It takes a lot more than a core group of amazing players* to become a successful eSports organization. eSports, just like traditional sports, are propelled by fans first and foremost, and Brett Diamond is clearly bringing that mentality to his position as the chief operating officer of the Minnesota Røkkr. Just days before the Call of Duty League’s massive kickoff event at The Armory in downtown Minneapolis — which is also the Røkkr ‘s debut into the big time —we spoke with Diamond about cultivating a positive and inclusive fanbase, working with the famously foul-mouthed entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk, and what it means to finally show the eSports world how we do things here in Minnesota.
(*Thankfully, Røkkr has that part covered, too.)
tech.mn: The Call of Duty Launch Weekend is just days away. What’s the mood of the team now that you’re so close?
Brett Diamond: It’s incredibly exciting. There’s a great atmosphere with this team both among the players, the coaches, and staff. Everyone has put so much work into getting to this point, and it’s an incredible opportunity to open the first season of this team this week at The Armory. We couldn’t be more excited to kick things off next weekend.
These players and these coaches work incredibly hard. They’re as dedicated to their craft as any professional athlete or any professional in anything I’ve been around. They’re a bunch of no-ego guys. We’ve got the right staff to coach them up and hopefully win some matches next weekend.
tech.mn: Considering all that hard work, what does it mean to you and the team to finally be able to show the world how we do things in Minnesota?
BD: It’s an incredible opportunity to show the world that Minnesota is an eSports community. There’s a lot of great things happening here already, and that was one of the things that our group was so impressed with when we started to get involved here. There may not have been a major eSports event held previously in Minnesota, but there are a lot of groups here doing interesting work. Game Informer is based here [which is] an iconic video game magazine. So, we just really enjoy learning about the things that are already happening here, and we’re just excited to be part of building the eSports community. We truly believe that a rising tide lifts all boats.
We’ve grown to 13 people on staff, plus the coaches, plus the players. Everyone has just been putting their heart and soul into putting on a great event and really creating something special for the fans that are in Minnesota, the fans from other teams that will be coming to town, and the people that might not be familiar with eSports. Maybe they’re just curious about it and coming along for the ride with a friend. We want to create something amazing for anybody that’s in that venue, regardless of what their motivation for being there is.
Personally, I can’t tell you how excited I am for that moment our team is announced in front of that crowd for the first time. We’ve got a great video that’ll play, and the crowd should be rocking — no pun intended. That moment is something that I think everyone involved with this team has been looking forward to for a very long time.
tech.mn: In your time with the Vikings and now the Røkkr, have you felt big differences between traditional sports and eSports, or is there more crossover than people would think?
BD: It’s a little bit of both. Our approach, all the way up to the ownership group, has never been to come on to this team and pretend that we have all the answers just because there has been some success in traditional sports with the Vikings and the NFL. We’re proud of that success, but we’re all very cognizant that this is a new space for us. We need to listen and learn, and that was really our focus for the first few months in particular.
We were very fortunate to bring on Ashley “MiDNiTE” Glassel as our first hire. She’s an iconic figure in the Call of Duty scene. She had 10 years with OpTic Gaming. More importantly, she’s an incredible person and an incredible human being. From the first couple of conversations that we had… it was very clear that she the type of person that you want to build an organization around. She really became our guiding light on anything related to the eSports scene and helped us develop our approach of how we connect to the fans. From the first day we announced the franchise, we made it priority to respond to everyone who posted on Twitter, commented on our posts, and DMed us. That was obviously easier when we only had a few hundred followers instead of more than 30,000, but that’s still the first thing when we tell anyone interviewing for our content team. Responding to fans is priority number one.
tech.mn: What has Gary Vaynerchuk brought to the organization and how has it been working with someone who has such an outspoken personality in the investment and startup realm?
BD: I listened to a fair amount of Gary’s content early on, but when I took on this role and knew he’d be involved in the team, I listened to a lot of it. It was very informative in terms of what we want to accomplish as an organization. If you listen to his stuff, he puts all his best ideas out there. He likes to say that he gives his best stuff away for free. So, most of the things he would talk about that impact any kind of organization, he’s talking about on his podcast. You don’t necessarily need to sit in a room with him to get a lot of that. But the time we spend with him is an amazing value on top of that. That’s all prefaced to say that we had consumed enough of his content to probably know what direction he’d want to take the conversation.
What’s interesting is even though he does have a very outspoken personality, one of the first things he said when we sat down together — and I’m paraphrasing here — was that he didn’t want to assume we were followers of the “religion” he espouses. He wasn’t coming into it saying that because he owns a piece of the team we have to do everything the way he do it.
Now, what I said to him in response was, “Oh no. We follow that religion. We’re onboard.” So, that part of the conversation was very short.
Frankly, even if Gary wasn’t an investor, I truly believe that his approach to content and the strategies that he talks about will drive success for an organization such as ours. We’d be doing a lot of the things he talks about anyway. But it was interesting to sit with him and hear him say he doesn’t expect us to do things exactly the way he would do it. When we said we were onboard, the conversation got very interesting and he has had some great ideas.
It helps us to approach things with a content-first mindset, which was frankly important as a new team coming out of the gate. We’re the only team in [the Call of Duty League] (CDL) that doesn’t have any eSports experience. Ten of the other 11 are in Overwatch League (OWL), and the ownership group of the [London Royal Ravens] has a lot of history in this space. We know we’re the new kids in class. But we’re also the only ones who are building everything from scratch both from a staffing and brand standpoint. That’s why it was so important for us to bring on MiDNiTE early on.
It was also why we prioritized giving fans a look behind the scenes. On the eve of free agency, we were the only team that was doing a free agency preview. It was nothing fancy. It was one camera, MiDNiTE, and me. Very low-tech. But it was important for us to share information with any fans that were following us on social media and not wait until we had built up major production capabilities.
That’s what Gary’s influence has done for us. Produce content now. Don’t wait until you have lots of fancy equipment. If you have a camera or a phone, you can record a podcast or a video. Just go do it.
tech.mn: Speaking of content, what kinds of things can fans look forward to when the season kicks into high gear? How much transparency can they expect from the team?
BD: We’re proud of the content we’ve produced so far, but it’s just scratching the surface of what we need to do to build up a fanbase in the new market and what we can do with the resources and facility we have.
The [content we’ve produced] so far was done without any of our players living in Minnesota yet. Now, they’re all here and scrimming in our facility. We brought them in a couple times over the course of the last few months where we’d do two or three days of content shoots, and that’s where all of our content so far has come from. Now, we’ll be able to do a steady stream of it.
We plan to do more X’s and O’s content and game analysis, which is something we think will help reach people who are avid players of Call of Duty but for whatever reason haven’t engaged in eSports. That’s an enormous audience. Our theory is that by producing content that takes a look at the game and sort of has a traditional sports feel to it, that’s a way to reach people who love Call of Duty but may not have the [CDL] on their radar.
We want to be the most transparent eSports team. We want fans to feel like they’re able to see and experience what goes on. Even in those early free agency videos, there were some things we couldn’t talk about because of league rules. But we said, “Look, there’s stuff we can’t talk about, but we’ll talk about everything we can.” That’s something we talk about a lot internally. We think [being transparent] is the right way to build a fanbase and the right way to run an organization.
The Minnesota Røkkr — Back Row (from left): Adam Brown (Godrx), Justin Fargo Palmer (Silly). Front Row (from left): Obaid Asim (Asim), Adam Garcia (Assault), Alex Carpenter (Alexx)
tech.mn: When it comes to sports, we’re pretty spoiled in Minnesota. From the Twins to the Lynx, do you see the traditional sports clubs as a barrier to gaining an audience or do you think you can find common ground there to convert those fans into Røkkr faithful?
BD: There are so many things that compete for someone’s attention in this market, but I don’t view the traditional sports teams as competition any more than I would view a movie theater as competition. It’s everything that people can do with their leisure time is the overall competition.
The way we view it, there are a few different types of fans that we want to try to bring into the fold. For each one of these, we want elements of our event that appeal to them and pieces of content that appeal to them.
Priority number one has to be the existing Call of Duty eSports fans. We want to make sure we’re engaging with them in a way that they feel good about, that makes them feel good about us as a new team, and the CDL as a new league. That’s step one.
The next group of fans that we talk a lot about is the people that play the game and are passionate about the game but for whatever reason haven’t engaged in eSports. [We want to] find the right way to reach them and give them a reason to come out and check out our events and content.
Then you get to eSports fans more broadly. That’s where I think we have a unique opportunity in this market not having had any major eSports event. We have an opportunity to reach fans that might not necessarily be a Call of Duty eSports fan. They might follow League of Legends, or Overwatch, or Fortnite. But having a big event here and being the first team other than T-Wolves Gaming in this market gives us a chance to reach that group.
And there’s the casual fan who we truly think will be brought along by the cultural significance of eSports and just the idea that there’s a big event in town and there’s a lot of cool things happening.
If you picture U.S. Bank Stadium on a Sunday, you’ve got a range of people in there. You’ve got the person watching every single play as it unfolds, and they don’t care about any of the hoopla around it. They’re just there to watch the sporting event. Then you might have somebody that’s there because they’re friends with the hardcore fan but are still having a really good time. Then you might have a group of friends who go with their buddies just to check it out.
To ultimately build a fanbase to the level you want to get to as any new team, whether you’re an eSports team or in the CDL or the NHL or whatever, you need to reach all of those fans. So, it’s about figuring out how to find an authentic way to connect with all of those different groups in whatever way that’s going to appeal to them.
tech.mn: How is the new Røkkr facility helped bring the team closer together?
BD: It just shows the commitment that the Wilf family and the ownership group has here. This is not a short-term commitment for them just like the Vikings aren’t. They’re going to give this team every resource we need to succeed whether it’s the players, coaches, content team, business staff… So, we’re incredibly excited about this facility here.
Another interesting aspect of our organization is that we’re one of about half of the teams in the CDL that have all of their players living in their home state rather than remotely. It’ll be very interesting over the course of the season to see if there’s a difference in success for the teams that take that approach. We think it’s important. We think it’s going to be a differentiator in success. That’s why the ownership group has invested in this facility, and that’s why we have players living here.
tech.mn: Gaming has had issues with toxicity and some less-than-savory interactions. How are you going to create a positive and inclusive atmosphere for players and fans alike?
BD: First of all, actions speak louder than words. So, we need to be positive and inclusive and do those things. It starts with interacting with as many fans as possible. Probably the one percent of fans that we don’t respond to are the ones who are less-than positive, and we don’t want to feed into that.
But to be honest, the reception that we’ve seen has been overwhelmingly positive. There really hasn’t been any negativity that we’ve seen firsthand. We want to create an event that everyone can feel comfortable going to, and we want to position it in a way that makes everyone feel comfortable. Whether you’re somebody who’s familiar with the eSports scene or not, we want to brand our team and events in a way that makes people feel like they can be a part of it. That’s something we talk a lot about here. And frankly, we talk about it more in the context of not worrying about the toxicity or negativity. We talk about it more from the fact that we don’t want somebody to look at our event or team and feel like they can’t embrace it because they don’t know about it. But I think a lot of same things we’ll do to reach those fans who don’t know about it will present us as an open and positive organization by their very nature.
Photos courtesy of the Minnesota Røkkr.
From top: COO Brett Diamond, Ashley Glassel, Gary Vaynerchuk, the Minnesota Røkkr, Røkkr Eagan facility layout