Mike Rufail is building one of the world’s most valuable franchises in the booming esports industry. Forbes already values his Envy Gaming at $170 million, and the esports (competitive video gaming) industry as a whole is expected to grow to $1 billion when the 2019 tallies come in.
To put things into perspective, Jerry Jones purchased the Dallas Cowboys for $140 million. Those 1989 dollars would be worth $284 million today, shockingly in the ballpark for a gaming franchise whose move to Dallas three years ago came amid the first major sweep of big-money investments from local names you may recognize.
Ken Hersh is one of those names. His splash of capital in Envy Gaming—reports put it around $35 million—brought Rufail to town from North Carolina, even before most of his team had a place to practice. “Mike’s personality, demeanor, experience, and the respect he had in the industry was exactly what we wanted,” says Randy Chappel, managing director at Hersh Interactive Group.
Practice space is no longer an issue. Envy, which was organized as a professional Call of Duty team in 2007 and incorporated as a business in 2012, recently expanded from a small space in Victory Park to occupy an entire third floor, for a total of about 21,000 square feet. But even that is a holdover, says Rufail, who was on Envy’s team roster at the Major League Gaming National Championships in 2009. “My head is already on the next one,” he says. “Wait until you see that.”
The next one will be Envy Gaming’s permanent home, and it will be attached to its first stadium, joining a wave of venues purpose-built for esports. Rufail won’t give up the details on the new headquarters. He will allow only that he and his team are “having lots of great discussions with municipalities and real estate developers on what’s going to be the best site for us.”
That Rufail is in the middle of such negotiations shows his devotion to the franchise he has been growing for a decade, embracing his role as business builder where other founders have stepped away. “I’ve left a lot of chips on the table because I truly believe in this industry and in what we’re doing as an organization,” he says.
“I’ve left a lot of chips on the table because I truly believe in this industry and in what we’re doing as an organization.”
And North Texas is exactly where Rufail, who was born and raised in Lufkin, wants to be. As he builds an empire of his own, he’s taking inspiration from his professional sports franchise-owning peers: Jones and Mark Cuban. “I don’t have anywhere near the net worth of either of those men, but I feel like I have the same charisma that those two guys have and the passion for what they do,” he says.
Rufail also knows that the best way to build a brand is to win. Toward that end, Envy took on another round of funding in 2018 and is eyeing a third in 2020, using the money to recruit talent and, of course, find a new home. In the meantime, the franchise will host seven home events in 2020—more than any other team in the world. (Toyota Music Factory in Irving, the Esports Stadium in Arlington, and the Allen Event Center are confirmed venues so far.) The decision to host more tournaments was made after attendance at its lone Dallas-Fort Worth event last season was double that of any other in the country.
That passion is why Rufail brought the team to Dallas. That, and his Texas roots—which is something, he points out, he has on Cuban and Jones. “There’s just a different mentality when you’re raised here,” he says.