The city of Pittsburgh had long ago traded in its steel-toed work boots and calloused hands for ergonomic desk chairs and scroll-and-click carpal tunnel syndrome.
Yet, while the Steel City was keeping its economy thriving in fields such as medical technology, robotics and artificial intelligence, there was one tech wave that the ‘Burgh hadn’t bothered to catch: competitive gaming.
James O’Connor and Rob Lee, two Pittsburgh-area natives and former professional gamers and coaches, saw their opening.
In December 2017, they launched the Pittsburgh Knights, the city’s first pro gaming franchise.
The duo first set up shop at a multi-use room at a library in Pittsburgh’s Hazelwood neighborhood, where they hosted small-scale gaming tournaments. They soon started recruiting players and establishing connections inside and outside of the gaming industry. Since then, it’s been up, up and away for the organization.
They’ve already picked up some powerful Pittsburgh friends.
One of them is platinum-selling rapper and Pittsburgh native Wiz Khalifa, who recently joined the Knights in a strategic partnership in which he’ll participate in some live events, represent the team on social media and sell some co-branded merchandise on tour.
“We actually had to re-order the T-shirts,” O’Connor said recently by phone. “We were surprised and delighted that we sold a good portion of that stock in New York.”
Another important partnership is with the Pittsburgh Steelers, who acquired a minority stake in the Knights franchise in July 2018. The Steelers now share their management and merchandising expertise with the budding esports empire, and have even allowed the Knights to move into the Steelers’ offices on Pittsburgh’s North Shore.
“It’s Pittsburgh first,” O’Connor said. “We’ve focused on Pittsburgh partners, obviously, with the Steelers and then Wiz. And we’re not done yet. We’ve got some other cool stuff coming.
“I’ve just set out to unite Pittsburgh for a global audience. How do we take the best of Pittsburgh and present it to the world? I put Pittsburgh in the name, and we’re going to keep on taking the best of Pittsburgh and celebrating it."
What colors did O’Connor and Lee pick for the franchise?
Well, black and gold, of course. And the Knights hope that one day their gear will find a home in the color-coordinated wardrobes of Pittsburgh’s die-hard fans.
So, what is a pro gaming franchise? Well, it’s a bit like a franchise in traditional sports.
In a nutshell, the club seeks out the best players it can find, hires them and hires coaches to develop the players’ abilities. Then, at some point, those players slap on the team’s uniforms and compete against other teams.
One of the main differences between an esports franchise and a traditional sports franchise is that where, say, the Pittsburgh Pirates only have to focus on playing baseball, an esports franchise will be involved in several different games.
The Knights currently have separate teams competing in five video game titles – “Apex Legends,” “Smite,” “Paladins,” “PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds,” and “PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds Mobile.” The Knights also have solo players that compete in the games “Gwent,” “Madden NFL” and “Super Smash Bros.”
In all, the organization currently has around 30 players under the Knights banner.
That number could be expanding in the near future, as the organization keeps a constant eye out not just for top talent, but for where the always-shifting esports world is headed next.
“We’re reviewing,” O’Connor said. “We review all games and all opportunities as they come to us and we search them out. We have a team that spends a significant amount of time every day reviewing games, the popularity of those games, the players in those industries, streamers.”
While the Pittsburgh Knights are headquartered in the Steel City, only a handful of their gamers actually live in Pittsburgh.
Several of the Knights’ players actually live in Alpharetta, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta. That’s because Alpharetta is also the home of video game publisher Hi Rez Studios, maker of the games “Paladins” and “Smite.” Hi Rez hosts professional leagues for those games, with a regular field of teams that battle it out for weeks to see which team is the best at the end of the season. And Hi Rez streams league competitions from an in-house production studio in Alpharetta.
The Knights have a “Paladins” team as well as a “Smite” team, and both participate in the pro leagues. So, it makes sense for the teams to live in Alpharetta, as they have to travel back and forth to the studio week after week.
Each team lives in its own house that is provided by the Knights organization. In the “Smite” team house, there are the five players and the team coach and they all live together, eat together, practice together.
The Knights also have a house in Berlin, Germany, for a team that plays the game “PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds” and competes in the game’s Europe League (the PEL).
The Knights do maintain a team house in Pittsburgh for its “Apex Legends” squad. And O’Connor hints that there may be more home bases on the way.
“We’re going to be recruiting and building team houses (in Pittsburgh),” he said, “and also some operations and offices in the future. So, we’re just getting started. But we will have a strong base of operations with teams, staff, players, just like traditional sports.”
Most multi-game esports franchises don’t really advertise their hometowns. They take on names such as Team Liquid, or Fnatic, or FaZe Clan.
The Pittsburgh Knights are different. O’Connor wants the esports world, and the city’s fan base, to know that his group is a Pittsburgh team.
“I would say that Pittsburgh is a special place,” he said. “I think the city is really connected. And I’ve challenged most of the people that have met with me to help me build (the Knights). I’ve asked the city to help me build it. And every person that I’ve met, that I’ve shown the vision that I want to build, the majority have signed on to help us.”
Even with its new technological renaissance, Pittsburgh is still known for possessing an old-school, blue-collar work ethic. And that’s what O’Connor, a former Marine who served in Iraq, wants to instill in the Knights.
For instance, the games that the Knights have teams for, they’re not the most popular and flashy (and expensive to compete in) games of the moment – such as “Overwatch” or “Counter Strike: Global Offensive” or “Dota 2.”
“That’s by design,” O’Connor said. “And it’s because we’re conservative, because we have a different viewpoint than most people in the industry.”
He says that as the video game industry continues to grow, “We’re patiently waiting.”
While they wait, O’Connor and his group is making sure that its organizational roots are strong, that its revenue streams – merchandising, brand identity – are flowing, that the groundwork for options such as live events are in place.
He says that the Knights are, “building the foundations of the company before we invest heavily in esports, before we expand heavily.”
If that management style – conservative, patient, foundational – sounds familiar, that’s because it is. It’s the same style that the Rooney family used in creating a six-time Super Bowl champion in the Pittsburgh Steelers.
O’Connor knows that history very well.
“I grew up a Steelers fan,” he said. “I’m from Pittsburgh. And I know I’ve been indoctrinated by the Steelers. I think all of us have in Pittsburgh.
“I think that we see them, specifically as led by the Rooney family, as a conservative, consistent model of how they handle their staff and their players and just how they conduct themselves and set a model for the city. I can tell you that well before I ever came to the Steelers I did my best to model that behavior. But I certainly have learned a significant amount since I’ve been here, too.
“Transparently,” he adds, “I don’t want to disappoint.”