Anyone who has followed fighting game esports for any length of time will be familiar with Panda Global, an organization known not only for its top-level competitors in the space, but for its commitment to providing additional support to the communities in which it competes in the form of data-driven rankings, self-run tournaments, and lately the sale of specialized hardware.
At the head of this organization since its inception has been Alan Bunney, long-time gamer and licensed medical doctor. Throughout the lifespan of the organization now known by fans as just Panda, Bunney remained a practicing doctor, handling PG business in between patients and after hours. However, in February 2020, Bunney made the switch to working full time as the CEO of Panda Global. He spoke with The Esports Observer about the past year and finding the balance between seizing the opportunity of esports and his love of working with patients.
“I played competitive gaming before esports was a word,” Bunney told The Esports Observer, and he’s not wrong. While most would attribute the birth of true “organized esports” to the rise of StarCraft in South Korea, in the United States and Japan the Fighting Game Community came together in arcades across the land to compete in games like Street Fighter II back in the early 90s.
Bunney stepped away from competitive gaming to attend medical school, and after graduation he returned to a space much different than the culture he had left. Gaming had exploded in popularity, and esports was rising along with it. However, the esports gold rush brought with it a number of bad actors that frustrated him.
“I saw people who were coming in take advantage of the players,” he said. “They were taking advantage of the communities — they would just use them and drop them, treat them like cattle and not really understand the true value these people had.”
And so, Bunney went to his best friend David Wu, a graduate of Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, and together they began to lay the groundwork for an organization that would not only compete at the highest level, but take care of and value its players. The pair spent several months planning the brand and outlining a business model before finally launching Panda Global — a name based on Bunney’s gamer handle, SamuraiPanda.
Bunney says that what sets Panda apart from its competitors is its commitment to not only its players, but the communities surrounding the games in which it competes. This informs many of the organization’s verticals outside of managing a competitive roster including PGStats, PGHardware, and the soon-to-be-launched PGHealth.
Bunney funded the organization himself at the outset, continuing to work full time as a practicing doctor. With limited resources came limited staff, and Bunney would often need to handle daily PG business in between helping people stay alive. “I remember sitting in the hospital watching a tournament and doing [social media] coverage, and they call a code blue and I have to run and do the code blue, save a patient’s life, and come back like “welp, half the tournament is done now, we just don’t have the coverage for it.”
As the organization has grown, bringing on high-profile sponsors like Geico and Funimation, so too has its staff and the scope of its projects. Bunney says this continued growth, and the attention it brought to Panda, is what led to his decision to take a step back from his work as a doctor to focus on his company. He noted that PG has seen an increase in investor interest, even turning down a few acquisition offers. That recognition confirmed to him that the organization is on the right track, and needs to seize this momentum.
Part of that decision also comes from the fact that esports is what’s happening right now. “I spent 10 years becoming a doctor. I’m a doctor for the rest of my life … but esports is rising. If I don’t give it my full attention right now, this opportunity will slip through my fingers. I could do esports and then one day go back to being a doctor, because I’m always a doctor, but I could never focus on being a doctor and then go back to esports.”
Bunney says that with an industry like esports, opportunities can pass by quickly as the space continues to evolve at an accelerated rate. “If we started Panda Global four months later, it would not exist as it does today. The industry is too fast-moving.”
While his full-time focus is on PG, Bunney has not fully abandoned his medical practice. He explained that he became a doctor out of a genuine love for the work, and even when going full time remained resolute that he would see patients for at least half a day each week. In fact, during this interview he noted that he would be returning upstairs to see patients at its conclusion, so the days of working on PG in between patients are not entirely over.
“I never once entertained the idea of not doctoring,” he said. “I only thought about how I could fit it in.”
What has changed during the last year of full-time esports work is where Bunney places his focus. He explained that while he still works seven days a week, he is now focused more on the big picture of the organization. Part of that comes from the fact that, as he put it, Panda Global now has divisions. In the last year, the company announced two high profile hires from outside of the esports space to head up its merchandise and sales divisions – Terry Turner (formerly of Cirque du Soleil) and former WWE sales exec Dave Riggs, respectively.
These appointments are particularly noteworthy for Panda Global, as the organization has always presented itself as committed to supporting grassroots esports and remaining authentic to the communities in which it participates. The esports industry as a whole is routinely engaged in debates about the merits of hiring from outside the space.
However, Bunney said that this outside experience is at the core of Panda Global’s success. “I think one of the only reasons Panda has been successful is because of David and I — I’m a doctor, David was a CPA. We came from professional industries, but we were gamers at heart, and … we brought that professionalism, we brought that mindset of being in that environment to the company structure. We were able to provide that guidance and that leadership, and then we could hire people from the community and we could train them using this knowledge from outside the industry. But a lot of people that only live in esports have never really been in companies or professional environments before, they don’t really know what that is like – and the value that has.”
He explained that having that outside leadership with professional experience allows the organization to still staff junior roles with people who know and have a passion for esports, who can then receive that same training and guidance from experts in their field.
Another notable change for the organization came alongside its recent rebrand. Bunney has taken center stage as the face of the company, appearing in a white doctor’s coat to announce new players and new sponsors. Bunney says this was an intentional decision to put himself more in the public eye. “That is a conscious effort on our part to brand me as the CEO.” He said he looked at traditional sports to understand what made someone a fan of a team without a connection to that team’s city, and found that often those people were fans of the management staff. “Everyone knows Mark Cuban, he is always the face of his own teams, because he’s the owner. He’s something that never changes. We found that people could form more of a personal connection by personalizing that ownership.”
This shift in strategy has also required a personal rebrand on the part of Bunney – naturally, this meant connecting his life as a doctor to his role as CEO. Gone is the organization’s namesake SamuraiPanda, replaced with Dr. Alan, CEO of Panda. As he noted, Bunney will be a doctor for the rest of his life, so it is fitting that he’ll also be a doctor for as long as he continues to lead Panda Global.
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