Enrique Cedeño Martinez, better known to millions of League of Legends fans as xPeke, admits to being a little green-eyed about the explosion of investment in North American esports in recent years, but it may not be for the reason you imagine.
"It makes me a bit jealous, you know, that in America they have all the NBA teams, players, famous people, everyone getting in," he says about the investment we've seen. "And it makes me jealous not because they're getting in, but because [NA players] get to meet them! Like Rick Fox being the owner of a team! It's like if Beckham bought a team here. You get to play for him, you get to meet him, go to dinner with him - that would be cool! "
I hope that someday it will be like that in Europe. We see sports teams wanting to get in, and I hope more people want to get in here as well."
Backstage with the backdoor legend
We're speaking to xPeke at Intel Extreme Masters in Katowice. He's not here because his team is in action - the Origen roster is back home in Berlin prepping for the next round of EU LCS matches - but as a brand ambassador for Gillette. Smart and (obviously) clean shaven, he cuts a relaxed figure as we discuss the state of esports.
Leaving aside the celebrification of competitive gaming, the sight of Europe's most famous mid-laner sitting in the Razor Maker booth at IEM, playing 1v1s with fans and helping them 3D-print custom razors, raises an interesting question: are all these investors, these 'non-endemics' - to use a buzzphrase we hear a lot in esports nowadays - making the right call? Is this esports' big moment?
Look around IEM Katowice - or any of the myriad massive stadium tournaments taking place for League of Legends, Counter-Strike, Dota 2 and numerous other games this year - and you'd be hard-pressed to argue otherwise. A recent report from research firm NewZoo suggests the global esports audience will hit 385 million this year and that spending per fan will continue to rise. You don't need to be Gordon Gecko to spot the trend.
As a Gillette brand ambassador, xPeke would obviously agree that now is a great time for big firms like Gillette to get into esports, but he makes a compelling case, too. And it's not just good for brands - it's further validation of esports as a whole.
"Gillette has been in every sport I can remember," he says. "If I think about all the famous people that have been in golf, tennis, football... and now I think it's just normal because esports is growing. I think esports are going to get to the level of sports at some point, so I think Gillette is just being very smart about getting here already, because they see it."
The story so far
Although he's still just 24 years old, xPeke has pretty much seen it all, having started playing League some seven years ago and been an active participant in the meteoric rise of competitive gaming. IEM Katowice holds a special place in his heart of course.
"This is my fourth time [coming here]," he says. "Katowice is always great - bringing good memories back from the past, because it's the first time I ever played in a stadium, it was here. This is also where I started to become famous, when I did my move that is called the backdoor..." (If you're into League of Legends then you can't not be familiar with xPeke's famous Kassadin backdoor, but if you have somehow never seen it, go ahead and join the 8.2m people who have watched the clip on YouTube.)
"When I started playing League of Legends, which was like seven years ago, it was a complete different world. It was a time when there were the LAN parties, there were the small tournaments that you would have maybe 50 people watching, 100 people, I don't even think that many. And it grew fast every year, more and more and more, but I remember at some point I was thinking, this is growing so much that we are filling entire halls, entire studios, and I remember saying - I think at some point we will even play in stadiums. The funny thing is, a couple of years later we were playing in a stadium every year, you know. I thought we would get here, but I thought it would take like 10 years more than it took!"
The future's bright
As for why esports will continue to grow, xPeke's theory is that we're in the midst of a cultural shift that has already normalised gaming and is going to do the same for esports. "Kids that are growing now, their parents are gamers, and now it's easier for kids to have a gaming culture because his father might have consoles or PCs, and yeah maybe some kids instead of watching TV channel or football games they are watching an esport competition on their laptop," he suggests. "It's easy now for someone to be a fan of it because now you have the channels to watch all the competition that there is."
Judging by the figures coming out of big tournaments at the moment, the audience certainly isn't getting bored of the core games, either. The ELEAGUE Major in Counter-Strike, where Danish team Astralis became world champions in January, broke concurrent viewer records on Twitch, while Riot's League of Legends World Championship last October was responsible for 370 million total hours of live viewing and the final alone was watched by 43m unique viewers.
Riot also recently spoke of its ambition to make League of Legends "a sport that lasts for generations", and xPeke thinks there's every chance it could do.
"I mean, it could last generations. Right now they need to keep updating it. I think they are doing a good job on that because every year they make a huge change in the game, change the meta, every month you have patches, new champions. So I think they're doing a good job to last long," he offers.
"I don't know if many generations because the problem is at some point they will have to remove champions, at some point they will have to maybe change the map, make a new map or something, so I think it's a hard one. But I think they could make it last long - I think they could make it last many many years."
If League of Legends ever does go down in flames, though, it sounds like they'll have to drag xPeke away kicking and screaming. Since this interview was conducted, he has rejoined the Origen starting line-up - this time in the support role - and when we spoke to him he was still hugely enthusiastic about the game. "Every time I go to [an event like IEM Katowice] and I'm not playing I really really want to play, because I see the competition, I just see the crowd going crazy for plays... Even myself I am watching some plays and I just want to go back and play. I really have to play, I have to be on the next tournament!" Origen are really struggling in the EU LCS this year, so it may be a while before we see xPeke back on the big stages, but it certainly won't be for a lack of enthusiasm.