NRG's Brett Lautenbach And The General's Kale Sligh On 'The General NRG' Rebrand
NRG became the first North American Rocket League team to sign a naming rights agreement with a partner, rebranding their roster to "The General NRG".
Following the announcement, we sat down with Brett Lautenbach, President of NRG Esports, and Kale Sligh, Vice President of Marketing for The General, to discuss the merger, the impact it can have on Rocket League and the whole of esports, and whether influential figure Shaquille O'Neal actually plays Rocket League in his spare time.
First off, I think it would be beneficial for the fans to understand why the rename occurred; what was the original thought behind bringing in a naming rights partnership?
Brett: We started talking about a naming rights partnership specifically for Rocket League pretty much last summer. It was a conversation that our CEO, Andy Miller, and I were having, just really looking into the growth of Rocket League, what we can do to tap into this awesome game and awesome community from a brand and revenue perspective, and finding a partner that believes in Rocket League in the same way we do and we have done for years.
We’ve had four and a half years in this game, so we really went into this thinking about how we can take it to the next level for us. Rocket League has always been an incredible game, it lends itself to being incredibly understandable to a layman perspective or somebody new to this. So, as we were going out into the market and pitching sponsorships and partnerships overall, we kind of got a lot of reactions from different stakeholders, agencies, and brands saying “wow we really love this Rocket League thing. It’s totally digestible, everyone on our team can understand it and we can watch it for five minutes and get invested in it right away”. That was a good jumping-off point for this concept and idea, and we really thought the Rocket League fan base would adapt well to this concept. That’s why we really started this and pushed forward with it.
In terms of pinpointing this specific esport, rather than other titles like VALORANT that you compete in, why did you pick the Rocket League roster to implement this?
Brett: A few things! First and foremost, that easily digestible game format. Like I always joke that my dad watches Rocket League, and he’s over sixty years old, hasn’t played a video game since Paperboy, which he was really good at and why I started gaming, but he can understand Rocket League in a way that he just can’t wrap his head around other games where you have to really get that in-game experience to understand abilities. Rocket League is super digestible, so we thought that was an easy slam dunk.
The other two aspects are that one, we have a great team. We have a really strong legacy in the game. Lastly, the fan base is rabid and so excited, we thought this is a really cool fan base. So, if we do something like this with our team that they’re going to get behind it and give us their full support. I think it was those three factors as to what we looked at.
In terms of the inspiration behind opting for a naming rights partnership, we’ve previously seen this only in European Rocket League, with Team Vitality partnering with Renault until late last year. Was there any inspiration pulled from this, or was it something that has been in the pipeline for a while and you’ve been waiting to pull the trigger?
Brett: Yeah, it was cool to see them do that, and it was something we looked at. There’s a legacy in esports of similar things, especially back in the day in the early days of esports. We thought it would be really cool to tap into that history, but it also serves a really strong value, and I think that’s how we approached it from that angle.
The NRG streaming of The Grid will also be rebranded and supported by The General; what impact will this have on the final broadcast of The Grid?
Kale: We are still in a phase of developing how the brand integration will be, but one thing I can guarantee is that with anything that we do with branding, we want it to feel very authentic and organic, so we have assembled a team of gamers across our organisation. We want to work closely will Brett and the NRG team. We understand that there is a lot of passion around these communities, so we want to respect that. Certainly, we want to get our brand out there, but we don’t want to get in the way either.
We still want to make sure that the content is what you enjoy and what you want to watch, and hopefully, we can add some value to that and not just be a brand that plasters our logo on everything. We’re really taking that seriously, and it was actually one of the first conversations that I had with Brett; for us to do this, I want to do this right and form a true partnership. We have a lot of gamers on my team; I have a history of gaming, not competitively, but I’ve gamed my whole life, and so I understand the passion and even sensitivity around it as well. So, we want to balance both of those and make sure that we respect the community, the content and this team, and be here to support and hopefully bring some value as well.
Brett: I think Kale nailed it. One of the best things about working with The General so far is the real collaboration between both parties. We come with ideas, and they come with ideas, and we come to this melting pot of awesomeness, and The Grid is a great example of that where we can think of ways we can bring in segments with The General in mind and in focus to our audience.
The Grid is such an awesome asset, and super hats off to Psyonix, who worked with teams to bring this to light. They did such a great job just ideating this and handing the keys over to us and saying, “now it’s your turn, go wild with it!” But to go back to your previous question, that was one of the factors behind making this partnership. We have this really cool broadcast that has been doing really well for us – the viewership is awesome, and it’s a cool experience, whereas, in other esports, it's very team focused.
The Grid is very biased and you come to The General NRG’s Grid broadcast and it’s all energy, everyone’s here for NRG. It’s an exciting concept.
- Brett Lautenbach on The Grid
Epic and Psyonix have yet to reveal LANs for RL this year, whereas the likes of VALORANT have, although NRG has now officially qualified for Worlds should an announcement occur. With the new branded kits, name, and assuming merch drops in the near future, how important is it that we get live events in Rocket League to show off the branding and partnership on stage?
[This interview took place prior to the RLCS X World Championships being cancelled]
Brett: I have a lot of faith in Epic and Psyonix to do this the right way. To find the right location, making sure it is Covid safe, making sure we’re taking every precaution as it's super important and actually paramount, I think we always have to defer to that. They have experts in the room and are talking to people who are hosting live events. I trust their ability to do that.
I know the team is super excited to get back to LAN now. I think it will be a nice lift off to this partnership as well, and be another flag for us to plant which I’m excited about.
Kale: Ultimately, we’ll defer to the experts here. We’re excited and eager as well, but we certainly want to make sure we do everything right and by the book, so we defer to the experts that have been doing this much longer than we have. We’ll look to Brett and the Epic team, and we’ll support whatever decisions are made on that front.
Before we move on to dive into The General Insurance, it’s evident that Shaquille O’Neal was influential in the partnership – as a final question on the Rocket League front for some of our viewers, just how hands-on is Shaq in terms of esports and to your knowledge has he ever played Rocket League?
He has played a bit of Rocket League!
- Brett Lauttenbach on Shaquille O'Neal
Brett: He’s super awesome and a really great resource. You’ll see him pop up in this partnership along the way. He’s been here with NRG since the beginning, and he’s been a guiding light and a really good resource to bounce ideas off, and he has that awesome duality where he is simultaneously an absolutely incredible athlete; it’s just insane, but he’s also this larger than life entertainer, and I think that is something we try and keep front and centre when we think about esports and our position within it. We have this World Championship winning Rocket League team, but it should still be fun. Like people want to still come and see the crazy content. They want to see Sizz cooking hot dogs and all the shenanigans. So, to keep those things going, Shaquille has been pretty integral to us thinking about it that way.
I would love to see him cast on The Grid; that would be one hell of a show.
Moving on to The General Insurance, apart from Shaq’s influence, why did you both think this was a suitable partnership over any other suitors and offers?
Kale: This has been a journey for us; we’ve recently gone through some brand refresh and stepped our game up by going really learning about and talking to our customers and our market and trying to understand and engage with their interests. One of the things that we found that continues to pop up is gaming. That’s a very broad term too, ‘gaming’, it means a lot of very different things to different people, and so we took our time. We were always looking out for opportunities and really take it to heart to find a long-term partnership that made sense. So when the NRG opportunity arose, especially with the connectivity through Shaq’s involvement, it raised our consideration on it. So we had some early discussions with Brett and the team.
There’s a lot of alignment between his [Brett’s] vision about a partnership and me wanting to be organic with anything we got into this space, so I think it’s a good match. The teams have gelled really well, and ultimately it starts with, “where are our customers” and “what are they doing”, and really trying to meet them where they’re at. Hopefully, we can add value to this incredible NRG team. It didn’t hurt either that the NRG team are kind of the Yankees of Rocket League, right. We wanted to partner with the best, so that really added a little bit of fuel to the fire. It’s something new to us, but we’re going to learn as we go, but we couldn’t be more excited about it, and with Shaq, we’ll certainly look at lots of opportunities across both brands. Shaq’s been a big part of our brand, too, so I’m excited about some of the fun opportunities we may have together.
On the eye, the partnership seems rather distant, how did both sides of the partnership fit each others branding?
Kale: It started with our market and with our customers and gauging what interests them and looking at different ways to reach this audience. That’s how it started and what really piqued our interest in this space. Then we started looking at what is the best way to connect. So back to your question, we wanted to make sure The General Insurance fit. So with Shaq, and the links through cars, obviously we’re car insurers, there were some nice ties there. But ultimately, we’re just trying to meet our audience where they’re at and what their interests are, and this whole scene has really exploded over the years. I have a strong feeling you’ll get more brands entering the scene in the future.
In that sense, Brett, will you be looking to do a similar branding partnership with the VALORANT team name in the future?
Brett: I think the goal right now is to make this partnership as big and as successful as possible and see the success through. I think Rocket League is the perfect model and being a perfect example of how this can work really well and with the broadcast of The Grid, which is pretty unique to Rocket League it makes it a pretty exciting option. Down the road, nothing is off the table, but this is our main focus for now.
Do you feel that there may be a sense of NRG losing any form of brand recognition with deals like this? What I mean by this is that you now have OpTic Gaming in the CDL and San Francisco Shock in the OWL, all underneath the NRG banner but maybe not recognised as NRG-owned teams. With more changes and renaming, such as The General NRG, do you feel like you are straying away from that core NRG name that is renowned through the entire world of esports?
Brett: I think it’s a bit of a different situation than our sister teams in other leagues. I think this still contains the NRG branding and NRG name; we’re just bringing in The General to lift us up and do some extra cool things, so I think the fan base will recognise that and see the value and additions that The General is helping us do in the Rocket League community and our place in it. I think that ultimately it’ll be a really strong partnership for both brands overall.
Do you think that the name of “The General NRG” will get adopted by fans and casters?
Brett: I hope so! I think it’ll take time, but we’ll get there.
Is this the biggest partnerships in NRG history, and how would you compare this to some of the other larger partnerships in esports?
Brett: Yeah, I think this is the largest in scale and scope in terms of our partnerships; we’re really going deep into a community which is very exciting for us. To really be focused on this one title where we’re going all in, we’re going to bring The General into Rocket League in a real material way where people are going to recognise them, which is different from any other partnership we’ve launched before. We’ve done some that span across different titles; this is something where our core focus is Rocket League, and that’s really exciting for us. We’re thrilled to be working with a parent who everyone knows; everyone knows The General and their brand, so that’s pretty cool for us in this initiative, and as I mentioned earlier, the thing that is most inspiring to me so far is the collaboration and how it's much more addictive in nature it is to what we’re trying to build and do here.
Image via NRG