Many professional basketball players explore different business ideas for their post-playing days and some look to get started even while still in uniform. Consider Khimki Moscow Region forward Jonas Jerebko as part of the latter company; he is one of the pioneers in a business that is taking the world by storm.
Jerebko is the owner of an Esports team, The Renegades, a franchise he purchased in September 2016 with big plans that are slowly coming to fruition. If you are not familiar with Esports, it is a multiplayer video game competition, which has taken off in the past 10 or 15 years.
"I have always been around video games."
"All I did growing up was play basketball and play video games," said Jerebko, starting his story of how he got involved in the rapidly growing industry. "I did not go out and party with my friends, I stayed home. If I had a game on Saturday, on Friday I would practice and then go play video games. I have always been around video games."
He did so in his native Sweden and later when he went to play professionally in Italy. His interest continued when he crossed the pond to play in the NBA, where he spent most of the last decade. He was hardly the only one to do it. Video games have always been popular among athletes and Jerebko played with and against his teammates in video games such as FIFA, Call of Duty and Counter-Strike. All that game playing piqued his curiosity as Esports got bigger and bigger.
"I am seeing tournaments, a million dollars in the prize pool, more than 100,000 people watching and I am thinking 'this is the game I used to play! I know this a little bit,'" Jerebko explained.
He started doing some research and looking into who owns Esports teams and how he could get a team of his own. Jerebko heard The Renegades were for sale and met with the owner and his sales representative in Las Vegas before going on to purchase the franchise.
"I got the team, but I have my business partner and I got a couple of other guys running the team," he said. "They are running everything. I concentrate on basketball, but when it comes to big decisions, they will call me and I am going to be involved in those big decisions."
It would probably be overstated to call Jerebko a pioneer because Esports have been developing for more than a decade, but among professional athletes, he is certainly among the first few to be involved in an industry a lot of them follow and take part in their free time.
When Jerebko jumped in, he was thinking long-term and started applying wisdom from his basketball career to change things for the better in Esports, trying to set new standards.
"I thought, I am playing basketball and I have a one-year contract with an option, but why can my [Esports] players leave after a month?" he asked. "So, I started being more professional, having player contracts with an option for another year and, importantly, paying players on time. I think Esports needed it and it is moving in the right direction. There is a lot of sponsorship money involved now and a lot of people are watching it.
"It is already at the level where League of Legends sold out Staples Center and Madison Square Garden in minutes. So, how much bigger can it get? Others got to catch up and people need to realize it is real."
So, how does it all work? The Renegades have seven teams, one for each game, including Paladins, Fortnite and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive whose season just recently started with a second-place finish at a big event in Leipzig, Germany.
"They have a coach, they have a manager, they have a mental coach and they travel the world."
"All these teams are for different games, but they all play for the Renegades logo. Let's say for Counter-Strike, we have five players. They make good money," Jerebko said. "They have a coach, they have a manager, they have a mental coach and they travel the world. They travel almost more than I do. They go to Europe, they go to Asia, they go to the US, they play tournaments, they play professional leagues."
The reason why there is a different team for each video game is pretty simple: one professional gamer specializes in one game, not multiple games: "It would be like finding somebody playing two sports. You don't find those people a lot. We had one guy who was a professional Call of Duty player and became a professional Counter-Strike player. But it would be impossible [to play both] because of the time they have to put into a game."
According to Jerebko, Esports players' practice schedules are not unlike other professional athlete's schedules. And likewise, at least on a team with big goals like The Renegades, the support staff is demanding, too.
"They go to practice. They got maybe a two-hour session going through tactics, then they have three-hour session with games. You have the rest of the day to free play, or whatever you want to do," Jerebko explained. "They have a mental coach who they meet every week or every month. It is becoming very professionally set and they have to start thinking about what they are eating... You need to keep your concentration high.
In another sign of the changing times, Jerebko exclaimed that "colleges are now giving out scholarships to kids to go to school and get a free education for playing video games, which is pretty crazy to think, but it's the future."
Although he got into Esports close to the ground floor, Jerebko said that his younger self could not have foreseen the rapid growth of the industry.
"I would not have bought the team if I didn't think it was going to turn into something like this."
"Three years ago, I would not have bought the team if I didn't think it was going to turn into something like this," he said. "But 10 years ago, no way. I did not look at video games that way. I was just looking for having fun with my friends and killing time between practices."
Though Jerebko loves video games, Khimki fans needn't worry that he is planning to ditch the hardwood to start competing on a screen.
"It's a whole another level," Jerebko said. "Even if I would put in a couple of hours a day, I would not even be close. These kids are so good and so fast. They know the game in and out."
So, Jerebko will stick to ownership. He was among the first in the basketball world to recognize Esports. Today, there are several Turkish Airlines EuroLeague and 7DAYS EuroCup clubs that also feature Esports teams for a variety of video games, including Khimki.
"They are business people, they see the opportunity, they see the rise, they see what's coming. They can fill the arenas, they can connect with the younger fans," he added. "I am not surprised, we are going to see more and more of that."