Diving into the esports unknown
John Yao shares his journey from corporate kingpin to Team Secret CEO.
The date is 6 March 2017. Team Secret, a Dota 2 team based in Europe, makes an important announcement that goes unnoticed: John Yao, little known figure in the esports community is joining the organisation as their newly appointed CEO.
The announcement never made waves on the internet in the end, but Team Secret has grown from strength to strength over the years to become one of the most respected esports brands across the globe.
Joining Team Secret
When we asked John recently about his reasons for joining Team Secret, he said in a matter-of-factly, “Admittedly, it was a big risk.” Before his dive into esports, John was a fairly senior director at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), with a focus on strategy consulting. He had amassed over 12 years of experience working in corporate America. He helped Fortune 100 companies develop growth strategies and drove operations and technology transformation, so he had plenty on his plate. At 32 years old,the world was his oyster.
“If I joined Team Secret as an employee, that would have been a bigger risk,” John added after a slight pause. “You see, joining the organisation as the CEO meant that although I was taking a personal risk, I had control over the company. I knew the right way to think about strategy and esports, and I believed I could take the company to where it needed to be.”
Two years later, in Autumn 2019, that early self-confidence turned Team Secret from a one-game esports team run by players, into a global esports brand with teams in seven different games. Their Malaysian PUBG Mobile team recently entered a partnership with Malaysian telco Maxis; their Dota 2 team placed 4th at the Dota 2 International 2019, which had a prize pool of over US$34 million.
What was it like initially when he joined Secret?
For John, when he first met Puppey, something clicked in those early encounters. “They acknowledged that we were both good at what we did - Puppey as a competitive player, and me as a business person. We decided to bring our strengths together and build Team Secret up the right way. Puppey’s focus would be winning tournaments; mine would be growing the brand and the business,” John explained.
He shared that a common issue with a lot of esports companies or organisations is that you find two types of people: the first is a former player without a strong business foundation; the second is someone from the outside who just wants to invest in esports without fully understanding it.
“These two types of people can’t succeed on their own. In the short history of esports, we’ve seen failure so many times because this balance was not carefully maintained.”
John revealed that he isn’t involved in the managing of the teams, which is run by Matthew “Cyborgmatt” Bailey. He also shared that with years of experience, “Puppey has insights into types of behaviours and characteristics that make a player good.” John reiterates that “good” doesn’t just mean highly skilled; the right attitude and mindset are factors that also determine success.
Furthermore, with many of the world’s most popular esports titles being team-based, John argues that “even if you’re the most mechanically-gifted player, if you can’t work in a team, you can’t be top tier.”
When queried about some of his biggest challenges, John cheekily responded that “every day is a new challenge.”
John likes to solve problems. His background in strategy consulting, where he helped businesses stay profitable and relevant, meant that he was acutely aware of how brutal the world of business can be. Team Secret is a start-up, and John sees that, as the company expands and grows, new challenges arise.
“It is very rewarding to find creative solutions to apparent dead ends and to see how the brand has grown in this short period of time,” he offered. “It also helped that I have talented and experienced staff around me, and it feels good to face those challenges together.” Just as a strong esports team works like a well-oiled machine, John attributes that current successes of Team Secret to a strong organisational team that functions as a cohesive unit.
Best memories in Team Secret
However, it isn’t just crunch time that drives John forward. For him, sitting with the audience, seeing the team win, going up on stage to share in their accomplishments, is surreal.
“I am the team’s biggest fan, and I want to be the first in line to celebrate with them. It’s an amazing experience to share in my friends’ joy.”
Friends - John doesn’t see himself as a boss. “I want to know the players as people, not just as professionals. I know some of their habits and some of the things going on in their personal lives,” he said emphatically. He spoke enthusiastically of an experience where he did the seemingly simple act of personally buying food for a player and how that made his day. “Knowing that I’m part of these players’ lives, that I can make a positive impact and in turn, be touched by them - that’s just priceless.”
Esports in SEA
Although the global esports scene is dominated by PC games like Dota 2, League of Legends, CounterStrike: Global Offensive and Overwatch, mobile esports is the name of the game in Southeast Asia. The biggest titles in the region are arguably Mobile Legends: Bang Bang, Arena of Valor and PUBG Mobile.
In July 2019, Team Secret’s PUBG Mobile team announced a year-long partnership with Maxis, a Malaysian telco. For John, Southeast Asia is a region with different esports preferences. Nevertheless, he said that “the passion of the community for esports is very strong - in fact, one of the strongest globally.”
He further shared that PUBG is stronger in Asia, but not so much in the West, where enthusiasm isn’t big. “Fortnite is huge in the West, but not in the East. It comes down to the preference of the player base, to what the fans want to watch.”
He warns against the risk of homogenising esports fans and that everyone involved in the industry should pay careful attention to geography and local culture.
Commenting on building a PUBG Mobile team based in Malaysia, he shared that “Authenticity is important. The Malaysian fan community has been very passionate. Our PUBG Mobile team was our first venture into building this community, and we want to be a part of it for the long term.”
Esports around the world
John was quick to emphasise that esports is the fastest growing industry at a rate of over 25% year-over-year (YOY). It is already a US$ 1 billion market and is one of the most exciting spaces to be in - despite still being in its infancy.
He thinks the future of esports is uncertain but says that IP owners need to be careful when choosing how to run tournaments. “It doesn’t matter whether a game’s esports tournaments are franchised leagues (like LoL and Overwatch) or an open circuit (like Dota 2),” he said.
“My problem is when developers or publishers want to create a franchised league without having proven the concept or their business model. Riot did things really well with League of Legends - they franchised their leagues over time as their league production matured with a growing list of sponsors and partners. They had a clearer picture of how to operate a league.”
Team Secret at the Dota 2 International
Not long after we spoke, Team Secret finished 4th at the Dota 2 International, the largest esports tournament in history with a record-breaking US$34 million ++ prize pool. It was their highest-ever placing at the tournament.
For John, this TI was definitely one of the most, if not the most competitive one. “Pretty much every team and every series was challenging. We certainly wish we could have won, of course, but it's hard to consider 4th place at TI a failure by any stretch - if you look at our season, overall it's been a pretty fantastic year. We're going to take some time off, rest and recharge, and come back stronger in the 2019-2020 DPC season,” he added.
John has no reservations about revealing his plans for the team. “Moving forward, we’re going to be the biggest esports brand in the world - that’s our future.” His tone was calm, purposeful, and there was a deep conviction that gave his claim a profound sense of inevitability.