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Elite Esports CEO Erinn Kelly Talks Adapting to a Fast-Changing Industry

It’s no secret that when it comes to the esports and gaming industry, things change fast. With new companies and orgs constantly on the rise, there’s a lot of potential for growth, and as such, people are drawn to the industry from a wide variety of backgrounds. CEO and owner of Elite Esports Erinn Kelly is a prime example of gaming’s convergence culture, and she brings a flair to her organization that can’t be rivalled in other industries.

Kelly recently took the time to chat with us here at Syft about Elite Esports as well as how she found herself drawn to the world of esports. 

Erinn Kelly
Elite Esports CEO Erinn Kelly Talks Adapting to a Fast-Changing Industry 6

“I first started in esports actually from the investment side,” she begins. “I was managing money at the time, and I was looking at stocks like Activision, Electronic Arts, Take Two… and the word esports kept popping up left, right and center.” Not only did Erinn Kelly recognize the increased attention esports-related stocks were receiving, she also saw an influx of investors putting money into the industry, saying: “I knew that there was a lot of venture capitalists’ money flowing into it. So being that my background is trading… that clearly piqued my interest.”

Erinn Kelly
Courtesy of Elite Esports

Elite Esports was first founded in 2018, and when it comes to a fast-paced industry like esports and gaming, a lot can change in three years. But at the time, Kelly recognized that “the growth numbers were off the charts.” This prompted her to dive into the industry, attending conferences and making connections.  “I went to Esports Upfront and I flew out to San Francisco, I went to the Game Developers Conference. And the more people I started talking to, the more I realized that I actually really wanted to be involved in esports.” Through these connections, Erinn Kelly realized her interest no longer concerned the investment aspect of the industry. “The more exposure I had to it, the more I realized, like, ‘wow, I actually really love this,’” she said, “I’d rather run a business and just invest in one.”

Obviously, Erinn Kelly’s experience trading stocks and managing finances allowed her to recognize the financial potential of the industry; however, that’s not the only thing that interested her in the world of gaming. “It was also the high energy, the connectivity. Everyone who I met was so enthusiastic about it,” she explains. So many people find a sense of connection and community through the world of esports and gaming, it only makes sense that an incoming CEO would recognize it as well. On top of that, Kelly admits, “I also love competition. So esports, in particular, is really fun for me. And it’s also entertainment. So it’s basically like all these good things rolled up into one.”

By embracing the themes of “connectivity” and “competition” that Kelly saw present in the gaming industry, it didn’t take too long for her to find a collaborator in Elite Esports’ co-founder, Alex Swords. “Alex and I met through a mutual friend. I’d already been thinking about starting a league and he was in the Call of Duty scene, so he was competing… And he’s also graduated with a business degree and studied sports finance and marketing. So for me, that seemed perfect.” From there, Elite Esports was in a position to start establishing themselves in the industry. 

Getting started in any new industry has its challenges. However, as Erinn Kelly notes, the esports and gaming industry of 2018 was a unique environment even with that in mind. “It’s an industry that’s still in the beginning of its growth phase… The barrier of entry is fairly low. So it still offers a lot of opportunities for success.”Even with a low “barrier of entry,” getting started in esports comes with a unique set of challenges.. “You need a lot more capital, or you need to have a stronger network or you need other things,” she explains.

What might those other things be? Well, it would seem the most crucial is the ability to learn as you go. “There are learning curves in all new business[es and] start ups but it’s particularly steep in esports because it’s such a new and rapidly evolving industry churning out improvements daily in terms of new software applications, platforms and new business directions.”

Erinn Kelly
Courtesy of Elite Esports

Fortunately, as the CEO of Elite Esports, Erinn Kelly has not only proven to be able to learn along the way, she’s also made sure to share knowledge with her team. “I also try and take the role of mentor when possible, because in this industry there’s a lot of young people who haven’t had jobs in other areas,” she said. “Some of it is [a learning experience] and I think a lot of people do need that kind of mentorship.”

This approach would seem to be thanks in part to her career before becoming a CEO, as she explains, “I had a mentor when I worked in investment banking and I think having that helps not just my company, but also the people who work at Elite.”

The idea of mentorship is an important one because it focuses on the next generation of leaders in esports and gaming. While obviously the industry is young and rapidly developing from a business perspective, the same is true in terms of the esports and gaming culture. For an industry with an often less-than-stellar reputation with regards to toxicity and equity regarding diversity and representation, the fact that gaming and esports culture is still relatively young can be considered a good thing.

There is room to change and grow and learn, which can be seen in a number of equity and diversity initiatives across the industry. But Erinn Kelly, a female CEO in a predominantly male-dominated industry—in Venturebeat’s 2020 piece, “20 Women in Gaming You Should Know,” only two of the women listed were CEOs— hasn’t let gender affect her approach to the business. “I have not had my gender impact at all how I approach my work with esports or gaming, I’ve met a ton of really amazing people, both men and women.” Overall, in terms of changing the demographics and culture within esports, having women in visible leadership positions is one of the most important things. 

Erinn Kelly Esports
Keisha Howard and Paula Angela Escuadra speak on the diversity panel at GamesBeat Summit 2018. Courtesy of Michael O’Donnell/VentureBeat

Having more female gamers is a wonderful goal, but ultimately, Kelly believes that to create lasting change, we need “More women in the roles of being professionals.” While she says that she hasn’t personally experienced the toxic masculinity that so often makes the gaming sphere less than welcoming to non-straight cis males, she acknowledges that she’s aware of it, saying, “Sometimes I see things on Twitter that cross the line.” From her perspective, Kelly says, “I think having more women in roles where they’re viewed as professionals and not viewed as just [needing] to be pretty and smile and do other things.” 

As such, she was particularly energized about an incoming new member to the Elite Esports community: “We’re actually in the process right now of bringing on a female content creator to help run our tournament, so I’m super excited to add her to the team.” Kelly acknowledges that this new content creator won’t be the first female team member Elite has had, however. “We’ve had some females on the team but this is the first really high profile position. And she’s just going to be phenomenal. I really can’t wait.”

Still, Kelly’s approach to staffing isn’t what she would call a “filling-a-quota type of thing. More like, this is the best person for the role, and she’s gonna be phenomenal. And I really can’t wait to add her to the group.”

Overall, Erinn Kelly feels like when it comes to gaming and esports, there are more positive elements than negative. She says, “We all need to work together to help remove the ‘games are bad’ mindset and open people’s eyes and minds to the benefits of gaming.” In terms of those “benefits,” the positive influence of gaming is one that Kelly has seen firsthand. “As owner of a top tier competitive FN team, I can list acquired skills from competitive gaming as: learning to set goals, exceptional reaction times and rapid decision-making abilities, teamwork, discipline, perseverance, managing earnings, necessity of good usage of social media platforms and awareness of personal brand-building.”

This ability to focus on the positives is arguably what makes her a good CEO. “In addition to hiring the best staff and giving them as much support as possible to succeed in their roles,” she says,  “I also view the role of CEO identifying growth potential and setting the strategic direction of the business.” By recognizing the “potential” of not only her team, but of the industry as a whole, she can help steer Elite Games in a direction that fully embraces the ideals of a positive esports and gaming industry.

Erinn Kelly
Courtesy of Elite Esports

In the three years since Erinn Kelly started Elite Esports, the team has accomplished quite a lot. “Since 2018, we have hosted single tournaments with thousands of players per event, helped launch players into the pro scene (Fortnite and Call of Duty), raised the profile of female gamers in major tournaments, consistently landed on the top of the leaderboards of major events, raised over $50,000 for charity, and connected middle school students and parents together in fun and engaging gaming events.” All along the way, her team at Elite were learning new things and forging new paths.

“Our learning curve has flattened, and I think we’re in a much better position. Now when we do anything, we know how to do it. We know who to talk to, we know the programs to use, we know the platforms.” 

All in all, Erinn Kelly’s in an exciting place to be, and it only points to bright things ahead.

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