One of the great things about quickly expanding industries is the incredible minds that opportunity attracts.
In the year that Dictionary.com recognized esports, it should come as no surprise that movers and shakers are taking big risks and looking to the future. One of the first to capitalize on the momentum and help professionalize the industry is Drew Holt-Kentwell, formerly the lynchpin behind the growth and success of the esports task force at Team Razer.
With a career that progressed in the way most people in the gaming and esports industries could only dream of, Holt-Kentwell went from his seemingly inauspicious starts as a Battlefield player in a small clan in the U.K. and a volunteer on the pro gaming scene until he ended up at Razer. Now, after five years of shepherding Razer’s esports efforts until the high-end gadget maker became one of the most significant brands in the whole industry, he’s taking his experience and expertise public — and founding his own esports consulting company, which will be among the first esports-specific marketing consultancies in the world, and certainly the first from within the industry itself.
When I had the chance to do Holt-Kentwell’s first interview since departing from Razer and establishing his own company (Catalyst eSports Solutions), I had to go for it. Unsurprisingly, a lot of his thoughts about the future of esports and why he’s doing what he’s doing mirrored what Plays.tv’s Dennis Fong told me back in October, and it says a lot in my mind that so many people recognize what needs to happen next to make esports truly successful.
Starting from the bottom
Like most any esports professional in who got their start in the aughts, Holt-Kentwell didn’t take a straight path into a great, evolving, paying gig. A friend got him hooked on Battlefield 2 in 2005, and seeing the scale of the game, full of real players, blew him away. Or, as he put it, “That struck me as ‘pretty fucking awesome,’ to be honest with you.”
It’s funny, listening to Holt-Kentwell talk. He’s eminently professional, but he also radiates the pure enthusiasm of any of your buddies who love playing games. As he walks me through his academic history, I hear a story I’ve heard before — a student with a ton of energy, but whose scholastic passions like classics, history, and English literature (which eventually led to a degree in ancient history from King’s College) don’t necessarily lend themselves to a particular career.
These are details, though. His focus throughout is on the games and how he got hooked on esports. “I spent my afternoon hours playing publicly on a [Battlefield] server and working to build the team [22nd SAS Regiment],” he recalls. “That was the crucible for my love of esports — working for a common goal, playing a competitive game. A lot of people who play competitively now know what it’s like to play on a ladder – your nerves are running, it’s a very exciting time.”
After forming his own competitive BF2 squad, Holt-Kentwell eventually joined up with Reason Gaming, who agreed to take his team on despite a languishing scene for the game. As pro BF2 gasped its last dying breath, he was already starting to volunteer with ESL, manage Reason Gaming, and doing some opinion writing under Richard Lewis for Cadred.org — most of it voluntary, unpaid work.
“I’ve been through the same process as a lot of players today and a lot of team managers and sponsors in the space,” Holt-Kentwell muses. “Very few others in the industry can draw on the same experience I have, going through from a volunteer to forming my own company.” A part of me thinks back on the commentary from the #esportsunpaid debacle this past fall and the number of people working in the industry now who started out doing unpaid work, but in general, Holt-Kentwell’s story is unique.
We esports now
It was 2011 when Holt-Kentwell joined Team Razer. His recollection of making the jump into working in esports hit pretty close to home, as I imagine it did — and does — for most of us:
“I was addicted to playing games, and spent countless hours strategizing, writing, and running tournaments. My parents were worried about what I was up to. I tried to explain what it was and how it worked — tried showing them a game of Battlefield I had played in that had been commentated. It wasn’t very successful.”
(Mom, Dad, if you’re reading this — thanks for sticking by my crazy calling. I’m not the only one!)
Razer’s position for Holt-Kentwell required him to pack his things from the UK and move to Singapore alone. He mentions some fleeting concerns with the move and being halfway across the world from his home in the U.K. or his native South Africa, but quickly focuses the conversation right back on Razer.
“Esports had a lot of peaks and troughs up until 2010. It wasn’t really showing what it could do,” Holt-Kentwell contends. “Razer took a strategic turn to build its own esports department. Up until that point, like most companies, it [esports] had been an extension of social media — this was the first true esports department of any company at the time.” Thinking back to the barely there esports industry of four or five years ago, I’m inclined to believe him.
Holt-Kentwell goes on to describe his role within Razer, managing team accounts and working on the various in-house management, financing, and budgetary constraints of a typical sponsorship organization. “The main goal was the value exchange between Razer and the teams it sponsored,” he explains. “Razer was seen as one of the more hardcore sponsors — we didn’t just chuck them [teams] $50,000; we chased them down for deliverables.”
As he continues to expand on how Razer cemented itself as a premier brand in esports – through regional presence in major markets, the “Great Games” documentaries, major social media initiatives, and things like the VIP lounges for players and commentary staff at Dreamhack — it becomes apparent that he’s really keen on elevating esports as a whole. Razer obviously grew and profited from his talent, but he wanted that success not just for them, but for all of esports.
A new player enters the game
On November 14, Holt-Kentwell announced the founding of his new company, Catalyst eSports Solutions. As a long-time fan of Holt-Kentwell’s great work at Razer, I reached out immediately to schedule this interview and learn more about the new project. When I asked him what his goal as with Catalyst, he said, “… to enable brands and teams to maximize their value from esports.” Instantly, I was intrigued.
“I can act as kind-of a third party on the periphery for brands who can’t hire an actual esports employee,” Holt-Kentwell qualified. “No one knows how to set goals or measure success for that person — this gives brands a consultant specifically to help build messaging.” He’s got a great vision, and he describes helping teams build the infrastructure to find better sponsors, improve their reach, and allow their brand partners to extract better value from their sponsorship. On the corporate side, he sees ways to help brands already investing in esports maximize their return on investment, while helping new entrants to the scene build their presence more effectively.
Everything I’m hearing speaks to me as someone as invested in the scene as Holt-Kentwell is. “When I created Catalyst,” he said, “I realized there were companies who would benefit from this kind of knowledge. ‘We need someone to navigate all these games, but we can’t find anyone like that — is there an agency that can do that?’ That’s basically what I’m starting.” He sees an industry growing faster than a lot of third parties can keep up with. “Ultimately, this is driven by a lack of infrastructure in esports – a lot of teams have massive audiences and great numbers, but misunderstand what it means to engage an audience.”
Asking him why he thinks that is, he hits a note many industry veterans are all-too familiar with. “Teams aren’t run by marketers or advertisers – they’re gamers, or straight out of university.” Holt-Kentwell’s not being condescending – he simply recognizes the mismatch between the goals gaming teams and sponsors have. He wants to professionalize teams by helping them develop key marketing assets, so they can take meaningful sponsorship decks to potential partners.
“I guarantee that 80 percent of teams in esports today don’t have a basic set of goals that explain where they want to be in a year, what their company philosophy or brand messaging is, who their audience is — these are all the kinds of elements that are important to a brand.” For an ancient history major with no business background outside of esports, Holt-Kentwell has narrowed in on and refined the needs that teams and brands within the industry have in an astonishing fashion.
Go east, young man
Given that he was leaving Razer — who had stationed him in Singapore for strategic reasons — I wondered if Holt-Kentwell might take his new venture back to the U.K. or elsewhere. He told me he was tempted to go back to England, but that the opportunities in Singapore (one of the most business-friendly places in the world, he tells me) made it a good fit. He’s also leaning on lessons learned at Razer, who saw the Asia-Pacific region as a major growth market.
“For me, one of the big reasons that I did stay was that I wanted to act as a bridge to Asia for the West and vice-versa as well.” He sees an international gaming scene, one that transcends language or borders. “A lot of people don’t know why Asia should be interesting. It’s this kind of mystery land that people don’t really think about.” He sees a ton of growth there, as well as other emerging markets like Brazil. “My goal here is to try and develop and build brands the same way I would in the West.”
He describes a great example of the crossover he is imagining in one of his earliest confirmed clients, MRJ — an esports brand launched by famous Taiwanese musician Jay Chou. “They’ve brought me on as their exclusive agent to acquire sponsors for them from the west.” As more and more major players look to invest in esports, I imagine this is a strategy that will continue to pay off for Holt-Kentwell.
He’s also thinking a lot about how to help the whole industry flourish in a way that will allow businesses like his to be sustained. “One of the things I’ve been working on for smaller and developing teams is an esports management guide. It’s about 15,000 words of raw information. That’s something that we’re going to release as free material to developing teams.” He goes on to say that if he sees potential in such a team, he’ll help them find sponsors. “I’ve seen so many teams that hit a hurdle because they don’t have sponsors, contacts, or don’t know how to close a deal or talk to a sponsor – helping teams overcome that is going to be a big thing.” He knows it’s not necessarily a good business proposition to be offering those kinds of services at little to no cost, but he genuinely seems to want esports to grow, even if that means less personal gain for himself.
The secret ingredient
We talked for hours about the future of the industry. I wanted his take on where things might be headed, and how much of a risk he felt he was taking moving away from the well-established Razer to found his own startup. He talked a fair bit about the prices that the sale of esports teams have commanded, and generally concluded that “the industry is going to be in a very sharp period of growth.”
Insofar as Razer is concerned, he seems to feel good about his decision, but acknowledges the risk: “Generally speaking moving from Razer is a calculated risk – I’ve seen this wave happen over the last couple of years. Teams will always be centric to what esports is. They’re the secret ingredient to the spectacles and the entertainment. Tournaments are popular, but without the big teams/clubs, those events/organizations aren’t popular or watched.”
Holt-Kentwell’s feelings seem to mirror what I’m hearing elsewhere. He believes that the team scene will professionalize and become more stable. He draws the analogy to the music industry, saying, “You’ll get a breakthrough artist who can pioneer a genre, and for the next five-to-10 years, you’ll find people inspired by that, and get copycats. The same might be true for esports.”
Our conversation turns to areas of growth. He talks about seeing major events in Asia, and how that will help to establish local internet infrastructure (nothing akin to how South Korea bounced back from the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s, but something). Talk of mobile and how that will continue to expand also filtered in, and I could tell Holt-Kentwell was intrigued by its future potential.
Who could do such a thing
He does have concerns, though. Part of his vision is to make sure that esports continues on the incredible path it appears to be on. “I’m doing this because I love it,” he says. “Being a product of the industry myself — every day, when I spoke with my friends, we wanted to see this become massive. Having that sense of excitement is something we’ve worked so hard for. Now that we’re here, I don’t want any of that to crumble away. My dream is to do my part to see it smoothly into the next stages.”
As I listen to Holt-Kentwell describe his aspirations and his appetite for risk, I begin to understand what he is about to tell me — you can’t push the boundaries the way he wants to within the confines of an established organization with bottom line concerns. “You can’t do this working for a company like Razer,” he says, “because there’s too much conflict of interest, and too many restrictive goals.” He foresees himself hiring more people, and trying to “nurture and train them, like I was at Razer.”
His description of the job has me questioning whether it’s time to reconsider my path as a writer, because this sounds incredible: “You’re going to come in and chat about Dota vs. CS:GO, what happened on Reddit, etc. — a group of people that are aware of this ever-growing ecosystem.” Sounds like my typical day. I’m sure I’m not the only one.
Holt-Kentwell also recognizes that it’s not a one-person job that he’s occasionally in over his head. In speaking with potential clients who wanted to hire esports managers, he couldn’t guide them to anyone. “It’s a very specific role to work for a brand in esports and to find them value from the industry. It has to be multi-talented, flexible, multitask consistently — and as esports grows, it will become much harder. Even for me, I was constantly amazed — I actually have no idea what’s happening in Hearthstone.”
As a cohost of a Hearthstone-focused podcast, I offer to catch him up another time.
Infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure
That feeling of repetition to the point of words losing meaning? It’s called semantic satiation, and I feel it digging in as we keep referring to infrastructure. After everything, I ask Holt-Kentwell what infrastructure he thinks esports needs not just to survive but to thrive.
He gives me a list of things teams need — staff, goals, strategies, marketing plans, and ways to monitor your metrics. Specific things, like branding around corporate design, business relationships, etc., he has stronger feelings on, but I also get the sense he’s holding back just a touch — after all, I’m not a team manager, and I certainly didn’t pay for all of this great info.
We flip over to discussing events, where he sees a lot of the same concerns. “Events are ultimately driven by sponsors,” he tells me, and explains that reporting, statistics, production, etc., need to be carefully planned, and that there are a lot of brands that need help in determining the correct processes to get involved and get value on their return.
His biggest challenge? Having teams recognize that they need this kind of help. “I’ll go to a team and have a conversation — the way you discuss it has to be not critical, but suggestive of ways you can help them develop,” Holt-Kentwell explains. “Many people have a very narrow sense of what they’re achieving. The balance between what a team expects and what a sponsor expects, and trying to level out that value — it’s really a price, at the end of the day, that people are trying to negotiate on.”
Whose bill is it anyway
I’ve been critical in the past of how dependent esports can be on sponsorships, so I ask him if he sees a future where the relationship between esports and sponsorship changes at all. He doesn’t think so.
“Sponsorship has built the industry. By the nature of my work, I see so many brands that want to — and can — invest in esports, and it’s affordable to do so.” The differences he describes in what it costs to sponsor an F1 or NFL team as compared to an esports organization are staggering. Of course, that’s not his only rationale: “The reason why esports is so brand-driven right now is because of the proximity of brand and customer.” I speak pretty good business jargon, but I ask Holt-Kentwell to elaborate.
“In mainstream sports, you are separated by a television screen, but in competitive gaming, your customer is literally a click away from your brand, and two clicks away from a spend on your product. For as long as it’s affordable and as long as brands can quickly and easily reach an audience of this nature — this size, this demographic – I don’t see it changing drastically.”
My previous reticence to see the whole esports scene live or die by the sword of sponsorship is actually calmed a little by Holt-Kentwell’s perspective. He’s honest, but hopeful — telling me that he thinks there will be lots of growth, and that nonsponsorship revenue streams like ticket sales, merchandise, etc., will also continue to have an impact. I’m cautiously optimistic, given his enthusiasm, that maybe we’ll see big, positive outcomes when the dust does settle in the coming years.
Asked for his last thoughts on what he would communicate to anyone who wants to help the industry grow, insider or fan alike, Holt-Kentwell offered me this:
“Inspire esports. Inspire esports, to me, is a philosophy — a way of esports life. From as small as basically going out and telling someone what esports is and what it is you do, and not being embarrassed about playing games competitively or professionally — to go out and be proud of the fact that we’re living in one of this generation’s greatest digital revolutions. Be proactive in trying to grow that industry.”
Everything he says is so sincere. This is a man who has built his entire professional career around people playing video games at the highest levels of competition for a living, and the urgency with which he conveys his suggestions hints at a love of games and esports that transcends simply doing business in a burgeoning industry.
“Go work for a team, go volunteer for social media, go and research how to engage fans. Learn about marketing, sponsorships, the value chain in esports. Learn what people want — you have to find out what people want! Ultimately, there’s no easy way into working in esports — you have to grind. You have to work as a volunteer, and at some point – as with any new venture — there has to be a certain amount of risk.”
If the man responsible for pushing Team Razer to become one of the most successful esports organizations of all time is willing to bank it all on that kind of risk, something must be there. If you need me, I’ll be polishing my resume to see if Holt-Kentwell will have me as his new marketing specialist.