Community Spotlight: From Esports Pioneer to Funeral Director
Chris Lemley is one of the notable figures of the first esports boom, but he has yet to resurface since the end of Team Pandemic in 2009. Curious as to his whereabouts, Jon Higginbotham tracked Chris down and found him about as far removed from esports as one can get: working as a funeral director. The two discussed Chris's transition since the end of Pandemic and what his thoughts are on the current esports explosion. Jon was gracious enough to share the interview with us, and we're proud to spotlight it here on WellPlayed!
Jon Higginbotham: Could you start by stating your name, what Pandemic was, and what you do now?
Chris Lemly: My name's Chris Lemley, I was the President and General Manager of Team Pandemic from 2006-2009, and I've since settled back into the family business -- I'm a fifth generation funeral director at Lemley Funeral Service in Atkins, Arkansas.
JH: That's quite a contrast of careers, from gaming entrepreneur to funeral director, do you prefer one over the other?
CL: It's hard to compare the two, they're entirely different lifestyles with completely different pros and cons... but it's obviously hard to top what I was able to call a 'career' for a few good years with Pandemic....
My life is much more stable these days, and I take pride in being able to say that what I do is genuinely a service to others in a time of need. That's not to say I don't miss the roller-coaster of trying to run an esports organization profitably, the travel, or the fact that it never seemed like we were 'working,' but I don't know that I could have the family or the security that I do today if I was still chasing that dream.
JH: Would you go back to a job similar to the one you had if esports were more stable?
CL: I think about it from time to time, and I often find myself wanting to get involved in things part-time or as a consultant, but the circumstances surrounding the closure of Team Pandemic, and my move to the funeral home are largely the same reason I don't see myself leaving now. At the end of 2008, the economy went down the toilet. Dell, our largest sponsor, saw their stock drop by more than 50% in a matter of days. Everyone was struggling financially and esports was in a very uncertain state, but we tried to carry on.
The longer we operated in a state of limbo, I began asking myself if what I was doing was truly what I was meant to do. I prayed about it, argued back and forth with myself and my family whether we should keep spending, keep holding onto faith that other sponsors would come aboard -- not just to our own organization, but to events as well. We weren't even sure what tournaments would be happening even if we could afford to get teams to them. Everyone was struggling.
In the fall of 2009, my uncle passed away unexpectedly. The funeral home needed my help, and I was exhausted from trying to operate on a budget that was no longer fair to my players or to the expectations of our fans. Everything came together for a reason I believe.
JH: Do you still keep tabs on esports in general?
CL: Only through my close friends that are still involved in some way. I'll see news in my Twitter timeline that piques my interest from time to time, but I no longer actively pursue it. I can't remember when I finally kicked the habit of checking all the sites as soon as I sat down at a PC, but my homepage hasn't been set to GotFrag in years and I don't even know what most teams pages look like these days.
JH: Pandemic was once as big as or bigger than a lot of the teams that are still big players today, like EG, CoL, SK, and Fnatic. What was the highlight of your career with Pandemic?
CL: If I had to choose one, I'd say Dreamhack Winter 2007. It capped off a phenomenal year and also was the largest prize purse we'd ever brought home, $45,000. We just couldn't miss that year... the other 'powerhouse' American organizations of the time had sold out to CGS and the entire independent side of the industry was ours for the taking, and quite frankly, nobody even came close for a long time. That year we signed the largest corporate sponsorship eSports had seen to date (Pandemic’s deal with Dell University, which was an umbrella effort for Dell, Intel, and Microsoft), made history with a number of our squads, and everything we did seemed to go right.
JH: Regarding sponsors, Pandemic, along with the other big teams, had been among the first to sign sizable team sponsorship deals. What was it like for you personally garnering those sponsorships, what did Pandemic do different than other teams in that regard?
CL: I can't even remember what my mindset was going into those meetings, but we wouldn't take no for an answer. After months of back and forth with what seemed like no real intention to press forward, I drove down to Austin and met with our contacts face to face. I was as green as you can get -- I'd never been in a situation like that before, fresh out of college facing down the suits at Dell for my first real 'business meeting.'
Somehow it worked, and I knew before I left that day that we would do business together. I think they understood how genuine and passionate I was about what I was pitching to them. I didn't have the fancy metrics and polished marketing kits that we'd develop later, I just sat down and talked to them about what we could accomplish together.
At one point in the meetings, long after it was decided that they would be working with us, the most important man in the room stopped me to ask 'what level of a team' we were... if, in comparison to baseball, we were like a minor league team, a major league organization, or what. He didn't even know if we were any good. And it didn't matter.
He somehow entirely missed out on what we believed was one of the core values of my presentation, but picked up enough from the rest to greenlight the deal. From that day forward I realized none of these sponsors (besides the truly gaming-endemic, such as Razer and Steelseries) would likely ever understand a thing about what we actually were. It always felt like I was selling a make-believe industry.
JH: What did those big tech companies care about? Hits? Sales? How did they keep track of their ROI?
CL: There's no rules to what makes a pro gamer. There’s no schedule we have to follow, no event is definitively more important than others. Everything is relative and subjective. Each sponsor had their own unique goals and ideas of how to best utilize us to obtain them. Some came up with elaborate marketing events that, in retrospect, made no sense at all, but who were we to tell them they couldn't spend their money with us in that way? Others sat back and let us do what we do, latching on to our own campaigns and natural initiatives.
The 18-24 year old male demographic gets referred to as the 'Holy Grail' of advertising. Supposedly we're the hardest to reach, have the shortest attention spans, and so on. When pro gaming was in its heyday, it was being pitched as the new and exciting way to get those eyeballs on your product. Things were a little simpler then. You hadn't had any failures yet (e.g., CGS, WSVG, CPL). It was fresh; internet functionality wasn't as developed as it is today, and online leagues were few and far between, so tight knit communities formed and it was easy to focus on specific leagues and events instead of this overload of competing ideas and clones that we have today. Console gaming hadn't really entered the online market yet, either, so it was easier to concentrate focus on one system (PC) and a handful of titles.
JH: Do you have any thoughts on StarCraft II? I know you don't keep track of esports that much, but have you noticed the esports boom SC2 has generated?
CL: I'm happy to see it uniting some of the focus back into one game. I haven't kept up enough to comment on the state of the game or the industry around it, but I don't see anything stealing away the spotlight right now, and that's a great thing for all parties invested in the scene for however long it lasts.
JH: There has been talk of esports being a bubble market; during the time you spent running Pandemic, do you think sponsors were over-investing in organizations and teams like Pandemic, resulting in the pop and collapse of events around ‘08?
CL: Our entire country was operating inside a bubble market when it popped in 2008/2009, those circumstances were much, much larger than gaming. That said, and a lot of my former peers will be upset with me saying this, I don't believe that the vast majority of esport organizations and teams offer enough return on investment to be worth the risk companies take in doing business with them. Ask yourself how many peripherals, laptops, mice, or whatever must be sold -- as a direct result of your involvement with these players -- to simply break even on the cost of travel and salary for those involved.
The ones that remain in business have done a phenomenal job of adapting and coming up with new ways to expand their reach and further their appeal, but I still question the efficiency of the business model. Professional gaming still lacks the structure and mass appeal necessary for consistent growth worthy of the dollars being thrown around. Event organizers are the ones who hold the power to create such an environment, but we've all seen how that's turned out so far. Imagine where we'd be if CGS had taken off, if WSVG was still airing on CBS, and so on.
JH: Regarding your competitors, EG, coL, etc., what were those relationship like? Were you guys friends behind closed doors? Were/are there any organizations that you're particularly fond of or that you dislike?
CL: Complexity had jumped to CGS when we were really going strong, so I didn't get an opportunity to really compete against them until after they came back, and by then our leagues were gone/going too. I always liked Jason (Lake), but I was leery of him too. That's mostly, if not entirely, out of respect. You just couldn't gauge him. We were friends, and we got along great when we crossed paths – it just didn’t happen too often.
EG was a competitor during the ’07 WSVG (World Series of Video Games) circuit, and they were largely a non-factor until after the collapse of that league. However, as soon as IEM/ESL came to North America, they really started gaining momentum. Their WoW squad had become formidable, but more importantly they picked up a world-class Counter-Strike team. They grabbed the right players at the right time and made some moves that deserve a lot of appreciation in retrospect -- they helped start a revival of a genre that you might say carried esports along until SC2’s release. Alex and I rarely spoke at all -- I had no problems with them, but they didn't make the same moves as us. We were pushing for mainstream ad dollars and they focused more on the endemics and traditional games. There was very little overlap there. In the end, you can certainly say they made the right calls and capitalized when our luck started running out. You have to really admire the level they’ve rose to… they’re head and shoulders above their peers in NA and have been for some time.
The people I kept closest with outside of our own organization were probably most often the opposing players. I was very tight with my guys, and they were all friends with the people they competed against. If you get too involved with the media or the organizers or the other managers everything gets political sooner or later and you find yourself wanting to conform and go along with everyone else’s way of doing things. That’s not always what’s best. I probably did a lot of it out of naivety and youth, but I'm happy with how I spent my time, especially at events. I've got a lot more memories that way. Plus, if Matt Ringel and the CBS Production Manager had knocked on my hotel door telling me a certain player was in jail instead of me being there to help talk them out of the situation, that's at least one event we wouldn't have won. It made for a lot of good stories.
JH: During your time, GotFrag was the leader of independent journalism in esports. What's your opinion on the role of independent journalism in esports? Also, what do you think about team sites doing news? How did you utilize your own team site?
CL: I believe that independent journalism and coverage were once the lifeblood behind this entire industry. When I stumbled upon the world of esports, I first found CAL (Cyberathlete Amateur League) and GotFrag. 'You mean to tell me there's a league where I can play this game for money, and here's our own version of ESPN?' It truly felt like what happened in those matches mattered -- people bickered back and forth in prediction threads and ranking threads on the forums; you truly felt, as a player, that what happened had an impact on the gaming world as you knew it.
I don't sense that same 'feeling' in the up-and-comers today, but surely it exists in some capacity. Let me rephrase: I don’t see it in the PC gaming community. MLG seems to do a good job of recreating that environment through GameBattles and the hype surrounding their leagues and events, but it’s becoming more and more rare to hear of fresh faces in PC gaming if they didn’t already have a PC gaming background. Consoles are fine, I’m just very partial to PCs.
I also know that regardless of platform, if you could bottle up that emotion, the purity of what my generation of gamers felt in those moments at CPL, WCG, and the like, that pro-gaming would never have to fear its death.
JH: What about your own site and other team sites?
CL: Coverage is a key aspect of that emotional attachment, and I don't know if you can leave it all up to the teams. If you do, there's too much bias and not enough quality reporting. I don't believe there are enough die-hard fans of each 'team' to justify leaving the entire job up to them, plus you need your news hubs and independent sources. Do you know how many colleges would love to get a few thousand viewers on an in-house livestream for their games? The major Division I programs that do have multimedia packages worth millions; it’s easy to see how that gap is closing.
My philosophy today would be for teams to simply cover the bases, provide exclusive media, and most importantly spotlight your partnerships and marketing efforts on your own site. Get out and share everything else with the world. The more exposure you can get elsewhere, the better, because if people really like what they see, they'll start following and visiting your site(s) anyway.
JH: Let's talk money for a second. During Pandemics prime, between Dell and the other sponsorships, was it easy to make a living? What kind of things did you learn while trying to support a team and family? How did your family react to the money you were getting/not getting?
CL: My wife got onto me for reminiscing too much about this the other day. I wasn't a rich man, but for a while it offered me the opportunity to never have to worry about money. The way we accommodated our players was second to none, we never had to turn any opportunity down, and we had a lot of fun while we were at it. In regards to making a career of it, that's where it got tricky. If I relied 100% on gaming income, I would've made a substantial living for three years, and at the end of the third year, I would've gone broke due to the well going completely dry. It's a roller coaster and you never know what you'll be able to count on or for how long; if you’re going to attempt it, be prepared to fail and pay for it each time.
It's like most investments that come along: it takes a lot of money to (potentially) make a lot of money. Unfortunately for those interested in pursuing esports ownership, you can probably count the number of people able to make a long-term living off of that on one hand.
JH: As a sports fan, is the traditional sports model compatible with esports? Are there things we can learn from sports, like giving players more exposure or investing into player brands instead of team brands?
CL: When I came into the business of esports, I based every move I made off of an experience I had in ‘real’ sports. I took marketing approaches from professional paintball and poker. The first media kit I created was designed using an Arkansas Razorback Baseball media guide I had laying around the house. The way I tried to present news and media on our website was a reflection of team sites from the NFL or NBA. Everything had a connection to sports. I think the model is certainly compatible to sports, that's what this really is.
Every successful major market sport has structure, though, and esports lacks a governing body and standardization. If being a pro gamer actually meant something and wasn't just a relative term (anyone can claim they're a 'pro'), that would be a great start. If reaching a certain status or level of competition was more difficult than paying an entry fee or being selected to the field because you knew the right people, that would be another.
My old friend Corey Dunn said it best, 'esports needs the 'Home Run.'' Casual observers need to be able to view a gaming event, recognize the rules and understand when something great happens, all while appreciating the circumstances and level of play.
If you didn't follow baseball and had no idea who he was, would you get excited watching a video of Albert Pujols hitting a home run off some guy in a park? Now what if you saw a ‘St. Louis Cardinal’ hit a home run off another ‘Major League Baseball’ team in ‘Game 7’ of the ‘World Series’? Structure creates meaning for all those terms, they’re widely recognized for what they are and the weight they carry with them. It’s no longer just a talented individual playing a game, there becomes a reason to follow and care. That’s the emotion I keep referring to and, in my opinion, the biggest missing piece for esports.
JH: Would you agree that the media and teams need to do their part in giving the players exposure to create a more compelling story?
CL: Absolutely. The personalities are key, that's one thing I believe team sites should focus on -- telling their players stories and getting fans involved and, hopefully, attached. As it stands, there are far fewer fans that latch on to an organization without having been drawn in by a favorite player of theirs; I suppose it will always be that way. If you were a rogue in WoW during BC, you wanted to see Neilyo. If you were a Guitar Hero player when that game was popular, you may have kept up with Priest (don't laugh - he had more than 20 million YouTube views) whether you knew it or not. Plus, just think of all the drama.
JH: Speaking of drama, one thing that many (mainly reddit) have been complaining about is the influx and focus on drama. Is drama a good thing?
CL: It certainly can be, it keeps readers/viewers entertained at the very least. I don't expect anyone reading this to remember World of Ming, but he made a living off of drama (real or otherwise) writing garbage about the WoW scene. He'd make fun of pros, dig into their personal lives and incite all sorts of spewing back and forth. Before you knew it, he'd have pages upon pages of comments and it just fueled the fire for his next piece of content. I'm glad he's gone, but he served a purpose.
JH: One thing you haven't talked about was your time helping Pandemic while Mark Dolven was in charge. What was your role, if any, while working with Dolven, and what was your relationship with him?
CL: I was a player for Pandemic.CS for a very short time in 2005. Back then Pandemic wasn't much more than a glorified local Arkansas LAN team, but Dolven had brought them some success in other titles such as CoD and DoD. A few months passed after we split ways and he got a hold of me and asked if I would like to invest in the team -- he knew I was interested in the business side of things, and they'd just had their breakout event and needed help funding a new website to capitalize while the market was hot. I became his VP and worked alongside him until he got his opportunity with the CGS.
He brought me along slowly at first and really let me work my way into a role. At first, I didn't even know what to do, what was expected of me, or how I could help without getting in the way. I remember him telling me if I didn't figure out some way to be useful, that he'd find a way to get rid of me. That was all I needed to hear, I guess. He really respected my input from the start and we worked together very well on things... he kept me efficient and I was a fresh set of eyes. I think if he had been able to hang on throughout CGS, we would've parlayed our success in '07-'08 to even bigger and better things. I don’t know that we would’ve done much different; I just think we could have got more accomplished.
JH: Do you still keep in contact with him? Is he retired from gaming?
CL: We're very close friends, he was the best man in my wedding and we talk every day. The circumstances surrounding Pandemic worked out well for him too. He had moved to Arkansas from Montana (originally) to work with Subway Franchise Dev. and the original founder of Pandemic... he might have eventually moved back, I'm not sure, but when I invested with him we setup an office in Conway about 30 miles down the road from where he was living. He met his future wife during that time -- she lived just down the road from me -- and they've since moved back to the area now that she's finished with Optometry school. He now has franchises of his own and we still play a few games, but no more business for now.
JH: Chris you have been a pleasure to interview and I sincerely hope you decide to get involved in eports again; we could certainly use you, but if not I wish you well all the same.
CL: Thanks a lot for having me, Jon. I’m thrilled to sit down and talk gaming -- it's been forever. In the grand scheme of things, what we accomplished with Pandemic probably doesn’t seem like much… but it was an amazing journey and a time of my life that I will never forget. I miss it often and appreciate the lessons I learned from it. I love getting back into that frame of mind, if only for a few minutes at a time, and it’s always amazing to see the support of our old friends, colleagues and fans that haven’t forgotten us entirely. I was truly blessed to have that opportunity and I wish nothing but the best for those of you pursuing similar dreams and aspirations. Everyone deserves a chance to do something that they truly love, and if you let your passion guide you, you can't go too wrong.
About the Author: Jon 'portland' Higginbotham is a longtime eSport enthusiast, working for a variety of employers like the Championship Gaming Series, Loaded, and currently Quantic Gaming. To connect with him, send him a tweet @portlande.