Evil Geniuses’ new mastermind must reckon with the past to chart a future course

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In the time since, Jameson has led the company through a front-office renaissance. She’s staffed up, creating marketing and sponsorship teams, with offices in Seattle and Los Angeles. She’s ushered in a new era for the 21-year-old esports brand with a redesigned logo and a new slogan: “LIVE EVIL.”

And now, as she starts to get her footing 14-months into the job, she’s facing challenges of a different kind. Her organization is among those throughout the gaming and esports industry dealing with claims of sexual harassment, assault and racist rhetoric.

In June, Evil Geniuses cut ties with two players accused of wrongdoing. One player left the organization after accusations of sexual harassment and another was let go after past comments disparaging black women gamers resurfaced online. Both instances fly in the face of the diversity and inclusion initiatives Evil Geniuses has touted over the past year as an esports organization.

“We can’t have staff or players that contradict, in their history, those types of initiatives,” Jameson said in an interview before the accusations against both players surfaced online.

Indeed, these past few weeks Evil Geniuses has been forced to reckon with the past behavior amid its own ranks in order to move forward in a more desirable direction.

Jameson’s tenure atop Evil Geniuses started in May of 2019 when a Chicago-based investment firm called Peak6 acquired Evil Geniuses, one of the oldest names in North American esports, and tapped Jameson to take the reins of the company, making her the first African American woman to lead a major esports organization.

The deal was billed as a fresh start for an esports brand on the verge of irrelevance. Jameson said Evil Geniuses was barely keeping the lights on. Before the acquisition, Evil Geniuses was treading water in titles like DOTA while up-and-coming competitors sped by with new ventures. Peak6 provided the capital to expand into other leagues and Jameson provided the professional know-how to staff the organization around the competitive teams.

For the industry at-large, the outside investment by Peak6 represents the continued evolution of these competitive gaming ventures from teams in tournaments to corporate media companies and brands. And, Jameson’s role as chief executive signaled these organizations may start to diversify from the — generally white — former players, venture capitalists and traditional sports owners running the esports franchises today.

Jameson’s friend and former League of Legends host Ovilee May told The Post that “in a world where esports is still so freaking young” Jameson provides a needed dose of professional weight.

“She’s now more well-equipped to deal with certain issues in the esports ecosystem that people who have been in esports for years may not understand how to fix,” May said.

But, amid a new direction and a changing guard, Evil Geniuses still carries the inertia that comes with a 21-year-old esports name. The rebranding in December sparked a backlash from longtime fans who felt the changes ignored the past. Jameson’s challenge is now to chart a course forward while giving a nod to a history for which most of the staff and players were never there.

‘Trying to regain some legacy’

When the deal between Peak6 and Evil Geniuses started to close in the spring of 2019, it was clear management at the investment firm wanted Jameson to run the ship. There wasn’t a formal meeting or an interview for the job.

Jameson wasn’t worried about the workload and she wasn’t bothered by becoming a chief executive of a company just a few years out of college. She’s been known by her colleagues at Peak6 to work around-the-clock. Early in her tenure, Jameson cut short a dinner with May and ran with her through downtown Santa Monica to get to the team’s offices after getting a distressing work call.

“We probably ran for about half a mile,” May said, adding they did eventually hail a ride-share. “I was completely out of breath. She was still taking this phone call like a freaking champ. … Not even breaking a sweat. I was heaving behind her.”

Still, Jameson was nervous about how longtime fans might react to a “scary private equity lady” becoming the new overlord of Evil Geniuses.

“I don’t come from esports. I don’t fit the mold of what you would expect,” Jameson told The Post. “I’m a name they’ve never heard of from a company they’ve never heard of.”

Evil Geniuses’ chief gaming officer Phil Aram, who led the company before the merger, likes to point out that in college Jameson used to play high-stakes Monopoly, which Aram explains as “literally the most evil genius nerd-thing you could do.”

Rather than jumping in the spotlight, the first few months on the job, Jameson said most of her time was spent “behind the scenes” to make the organization “less smoke and mirrors and more meat on the bones to be who we say we are.”

So, here’s the meat on the bone from the past year.

Since last May, Evil Geniuses has staffed up from a dozen to more than 80 employees. They moved from an industrial office park outside of Seattle to a new spot downtown in lower Queen Anne with a view of the Space Needle.

In September, the organization acquired two multimillion dollar franchise spots, returning to League of Legends with a $30 million-plus bid and Counter-Strike for another reported $3 million. They closed both deals on the same day.

“You no longer, unfortunately, can just start an esports team with your buddies,” Jameson said over the phone. “There’s real material dollars and functional aptitude that you have.”

In regard to the recent player acquisitions, Jameson said Evil Geniuses “is not here to bottom feed” from the talent pool. “We’re here to win.”

If Evil Geniuses wants to truly return to its former glory, the organization has to win some championships, Rod “Slasher” Breslau, a longtime commentator on the esports industry, said. It can’t just be that they gained followers on social media but Breslau did add the recent roster changes have been impressive.

“EG now, to me, is just like every other organization,” Breslau said. “They’re trying to regain some legacy and I’m not totally convinced they’ve done that yet.”

Not all the changes in the past year have been met with applause. Evil Geniuses redesigned its logo not once but twice in the past six months because the first attempt led to a fervent backlash from longtime fans.

Even Evil Geniuses’ former chief executive, Alex Garfield, criticized the direction the company was taking with a few choice words. Garfield later went on to voice his support for Jameson and the leadership currently at Evil Geniuses after the second iteration of the rebranding, released in May.

Why did Evil Geniuses update the original logo for the team? Marketing. The logo didn’t work well for some sponsorships or broadcasts at tournament matches. The effort was a functional change for the good of the business, as Jameson explains it.

“If there wasn’t a core problem with where things were, we wouldn’t just change it for s—s and giggles — and excuse the bluntness of it,” Jameson said. “We had to be very thoughtful and precise about: what are our goals?”

‘Real material dollars’

Internet lore dates the name “Evil Geniuses” back to a Canadian gaming clan that formed around the new millennium. But this isn’t the same team that played Quake in British Columbia and it’s not the dominant esports organization that courted sponsors while fielding top-tier teams in the early-to-mid 2010′s. Nearly all the players and staff from those days are long gone, aside from Ricki Ortiz, a top-tier fighting games professional who’s been with Evil Geniuses for nearly a decade.

When the Championship Gaming Series folded in 2008 after two seasons, Evil Geniuses became the de facto top-dog in esports as one of the few organizations that never signed up for the failed television venture. It also helped that Evil Geniuses had a track record of winning, often, in StarCraft and elsewhere.

The organization used its success to then partner with brands interested in the industry. It got so good at signing these deals that Evil Geniuses created a second team in Europe — Alliance — so the organization could simultaneously field partnerships from two competitors, Monster Energy and Red Bull, according to Will Partin, a social media manager for Evil Geniuses and Alliance back then.

Evil Geniuses effectively created the business model esports companies rely on today, Breslau said. But, times have changed. There are dozens of esports organizations now and Jameson admits Evil Geniuses has some catching up to do. The biggests names — 100 Thieves, Cloud9, FaZe Clan — took the model from a decade ago and ran with it. These organizations are equal parts athletic, streaming and lifestyle brands.

In 2014, Twitch bought Evil Geniuses and Alliance in part of a larger deal to acquire their parent company, GoodGame, an esports talent agency that emerged from the organizations’ success brokering deals with those corporate sponsors.

The deal turned some heads. Other teams were “not exactly thrilled about this happening,” Breslau said. Twitch scooping up Evil Geniuses and Alliance was a lot like television network buying a professional football team while holding exclusive streaming rights. There was a healthy fear that the teams under the Twitch banner would get preferential treatment and more airtime.

Then, in late 2016, Twitch gave control of Evil Geniuses back to the players. With no clear funding or investor, the team was effectively a start-up. Breslau said the organization was “cratering into irrelevancy.”

“We were essentially, kind of, hitting the reset switch,” said Peter Dager, the former chief executive at Evil Geniuses, who helped broker the acquisition by the players. “We were just kind of handed it and [they] said ‘okay, best of luck.’”

Sitting on a throne, dressed in all black, Jameson set a plan for world domination — in North American League of Legends.

“Come, live evil with us,” Jameson declared in a promotional video last November. “Resist us and spend your remaining days as you did last fall. Sad. Very, very, sad.”

For many fans of the team and followers of League of Legends, these teasers were their introduction to the new Evil Geniuses; this comically evil cross between Despicable Me’s Gru and Skeletor from He-Man.

“I know that she was worried that it was giving off the dominatrix effect but I’m like, ‘Girl, you’re killing it, you got it,'” May told The Post.

When The Post asked Aram to describe Jameson, the first thing he said is she’s “incredibly private.” In interviews Jameson shied away from talking about herself.

“Candidly, I could do without the public-facing element,” Jameson told The Post. “However … I wouldn’t be doing my company, or the ecosystem a public service, without being a voice.”

Evil Geniuses had become this “voiceless” organization, Jameson said. She wants to make it clear what the organization values and who’s behind the curtain.

“It’s important for EG to start developing faces,” she added. Jameson says there’s a “material value” to represent Evil Geniuses as a forward-thinking, diverse esports company.

But, all this came to a head in late June, after dozens of women spoke out on Twitter about sexism and harassment in the gaming and esports industry. Two members of Evil Geniuses were implicated in the fallout.

Grant “GranDGranT” Harris, a Dota commentator and streamer, was cut by the organization after several women accused him of harassment. Harris apologized and announced he’d be leaving Dota “for a long time if not permanent[ly].”

The next day, Evil Geniuses released Chris “NYChrisG” Gonzalez for comments he wrote in 2017 attacking black women gamers in a thread on Facebook. Gonzalez was on Evil Geniuses when he made those comments, but the organization didn’t suspend or release him at the time.

In a thread of tweets announcing the news, the company wrote that it was clear Gonzalez’s past comments “continue to have real, harmful impact in our community.”

Evil Geniuses’ declined to answer The Post’s specific questions regarding the decision to release either player. The Post reached out to both Harris and Gonzalez but didn’t hear back at the time of publication.

This episode amounts to the first real test for Jameson as chief executive. Weeks before any of this happened, Jameson told The Post that Evil Geniuses wants “the culture of a player” to reflect the culture of the company that they just formed in the past year. Even the logo’s shape, a circle, is supposed to represent the company’s core value of inclusivity.

In a statement provided to The Post, Jameson said the organization is in the process of reviewing every player and member of staff to “ensure our actions live up to our words.” The rebranding may be over, the logo is new, but there’s still more work ahead.

“Recent events have saddened all of us, but our work here is never done,” Jameson wrote. “It’s an ongoing effort to learn and to challenge ourselves to be the best example for each other and to our fans.”

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