After years of building a superteam, the Stan Kroenke-owned Los Angeles Rams went on a historic run that ended with a Super Bowl victory in February. It was the culmination of multiple seasons of hard work, and it just so happened to be a preview of what was to come from the esports organizations under the Kroenke Sports & Entertainment (KSE) umbrella.
In March, The Guard, fresh off their formation in late 2021, won the first stage of the Valorant Champions Tour North American Challengers series to qualify for the first international VALORANT tournament of the year, Master: Reykjavík. In April, the Los Angeles Guerrillas went on a run of their own when they took home the first place trophy at the Call of Duty League Stage 2 Major in Minnesota. In June, the Los Angeles Gladiators took home the Kickoff Clash trophy during the first Overwatch League tournament of 2022 in Texas.
To say that The Guard -- the overarching brand for all of KSE's teams -- has been successful in 2022 would be an understatement.
"The Rams winning is a culmination of years of preparation," said The Guard general manager Alex Rubens, who specializes in Call of Duty. "While it might be completely different between what we do and what they do in traditional sports, we do operate with a similar mindset."
The mindset Rubens is referring to is that winning comes through preparation. It's OK to go a couple of seasons without a championship, as long as progress toward one is made.
"We don't go for broke, we get the right pieces; find people like [Kevin "kevster" Persson] and then build around them," Rubens said. "We operate with the philosophy that we're OK with not winning every year."
Rubens, who has been working with KSE since 2019, helped build the organization's first Overwatch League and Call of Duty League teams. The change since then, which included KSE's push into the VALORANT space late in 2021, has been drastic.
"We kept a very lean front and back-of-house staff," said LA Gladiators general manager Brenda Suh. "We were hesitant to open the flood gates and hire a bunch of roles."
The team went from a skeleton operation in 2019 to having more than thirty team members in 2022. Resources, including a new facility that Overwatch and VALORANT teams are using in Playa Vista, have helped push The Guard over the edge.
Spart holds up the championship shield that the Guerrillas won. Photo credit: Zach Shelton / ESPAT
Both Suh and Rubens emphasized that the signing of two talented up-and-comers -- Overwatch player kevster and Call of Duty player Kris "Spart" Cervantez -- were key in each team's success.
Spart, who previously signed with Los Angeles in 2020, returned to the Guerrillas as a substitute at the end of 2021 and helped lead the team to a Major win.
"When we were at Major 2, [Spart] kept saying from the first match that we're winning the whole thing," Rubens said. "People always say that type of stuff, but he meant it and it had me believing it."
The Guard's VALORANT team was also built with the "finding the right pieces" mindset. Harrison "psalm" Chang, Michael "neT" Bernet and Jacob "valyn" Batio were all signed in November 2021.
"We started with three, and really Psalm, even though he's benched now, he was instrumental in finding the other two pieces," Rubens said. "From there we kept adding new people that were good fits."
The Guard were one of two North American teams competing at Masters: Reykjavík. Photo credit: Riot Games
The Guard hopes that the team environment and marketing will make players want to stay for years. Their VALORANT team has found success early on, but their Overwatch team has been building on its success for a couple years.
Kevster was originally signed to the Gladiators in June 2020. He was a mechanical whiz who showed a huge amount of Overwatch potential, but he was incredibly anxious and had only played from his parent's home in Sweden. It was a big move for him to move to the United States and then play from Hawaii in August 2021.
"He took the leap of faith on being out here," Suh said. "From there we've worked to build a strong relationship. Watching him grow has been amazing."
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, kevster moved to Southern California to compete with the Gladiators. He helped his team win their first tournament championship with the Countdown Cup against the Chengdu Hunters in 2021. He made few appearances in the media, often opting to wear a mask instead of showing his face, though.
The organization liked him so much that they signed him to a three-year deal this past offseason.
"It's easier to recruit talent when you have talent," Suh said. "Securing [kevster] on a three-year deal last year put us in a position to recruit talent."
Suh said that former VALORANT star Patiphan "Patiphan" Chaiwong and Overwatch players San Francisco Shock player Seonchang “ANS” Lee, Corey "Reiner" Scoda and Daniel "FunnyAstro" Hathaway were pieces they could pair with kevster. It was easier to convince these players to join because kevster's contract was already in place.
Some of these new additions had been known commodities on previous teams, but the Gladiators had no idea how they'd perform together.
"It was a risky offseason since we didn't have [Overwatch 2] when we signed the roster," she added. The signings paid off as the Gladiators went on to dominate the Kickoff Clash to open this season. They beat the Houston Outlaws, Atlanta Reign and Dallas Fuel twice in order to secure another tournament victory.
Kevster has been key to the Gladiators' success. Photo credit: Gladiators
Kevster, who had rarely done any media appearances due to his severe anxiety, was on stage when the host called his name. He was asked about the Gladiator's dominant run, and his answer was short and to the point.
"I think we're very flexible as a team," kevster said in front of a roaring crowd at Esports Stadium Arlington. "Pretty much every other team is very one dimensional, and we can predict what they play and play against it easily."
Both Brenda and Ruben were surprised that kevster answered the question at all. They knew kevster to be incredibly elusive when it came to public speaking, so the off-the-cuff interview was something to get excited about. It showed just how much kevster had grown in his two years on the Gladiators.
It emphasized the team-building mantra that the entire organization tries to follow. Sign great pieces, make sure they feel at home and then surround them with a great supporting cast. Let the results speak for themselves. The challenge now? Keep the success coming in.
"From an umbrella perspective, we can still be successful by continuing the practices we've done so well," Suh said. "By not getting complacent, by not getting tired."
Lead photo credit: Gladiators