldn't have gone with it if I didn't have a connection to Echo. It's tied to a loved one in my life, for years, so I couldn't believe he said it. It was so right on.
There are a lot of people yet to embrace competitive gaming and Esports. What would you say to someone who might stick their nose up at the idea?
I could care less what people think, honestly.
To each his own, right? Things that you may fall in love with doing and spend hours on end doing—some people garden, some people read, some people play chess, some people bike—everyone has something that they're obsessed with. I don't have a judgement on where someone's passion lies and those who belittle or judge or bully or criticize someone else's passion—that really sets me on edge. I don't care what the expression is, if someone's into something they're into it. If it's not for you, it's not for you. But don't muddy it for others.
Esports and video games connected me to my son, and I can't think of anything that's more important than that. That's my son. Him and I will play video games until I'm old and gone, because that's just what connected us.
My son came to me and told me in his own words that he felt he could not pursue a career in video games, because of everything he'd been told—that it's a waste of time, what are you doing, do something you can have a career in. He was ashamed of his passion. When he told me that...man. If someone had bullied me and told me that what I was doing was a waste of time—do you realize what basketball did for me? It created a life for me. It built this house we live in.
Where do you think most of the criticism comes from when it comes to gaming, particularly Esports?
It happens when someone doesn't understand it. I don't like the bully nature behind it, and video games have gotten bullied. Video game players have gotten bullied for years. So I was like 'Kyle, until you can live your passion outwardly, openly, I'm going to live it for you.' I'm not going to have a son that wants to have a life in video games, with so many ways to express yourself, and not do it.
I said 'look, man, that's not acceptable. If you feel that way you need to burn that perception down.' For me it was more about my son being feeling and seeing that it's okay to stand up for what you're passion about and I wanted him to have a career he can have a life in. And that's what he's doing. For me, I'd be doing this whether or not my son was involved.
How excited was your son once you bought the team?
Actually, my son went away from it for the first few months. He didn't want anything to do with it after I bought the team. To him it felt like pressure. And yet it didn't stop me from doing what I was doing. I was invested as can be. He slowly came around and slowly found his niche with what he wanted to do with this team. It took a minute, he actually worked with Twin Galaxies which is a whole different expression in the Esports space than working with Echo Fox.
I said go ahead. As long as you're doing what you want to do I'm okay, I'm doing this. This is what I'm into right now. This is my passion. I didn't want him to think I bought the team for him, because that's not what I did. I bought the team because I wanted to buy it. I told him if you want to go to the games, go to the games.
You're very facilitating and supportive, something not everyone gets to experience when pursuing their dreams. What do you think gave you this attitude of going out and getting it?
I mean I came from a little Island in the Bahamas, man. My dad was always an entrepreneur and if he thought of something he went and tackled it. He worked hard and put in the work and just got better and better and better, and that's the example I had. Some days were better than others, and you win some and you lose some.
My son for a long time would look at me and all he would see is success. And I would say, Kyle, all you're focused on is the rings. You're just focused on the fact that I decided to become an actor. I didn't just become an actor or an NBA player, that was 20 years. Things take time. What I do know is that I wake up every day and I go after what I'm passionate about doing, and it doesn't feel like work. I just do the best I can do that day and whatever I'm doing I just try and do the best I can do and get better at it.
So when we're at that parade celebrating the NBA championship, yes it looks like that just happened. But that was nine years. I failed for nine years.
An example would be when we hoist the Summoner's Cup. That won't look like it just happened over night. It will look like, wow, this took a long time for this success to happen, but it was work. Just diligent work.