In the middle of 2014, rumours began rippling through the games press that boobs and boners site YouPorn was in the market for some eSports action, and looking to sponsor a team. Word began to spread from a very valid source, YouPorn's own Twitter account, which posted on July 10th: "Do we have any competitive LoL, DOTA2 or HeartStone (sic) players following us? What do you think about YouPorn sponsoring a team(?)"
The message was retweeted over 4,000 times, and by December, Team YP was born as a result of the marriage between YouPorn's eSports ambitions and a receptive existing team, Spain's Play2Win, which changed its name ahead of Madrid's Gamergy Dota 2 competition. Team YP now has players turning out in tournaments for games including Super Smash Bros. Melee, Ultra Street Fighter IV, Mortal Kombat X and Evolve, as well as Dota 2, and plans to expand in 2016.
I spoke to Team YP's VP of marketing Brad Burns about how the set-up is progressing, what challenges it has faced over the past year, and the stigma of being attached to a porn brand.
VICE: When did the roots for the YP eSports team begin to burrow down deep enough for you to realise: yep, this is definitely something we want to do, taking over from what was Play2Win? And, what were those early conversations like? Did anyone on the team, behind the scenes, require convincing that eSports was a valuable industry to move into?
Brad Burns: Immediately, we knew. We tweeted the suggestion of getting involved in eSports, and it exploded! When we followed up with a request for interested teams to contact us, the volume of replies was overwhelming. We really weren't prepared for it! It took us quite some time to evaluate all the applications and finalise a deal with Play2Win. Back when we shared that initial tweet though, we already knew this was going to be more than just one team, and more than one game.
It didn't take much to sell the idea internally. We had some great results right away, even before a team was signed. The conversations it sparked across the eSports community and across the web in general were overwhelmingly positive.
You're competing across several games right now, but were there just one or two that, initially, your focus was on, in order to maximise the Team YP impact? Perhaps these were the ones of highest commercial visibility, or simply because you'd attracted the right players?
eSports is growing rapidly but it's still in its early stages now; even more so a year ago when we started. We looked at Dota 2 as our first target. Firstly, it was a favourite of colleagues within the office; but also it was arguably the biggest competitive eSport. The 2014 International tournament had just happened with an out-of-this-world prize pool of over $10 million.
Do you think that, surprisingly perhaps, there's a similar cultural stigma attached to games and to porn? I mean, we all game in our own way, and we all check out porn. But these aren't necessarily things we're all openly discussing with our mates down the pub.
Both have a stigma attached to them, but I'd like to believe that it's getting less and less so, for both games and for porn. Without question, gaming is becoming mainstream. The International Dota 2 eSports tournament I mentioned earlier, with its eight-figure prize pool, picked up coverage on ESPN, and it doesn't get much more mainstream than that!
As for porn, maybe you're hanging out at the wrong pubs. Seriously though, I find it more and more common to get into discussions about porn or to see an article in VICE or Forbes or The Economist about the adult industry.
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What was the reception from other eSports teams, coming up against Team YP? Do you think that some in the scene thought of it as a stunt, a joke of some kind, to begin with? I mean, a year on, clearly it's not.
To a certain degree eSports is still in its infancy and everyone is feeling the pressure to bring legitimacy to professional gaming – and that extends to the leagues, the tournament organisers and the players themselves. I think it's natural for teams to question the motivations of big companies that want to get involved; but I don't think Team YP received any more scepticism than Red Bull or any other corporate sponsors when they first came knocking. As you've mentioned, a year on, it's clearly not a stunt, and we look forward to adding more teams, more games and becoming a fixture in the eSports landscape.
Plenty of minors are into eSports. Is this a marketing problem for you, because of the porn connection? If not, how have you addressed it, and got around it?
While the audience for gaming is largely adults, we definitely want to be respectful of the fact that eSports attracts minors as well. It was very important for us to create a very firm separation between our eSports endeavours and our core [porn] business. This is specifically why we branded ourselves as Team YP – all our players represent themselves at tournaments as Team YP, not YouPorn. Our website at teamyp.com is completely safe for work and doesn't even mention the YouPorn name. The same is true for all our marketing efforts – we keep things very separate.
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Has Team YP attracted much interest from female players, in terms of joining the team? Obviously female representation isn't all that amazing in eSports right now – is this perhaps something you'd like to be a force for change in? I think all your team members are guys right now, right?
As you mention, female players are underrepresented in eSports. I would say we get a proportional amount of applications from women based on that ratio.
Currently all the Team YP players are men, but hopefully not for much longer. We have publicly announced our desire to sign two new teams for Counter Strike: Global Offensive – one men's and one women's. We've started with Counter Strike, but there are competitive female players in every game and we're looking at applications in every category.
A year in, what would you say Team YP's greatest successes have been, and where do you see the team progressing in the next 12 months? Do you feel like underdogs, outsiders, or is there nothing but a winning mentality amongst the team members and staff?
Year one was really focused on growth. I believe we've been very lucky to sign deals with some top players across a lot of different games. Moving into year two, growth is still a top priority. We definitely have some empty slots in the roster and games where we're not yet represented. We want to continue to attract top talent and of course support our existing teams to provide them with everything they need to succeed and win.
We certainly don't think of ourselves as underdogs; Team YP might be the most discussed eSports organisation in the world right now. We're starting to see some very positive results with our Evolve team conquering every tournament they enter and Valmaster's recent first-place finish in Kakutop III for Ultra Street Fighter IV. We expect even more success in 2016!
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