When people think of esports, they think of organizations, players, and teams. They think of the impact all three key points can make and fans reminisce. They travel back in time to a moment of roaring fans, shouting hosts, bright lights, and a thick atmosphere of unending passion. That is esports. An unending stream of passion culminating and celebrating digital sports through tournaments and other events. Team Secret replicates that passion with their commitment to esports.
Today, we sit down with John Yao, CEO of Team Secret, and head of one of the biggest esports organizations in the world. John is a recognized industry expert on the business side, having been featured on multiple notable publications like Forbes Magazine, CNBC Squawk Box, The Esports Observer, and more. Subsequently, John leads the brand development of Team Secret and overall business with 50 staff and eight esports teams spanning across 20 countries to make up Team Secret.
In this Team Secret interview, Esportz Network asks John about his journey into the industry and the story behind his entry into Team Secret. Additionally, John gave Esportz Network a more in-depth look into the organization’s present and future in terms of the current pandemic crisis. John also disclosed some information about what’s to come for Team Secret.
Interviewing Team Secret CEO John Yao
Esportz Network: You’ve been in this esports industry for quite some time. What’s the story and why did you get into the esports industry?
John Yao: Well, I’ve been into the esports industry for three years now, which is a long time because it’s such a fast-moving industry and so many things happen every day. I’ve been working in strategy consulting for much longer. I did strategy consulting for about eleven years and gained a ton of experience all across the world with some very leading companies. I decided on these because I wanted to since I felt like I was towards the end of my learning curve. But I pretty much did everything I wanted to do in strategy consulting and I wanted to pursue something new and something that I could build from the ground up. So I looked at esports, which is not very established. Even now, I think it’s getting more and more mature, but it’s still a very much startup type of environment. A lot of things are not super well defined, and it’s up to the pioneers in the industry to help define those things. It seemed like one, it aligned with my interests, but two, because I gained so much experience and have such a background in a corporate world that I could be one of those leading voices in helping to provide structure and maturity to the industry.
EN: As the CEO of Team Secret, how did you become the head of one of the biggest esports organizations in the world?
JY: Well, we weren’t always as big of an organization as we are now. I’d say we still have a lot of ways to go. But in the beginning, when we first came together, I met a talented group of players in our Dota 2 team, very talented captain, Puppey, and very talented manager in that. We got together because of my brother, who was doing some stuff for the team. So we thought it was a perfect fit because the team is super talented in esports. If you have really experienced corporate people and you don’t have the right talent in esports, I don’t think you can be successful. But I also think that if you have tremendous talent in esports, as a player, as a team talent, but you don’t have the right corporate background, people guiding you on the business side, I don’t think you could be successful either. I told them that, “you know, this is a really good opportunity for all of us to take my expertise and take their talent, and together, we can make something great out it.”
Thus far, in the last three years, we went from one team to eight teams now. We went from just being a couple of Dota 2 players in Europe to now 8 teams, over 50 people, players, and staff across over 20 countries. We’ve expanded tremendously, and being a CEO from the beginning taking on that leadership role, but building the organization to the size that it is today, it was largely dependent on hiring the right people and having the right people work towards this vision.
EN: As the CEO of Team Secret, what is/are your biggest achievements with the organization?
JY: One of our biggest achievements is just expanding the organization and building the brand to what it is today. What we want to do – what we set out to do – our vision is to become a household name in esports. If you look at traditional sports franchises, there are people in the world that have never watched a basketball game but know the Knicks and the Lakers. I know there are people in the world that have never watched a baseball game but know the New York Yankees. We want to build our brand to become kind of that tier of sports-related and entertainment-related brands. That’s why we have ways to go because we have built our brand to be as big it is today. But there’s a long journey between that and between becoming a household name in esports as an industry becomes more and more mainstream. So that, to me, is one of the goals that I wouldn’t say we have achieved yet but we have made good progress towards it.
The second thing is when we set out, there’s a lot of ways to be successful in esports from a team perspective. You can be a team that is very successful in your own country, like a U.K. team, a French team, a German team, a Southeast Asian team, or a Chinese team. You can be very successful as a regional team. What we set out to do was we wanted to be a global team because our vision for esports is that it is truly a global sport and that anybody can participate. There are very low barriers to entry. Even if you can’t afford a three thousand dollar computer or whatever, there are places in the world that you can go to, like an internet cafe, and pay a dollar to practice and become one of the best in the world.
It’s very easily accessible and it’s something that is truly worldwide in that sense. Then the other thing is there are people of all nationalities, languages, political views, religion, all these different types of walks of life, all playing together and coming together as teammates. We wanted to build our company and our brand with that sort of culture in mind. So that’s why I mentioned the “oh, we’re, you know, across twenty different countries,” because that to me is very important in fulfilling our global vision, but also making sure that we as a brand are trying to be successful on that scale rather than so very focused on one market versus another. Even if you look at our Dota 2 team, it’s five players plus a coach and it’s six countries. Nobody’s from the same country.
Even though we’re a European team, if you look at some of our other teams, our staff is significantly diversified in that sense. I think esports is one of the industries that can very naturally bring together such diversity to come together as a community. I think that’s very beautiful and I think that’s something that we want to help bring forward as an organization.
EN: Additionally, what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve encountered and overcome with the organization?
JY: I’d say we have challenges every day. I think it just comes with being a startup. One of the main challenges that I have discovered being part of this industry and managing so many teams and so many players is managing the players themselves. For the most part, the vast majority of players are all really good people, but they tend to be extremely young. Much younger than other industries and even traditional sports. I think a lot of the challenge is teaching them, mentoring them, and making sure they’re on the right path to success and then helping them to build into professional players because I think that players that this young that I’ve encountered, all have tremendous talent and are all pretty good people. But a lot of times they don’t have any sort of work experience outside of gaming.
A lot of them have either skipped school or haven’t gone to school for one reason or another and many of them don’t have any sort of life experience because they’re so young. You have to be a good mentor to them and not just say, “oh, you know, put them in front of the computer and let them play and become champions. You have to teach them and mentor them on what is a contract and what you should look for in a contract. This is what these things in a contract mean, and why having a contract is important.” Not just for being part of Team Secret, but also later on in their careers, they’ll be on the right path and understand what to look out for, even if they’re not part of Team Secret. This is just making sure that you do the right things for the players so that they can become good esports community members.
Then there are things like, “Hey you just win a million dollars.” I mean, it’s great and they’re free to do whatever they want with the money. But at the end of the day, we want our players to be successful outside of esports too. So it’s kind of like mentoring them. “Hey, maybe you shouldn’t blow it all on a car. Maybe you should do something responsible with it. Maybe you should think about your future. These are the things that you should think about.” Offering that type of mentorship is good, but then teaching them that there are many other things to becoming a professional player that is not just game related. You could be super good at the game but you’re also at the forefront of the community. You’re a role model for a lot of fans and a lot of young kids out there. You’re always in the spotlight, not just in the game, but also on social media, in traditional media, etc.
So how do you project a good image, a positive image for the fans, for the community, for the people who look up to you? How do you do media interviews? How do you present yourself in front of traditional or online media? How do you maintain a decent image on Twitter? Things like that. So there are things outside the game that we try to mentor our players on and just help them with whatever they need because in the age range of 16 to 24 is where you mature a lot. These guys are all under our care during this time when they’re supposed to be learning a lot of life lessons. Hopefully, we can do our part in giving them our experience.
EN: When you started your journey with Team Secret three years ago, did you think that organization would be this big now? Where do you see Team Secret in the next three years?
JY: I try not to overthink about the future, to be honest. I have goals but I think more about how to achieve those goals rather than the aftermath of “we’ve already achieved this.” I’ve always thought that the organization would be successful.
There’s a lot of components to success. Even if we do every single thing but we have a run of bad luck, or something just happens, then maybe we don’t become successful. But to me, that’s not a definition of failure. To me, it’s sort of the journey, whether or not we did our part right in making a successful organization.
So whether or not we’re as big as we are and whether or not we will be as big as we want to be, I think that’s just an after product. I think it’s more important to us, and me, that we do the right things along this journey so that, at the end of this journey, we can go back and say and look at it and say, “Look, we’ve done everything that we set out to do. We did everything that we could to make this as big as we could and as successful as we could.”
EN: With COVID-19 affecting organizations in the esports industries worldwide. How is Team Secret coping and are things going to change in its future?
JY: There’s a lot of impact on competition, in that live events will probably not be around for a little while, until the world becomes more normal again. But I think esports was positioned, and we’re seeing it now, very well for this because we are naturally digital. We’re like digital natives. Yeah, you can cancel traditional sporting events, but you can’t really bring baseball online or basketball online. It’s not a natural transition. But in esports, you can cancel live events but you can immediately transition to online events. It’s very natural for us. We did see a little bit of disruption early on in that some of the live events that were scheduled got canceled or delayed. But we have recovered strongly in a lot of these online related events.
We do look forward to having live events in the future because I think there’s a certain magic to having live events. I think the atmosphere… just getting together in the arena and watching a lot of that with your friends and everything. You can’t replace that with online events. I also believe there’s a magic to the feeling of the players. When you’re in the middle of an arena of screaming fans everywhere, you just can’t replicate the energy by just playing at home at your desk.
I think if live events are rated at a ten, then an online event is probably an eight. In other industries, you can’t even get to eight with the COVID-19 situation. So we’re very lucky in esports that it’s such a natural transition to the digital world. On the business side, COVID-19 has a lot of impact on organizations. I think some organizations were not previously stable businesses. Maybe they grew too fast or maybe they tried to raise capital too recklessly or spent money too recklessly and now are feeling pressure because you can’t easily raise more money in the current environment that we have. Everybody’s kind of tightening their belts. So I think a lot of those organizations will run into trouble.
I think for organizations that are well managed that spend money wisely and that have a war chest, those organizations will come out of this even stronger. Adapting to the COVID-19 situation is kind of like helping traditional partners and brands see the opportunity of esports.
I think it’s an opportunity like none other at this time because I think that before all of our partners, all of the people that I talk to in traditional industries, all the brands that are either in esports or that want to get it into esports, they’re all feeling pressure because consumer spending is down.
COVID-19 is restricting travel. Everything is down. Those traditional businesses are feeling a lot of pressure and I think a big part of revenue for esports teams is sponsorships. So if our partners, traditional brands, have their marketing budgets cut, then they’re not going to sponsor teams, tournaments, or leagues as easily.
I think that it’s a tremendous opportunity because esports is very digital and we might be stuck in this way of life for a while longer and there’s nothing else to go to. We’re such digital natives and we have such a good transition to online and viewership is better than ever. I think it’s a tremendous opportunity for esports to educate some of these brands, particularly non-endemics, to come into esports because they can’t do marketing with traditional sports anymore because there are no traditional sports. Teaching them what the value of esports is, how our viewership is doing so well, and how to thrive in this digital environment, and how to work with esports companies, events, and teams are important.
EN: Is there any information about Team Secret that you can disclose?
JY: From a sponsorship perspective, we’re going to announce a couple of new sponsors this summer. We’re working very well with some new prospective partners, as I said, and helping them along, educating them on esports and how best to engage. There should be some good news coming. I can’t disclose who yet but there will be a couple of things this summer coming up.
In terms of teams, we have a new Rainbow Six Siege team. We had a very successful team in Europe. We supported them through three or four seasons. Unfortunately, they were not able to make it into the Pro League. The team decided mutually that we were going to part ways and some of the players wanted to explore some other opportunities. But we were able to sign a new roster in the Rainbow Six Siege Pro League, which will begin competition in the German Country League and then Pro League for Rainbow Six in Europe in June.
Esportz Network thanks John Yao for taking the time out of his schedule to make this interview happen. Congratulations to Team Secret on their recent win with its Dota 2 team at the Gamers Without Borders charity tournament.
Written and interviewed by Jay Hunter