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Game of Life: Jazz forward Jonas Jerebko juggles hoops, family and esports ownership

ROCHESTER, Mich. — Fresh off Sunday’s 110-91 win in Oracle Arena against the defending champion Golden State Warriors, Utah Jazz forward Jonas Jerebko didn’t turn in or enjoy a night out on the town in Oakland, California.

The 31-year-old logged onto Twitch.

He watched. He listened. He observed.

Jerebko made it just in time to catch the tail end of his other teammates closing out a Counter-Strike: Global Offensive video game battle nearly 2,500 miles away in Rochester, Michigan.

The Detroit Renegades beat OpTic Gaming 2-1 to qualify for the DreamHack Masters Marseille 2018 tournament in Marseille, France, from April 18-22.

“Nice work caught the last map,” Jerebko congratulated the guys via WhatsApp around 11:38 p.m. EDT.

Then the Renegades took off to celebrate with a late dinner at a nearby Buffalo Wild Wings after 10 hours of competition, before crashing in the wee hours of the night.

“I think I probably went to sleep at like 4 a.m. because after we got back from Buffalo Wild Wings, which was nearly 1 a.m., I played for a couple more hours,” said Noah “Nifty” Francis.

“I was about the same, 4 or 5 a.m.,” Justin “jks” Savage agreed.

Calling the shots

Nights like Sunday aren’t uncharacteristic for Jerebko — or professional gamers for the Renegades.

As the first active NBA player to serve a majority ownership role of an esports organization, Jerebko doesn’t have time to run the day-to-day operations, but he’s certainly engaged with what his Renegades are doing.

“My focus is basketball, but every time there’s a big decision or new teams or players that need to be signed, we’ve got a group text together that we talk through,” Jerebko said. “Other than that, I let my partners run the day-to-day stuff while I’m doing my thing over here.”

After diligently researching the esports market for more than a year as a former member of the Detroit Pistons, Jerebko decided to purchase the Renegades franchise from former owner Christopher “MonteCristo” Mykles on Aug. 30, 2016.

While living in the mountains of Salt Lake City during the NBA season, he continues to run the organization like any other professional sports team with a strong circle of business partners such as chief operating officer Jeff Zajac, manager Chris Orfanellis and coach Aleksandar “Kassad” Trifunović.

“There is everyday communication (with Jonas),” Zajac said. “Our primary focus is making sure we continue to grow and provide the best environment for our players, teams and partners who support us.”

“It’s incredible to see Jonas’ work ethic throughout the season and his dedication to the Renegades organization,” he added. “He’s a great boss.”

Utah Jazz forward Jonas Jerebko is the majority owner of the Detroit Renegades e-sports team. Members of the Counter-Strike: Global Offensive team live in this seven-bedroom house and training center in Rochester, Michigan. | Eric Woodayrd, Deseret News

The five CS:GO Renegades players range from ages 20-25. They hail from Australia plus New York, Norway and Serbia, while living under one roof in a seven-bedroom, 7,317-square-foot house and training center on the outskirts of Detroit.

Relocating to Michigan from Brisbane, Australia, was a culture shock for Savage because the 22-year-old had never seen a squirrel or deer outside of movies — let alone experiencing the cold winter weather.

“Just moving away from my family and friends is tough because you’re used to seeing them every single day for the last 20 years, then you go to living in a house with six other guys, so I’m in a completely different place,” Savage explained.

Francis and Savage are teammates with Aaron “AZR” Ward, Karlo “USTILO” Pivac, and Joakim “jkaem” Myrbostad.

Players are signed to one-year deals with a one-year team option for an undisclosed figure. Just in the last five months, players have traveled for competitive tournaments in Denver, Korea, China, California, Atlanta, Ukraine and Poland.

As an owner, Jerebko runs a first-class organization because he understands the gaming culture. His guys don’t have to ask for elite equipment such as NVIDIA GeForce GPU’s, HyperX headsets or gaming PCs, because they are already provided at everyone’s work stations in the main gaming room.

The CS:GO Renegades living in Michigan aren’t Jerebko’s only gaming team, either. He also owns competitive teams in Paladins, Vainglory, Halo and Injustice 2 and is in talks to expand on other teams and games throughout the world.

Building an empire

Similar to basketball, the professional gamers are picked through tryouts. Zajac and Orfanellis are in charge of scouting the best talent based off team needs and specific skill sets before Jerebko signs them. For example, in CS: GO, the specific five-player positions are breaches who are the first two shooters, followed by fraggers, then finally the sniper who closes the show. The object is for two shooting teams, consisting of terrorists and counter-terrorists, to eliminate each other with separate objectives to either plant or defuse a bomb.

Utah Jazz forward Jonas Jerebko is the majority owner of the Detroit Renegades e-sports team. Members of the Counter-Strike: Global Offensive team live in this seven-bedroom house and training center in Rochester, Michigan. | Eric Woodyard, Deseret News

The games get so intense that the Renegades keep a consistent routine of up to nine hours of training each day, which includes warmups, film study, matches without breaks and individual practice. They also follow a pretty healthy nutrition plan of grilled foods, vegetables, water and sports drinks coupled with exercise to keep their minds sharp. The guys also meet twice a week with athletic performance specialist Edward Cleland to keep their minds sharp and free of stress.

“We’re not on the other end of the scale like people may think we are, we’re not just eating junk food and pizza every day,” Orfanellis said. “If you looked in our trash you will see it’s all water and Gatorade. There’s very little soda and candy or anything like that.”

“It’s a team game, it’s mental toughness, you need to put your practice in,” Jerebko added. "The stereotype is slowly changing in esports, we’ve got a psychologist and trainer for the team because your focus needs to be on the right things if you want to be the best in the world.”

In the offseason, Jerebko lives less than five minutes away from the Renegades gaming house in Michigan with his wife, Johanna, and their young daughter, Izabel, so he gets to interact with the guys much more on a personal level. Members of the team are always playing pickup basketball and other fun activities at his home.

He jumped on the business of esports at just the right time, along with other celebrities such as Shaquille O’Neal, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Cuban and Rick Fox. The live video gaming industry is one of the world’s fastest growing sports with revenues expected to reach $1.4 billion by 2020, according to Newzoo’s 2018 Global Esports Market Report.

The Newzoo report also predicts the global esports audience will reach 380 million this year with revenues of $345 million in North America alone. Even the NBA is getting involved with the NBA 2K League, which will hold its first-ever draft on April 4 at New York’s famed Madison Square Garden. The Jazz Gaming team will have the No. 3 pick in the six-round draft.

These numbers and trends aren’t breaking news to Jerebko and the Renegades, though. As the world continues to take note of the rise of esports, Jerebko will continue to celebrate after games with his guys who are heavily involved.

A prize pool of $250,000 will be on the line when the Renegades travel to Marseille, France, next month for the DreamHack Masters Marseille 2018 tournament. That’s certainly motivation to keep doing what they’re doing.

“Do I see it as a sport? Yeah, I see it as a sport,” Jerebko said. “It’s a lot of team work and it’s a team game. Esports is competitive, and you need to be on top of your game to be the best in the world.

“I definitely got in at the right time, I got in early and a lot of people want to get in now but they don’t know how the grind goes,” he added. “I’ve been in it now for almost three years, so I know how the business works and I’m happy I got into it. I definitely see the growth and the opportunity for this to keep growing. People are not going to stop playing video games, so the interest is just going to go up.”