Former gamer builds esports company

Several men wearing uniforms sitting at computer screens wearing headsets and microphones, one man is standing behind them looking over all of them
Street & Smith’s Sports Business Journal says the world spent 2.76 billion hours watching esports in 2023.

ames O’Connor thinks big. So big, in fact, that he wants to build an esports empire akin to the National Football League. And he’s on his way—his company, Knights Esports, has received investment backing from the Pittsburgh Pirates and Steelers, Wiz Khalifa and Evgeni Malkin, among others.

Esports is short for “electronic sports”—usually organized, multiplayer video game competitions between professional players. As with traditional sports, these games are broken down into competitive leagues and tournaments.

O’Connor, Mt. Lebanon Boulevard, had an outstanding career as a pro gamer—he was ranked in the top 10 players of Counter-Strike for 10 years—and coach. He turned his experience into Knights Esports in 2017; the company has 50 employees and is housed at Steelers headquarters on the North Side.

Using new software he developed, he’s now hoping to expand his vision into global competition for gamers.

“We’re going to make one of the most powerful esports teams in the world,”

he said.

After returning from Marine Corps service in Kuwait during Operation Iraqi Freedom, where he supported combat missions as an avionics technician, O’Connor resumed a gaming career he had paused for the military. “The Marine Corps definitely polished, matured and enhanced some of my skill sets that were already there and made me understand what it’s like to be part of an elite team,” he said.

James O'Connor standing next to Wiz Khalifa
Knights Esports founder James O’Connor, left, with Wiz Khalifa.

He played 30 pro seasons of Counter-Strike, one of the most popular games in the world, and eventually coached Counter-Strike teams while earning bachelors and MBA degrees. During this time he got a job working in economic and business development for Allegheny County.

When he and his wife, Angelica Sirabella, married in 2015, she urged him to get back into gaming. “She was learning about esports in one of her graduate courses at Point Park University and sensed the possibilities for growth,” O’Connor said. “So I started coaching one of the top five Counter-Strike teams in the country, and I led them to two world finals in nine months.”

After starting Knights Esports, he set out to learn all he could about sports marketing. “When the Steelers set us up in their headquarters, they gave me a golden ticket to go around and ask questions—and I had a lot of questions!” O’Connor admits. “I started learning everything I could about how you sell sponsorships, how you do partnership activation, how much money you spend on marketing, what revenue and expenses to expect. I just started building.”

Over the next two years, he built a live and predominantly online event company in Knights Esports and got some major sponsorship contracts. But O’Connor had realized that sending teams to other people’s stadiums and events didn’t make sense. “That doesn’t get you ticket sales revenue, it doesn’t get you data or anything else.”

After trying and failing to adapt existing software to his business model, “I finally hired developers and told them what I wanted. I knew what it was supposed to look like and feel like because I’ve been in this game so long.” The software he created is unique in its ability to allow players to communicate with each other while allowing Knights Esports to organize and run the events.

Meanwhile James and Angelica have settled happily into Mt. Lebanon with their two daughters, Ivy, 7, and Sadie, 5. The family loves the recreational opportunities, the walkability, and the security. The O’Connors were first introduced to Mt. Lebanon when James was working for the county and helped get grants for the Historical Society and the T station.

“I learned a lot about the town from just those two projects. We’re so close to the city, and the T is here,” he said. “Also, I love how all the houses are different architecturally and have so much character.

“We wanted to get the kids into a good place. We chose to invest in this school system, this environment. We fell in love with this place.”