Imagine if the Golden State Warriors didn't just play together, but lived together in the same house and filmed videos of themselves interacting with brands. Esports players often share the same living quarters, allowing them to practice and promote well into the night.
Ad Age toured a house controlled by popular esports franchise Optic Gaming. The sprawling seven-bedroom in a wealthy suburb north of Chicago seems more suitable for the family of a corporate executive than a bunch of twenty-something gamers. But the home plays a key role for Optic, which has helped revolutionize the esports business model by turning its members into social media stars.
Optic runs teams for games including "Call of Duty," "Counter-Strike: Global Offensive," "Halo" and "Gears of War." But the franchise emphasizes content creation as much as competitive excellence. Team members record themselves playing games, creating slickly edited videos that draw eyeballs and ad dollars. Optic also provides looks at players' lives that often have nothing to do with gaming. One example: A YouTube video of star "Call of Duty" player Ian "Crimsix" Porter taking a hike last summer drew more than 80,000 views.
The always-on approach is the brainchild of Optic CEO Hector Rodriguez, 37, who along with esports agency RevXP has leveraged the franchise's celebrity status in the gaming world to lure sponsors such as PepsiCo's Brisk and Turtle Wax. The car-care brand just signed up for a second year with Optic for a program that will include Optic-produced video content including Mr. Porter upgrading and detailing his Porsche with the help of the brand.
Brisk last year used the team to plug its Mate line of energizing tea with a weekly content series produced by Optic called "Smooth Competition." It focused on Optic members outside of gaming, showing members engaging in go-kart racing, bowling and more. Forty-six pieces of custom video content accumulated more than 7.6 million views, according to PepsiCo. At the house, Optic keeps a cabinet full of Brisk in the kitchen and a Brisk-branded ping-pong table in the basement.
Optic actually rents two houses: The one Ad Age visited and another one down the street for "Counter-Strike" players. The organization includes 22 competitive gamers and 10 people whose sole job is content creation, including Austin "Pamaj" Pamajewon, who in 2015 moved from Canada to one of the Optic houses in Chicago. "I was a fanboy of this organization," he said of his life before. Now he's a star with 2.9 million YouTube subscribers and more than 1 million Twitter followers—thousands of whom were wishing him a happy 21st birthday on the day that Ad Age visited.
Optic members earn a salary, prize money and free rent for those who live in the houses. The top earner is "Call of Duty" player Seth "Scump" Abner, whose yearly earnings are about $1.5 million, Mr. Rodriguez estimated.
Mr. Rodriguez, who spent his childhood in Mexico, began dabbling in the video game biz at age 24 by posting videos of himself playing "Call of Duty." He later came across Optic, which was then a loose federation of video game competitors. He took over the team in 2010 after quitting his job as an account analyst for insurance giant AIG.
His approach is to humanize Optic's members via constant content creation so they aren't just "somebody on a screen," he said. "The second [fans] get to know you, your life, what you are about, your dark secrets, your wants, your dreams, your goals—that is when you become something that they can relate to." When Optic wins, fans "are winning too."
For sponsors, "we don't need to win championships to get X amount of eyeballs on your brand," he said. "We can do that on a Tuesday morning just out of our living room. We just make a video, upload something to do with that specific brand, and there you have it."