An Interview with Immortals CEO Noah Whinston: Eyeing up Expansion?
Noah Winston is a big figure in esports, especially in League of Legends. He is someone who dropped out of college at the prestigious Northwestern University in order to become the CEO of Immortals. He is also someone who is outspoken about the fan experience and what he wants his organization to bring to the world of esports.
For Noah, this includes expanding the Immortals brand to many different esports, possibly even Dota 2.
I was fortunate enough to be able to interview the Immortals CEO and get some of his thoughts about expanding his organization.
Noah was introduced to League of Legends during the Season 3 World Championships by a friend. Even though he was not familiar with League, he was “engrossed in the experience”.
While Noah had always been a fan of esports he did not realize just how big it was. He decided then that he would want to look at it all as a fan first, “So I think when I look at esports even before I started Immortals I approached this from a fans first perspective. I was a fan of esports before I ever thought about trying to do anything in it.”
Why Dota 2?
Dota 2 is an esport that has been around for many years and has plenty of support behind it. But, until recently, Noah had not really thought about getting involved with it. Like League, he was introduced and realized just how much the fans loved it.
“My first experience to Dota 2 was kind of the same way. I never watched a game of Dota, but I decided to hang out with some friends at TI6 in Seattle last year. Coming into the International and seeing this energy and this excitement around this game, you don’t need to understand the game itself to understand the feeling that the crowd has for it or that the fans have for it.”
Unlike some other esports, Dota 2 has a lot of support from its creators. Noah stated, “The only reason it is that big too is because of the massive support the community gives to that tournament through the Aegis and the crowd funding mechanisms that Valve institutes for it.”
This adds to the ecosystem of the game and the tournaments. For Noah, TI impressed him with its prize pool, which is a major problem for many esports.
“Obviously that ecosystem functions in a very different way than almost any other esports game. TI is the biggest prize pool event in the entire world for anything esports. It’s the culmination of an entire year of competition, everyone in Dota prioritizes performance at the International because of that prize pool and status. Because of that the International serves as this kind of hallmark event for esports outside of esports. Whenever TI happens, there’s always more and more stories around about how big this prize pool is.”
This caused me to wonder, what makes Dota 2 special in contrast to other scenes?
“Dota 2 captures fan passion in a unique way relative to other esports games. It provides unique opportunities for those fans to directly engage with the thing that they love via the crowd funding mechanism for TI. I think of the esports out there, Dota is truly global in reach.”
Noah went on to mention the fact that these many different areas had very passionate fan bases. Unlike other esports he believed it was not limited in its reach.
What the future holds for Immortals and expansion?
Next I wanted to know what Immortals future looked like. They are an org that is clearly on the rise and one that has a multitude of teams. While expansion is an option, Noah does not believe it’s the only one.
“I think that we’re certainly not one of the organizations that thinks picking up more teams and more games are synonymous with growth. We do agree that being a multi-gaming organization is important for stability and reach, but at a certain point, and it’s a point we’ve reached, we’re more looking to grow vertically and not horizontally. We’re not looking to bloat by adding more teams in more games, we’re looking to kind of deepen our connection and our experience in the games we’re already in.”
This is an extremely interesting perspective as it seems that many org owners are always seeming to want more players and teams. Expansion is currently rapid in the realm of esports.
Noah says that they are trying to be opportunistic about their team and player pickups. He does not feel the pressure to add teams just to add them. For him, it is about finding someone who piques their interest.
“It’s More from the perspective of is there someone who so compels to sign them that we enter that scene. I think a good example is looking into our expansion in Super Smash Bros, both in 4 and Melee, where it was less of an approach ‘hey we really need Fighting Game players, like super smash bros players.’ It was more of an approach, “hey, Anti, Shroomed, these are guys are so compelling for me, both as an organization owner and a fan, and they fit so well with what we’re trying to do as an organization so well that we’re going to enter these games just for the privilege to sign them.”
This led him to Dota 2, saying, “I think that’s the approach we’re taking to Dota 2 right now. We’re still doing our research on the ground level, on the grassroots level.” For Noah, it is more about doing the research and making sure that it is something they feel will fit and something they feel they need.
“From my perspective what we’re looking for is a compelling reason to enter the scene. A team that compels us because we want them to be part of our organization so badly we’ll enter Dota 2 for them. Rather than saying, ‘look, Dota 2 is a great scene, we’re gonna compromise our values just to find any team that we can in it. That’s not to say Dota 2 isn’t an attractive enough game for us if we were a single game organization we may be taking that approach. But at the scale we are at now, it doesn’t make sense to enter other games just for the sake of entering.”
More specifically I wanted to know what was the “Immortals way” in regards to expansion. “I think that more for us it’s less of let’s try and find games to expand into and more of an if there’s a particularly compelling opportunity to take part in another game that’s something we’ll consider”
What would Immortals bring to the Dota 2 scene for Players?
This is a very important question for any esport. For many of them, the players are either respected and paid as well as they should be or are not supported in ways that make them feel like they can make playing an esport their career.
“For the players, compared to a lot of the organizations in the Dota 2 scene, we provide a lot of stability and for lack of a better word legitimacy. We are a Venture funded organization with a long track record of treating our players well in other games, and especially with some of the drama that’s come from within the Dota community around players getting paid wages on time, getting their fair share of the prize money, etc., certainly that’s something we expect every player in our organization to be able to sleep sound about. To know they’re not being screwed over or screwed on their contractual options to their team.”
Noah also explained that his org takes the time to make sure that their infrastructure is solid. This means that they are organized, they know how to keep a player healthy through diet and exercise. For Immortals this helped the player and the org by keeping them at peak performance.
“Basically, we know that the players who play in our organization want to win. And we want to do everything we can to enable them to be their best selves.”
But, they do not just stop at helping a player with their current situation and career, they look towards their future.
“We also think about for them what happens for them outside of competition. What happens to a Dota player after he’s decided to retire, what are the education opportunity, what are the career opportunities available to them, and that’s something we really care a lot about.”
Dota is struggling to keep players on their rosters. This is causing players to feel that their future is insecure. Noah recognizes this and believes that its a problem that has to be remedied.
“We think right now there’s a lot of instability in Dota as a result of short-term thinking. If a team performs poorly at Kiev, they’ll probably make a big roster swap to ready themselves as well as possible for the International. If a team performs poorly at the international they’ll blow up their roster and try and rebuild from scratch. That amount of instability means rarely there is the opportunity to build long-term bonds between teammates, and there’s rarely opportunities to build long-term bonds between the specific rosters and their fans bases. And there’s rarely enough stability for players to really think not just about how am I doing the best that I can for competition, but how am I setting myself up the best to continue to live a life as a player, an influence, or outside of esports after I’m done competitively.”
Lastly, I wanted to know what about the fans? While there is already great support from them for Dota and other esports, I wanted to know what more could be done?
“I think a big part of our focus there is to create a fulfilling fan experience. Making it so that players feel close to their fans and that the fans feel as close to the players that they support so much. That’s done through streaming, through content creation, through social media, through meeting our fans where they are in their communities, and it’s done in building our own communities where our fans can interact with each other.”
“Our goal is to be able to create a fulfilling fan experience holistically. It should always be fun to root for Immortals and if we enter a game we bring that philosophy with us.”
The Dotasphere and Immortals
As you can see, it seems that Immortals are keen to expand into Dota if the right team or players are available. Interestingly enough, the right team may well be available right now. Up until recently, it seemed as if Team Onyx and Immortals were destined for each other. However, Digital Chaos messed up that idea by dropping the roster that took them to second place at TI6 and picking up Onyx.
With this in mind, the stage could be set to rescue the former DC roster, now named Thunderbirds and provide them with a home. With Kiev only a week away, Immortals face the decision to dive in or wait and assess the options. Based on what Noah has eluded to above the latter seems most likely, however, recent events could tempt Immortals’ hand.
Up until recently the amount of new organizations entering the Dotasphere was limited. However, with Mousesports returning and now Immortals declaring an interest in Dota, the future looks interesting. The only thing holding back other organizations acquiring teams is that lack of top level competition. Of the 16 teams attending Kiev, only one of those does not have an organization. With this in mind, it is easy to see why it may be off putting for other well-known organizations to pick up a Dota side.
It seems like the stars are aligning for both Thunderbirds and Immortals. Could we see an Immortals side at Kiev or TI7? Only time will tell and Immortals may not have long to make a decision.