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Zach Leonsis (right) with Stanley Cup-winning Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals in 2018. (Photo from Patrick McDermott for the Washington Capitals)

Yes, he’s allergic to peanuts. No, that’s not his fun fact.

“The very first person to offer me a beer was Michael Jordan,” Zach Leonsis said.

Leonsis, who graduated from Penn in 2011, is the Senior Vice President of Strategic Initiatives for Monumental Sports and Entertainment.

In 2000, Michael Jordan purchased a minority equity interest in the Washington Wizards — one of Monumental Sports’ featured brands. Leonsis’ father, the CEO of Monumental Sports, was set to conduct a press conference when he left a 10-year-old Zach to be watched by Air Jordan himself.

“M. J., who really is just the most wonderful person you can imagine, was trying to keep me comfortable,” Leonsis said. “We were making small talk and he offered me a beer.” 

In addition to the NBA’s Washington Wizards, Monumental Sports is best known for its association with the NHL’s Washington Capitals, WNBA’s Washington Mystics, and the NBA G-League’s Capital City Go-Go.

Although Leonsis is involved in just about every facet of Monumental Sports, his main focus revolves around the media business, venture capital acquisitions, and merger opportunities. 

His responsibilities include new investments in digital media, sports betting, and eSports. Furthermore, Leonsis has spearheaded numerous efforts to push Monumental Sports to the forefront of its industry. 

“I first started learning about eSports about seven years ago now,” Leonsis said. “I had heard that an eSports event in League of Legends had sold out a major league arena.”

And that lit a spark. 

“Nielsen also ranks D.C. as the number one market for millennials and Gen Z,” Leonsis said. “We have a responsibility to launch products, services, and live events that match the desires and needs of our community's audience of our community's interest.”

Under Leonsis’ purview, Monumental Sports made an investment in 2016 into Team Liquid — a world-renowned eSports organization which boasts 14 teams with over 60 athletes in games such as League of Legends, CS:GO, and Dota 2.

Photo from Zach Leonsis

“We went to the NBA and said we have this great lead with millennials and Gen Z, let's double down and do something in eSports too,” Leonsis said. “We were an evangelist at the league level and we were one of the first 17 teams to launch an NBA 2K League team.”

Their NBA 2K League team, Wizards District Gaming, certainly hasn’t disappointed. In 2020, the team took home the NBA 2K League title in a 3-1 best-of-five series victory. 

Overcoming a disappointing loss in game one, the 2020 No. 1 overall draft pick — rookie point guard John "JBM" Mascone, a Penn student — led an outstanding effort in the subsequent three games. 

Originally planning to take a gap year before attending Penn for tennis, injuries put him on a dramatically new path: eSports.

Though a complete 180 from tennis to 2K basketball certainly isn’t common, the rise of eSports among Mascone’s peers is trending.

“I think the eSports audience [millennials and Gen Z] is highly engaged,” Leonsis said. “Esports itself has transcended from being a form of entertainment to really being a social media platform on its own.”

The younger generations aren’t going home and rushing to AOL Instant Messenger to chat with their friends anymore. Today, they’re coming home, rushing to their devices, hopping on Fortnite, and using that to be social.

“I really found the audience quite interesting,” Leonsis said. “They’re people that would never subscribe to traditional media sources.”

Whether you stream Team Liquid on Twitch or you watch the Wizards on NBC Sports Washington, you have Leonsis to thank. In fact, sensing Team Liquid’s bright future, Leonsis even invited Michael Jordan to invest in the eSports franchise with Monumental Sports — and Jordan did.

If Michael Jordan had asked 10-year-old Zach Leonsis at the time, there’s no way Leonsis would have expected to be as accomplished as he is.

Maybe one day, it’ll be Leonsis offering Jordan the beer.

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