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Philadelphia 76ers become first North American sports team to acquire esports franchise

Team Dignitas is up and running again, under the 76ers name.

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Philadelphia 76ers have become the first North American traditional sports franchise to purchase an esports organization, acquiring both Team Dignitas and Apex Gaming in a merger announced Monday. The merger will combine Apex’s League of Legends team, which just finished its first LCS split, with Dignitas’s other teams, including Counter Strike: Global Offensive, Overwatch, Heroes of the Storm and Smite.

The teams will compete under the Dignitas name, but the Sixers say they intend to run day-to-day operations and provide infrastructure support, “sharing best practices in sponsorship, sales, branding, digital marketing, merchandising, publicity and more,” according to a release.

“The attractiveness of this deal is as much about the people as it is the opportunity,” said Philadelphia 76ers CEO Scott O’Neil in the release. “Bringing together gaming industry luminaries including Greg Richardson, Michael O’Dell and David and Michael Slan puts us on track to build the most respected and dominant franchise in the eSports space, spur fan engagement and reimagine corporate sponsorship to create a vibrant, global e-arena where the greatest players in the world aspire to compete.”

While this is a first for North America, other traditional sports organizations have become involved with esports around the world, especially international soccer clubs. FC Schalke 04 bought a League of Legends team in Europe (it was since relegated from the top division), while other teams such as FC Valencia and Besiktas have purchased teams in lower divisions.

In North America, traditional sports investment has usually taken the form of individuals: former three-time NBA champion Rick Fox purchased Echo Fox, and Shaquille O’Neal has been a major investor in NRG Esports.

“We intend to build a fan-first team that aspires for excellence in all aspects of the business from attracting premier playing talent to building out merchandising, sponsorships and broadcast rights,” said Greg Richardson, the chairman of the new team. “The eSports market was started and built by its players and fans, creating one of the most vibrant and passionate communities anywhere. Dignitas embraces the unique origins of eSports and looks forward to working closely with its community to take the industry to the next level.”

Dignitas is one of the oldest teams in professional League of Legends, first acquiring a roster in September 2011, but it’s storied history in the game was ended earlier this year when the team was relegated (Apex replaced Dignitas in the LCS after winning promotion from the Challenger Series). The team sold its Challenger Series spot to Apex Gaming, which means the new Dignitas organization likely has a spot in both the LCS and the Challenger Series.