Five celebrity investors who helped push ESports into the mainstream

Celeb investors like Drake and Ashton Kusher have raised plenty of capital—and attention—for ESports teams.

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The key to making a boatload of money is often being able to look down the road rather than chase a purebred horse that’s already left the barn. In other words, keep ahead of the curve.

The following five celebrities were groundbreakers in their respective fields, building wildly successful brands for themselves rather than following the pack.

It would have been easy for each to sit around counting their money on a yacht moored off the coast of Monte Carlo. Instead, they embraced ESports long before the mainstream had any idea folks would actually pack stadiums and spend hours on Twitch and YouTube to watch their fellow humans play video games.

Michael Jordan

Ask a room of hoops fan for a short-list of the game’s icons, and a handful of names will come up over and over again, including but not limited to Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal, Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kobe Bryant, and Bill Russell.

But there can only be one GOAT, and when it comes to the NBA that’s Michael Jordan.

Retired since 2003, Air Jordan hasn’t lost his love of sports. And he hasn’t been a snob about what constitutes an athlete. In 2018, Jordan spearheaded a US$26 million round of funding for aXiomatic, which describes itself as a “broad-based esports and gaming company” with a mission to “connect artists and audiences”.

Positioned under the aXiomatic umbrella are organizations that include the highly respected TeamLiquid, Super League Gaming, and BITKRAFT Ventures. In a statement at the time, Jordan said, “I’m excited to expand my sports equity portfolio through my investment in aXiomatic. Esports is a fast-growing, international industry and I’m glad to partner with this great group of investors.”

The goal? Winning, of course. Jordan knows a thing or two about that. When you’ve got a reputation as the GOAT, you don’t rest or your laurels once you’re in the game.

Drake

He might have started at the bottom, but when it comes to ESports, Drake began pretty close to the top.

The Canadian music star is one of four owners of 100 Thieves. (The others, for the record are super-producer Scooter Braun, former Call of Duty pro Matthew “Nadeshot” Haag, and Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert.)

The organization fields teams in CS:GO, Fortnite Battle Royale, League of Legends, and Valorant, but let’s not kid ourselves. Where 100 Thieves has scored its most impressive wins is in branding and sponsorship. With the likes of JBL, Cash App, and Chipotle on board, Drake won’t have to re-enact the “God’s Plan” video by doling out his own cheddar.

Hip-hop has always had a fiercely competitive side. In February of this year, Drake announced that he had signed a multi-year deal with the livestreaming service Caffeine. As part of the deal, he’ll be bringing Ultimate Rap League to Caffeine, which will live-stream its freestyle rap battles.

“I’ve always loved URL and admired what Smack and his team have been able to create, it just wasn’t easily accessible,” Drake said in a press release at the time. “It’s exciting to be in a position where I’m able to bring Caffeine to the table and help provide URL with the tools they need to elevate the viewing experience and make it more accessible to fans.” 

An organized league with a strong presence on a live-streaming channel? Sounds like Drake is turning rap into an ESport.

Ashton Kutcher

When it comes to celebrity investors, Ashton Kutcher is basically the poster boy. In fact, the artist formerly known as Mr. Demi Moore is the co-founder of a venture capital firm.

Kutcher counts Airbnb and Skype among his more savvy investments. The actor (along with Mark Cuban and others) has also invested in the ESports betting platform Unikrn.

As for the future of ESports, Kutcher is a true believer. As he said on an episode of the YouTube series Hot Ones last year: “This live gaming stuff is just absolutely insane. More people watched the League of Legends finale than the Super Bowl. It’s very clearly happening.”

Kutcher is also a well-known proponent of cryptocurrencies. The Seattle-based Unikrn, in fact, has its own cryptocurrency: Unikoin Gold (UKG). One UKG is currently valued at US$0.01242699. To put that in perspective, a single Bitcoin is valued at US$10,955.70—so I think we all know which one is the real unicorn.

Sean Combs

He’s a man known by many names: Puff Daddy, Diddy, Puffy, P. Diddy, Brother Love, and Sean John Combs when in the company of his mother. And like many wildly successful entrepreneurs, Sean Combs has never been content to stick his fingers in a single pie.

After dropping out of university to focus on an internship at Uptown Records in New York, he first cast himself a topnotch producer. Over the years he’s branched out into everything from rapping (you might have heard “I’ll Be Missing You”) to clothing design (hello, Sean John!) to vodka (Ciroc) to television production (Revolt TV).

It should surprise no one, then, that Puff Daddy was paying attention to ESports long before it exploded into the mainstream. Combs was part of an investment group that ponied up US$30.5 million last year to fund PlayVS.

The Los Angeles–based ESports league operates as a platform from which high-school students around the States compete in ESports as representatives of their schools. Getting the chance to build a reputation in gaming is increasingly important with many universities handing out ESports scholarships as a way to attract students.

Yes, that’s right, colleges and universities now actively seek out ESports athletes, with the best of the best encouraged to represent their schools in regional and national competitions. And, hopefully, not drop out to intern at Uptown Records, even if that worked out okay.

Steve Aoki

Steve Aoki has never been content to have “globe-trotting DJ” as the only entry on his C.V. He’s also a music producer and record-label head. Oh, and he runs a foundation that raises funds for research into the human brain. Because why wouldn’t he?

You can add “co-owner of an ESports organization”—namely Rogue—to that list. In 2018, Rogue was acquired by ReKTGlobal, with investors including the NBA’s Rudy Gobert, Dutch DJ Nicky Romero, and members of Imagine Dragons.

Rogue currently has teams active in the League of Legends European Championship and Ultraliga, as well as Rocket League, Rainbow Six Siege, and Apex Legends. Rogue’s Rainbow Six Siege European roster won the R6 Pro League Season 11 this past spring. Sadly, though, the team went on to a last-place finish at this year’s Six Invitational in Montreal.

As for Aoki, he has also developed a casino game called Steve Aoki’s Neon Dream. In the first-person infinite runner, players collect coins while listening to house and EDM tracks from Dim Mak. Synergy! Basically, Neon Dream is like an old-school arcade game, albeit one that requires players to wager real money.

The Las Vegas–based Aoki told Inc. that this venture stems from his interest in gaming in general. More precisely, it’s a direct outgrowth of his involvement in ESports. “That’s what I like to do,” he said. “Find little gateways of entry. Once I was in, I found more ways I could get involved in gaming…and the next step was video gambling games and bringing something new to the casino floor.”

Written with John Lucas

Mike Usinger once took the better part of two years to finish Grand Theft Auto. Over the course of his career he has written about everything from eSports to music to movies to travel.

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