Silicon Valley meets Overwatch: Q&A with Kevin Chou

Members of Lunatic-Hai celebrate after winning the OGN Overwatch APEX Season 3 championship in a thrilling seven-game series. Blizzard Entertainment

It wasn't fancy fancy -- I hadn't exactly been sent a limo -- but for South Korean esports standards, I might as well have arrived by private jet. With half of the greater Gangnam area sprawled underneath me, I looked across Seoul from the 30th floor of the Marriott, sipping a cappuccino from the lavish coffee machine in the Executive Lounge. I was hardly a stranger to interviews with team owners, but most of them were held outside of a small café over $2 cups of takeout Americanos.

But perhaps for Silicon Valley standards, this place was pretty cheap. I was here to meet Kevin Chou, after all, the owner of KSV eSports who had just bought the world's best Overwatch team: Lunatic-Hai.

"Kevin is an oddly down-to-earth man," Erica from KSV's PR agency had briefed me. "He travels everywhere by subway and often sticks to cup noodles for meals."

While I didn't get to verify how frugal he was or what he usually has for dinner, Kevin indeed was less stuffy than most high-ranking executives. We dispensed almost immediately with the business pleasantries and started talking about Overwatch. And although our interview was booked for an hour, it took me only a few minutes to recognize him as a kindred spirit, as a diehard esports fan.

[This interview has been edited for clarity.]

Young Jae Jeon: Many Western esports organizations have a colorful owner or CEO who is very visible to the public, whereas the opposite is true for South Korean organizations. Will you be at the forefront or in the background of the Overwatch League Seoul team?

Kevin Chou: It will change over time. Right now, KSV is only a few months old -- we actually started the company after negotiating the deal with Blizzard. We thought, 'If we land this deal with Blizzard, fantastic, we can jump into esports right now -- if we don't, we can just keep watching the market and jump in when the timing is right.' So when we got the Seoul spot, we put together the company very quickly by calling up a number of people from Kabam and asking them if they would be interested in joining. This is why I need to be at the forefront at this point in time. I'm very, very hands-on on all aspects of business right now.

As I explained when I first got here, I was very much interested in putting together a strong Korean management team that will be based here in Seoul and play a very public role. So once the hires are made, it will look like I'm playing less of a role. But I'll still be very involved. As I said in my speech [at the launch event], I'm very passionate about this -- I grew up playing video games competitively, and I'm still a player myself, although not a very good one -- so this is a dream come true for me. I like doing what I'm doing right now.

YJJ: Korea and Silicon Valley sounds like a rosy combination on paper, but I don't think this concept was ever really explained in detail. How exactly is KSV planning to bring together the best of these two worlds?

KC: I think the best things in Korea are the coaches, the players, the training programs, and the entire culture around the love and passion for games. I actually was a bit shocked when I learned of the social stigma against games here. Koreans have been the best in the world at esports for a very long time. From my perspective, that's something that a country can be very proud of.

But I was a bit surprised at how the Korean sports and esports industries weren't really run as businesses. Most teams here aren't aiming to be a world class business like Manchester United or the Yankees or the Warriors or the Lakers. Part of that is because they don't have the right amount of capital, logistics and capability to really build up a global fanbase.

I think the smaller organizations have really done a fantastic job in staying very competitive with a minimal set of resources, but it has always been difficult for them to expand beyond Korea and get global sponsors and build a brand. So that's where we want to bring in the Silicon Valley resources and use it to build a truly global esports company to represent Seoul and Korea.

YJJ: Have you considered other buy-in locations for Overwatch League besides Seoul?

KC: After we finished our city-by-city analysis of all options, I would say that the decision was actually very easy. Everyone on the team settled on Seoul as our No. 1 choice. We did briefly look at several cities in North America, and then considered China for a while, as their market is very large and esports is booming there. But I think it's a bit difficult for Americans to run a business in China. We felt Korea was a much friendlier place to do business in.

YJJ: Was Lunatic-Hai a no-brainer pickup, or were many teams seriously considered?

KC: We did consider several other teams seriously. Having watched a lot of APEX games, I was really impressed by the level of talent in the market overall even before coming to Seoul. But when I got here, I was also really impressed by the different coaching strategies. I expected that the teams would have more or less have the same type of overall philosophy and just differ in terms of in-game strategy and execution. But there were vastly different philosophies across teams regarding how to strategize, how to assemble a roster, how to recruit players -- for example, whether to pick specialists into specific positions or to pick flexible players who can fill multiple roles -- and I was very impressed by all of those different ideas.

I ultimately settled on Lunatic-Hai because I loved their teamwork. When you're building or rebuilding a sports team, it often takes 2+ years to put together a championship roster, even if you start out with a great set of players, because teams need time to work together. Some teams find that magic very quickly, but other teams take a really long time to develop it. And what I found with Lunatic-Hai was a group of very talented players who truly enjoy playing with each other, and a coach who was already working really well with those players.

While Lunatic-Hai's championship victories were considered, it wasn't like, 'Oh, we're just going to pick up the championship team.' We strongly considered other teams that hadn't won big trophies. In fact, we went to Lunatic-Hai before the Season 3 finals, and told them that even if they don't win the finals, we would still want to make a deal.

YJJ: Were there any other players or staff you wanted to bring in along with the first six?

KC: No, and we're taking our time at the moment. We're being diligent in thinking about both the strengths and the weaknesses of the core Lunatic-Hai roster that we picked up. There are still weaknesses that we are very aware of, and both the coaches and the owners are having lots of discussions about how we want to build the rest of the roster. Of course, we are also making various adjustments with the team we currently have, and we're eager to see how those work out in our future APEX matches.

YJJ: Should the fans be expecting backups or superstars for the second six?

KC: Overwatch League will have a number of things different from APEX. The most obvious one is that all teams can have up to 12 people on their roster. And it's likely that there will be more substitutions allowed throughout a match compared to what happens in APEX. So all this changes how we think about things. You could literally put together two full rosters.

Right now, every owner will be thinking about whether to put two full teams together and have them train for different maps and scenarios. A team might be really good defending against dive comps, whereas another might be really good playing dive comps. And we have to think about control point maps too -- it's not a secret that we lost all of the control point maps in the APEX finals. And the DPS meta is changing rapidly with the recent patches. So we're thinking about all of these things in the context of what the OWL match structure will be. It's going to be a lot of work, but we're going to put together a good plan.

YJJ: It definitely sounds like you know exactly what you're talking about.

KC: [laughs] I'm telling you, I'm not lying when I say that I'm really, really into it!

YJJ: You also acquired one of the largest fanbases in South Korean esports. What can the fans expect in terms of fan engagement and content?

KC: I know that a lot of players in Korea stream long hours of ranked play because the pay structure in the scene isn't that great and they need supplemental income from their stream. But Overwatch League is going to change that. Even the league's minimum wage allows for a reasonable living, so there will be less pressure to stream for money. I also honestly think that streaming ranked play doesn't really help the player's competitive chances -- it's basically anti-training in several ways. So we're going to make sure that players don't need to stream for money, but still can regularly connect with their fans. I believe that we may do more [in real life] streams, particularly when the team moves halfway across the world.

We will be producing a lot of shoulder content. The whole team is going to live in another country for a few months representing Seoul -- a lot of moments and stories will come out from that alone. There will be different types of shoulder content, and in general there will be much more content about the team, the players, and their personalities. We're also working very closely with the fan club, which has been supporting Lunatic-Hai long before we joined forces. They gave us a lot of good ideas about how we could connect with the fans. It's going to be fun. We're going to try out a lot of things and try to tell a lot of stories.

YJJ: Lunatic-Hai also commands a huge number of anti-fans, and many of your players have previously professed frustration towards the constant hate. What's your perspective on this issue?

KC: What I've told the players and coaches is that every champion team is going to have anti-fans. The whole point of sports is that there are many people who compete at a world-class level but only one team that wins. And anybody that wins is going to make all of the other teams' fans unhappy. So it's very natural to have anti-fans. If you win a championship, a bunch of people are not going to like you -- that's a fact of life -- and if you read all of that stuff and get emotional about it, you can drive yourself crazy. The easiest way to deal with that is to not pay attention to it and just focus on competition and sportsmanship.

We will have to deal with that at even higher levels once we start competing in the OWL because it's an international championship. So we need to get into the right mindset right now. And I believe our players are responding well to this challenge.

YJJ: Many fans of competitive Overwatch are concerned for its future. Global viewership has not been too impressive recently, and in Korea, the game itself is rapidly losing ground.

KC: Contenders is going on right now, as is the World Cup, but these events aren't really established, regular competitive circuits -- apart from the unique exception of APEX, there simply isn't any "real" formalized competition in Overwatch right now. So I don't think the numbers right now tell us that much about how Overwatch League will do, nor do I think how Overwatch is doing in Korea is representative of how Overwatch is doing across the world.

Blizzard has been putting so much focus on preparing for Overwatch League, and an amazing amount of marketing resources will go into the league. I'm looking forward to how it will generate interest in the game and the scene worldwide. It's also important to remember that competitive Overwatch is still very young and all the storylines are just starting to develop.

YJJ: How do you foresee the future of APEX? As the Korean scene will most likely hemorrhage at least two dozen top players to various teams in the Overwatch League, many domestic viewers are concerned that APEX will turn into a shadow of its former self.

KC: So from a big-picture perspective, I think esports in the past -- and even today for many games -- has been a bottom-up, grassroots thing. You started playing by yourself, then with a friend, then with people of your skill level online, then maybe you won a qualifier, then a tournament, and if you were still doing well, you would think about turning it into an actual career.

But what Overwatch League represents is a top-down structure -- you have a very successful game, so you find team owners willing to invest in entire ecosystems and build up organizations fully equipped for the long term. And this top-down system can only really work when there's a really strong grassroots scene underneath, like baseball or soccer or football or basketball, where the ladders below the professional level stretch from collegiate sports all the way to little league.

I would love to see APEX become something like what collegiate football is in America -- a real revenue generator with top-tier athletes. I am actually looking forward to investing in APEX and working with many of its teams so that it can continue to be very successful.

YJJ: Do you have any final words for your fans?

KC: Well, I hope that I don't have any fans. [laughs] My job is to put together a great organization for the long term, to build a business that's sustainable, to put together a championship roster, and to invest in the infrastructure they need to succeed. And I hope that people like what I do, but I certainly hope that the fans will be fans of the players, not me. The players are the ones who have to go through all the training and competition. They are the true heroes of what we're doing.

I hope everyone understands how hard the players' jobs are. Every team will go through rough patches every now and then. I hope the fans accept that. As great as a team we're going to put together, we're not going to win every single game. We may not even win the championship even though that's exactly what we're trying to do. But we will do everything we can to represent Seoul well and bring home the global championship.