Of all the traditional sports clubs that have made a big splash in esports, the Pittsburgh Steelers don’t come to mind. But even if the six-time Super Bowl champions haven’t made a major financial commitment, there’s a 12-person esports operation working alongside Steelers staff at headquarters.
The Pittsburgh Knights , a team founded by Pittsburgh residents James O’Connor and Rob Lee Ly-Stewart, gets daily advice and assistance from Steelers staff on matters including merchandising, apparel, sponsorship sales and marketing. Not to mention the office space and introductions to a network of businesses and individuals close to the team and the Rooney family.
All this stems from the Steelers’ decision last fall to acquire a minority stake in the Knights. Terms are not public, but it was a modest bet compared to some of the 8-figure asset takeovers or franchise slot purchases made by owners of the Patriots and Rams. The Knights, majority owned by O’Connor, field teams in eight games, but lack a presence in the global hit Counter-Strike: Global Offensive , or Overwatch and League of Legends , the two franchised leagues that drive the most asset value.
But the Steelers’ interest in esports is bigger than the size of the deal suggests. The Steelers saw the Knights relationship as a way to help build an esports scene in Pittsburgh and unlock new data about possible future fans, said Omar Khan, vice president of football and business administration.
“We’ve been diving in, trying to understand the esports atmosphere, and it’s intriguing to us,” said Khan. “Where this industry’s going to go, nobody knows, but we feel there’s an opportunity there to connect with fans, specifically internationally, who maybe aren’t necessarily Steelers fans right now.”
Most of the Knights’ business operations have benefitted from the Steelers’ touch. O’Connor received a call last fall from an insurance broker friendly with the team, offering his assistance on workers’ compensation and other insurance needs. O’Connor regularly meets with Bob Denove, the former managing partner of Deloitte’s Pittsburgh office, to go over financial projections and strategy.