NEW YORK -- As Carlos Rodríguez Santiago walks down the busy streets of Manhattan, he takes in an empire that he hopes will soon be his.
The center of the business world, but far from it in gaming, New York provides a new opportunity for the 29-year-old CEO, who in the past six years has built Europe's most popular esports franchise.
Throughout the years, Rodríguez has taken over Spain, then Germany, then the entire continent, building championship-winning franchises -- most notably in League of Legends, the game that he once played professionally. Mostly forgotten as a pro, Rodríguez's profile as a front-facing, comedic yet competitive executive of G2 Esports has increased his stardom significantly compared to his glory days using a keyboard and mouse.
Rodríguez now holds the keys to a $165 million business, one he founded after a train of thought that occurred to him randomly while in the back of a cab more than a half decade ago. In November, G2 nearly completed the League of Legends grand slam -- winning two domestic titles, a Mid-Season Invitational title and a League of Legends World Championship -- but finished as the runner-up to FunPlus Phoenix at worlds in front of thousands of their fans in Paris. Rodríguez is now looking forward from that heartbreaking moment, focusing on the positives and the things within his control presently.
For now, that's New York.
In December, Alibaba co-founder Joseph Tsai -- who purchased the Brooklyn Nets and the Barclays Center in August -- invested $10 million in G2 Esports. Rodríguez, along with his wife and son, will move to New York later in 2020 and look to take over the metropolitan area and expand G2's fortunes within the United States.
"No team seems to be capitalizing on how great this city is," Rodríguez said. "Even CLG, who got bought by the Madison Square Garden guys, they aren't using it. I don't think they can use it. I don't think they're neither equipped nor have the ambition required to take over New York.
"So I will."
Rodríguez called out the city's other marquee esports franchise, the New York Excelsior, as well. It's clear to G2's brash frontman, at least, that "they have no idea what they're doing."
Rodríguez is made for New York, a city he describes as vibrant and busy, full of people looking to grind. A blunt, go-about-your-business atmosphere where aiming for a corner office in a skyscraper is the rule, not the exception. A city just like him.
"I like high-energy," he said. "I like high-octane. Monday morning, bam, bam, bam. Everybody working, everybody doing things. Getting s--- done. No bulls---. That's New York for me."
If anyone can fit in with New York's bravado, it's Rodríguez.
When Rodríguez founded Gamers2 in February 2014, the team was very specifically catered to Spanish fans. The ones who made Rodríguez an icon who went on to write a book. The fans who made his merchandising brand, oceloteWorld -- best known for selling Rodríguez's signature scarves -- highly successful.
But few fans now think of G2 as Spanish, other than the times they are very visibly reminded with Spanish-flag-themed jerseys. Rather, G2 are Europe. They are the continent's most popular team, a title once held by Rodríguez's rival Fnatic.
Expanding to New York and the U.S. seems like the next logical step for G2. The team was one of four European League of Legends Championship Series teams who once applied for franchise spots in North America (G2 made it further than the other three in the application process, even receiving an interview with Riot Games in Los Angeles). They were ultimately declined, but their desire to branch out continued. When the European LCS proposed a geolocated model, G2 asked to play in London. The company eventually relocated to Berlin from Madrid in May 2017.
Everywhere he has gone in the past four years, Rodríguez's infectious, loud personality has captured the room. It's nothing new for him, he said, citing childhood memories of being the clown who got kicked out of class, only to see the teacher snickering at his jokes on the way out.
What is new, though, is Rodríguez's approach.
In the past five years, the player-turned-owner has rehabilitated a public image that was among the worst in League of Legends. Gamers2 faced payment scandals with coaches, followed by abrasive statements on social media and Reddit by Rodríguez, who was relentless in his stubbornness. He was in the right, he believed, and he was going to tell everyone.
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As a result, he became a villain in the League of Legends community -- a washed-up player trying to play businessman.
But as G2 continued to grow, so did Rodríguez. His team rose through the ranks of amateur League of Legends and eventually qualified for the EU LCS. As the stakes rose, Rodríguez matured. Now, he's beloved by fans and community members, and he has tempered his personality with some empathy. Rodríguez, once known for his hot-headedness, now knows when to dial it down and when it's all right to be his ruthless, reckless self.
"If I f--- up, then I f--- up," he said. "I can't go back. The best thing I could've done is not f--- up. What's the second best thing I can do? Well, learn something and move on."
At his peak as a player, Rodríguez's reputation wasn't all that different than it is now.
Back then, while playing for SK Gaming, Rodríguez, then known as "ocelote," was one of two of Spain's best mid laners, alongside Fnatic's Enrique "xPeke" Cedeño Martinez. Their teams' frequent and fierce battles became known as "El Clásico" to League of Legends fans, taking the name from the rivalry between Spain's two best soccer teams, FC Barcelona and Real Madrid.
"It's always good to have one," Rodríguez said of his former foil. "Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. When you have somebody that you're always facing and you're both getting better out of that. Khabib-Connor. There's a lot of examples out there. That competition just brings the best out of people. You can't be a legend without having somebody in front of you that is just doing things so well that is keeping you on your toes all the time."
Both were adored, and their rivalry created one of the greatest moments in League of Legends history: the xPeke backdoor.
In a 56-minute game in front of thousands in Katowice, Poland, Cedeño Martinez infiltrated the defenseless SK Gaming base as his opponents did the same across the map. Dodging abilities, Cedeño Martinez wailed on SK's nexus and by mere seconds won the hectic base race. Rodríguez rose from his chair and put his hands over his face.
"I know exactly what I would do differently," he said. "Trust me, I've played that through my head 1,000 times.
"I think it's the greatest thing that happened to me. That moment taught me I'll f--- you up at some point, from a competitive standpoint. That moment taught me that one day, I will destroy you so hard that nothing that happened will repeat again."
Ultimately, Rodríguez and Cedeño Martinez would go down similar paths. Both founded their own teams: Rodríguez launched Gamers2, and Cedeño Martinez formed Origen. Both struggled on the business side, including payment scandals and another incident in which Rodríguez was accused of poaching two of Origen's best players, AD carry Jesper "Zven" Svenningsen and support Alfonso "mithy" Aguirre Rodriguez.
But Rodríguez stuck it out, leaning on mentors like former ESL CEO Jens Hilgers and G2 COO Peter Mucha, a former Adidas and Microsoft executive, to help guide his path forward.
Rodríguez and Hilgers met when Hilgers helped organize and spoke at a conference about esports in Barcelona in 2014. Hilgers invited Rodríguez, one of the country's most famous pro gamers, to speak.
Over coffee before the conference, the two's conversation drifted from what they would discuss on stage at the conference to Rodríguez's goal of building his own team. Hilgers, a veteran esports investor, wanted to own a team, and the potential of working on the project immediately piqued his interest.
"I believed that a person who had been a professional player and would be able to translate his playing experience into professional management experience would be the best person to partner up with," Hilgers said. "I realized, 'That's the guy. That's the guy I want to partner with.'"
Even at his lowest points, as Rodríguez drew the ire of fans and professionals alike for his aggressive online behavior, Gamers2 remained afloat. Origen dissolved and re-emerged more than once: They are now owned by the Astralis Group, who also own the successful Danish Counter-Strike team of the same. But Gamers2 remained, and the team eventually rebranded to G2, and Rodríguez worked to better his own reputation and that of his team.
"If current Carlos faced similar situations, which we do, would he have reacted differently? Yes, he would have," Rodríguez said. "How is my relationship with the community right now? Fantastic. Do I sleep well at night knowing I'm not leaving corpses behind? Yes, I do. That's the reality of it."
Life outside of the business has changed for Rodríguez, too. In June 2016, Rodríguez's son was born.
"It gave me a lot of perspective," he said. "It taught me when you have a bad day, you go home, you see your family, it's not that bad after all. When you have a great day, you go home and you see your family, something happened, and it's not that great after all."
Family life has humbled Rodríguez, he said, and taught him to be more empathetic. To put others before himself. To invest in others. To look at things bigger than himself.
"I'm very, very happy about the personal growth of Carlos," Hilgers said. "Entrepreneurship is never only professional growth. It's always also personal growth because of what you go through. I think both sides of those in Carlos have been growing tremendously."
Among those Rodríguez is investing in is Luka "Perkz" Perković, his League of Legends team's mid laner. Perkz has long been G2's franchise star -- leading the team as a teenager to qualify for the EU LCS and building a career with G2 that now spans more than four years. Perkz visited Rodríguez at his home over the Christmas holiday, and the two have continued to bond outside of the game.
One day, Rodríguez theorized, Perkz could follow in his footsteps to become a successful executive.
"A lot of things, he's got it right," Rodríguez said. "If he's willing to learn, grow, take feedback and criticism and be told, 'That sucks, that sucks, that sucks' like 1,000 to 1 billion times over the course of a few years, he can become really, really good. Why not? I'm open to that idea."
Perkz, Rodríguez and G2 have some adversity to overcome currently. The team lost their first match of the League of Legends European Championship spring split on Friday, with an unheralded Misfits roster destroying the reigning champions, and then fell to a previously winless Schalke 04 team on Saturday. G2, however, are 6-2 in the LEC and more likely to bounce back and claim another European title than crumble under the weight of a couple surprising losses.
For now, Rodríguez is trusting Perkz and former mid laner-turned-AD carry Rasmus "Caps" Winther -- leaning on others, another lesson Rodríguez said he has learned the hard way -- to make the best decisions for their role swap. The end goal? To change the way League of Legends is played forever.
"It's very likely that if this team keeps together and they're motivated to be together, I think we will see every single year, the game becomes more and more loose," Rodríguez said. "There's no roles and everybody moves everywhere. It's like chaos. Controlled chaos."