Q&A with MSE's Director of Esports Andrew McNeill
This week, in the next installment of Wizards Digital’s interview series with members of the Wizards’ business staff, Monumental Sports & Entertainment’s Director of Esports, Andrew McNeill, talks about his career, the Wizards’ 2K simulations and the growth of the esports industry as a whole.
Q: To start off, can you talk a little about your career path and what your current role is with Monumental Sports & Entertainment?
McNeill: At Monumental, my role is the Director of Esports, where I oversee both the team operations and the business operations for our esports properties, Wizards District Gaming of the NBA 2K League and Caps Gaming, our Washington Capitals esports-focused sub-brand. Before joining Monumental in the summer of 2019, I was the Head of Gaming at South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas.
Q: When did you first see esports as a viable career opportunity in the way that it is now? Did you play a lot of video games growing up?
McNeill: I played video games my entire life. My dad bought a Sega Master System in 1986, so there have been video games in my house for as long as I can remember. Growing up, I played sports outside with my friends as much as I could and then went inside and played video games when I needed an escape from the Texas heat. As I got older and started playing basketball at higher and higher levels, video games became a great way to fill the downtime between practices and games.
Esports wasn’t really something that was on my radar as a career until about 2014 or 2015. While I was at SXSW, I had helped launch and run a track of programming focusing on the intersection of sports and technology and in putting that program together, esports became an industry topic that I kept seeing and hearing more and more about. This was around the time that people and organization in the traditional sports world like Monumental were beginning to invest heavily in esports. And when the NBA announced the creation of the 2K League, I thought, “This is great, basketball and gaming. Two of my favorite things!” After that, I thought being involved in the 2K League was the next logical step in my career.
Q: What is it like to be involved with the operations of an NBA 2K League team in Wizards District Gaming? What would you say is the biggest difference compared to operating an NBA team?
McNeill: It’s hard for me to say what the biggest difference is in being involved with Wizards District Gaming than from an NBA team because I’ve never been intimately involved in the operations of an NBA team, but I can say that working with a team in the NBA 2K League is incredibly exciting. The 2K League is a very young league with a ton of potential and I’m excited to do my small part to help it grow. And the competitor in me loves doing what I can to help put a team out there that can compete for championships in the 2K League. It’s really a great situation.
Q: During this hiatus period, the Wizards has teamed up with NBC Sports Washington in televising the 2K games. How did this idea come to life and was this something your team always had in mind?
McNeill: After the NBA and NHL seasons were suspended, things moved really quickly to see what we could do to be a good partner to NBC Sports Washington and replace that content in the short term. Zach Leonsis, SVP of Strategic Initiatives and GM of the Monumental Sports Network, was the first person I remember suggesting that we use NBA 2K20 and NHL 20 to simulate the remaining regular season games for the Wizards and Washington Capitals, respectively. A couple of days after both season were suspended, we were on a conference call with NBC Sports Washington talking about the idea and shortly after that we had secured approvals from the NBA, NHL, both leagues’ players unions, and the developers of both video games to move forward. It has been a total team effort between Monumental and NBCSW to make it happen and bring these simulations to air.
Q: A couple games into this new challenge, what has gone well? How do you define success for this new content?
McNeill: The main positive is being able to bring some fun and exciting action to Wizards fans during a time when there are no live games happening and people are looking for something to rally around. We don’t have any quantifiable metrics for success with these simulations, nor are we really looking for any. This is all about bringing something fun to our fans.
Q: What kind of opportunity do you see in this broadcast of 2K games?
McNeill: There’s not really any opportunity that we see or are searching for with these NBA 2K simulations that we’re showing, it’s all about bringing some sort of sense of normalcy to our world and helping to foster that sense of community for Wizards fans.
Q: What are the challenges to catch people’s interest that are “sports fans” and not a gamer themselves.
McNeill: Fortunately, sports video games have gotten to the point that they are so realistic that there’s very little difference, especially visually, between what you see on screen and what the NBA looks like in real life. This realism enabled us to run the simulations for broadcast and build out our marketing and messaging on social media to treat each of these simulations like a real gameday, giving us an opportunity to serve our fans another way to stay connected during this time.
Q: Where do you see the most opportunity in e-sports as an industry?
McNeill: One of the amazing things about esports is that they are an incredibly accessible activity. It doesn’t matter how tall you are, how fast you are, or strong you are. Nor does it matter where you’re from, what race you are, your religion, or sexual orientation. Anyone can play, and that accessibility makes it inviting to so many people to be a part of, both as participants but also as viewers. And as technology continues to improve, mobile esports will continue to grow as well, which will bring in even more people to the industry.
Q: Being part of an event like SXSW in your career and seeing the trend as a frontrunner, how has your perspective changed now being part of a sports & entertainment organization?
McNeill: SXSW as an event was always about discovery and inspiration, so that has always been a foundational part of my career. It always kept me searching for trends and being open to new ideas. I think that’s a big part of why I turned my professional interests towards esports and pursued being a part of that industry the way I have.
Q: Japan’s e-sports industry has been growing, but what would you advise to the people who are trying to grow the community?
McNeill: Seeing is believing. In my experience, that is one of the most effective strategies in esports. The more you can expose people to esports in person, the more people’s eyes open to the possibilities and the more they understand the space. It doesn’t have to be a big event, grassroots esports events are some of the most effective. When people can see the passion of the fans and competitiveness of the participants, it starts to click.