How the Steelers are tapping into the esports world in Pittsburgh

How the Steelers are tapping into the esports world in Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh’s official esports team has finally found its Mr. Right — or in this case, Mr. Rooney. It’s been 18 months since the Pittsburgh Knights’ official launch party in Hazelwood . Since then, they’ve recruited several top players and formed world-ranked teams in games such as “Smite” and “Paladins” […]

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It’s been 18 months since the Pittsburgh Knights’ official launch party in Hazelwood. Since then, they’ve recruited several top players and formed world-ranked teams in games such as “Smite” and “Paladins” to go along with their already established “PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds” (PUBG) squad, which placed fifth in the finals of last year’s PUBG Global Invitational.

Now the city’s first professional esports franchise has moved to one of the Steelers’ offices on the North Shore and — after months of negotiations — formed a partnership with the Steelers and team President Art Rooney II that could change the Pittsburgh sports landscape.

“We’re working hand in hand,” said Omar Khan, Steelers vice president of football and business administration. “They’re coming on board and working closely with our people. We wanted to not only get an idea of how their business works, but for them to see how our business works and see if there are ways for us to collaborate and grow our respective areas in our business.”

“They were our ideal partners, and we’re blessed to have them as partners,” Knights co-founder/CEO James O’Connor said.

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O’Connor said a partnership between the Knights and the Steelers was one of his ultimate goals when launching the esports franchise along with co-founder Rob Lee.

Members of the Steelers’ staff have taken some of the Knights’ workers under their wing and shared their business models for various operations, such as marketing, sponsorships and merchandise. The Steelers are also providing the Knights with financial management and public relations support, and the two franchises are in the early stages of developing plans for Heinz Field to host esports events.

The Knights are releasing a line of jerseys inspired by the Steelers’ retro uniforms and soon will have a separate wing for merchandise sales on the Steelers website.

“I think through the process, people in our offices will tell you these guys are very capable and knowledgeable, and we’ve been able to grab certain ideas from them also,” Khan said.

According to Khan, the Steelers first became aware of the emerging esports landscape about three years ago and began rigorously researching the industry and ways to get involved. Through that research, they were introduced to the Knights, and they instantly liked what they saw.

“We really got to know the leadership team at the Knights, and we really connected,” Khan said. “We really felt good about those guys and specifically their work ethic and their knowledge of the industry.”

Little did Khan and the Rooneys know, O’Connor had been plotting ways to one day collaborate with the Steelers all along.

“The Steelers vetted us pretty hard. They spent a lot of time learning about us,” O’Connor said. “I think we work pretty hard and I think they appreciated that, and we’re going to continue to do so. … It’s a long process. It took close to a year. But that’s how it should go, because the Steelers are very conservative and careful, and we like them for that. We respect them for that.

“We were patient, and we knew they were the people we wanted to partner with.”

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The partnership between the Knights and Steelers is strictly business and completely separate from the Steelers’ football operations. O’Connor said there may be opportunities for the Knights to collaborate with the team in the future during the offseason, but for now, the Steelers remain focused on football first.

Even if the Knights can’t bring Mike Tomlin out to hype up the crowd at ReplayFX — an annual retro gaming and pinball showcase the Knights are co-producing this year from Aug. 1-4 at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center — Khan believes the new partnership can help the Steelers’ globally renowned brand tap into even more markets than before.

“I think one of the areas that esports is pretty unique is its reach internationally and globally,” Khan said. “I think the last numbers I saw were over 450 million people watch esports worldwide. I think that provides an opportunity for us as an organization to engage some fans out there that aren’t maybe Steeler or football fans currently. It’s a rapidly growing industry, for sure.”

According to O’Connor, the Knights’ relationship with the Steelers is one of the first of its kind in the world of esports.

The Dallas Cowboys were the first NFL franchise to partner with an esports organization when owner Jerry Jones and real estate investor John Goff purchased a majority stake in compLexity Gaming in 2017, and the longtime esports powerhouse underwent a major rebranding in May, complete with a new logo inspired by the Cowboys’ iconic star emblem.

Unlike compLexity, though, which is now under Cowboys control, O’Connor and Lee are still the primary owners of the Knights. The Steelers declined to say how much they’ve invested in the Knights, but they now own a minority stake in the franchise.

A more apt comparison for the Knights’ relationship with the Steelers would be the crossover between the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers and the esports organization 100 Thieves. 100 Thieves is still owned by former professional “Call of Duty” player Matthew “Nadeshot” Haag, but Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert made a multimillion dollar investment in the company in 2017 to become a co-owner. One of Gilbert’s companies, Rocket Mortgage, is 100 Thieves’ primary sponsor.

While Khan wasn’t ready to declare Knights-CompLexity the second coming of the Steelers-Cowboys rivalry of the 1970s, he is excited about the new possibilities on the horizon.

“I’m not one to know predictions and I’m not going to claim to know all the details on how the Cowboys partnership works,” Khan said. “But I know we feel good about the future.”

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