Why Former L.A. Laker Rick Fox Is Betting Big on Esports

As audiences reject traditional sports, Fox takes his talents to the Rift, building an esports empire with Echo Fox

Rick Fox is taking his talents from the basketball court to the Rift and building an esports empire Credit: John Lamparski / Stringer, Yuya Shino / Stringer

Rick Fox's six-foot-seven frame sprawls across a couch in the North Hollywood offices of Echo Fox, his professional esports franchise. He is the very picture of L.A. cool, dressed – white athletic leggings, a Canada Goose jacket, knit cap pulled over his head – as if caught halfway between the gym and an audition (the retired Los Angeles Laker also boasts a long string of TV and film acting credits including Sharknado 3, One Tree Hill and HBO's Oz). He is casually recounting a now-familiar story: how bonding with his son over World of Warcraft and League of Legends encouraged him to plunge headfirst into the exploding universe of professional gaming.

It's a story that connects two different worlds. As a traditional "stick and ball" star athlete, Fox embodies a career path familiar to mainstream America. Four years of elite college ball under coach Dean Smith at North Carolina, three NBA championships as a Laker playing alongside Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, career earnings in the range of $30 to 35 million. But he's also a serious gamer, dating as far back as the debut of Mattel's Intellivision in 1979. And he makes no distinction between the fierce battles that take place on the computer screen and those on the basketball court. First-person shooter, slam dunk, dungeon crawl – it's all competitive grist for him.

This point is never more clear than when I make the mistake of asking Fox about the stereotype that holds professional gamers as less worthy of respect than "real" pro athletes. For the previous half-hour he has been effortlessly languid and unruffled. But now he uncoils from the couch. His eyes flash. The fire that took him from his childhood in the Bahamas to the pinnacle of the NBA sparks.

Success as an athlete, he says, "has never been only about how high you jump or how fast you run." What separates Kobe from the rest, says Fox, bringing his hands up to his neck, palms parallel to the floor, is "from the shoulders up."

"Mastery," says Fox, "is established through repetition, focus, and concentration." In other words, it's all in the mind. And that goes for any sport – whether you are putting a ball through a hoop, hitting a home run across the fence, or getting a solo kill in League of Legends.

But what he really wants to stress is even more fundamental: what could possibly be wrong about building a career – any kind of career – while pursuing your passion?

Fox slaps the coffee table in front of him. "Isn't that what you are supposed to be doing in life?" he asks, his voice rising. "Doing what you love?"