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Celebs you didn't know invested big in esports

Esports have been around in some form since video games first hit the scene, but a few major milestones have helped push esports into the mainstream in the last decade or so. In 2018, The Motley Fool reported the world of esports was nearly a billion dollar business, and investors would be foolish to ignore the rapidly growing industry.

This growth has increased in the ensuing years, a trend that seems poised to continue. Esports are here to stay, and investors are pumping millions of dollars into not only teams and leagues, but the very infrastructure that supports the emerging esports market.

Here's a look at the expanding list of celebrities who have taken note of the trend and hopped aboard the esports train. From professional athletes and musicians to actors and renowned entrepreneurs, individuals from multiple industries have taken advantage of the significant opportunities presented by the esports boom.

Steve Aoki

Steve Aoki may not have quite the mainstream name recognition as some celebrities, but he is a wildly successful artist in the electronic music industry. He has worked with some of the biggest pop and dance acts in the world (including k-pop sensation BTS), and he founded a philanthropic organization called the Aoki Foundation that funds research into degenerative brain diseases. He also owns a successful esports team called Rogue Gaming.

Aoki is a bit more hands on than typical investors — he works to promote the Rogue brand directly through his website and shows. The electronic music scene has enjoyed some overlap with esports crowds, so the leap between the two is a fairly easy one to make.

Rogue has since joined the ReKTGlobal banner, but Aoki remains a team owner. Rogue is best known for competing in League of Legends, but it participate in other competitions for games like Fortnite and Rocket League.

Sean Combs

Sean "P. Diddy" Combs has long been savvy with his money, and that knowledge has led him into the esports industry. In 2018, Combs joined an investment group that includes the LA Dodgers Major League Baseball team, Adidas, and Samsung to invest over $30 million into the PlayVS esports organization.

PlayVS is not an esports team — it bills itself as a platform for esports competitors in high school and college to find opportunities. It's not a true sports organization like the NCAA, but it's working to build the future of esports by providing "leagues, scheduling, and infrastructure" for several different games in the esports world.

PlayVS doesn't just have the backing of the traditional sports world and entertainment media, but it also has partnerships with game developers that have made prominent esports titles. Thanks to partnerships with both Psyonix (Rocket League) and Hi-Rez Studios (Smite), PlayVS seems to have a good shot at remaining a major player in the esports market.

Steph Curry

Team SoloMid (TSM) has been a big name in the League of Legends community for years, so when Riot Games announced the formation of an official LoL professional league in North America, it was one of the first teams people looked at to jump onboard. It raised a massive amount of investment capital to do so, with NBA star Steph Curry contributing to that significant pool of money.

Curry partnered with several others, including Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang, fellow NBA player Andre Iguodala, and NFL Hall of Famer Steve Young. Their $37 million investment went towards a variety of projects beyond just getting a franchise spot in the professional League of Legends community, including a massive esports facility in Los Angeles to help boost the team's fan engagement.

As of this writing, TSM has expanded well beyond League of Legends into several other esports titles. You can also catch the company competing in Super Smash Bros., Overwatch, PUBG, and Fortnite.

Drake

Drake played a major role in the mainstream acceptance of esports — he joined Ninja on a Fortnite stream in 2018 and set the record for the most-viewed stream by a single player on Twitch. Although Ninja was already a prolific streamer, and Fortnite was already a major force in the gaming world, this helped expose both to a wider audience.

It should come as no surprise that Drake has continued to invest in the esports market. Just months after his appearance with Ninja, Drake joined up with entrepreneur Scooter Braun to invest heavily in the team 100 Thieves. Drake already had a partnership with the brand, working on clothing collaborations and bringing branded gaming stations with him on one of his world tours. However, this investment made him a co-owner of the team, with Drake and Braun also working as strategic advisers to 100 Thieves.

100 Thieves is a franchise team in the League of Legends Championship Series, and it participates in several of the biggest esports titles. It also leans heavily into its lifestyle brand with a heavy focus on clothing.

Kevin Durant and Odell Beckham Jr.

Even though there are a wide variety of investors jumping aboard the esports train, the charge is mostly being led by athletes in traditional sports. After all, many of these figures have a huge amount of money, and the competitive nature of esports is something that calls to both their interest and expertise. A major player in the esports realm is Vision Esports, an esports investment firm and management company. Among others, it counts NBA star Kevin Durant and NFL great Odell Beckham, Jr. as investors.

Durant and Beckham were part of a group that included Major League Baseball's St. Louis Cardinals that invested $38 million in Vision Esports in early 2018. Just months before that, another MLB team, the New York Yankees, also invested heavily into Vision.

The investment made Vision Esports the largest shareholder in Echo Fox, and the company was involved in much of the drama surrounding that team and its previous owner, Rick Fox. It's also the largest shareholder in Twin Galaxies, the record-keeping company that was featured in the documentary King of Kong: A Fist Full of Quarters and is affiliated with Guinness World Records.

Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Tony Robbins

As successful esports teams become hotter commodities, it becomes less likely to see a single investor claiming a majority stake. Instead, you get investment groups like aXiomatic, which purchased the controlling interest in Team Liquid in 2016. This investment group has some serious names attached to it — NBA all-time great Earvin "Magic" Johnson, author and public speaker Tony Robbins, AOL co-founder Steve Case and Mandalay Entertainment CEO Peter Guber (who is also co-owner of three traditional pro sports teams).

Team Liquid is one of the biggest names in esports. It is ancient as far as esports organizations go — it began by competing in various Blizzard games as a clan all the way back in 2000, and it now fields teams across several different games, including Counter-Strike, StarCraft 2, League of Legends, and Dota 2. It continues to compete on a high level and gain mainstream partnerships, and is truly one of the most recognizable organizations in modern esports.

Jerry Jones

Counter-Strike is often cited as one of the first true esports, with teams organizing for big money tournaments decades ago. One of the first majorly successful teams to compete in Counter-Strike tournaments was compLexity Gaming, and the team is still going strong today. That is thanks, in part, to major investments from one of the biggest owners in all of (traditional) professional sports, Jerry Jones.

Jones owns the Dallas Cowboys franchise in the National Football League, which Forbes named the most valuable professional sports franchise in the world in 2019. Jones partnered with real estate investor John Goff to purchase a majority stake in compLexity in 2017. They are not involved in the day-to-day team operation, as Jason Lake remained on board as a minority owner and CEO.

The team competes in a variety of popular esports titles; you're bound to see it up there with other major esports organizations like Team Liquid, Fnatic, Virtus and others.

Michael Jordan

One of the most famous and successful pro athletes of all time, Michael Jordan has been a savvy investor for decades now. The NBA great, who also owns the Charlotte Hornets NBA franchise, contributed to a Series B funding round for esports company aXiomatic in late 2018. He was part of a group that invested over $26 million in aXiomatic.

aXiomatic already had some serious star power behind the scenes and Michael Jordan's involvement helped to further solidify aXiomatic as one of the major players in the world of esports. 

Ted Leonsis, the co-executive chairman of axioMatic, had this to say after Jordan's investment in the company: "The next generation of sports fans are esports fans ... Esports is the fastest-growing sector in sports and entertainment, and aXiomatic is at the forefront of that growth. We are thrilled to welcome Michael and Declaration Capital to aXiomatic and look forward to working together on some truly cutting-edge opportunities."

Robert Kraft

Even though esports has been rapidly growing for years, it was still a tough sell as the true "heir apparent" to traditional sports in 2018. However, Activision-Blizzard thought it had just the game to make into a true professional league: Overwatch. It developed big plans for its professional Overwatch League (OWL), and it sought out major owners in traditional sports to help it realize that goal. 

Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, was one of its biggest wins on the investment front. Kraft joined other major sports owners, like Stan Kroenke of the NFL's Los Angeles Rams and Fred Wilpon of MLB's New York Mets, to sponsor teams in the bid to create the next professional sports league with Overwatch.

Overwatch continues to thrive as one of the biggest draws in esports, and Blizzard continues to add to and tweak its hit title. It may have been a tough initial sell to old school owners like Kraft, but his investment seems like it's paying off already.

Shaquille O'Neal, Jennifer Lopez, and Alex Rodriguez

NRG has attracted some major names from sports and entertainment as investors, and have a massive roster of players across several games because of it. NRG was founded in 2015 by members of the NBA's Sacramento Kings ownership team, Mark Mastrov and Andy Miller. Soon, big name investors were lining up to get a piece of the team, including NBA great Shaquille O'Neal, singer/actress Jennifer Lopez, and her husband, former MLB champion Alex Rodriguez.

Those are the biggest names attached to the team, but it boasts other celebrity investors as well. Former pro athletes Ryan Howard and Michael Strahan and free agent Marshawn Lynch are also investors in NRG, as is DJ and record producer Tiesto. Mastrov and Miller had connections to several of these investors already, due to working with the Sacramento Kings.

NRG fields two franchises in professional esports leagues: Overwatch's San Francisco Shock and Call of Duty's Chicago Huntsmen. It also competes in games like Rocket League, Super Smash Bros. and Apex Legends.

Will Smith

You can add Hollywood star Will Smith to the growing list of major esports investors. In 2019, Smith's Dreamers Fund, which he co-founded with Japanese soccer star Keisuke Honda, contributed to a $46 million investment into Generation Gaming, better known as Gen.G. Others involved with the massive investment include Dennis Wong (minority shareholder of the LA Clippers) and entrepreneurs David Rogier and Michael Zeisser. Former NBA champion Chris Bosh was already involved with the company.

Gen.G is the parent company of the Seoul Dynasty Overwatch team, and it also has a major presence in other esports titles like League of Legends, PUBG, CS:GO and Fortnite. PC Gamer writes that Honda was excited to partner with a company like Gen.G to help make esports a bigger force in his home country. He said, "Esports is not yet big in Japan, but we are seeing tremendous growth there and globally, which is very positive ... We decided to invest in Gen.G because of their incredible team and grand vision to become a leader in the space."