CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — NBA All-Star forward Gordon Hayward said on Thursday that although he’s considered investing in esports in the past four to five years, given the growth of the industry and the subsequent buy-in by multi-billionaire investors, he feels it’s “over [his] head.”
“Everybody around the world is starting to understand there is a lot of money that can be had in esports,” Hayward told ESPN. “You see, not just the NBA, but business leaders and CEOs are investing in teams; Robert Kraft is invested in an Overwatch team. At this point and time, I wanted to have a team for the last four or five years and I’ve almost pulled the trigger three or four times, but at this point and time when you have Robert Kraft jumping in, it’s almost over my head. There’s some big money at play.”
Hayward appeared on Thursday at a Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 activation hosted by Activision and Comcast at an Xfinity Store in Cambridge, Massachusetts, about 15 minutes west of the TD Garden where his Celtics play. Hayward, a long-time proponent of esports, particularly in League of Legends, competed in the forthcoming game against both Call of Duty and Celtics fans who won a contest to attend the private event. Xfinity is a partner of both Hayward and the Celtics.
“To partner up with [Xfinity], they’re already a partner with the Celtics, on the gaming side, it’s a really cool opportunity for me,” Hayward said. “I’m big into League of Legends, but I’ve played Call of Duty in the past; just the opportunity to play the game before everyone else was really enticing. I’m pretty big into Fortnite right now; I know Call of Duty is introducing a battle royale mode, so I’m looking forward to what that’s going to be like.”
Hayward said that he was originally slated to compete in the Fortnite Pro-Am event at the Banc of California Stadium in Los Angeles in June, but due to complications following his second surgery in March — to repair a fractured tibia and dislocated ankle — he couldn’t make it to L.A.
“I was supposed to be in the Fortnite Pro-Am, but I had my second surgery, so I couldn’t make it out there and play,” he said. “That was cool to watch.”
Instead of Hayward, that event featured six active NBA players, including the likes of Oklahoma City Thunder star Paul George, Detroit Pistons big man Andre Drummond, Brooklyn Nets forward Kenneth Faried and 2018 NBA Summer League MVP Josh Hart. Hayward mentioned that he’s seen exponential growth of the number of players in the NBA who have competitive video gaming as a part of their daily lives.
“I know all of [my teammates] play games,” he said. “I didn’t travel with the team, so I didn’t get the chance to play against them. I know some of them play [NBA] 2K, Madden and FIFA; Semi [Ojeleye] plays a lot of Fortnite. Even like Clash Royale, I know Semi plays Clash Royale, we’ve talked about that a lot. That’s an easy one to play, because you’re on the bus or in the locker room and you just play it on the phone. Everyone nowadays in the NBA [is] big into video games.”
In September 2011, Hayward, then a 21-year-old player in his sophomore year with the Utah Jazz, appeared in IGN Pro League commercials in which he mocked LeBron James and ESPN’s The Decision broadcast, as well as other promotions. The following month Hayward competed in a StarCraft II exhibition match at the IGN Pro League 3 in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Since then, Hayward has made a number of appearances with League of Legends developer Riot Games. In September, Hayward appeared in front of a live crowd for the first time at the TD Garden in Boston during the NA LCS summer finals, following the signing of his four-year, $128 million deal with the Celtics.
In the time since he first advocated for the industry seven years ago, the NBA has seen a rapid expansion of the overlap between its players, owners and league partners and the esports industry. Currently, 17 NBA teams participate in the NBA 2K League.
Additionally, 14 NBA teams or part of their ownership groups have some form of ownership stake or partnership with esports entities outside the 2K League, which is symbolic of a much larger financial commitment to the industry; the 2K League cost a $750,000 fee for a three-year license, while other leagues, like the League Championship Series and Overwatch League, range from $10-20 million in franchise fees. Active NBA players invested in the esports ecosystem include George and Golden State Warriors forward Jonas Jerebko.
Boston is the only city in the U.S. in which each sports team has at least one shared owner with an esports franchise. New England Patriots and Revolution owner The Kraft Group own the Boston Uprising, a team in the Overwatch League; Celtics co-owner James Pallotta invested in esports team Fnatic; Boston Bruins parent group Delaware North is an investor in multi-game organization Splyce; and Boston Red Sox minority owner Jeff Vinik is a co-chair of esports ownership group, aXiomatic, which own Team Liquid. Disney, the parent company of ESPN, also invests in aXiomatic.
“There are some smart people here in Boston,” Hayward said. “We’re a sports city here and everybody loves competition. Esports is another outlet for that.”