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Immortals CEO Noah Whinston discusses his focus on supporting fans and a major overhaul of IMT's brand

By Mark Register
Apr 20, 2017

So I think--well, let's skip to the point of why you're here. You've been making rounds with different publications, because--what is the message that you're trying to get out right now?

Sure. I mean, I think right now, over the past few months, we've kind of come to recognize (a) that as much as we do try and connect with our fans in a grassroots way, we need to do a better job of broadcasting who we are, why we're here, and what we do. I think that's not just the case in League of Legends, but especially the case in all the other games that we're present in and not as in touch with the communities of, as well as kind of making sure that those fan communities understand who is behind this kind of nameless, faceless organization. And so, partially, it’s about me, partially it’s about Immortals, and partially it's about kind of setting the stage for the things that you're going to see from Immortals over the next few months to a year.

So what are we going to see in the next few months to a year?

I think in the next few months to a year from Immortals, you're going to see (a) kind of a more concerted effort at talking about the brand as something that lives and breathes on its own. Right? Right now, esports organization brands are kind of intangible. They kind of move based on which players you have in your roster and how well your teams are performing and what games you enter. In the next six months, you are going to see kind of a full relaunch of the Immortals brand with very clear brand identity characteristics, values you will know independent of what players are playing for Immortals or what games we're in or how well we're doing in them, who we are, what we stand for, and what you can expect.

Are there any sneak peeks of that?

No, because, you know, that would kind of ruin the surprise. I can definitely talk about kind of what our values are as an organization. I think I can articulate a lot of those well, but in terms of the fully cohesive and singular package, you're going to have to stay put for that one.

What are your values?

I think uniquely, as an esports organization, we put a lot of focus on meeting fans where they are and kind of being a fan-first organization. A lot of organizations talk about themselves like they are a player-first organization or like they are a competition-first organization. And I think defining ourself as anything other than a fan-first organization does a disservice to the people that support us and a disservice to our mission. So competition is one way that we support our fans when we perform well, makes our fans to be a part--like, proud to be a part of Immortals. Treating our players well is another thing that kind of makes our fans proud to be part of Immortals. But ultimately, all of the things that we do are just kind of steps on the path of how do we make ourselves a fan-first organization that truly values and commits to their fans in the same way that we want our fans to value and commit to us.

Not only do you care for the fans, you care about the players. You did a TED Talk talking about players understanding their market value. What are your players' market values, and how do they see their value compared to the actual market value?

Well, first I do want to clarify, because talking about my TED Talk that way dramatically undervalues my political science nerdery. It was about Marxism and social and labor capital theory in esports, which was really fun. So what are my players' market values? My players market values are whatever someone is willing to pay for them. My players have different ways of figuring that out, right? Some of them do use agents and lawyers to negotiate their contracts with me, which I always appreciate, because it makes my job a lot easier. And I do mean that seriously, because agents and lawyers are much better able to understand the intricacies of what matters within a contract, rather than just the salary number.

And I'd say that others kind of value a lot of things outside of money. Right? They sign with Immortals not because this is the place where they can earn the most money, but because this is the place where they can work with the coaches that they want to work with or the organizational staff that they want to work with, or this is the place where they feel they can grow their own personal brand. And some players signed with Immortals because they like a lot of the things that we try and do to help out our players post-career, and they feel like this is best for their career longevity. So I don't want to prescribe a one-size-fits-all policy as to why players end up at Immortals, but I'd say that it's varied and sometimes based on their market value and sometimes not.

Part of the reasons why people join is because of your reputation. So what is your reputation now and what do you want it to be?

Well, I think our reputation in League of Legends, at least, is pretty good, as taking care of our players, especially after the Huni situation in December of 2016. I think our reputation is not particularly well-established outside of there. In Counter-Strike, Overwatch, Smash, Vainglory, people know our players, but I don't know how much they interact with us as an organization or us as a brand.

But I think what we're trying to do, not just with the brand relaunch but also just through interviews like this and through our communications with our fans, is making sure that we're meeting people where they are, right? It shouldn't be a stretch to be a fan of Immortals, right? It should be really easy not just to engage with the organization over social media, but to find other fans to talk with through fan communities, being able to find friends that you enjoy talking about things other than Immortals about. It should be easy to go from supporting the Immortals League of Legends team to the Immortals Counter-Strike team to the Immortals Overwatch team. You should be able to find personalities that are similar and players that you like among each of them. What we're trying to do is reduce the barriers to entry of being an Immortals fan. Right? Like, you shouldn't have to struggle with that.

You came into Immortals, this organization, with a set of theories and then you've been able to execute all those theories. And now I'm sure you probably have a new set. So how have those first theories run out in practice, and also what are your new theories?

Theories that have succeeded are... I think we've proven the theory that we know how to create relatively healthy team environments, right? Like, can we do a better job? Absolutely. But, you know, you're not hearing about crazy drama coming out of the Immortals esports organization every month. Places where I think my theories were disproven is I did think esports players were a bit more mature and sophisticated with what they want and need, which I don't think is the case. I think, as much as I love my players and I love working with them, they generally are very poorly informed about what they need to perform at their best or what they want to make them happy, right? I think players are very, very short-sighted in the same way that organizations can also be short-sighted about what it takes to kind of make them happy on a long-term basis.

And that's something we've struggled with a lot, with players that were previously on this team and players that are currently on this team, in terms of players thinking more salary is going to make them happy. End up with more salary; doesn't make them happy. Or players thinking certain teammates will make them happy. End up with those teammates; doesn't make them happy. So I think that my job on a day-to-day basis is much closer to the job of a parent than it is to the job of a boss. Because when you're the boss, you're supposed to be able to kind of trust your employees to tell you what they need and what they want, whereas when you're a parent, you kind of have to do what you think is in the best interests of your kids. So I think my job at the moment trends a lot closer to that of a parent than a boss, because it's my job to kind of enforce what I think is right for people, because I don't know if players right now have enough experience or enough self-awareness to know what they want.

So what is the complex setup, and why did you create it?

So complex is still a work in progress. We've talked a bit about this, but ultimately what I feel the future of an esports organization should be--and I know I'm not the only one to feel this--is kind of a bit more divided between living and working. I think right now, players living and working in the same space is pretty detrimental to long-term mental health and long-term sustainability of this as a career. I also think that organizations do a tremendous disservice to their players by keeping the players of different teams separate. Right?

Like, we picked up our Counter-Strike team almost a year ago. They've never met our League of Legends team. In a year of playing for Immortals, they've never met each other. Like, our Overwatch team has barely met anyone else. Our Vainglory team has never met anyone else. And that means, like, these kind of subcultures get created within an organization. There's no Immortals culture. There's an Immortals CS:GO culture and an Immortals League of Legends culture and an Immortals Overwatch culture, and they don't act like a unified organization, right? As much as each of these teams is a standalone team, they're also part of a larger whole. And so, when there's no cross-pollination between those teams, when there's no friendship between those teams, when there's no common culture between those teams, there's nothing in common between them other than the logo that's on the jersey. And that's not what we want from our organization, right?

We want to be able to enforce our values and philosophy and culture across everybody, as well as have our philosophy and culture affected by the individual people on each of those teams. So in my mind, you know, complex or a gaming office is cool because it allows you more space to do things, right? You can create cool areas for the players to hang out in, you can have it be healthier for the players because you have separate living and working areas.

But really, the part that I think is super important about it is the way that it allows these teams to kind of coexist with each other in the same place and learn from each other and share coaching and developmental resources, because, you know, hiring a performance coach for every team is really tough. It's hard enough to find one good performance coach in esports, let alone five or six. But if you can find two or three and share them among teams, if you can find two or three physical trainers and share them among teams, two or three nutritionists and share them among teams, two or three sports psychologists and share them among teams--suddenly, you're able to really create an economy of scale, right? Like, an organization should be able to leverage its scale to do a better job for all of its teams. But right now, it feels like, when teams are so disparate and they're not in the same place, that scaling doesn't really happen. It feels like every team you add requires more staff and extra resources instead of being able to synergize with the other teams that you already have.

There's no reason to start from scratch, basically.


And on your point with having that separation of work and home, just like how, you know, you were saying that you have a really hard time--you're very ambitious, but it's a hard time turning off and being content. And making a physical difference between "this is when you work" and "this is when you relax" makes it easier for people to turn that switch.

I mean, I hope so. I've been living in the team house with the League of Legends team since we started the League of Legends team, and it's certainly been rough on me. Right? Like, living and working in the same place, even as someone that's not a professional player and doesn't, you know, spend as many hours sitting in front of a computer grinding at League of Legends as a League of Legends player does, it's not easy to do. And so I can't imagine it's easy for players or for staff either.

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Mark Register profile
Mark Register
Mark is the Editor-in-Chief @ Blitz Esports. He was the creator of Esports in a Nutshell, led production @ the Young Turks for 5 years, and in his other lifetimes won an Oscar, recorded albums (on Spotify), and most importantly spent a summer as a SeaWorld performer.
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