3:28pm PT by Ashley Cullins, Patrick Shanley
Rick Fox Clashes With Esports Venture Partners Over Tournament Slot Sale
Former Los Angeles Laker Rick Fox is in a heated dispute with the other partners in his esports venture, Echo Fox, over the sale of its slot in a major gaming competition — with Fox claiming there's an effort to smear him and the others preparing to sue.
Echo Fox earlier this year made headlines when the retired NBA star said he would cut ties with the organization because of what he described as an "abhorrent" display of racism by a shareholder. (The shareholder is similarly accused of smearing ex-partners in an ongoing unrelated Missouri lawsuit.) Riot Games LCS commissioner Chris Greeley announced an investigation into the incident, and ultimately Echo Fox decided to give up its slot in Riot's North American League of Legends Championship Series.
Echo Fox was one of 10 esports organizations who bought into the LCS for $10 million, with the expected benefit that a fixed group of teams competing each season would facilitate advertising partnerships. The teams would also get a cut of league revenue and be expected to pay in a share of their earnings.
League of Legends is one of the world’s most popular games, boasting over 100 million active players, and its esports competitions pull in a sizable viewership. Last year’s League of Legends World Championship had 99.6 million unique viewers, peaking at a concurrent viewer count of 44 million. Those numbers have attracted blue-chip sponsors to the LCS such as Coca-Cola, American Express and Honda, among others.
In a statement issued Wednesday, Echo Fox said it would allow Riot to auction the slot after it failed to sell: "[W]e made the decision to consent to the Riot process as it would allow a fair outcome for all parities involved."
What happened behind the scenes isn't quite that benign. In a series of emails sent Wednesday among Echo Fox's partners that was obtained by The Hollywood Reporter, Fox is accused of tanking a deal with Evil Geniuses in favor of pushing one with Alan Shapiro/MMIPH that personally benefited him. Meanwhile, Fox tells THR the claims are "outrageous" lies.
Fox sent an email to stakeholders saying that the general partners of Echo Fox "reached a deadlock in the sale of its LCS slot" and that Riot would be making an announcement regarding the sale. Fox said he voted for MMIPH because it was the "highest financial deal" and pre-approved by Riot. He writes, "I did what I believe to be best for the company and all its investors."
That message was followed by a lengthy missive from general partners Ali Rashid and Michael Wolf to the Echo Fox limited partners. According to that email, Evil Geniuses made an all-cash offer of $30.5 million, and Shapiro offered $25 million at close and $7 million one year later.
"It was determined by Liontree, OMM (Echo Fox legal counsel), and all members of the GP besides Rick Fox, that Evil Genius was the best bid," writes Rashid. "The EG bid was recommend by the advisors because it was a bona fide offer from a well-capitalized group that the investors supported — as opposed to Shapiro — and it was a better offer than Kroenke, which had previously been unanimously accepted." (Kroenke Sports & Entertainment reportedly made an offer of $30.25 million that fell apart.)
Rashid goes on to say that outside counsel warned the general partnership that they had a fiduciary duty to "only vote for an offer that had the ability to succeed" and says a majority of the limited partners had indicated they wouldn't support the Shapiro bid. Rashid says Fox excluded the other general partners from conversations with bidders. He writes, "We remain vehemently opposed to and denounce the actions of Rick and believe he was acting in his own self interest and potentially violated his fiduciary duty to the LPs. In fact, time and again we and OMM asked Rick if he was part of the Shapiro bidding group or had any discussions with them in regards to a role in the organization going forward. Rick repeatedly stated he did not, but when he was asked to represent this in writing he aggressively refused and ultimately dropped off the GP call."
About 30 minutes later, general partners Khalid Jones and John Eddy emailed the limited partners backing what Rashid and Wolf said. Jones says that while the two offers were "roughly equal" financially, the Shapiro deal involved "restrictive clauses which would remove rights of the Company." He also notes that Riot warned the general partnership that if it recommended a deal and it was not approved by the limited partners, it could lose its slot with no compensation and no ability to pursue an auction.
"In the face of Riot’s warning and the articulated stance of the LP group, the risk of voting for the Shapiro bid and potentially getting nothing as a result was just not an option for us in executing our duty," Jones writes.
"[I]n an abundance of an effort to try to get a deal done that did not involve going to the auction process and that would past muster with the LP group, we also proffered an idea that ALL members of the General Partner would sign a document stating that we were not a part or party to either of the bids and would not receive any compensation or be affiliated with either of the bidding parties for a given period of time after the close of the deal," continues Jones. "We were certainly willing to make such an affirmation, as was Michael Wolf and Ali Rashid. Unfortunately, we were not able to obtain unanimous consent from all members of the GP to sign such a document."
A source with knowledge of the situation tells THR that the Echo Fox general partners are drafting a lawsuit against Fox that will allege self-dealing. The general partners say that early versions of the Shapiro deal "explicitly included the participation of Rick in the deal" and it was "curiously" removed from the final offer.
Meanwhile, Fox tells THR that he's "on the receiving end of racism at its full force" and the partners "will stop at nothing" to hurt him and his family. "I didn’t and don’t have a personal interest," says Fox. "These claims are outrageous and are a part of the mass of lies that certain shareholders are spreading about me." He reiterates that he voted for the highest bid, and says both Kroenke and Shapiro had been vetted by Riot.
A Riot Games rep says "no bids were pre-approved" and declined to provide additional comments beyond the statement issued Wednesday that lauded the impact Fox and Echo Fox have had on the industry.