Ep. 23: The Growth Of Esports with Kevin O’Brien
In each episode of The GameDay Playbook presented by FanFood, Rob Cressy discusses how leaders are transforming the sports and live entertainment industry by leveraging technology to enhance the fan experience and operate gameday more efficiently.
Kevin O’Brien, Executive Director of DePaul Esports, joins Rob Cressy to talk about the growth of Esports. How did he initially get involved in it and how did it get started at DePaul? How are games chosen that schools in the Big East play? What is the best entry point for non-gamers to better understand Esports? What can be done to bring together brands with teams and leagues? How is technology being integrated into Esports?
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Rob Cressy: (00:00)
Welcome to The GameDay Playbook presented by FanFood, a discussion around how leaders are transforming the sports and live entertainment industry by leveraging technology to enhance the fan experience and operate game day more efficiently. I'm your host Rob Cressey and joining me today is Kevin O'Brien, executive director of DePaul Esports. Kevin, great to have you on the show.
Kevin O'Brien: (00:29)
Thank you so much Rob. Glad to be here.
Rob Cressy: (00:32)
Can you give a quick overview on who you are and what you do?
Kevin O'Brien: (00:35)
Yeah. I'm the executive director of DePaul Esports and my role is to oversee the student leadership board and help drive our community. We revolve around a lot of different pillars and I make sure that we're making decisions that best fit our students and continue to grow the program.
Rob Cressy: (00:57)
So what I want to dive into today is esports in the educational space. And let's start with this: how did you get involved in this?
Kevin O'Brien: (01:09)
You know, it actually wasn't planned. It kind of just came naturally. So I spent my first part of my career as a chef, worked in various Michelin star restaurants across New York and then in Chicago. But when I went back to DePaul, I went for finance. I'm an honors finance student, and I kept reading about esports and tech startups and you know, these new companies are just throwing their money into esports. And I was very curious - what was going on? And so about a year and a half ago, I started doing a lot of research into the space and realized that this is a growing community that really needs to be harnessed within the collegiate space. And it's also growing from the collegiate side, but it's growing from the students' perspective. And so what I really wanted to do is be able to come in and help structure the program and provide the students with the voice, but also allow DePaul University and the faculty to be able to harness that data and the student's voice to be able to build a program that really accentuates the students but then provides a better college experience. So that's how I came full circle into the DePaul Esports.
Rob Cressy: (02:27)
So since all of this is so new for everyone and it's not like, "hey, bringing on my 25-year esports veteran," like that doesn't really exist. So now let's look at this from the school side of things. How did it get started at DePaul?
Kevin O'Brien: (02:43)
So I think one of the biggest initiatives that helped it get started was we had initial demand from the student perspective. So we had League of Legends, a student organization already formed. We had a couple of different gaming organizations already formed. And then early 2018, The Big East announced that they were going to be running an invitational for Rocket League and for League of Legends. For DePaul, being in the Big East, they really want to be a part of that, and so they created the DePaul Esports Gaming Center and then also the DePaul Esports brand, which catapulted the program into what it is today. So that was the initial reason why DePaul got into it. But I think from April of 2018 to today, it's a different world. Hundreds and hundreds of schools have esports programs now, so it's really growing.
Rob Cressy: (03:38)
So I'm curious though why, even if the Big East said "here's what we're doing," the way I think I see a lot of institutions is that they're traditionally slower to adopt things. I mean, I think about the way that education system is. Here's a book that was written a few years ago and it's like, well, I need to be learning things that are for today. And you think about something with esports. And what I find is with forward thinking things, one of the challenges is a lack of a champion internally. So the Big East does it, and DePaul looks and is there someone there saying "hey, we need to do this knowing that there's very few people in industry," so I'm a bit curious about that.
Kevin O'Brien: (04:19)
I think it may look like from the outside that like DePaul Esports and esports in general is new. I think some of the first esports events date back to 1997 and then all the way back into the competitive side and, you know, the 70s, so I mean e-sports has always been around. The gaming industry is a massive industry, and so with this new era of everyone is integrating into technology, everyone in some way, shape or form is playing a game, you know. You can look at social media as playing a game. And so when we look at like how this came in, you know, DePaul really saw it as a way for students to start engaging more. Since, you know, we are already a commuter school, we always look for ways to, you know, try and increase student engagement and you know, allow students to be able to come to school, engage with other students and then still be able to go home and feel like they got that college experience. So I think it was a really easy transition for DePaul to really understand that our CDM school has a nationally ranked game design program already. It's kind of a seamless transition and as also as an easy way for them to integrate DePaul Esports and then also utilize that to be able to help all the other schools that business, the CDM school, in, you know, accentuating just the college experience as a whole.
Rob Cressy: (05:47)
And I'm going to date myself with this, but way back in the day, I loved the movie with Fred Savage called "The Wizard." And this is when there's this, I believe Super Mario 2 hadn't yet been released in outcomes. This kid with a Nintendo Glove and all of a sudden everyone's like, "oh my God, look at this!" And there's this big tournament and see who can beat the Boars, and on Super Mario 2 and in that as a budding, I don't know if I was a teenager or not even a teenager yet, that was sort of the first thing that I can remember of esports. Even though I grew up in the generation of the beginning of video games. Atari, original Nintendo, Sega, Super Nintendo, PlayStation, insert all of those different things. And I'm very nostalgic about video games. One of my company logos was based around the tech mobile logo from the original Nintendo back in the day. So I certainly have a soft spot for video games. So let's talk about the demand side of things. And one thing that stood out to me was the list of the games that you mentioned. How are the games chosen to be part of the overall, "hey, the Big East is going to be running a tournament for these things."
Kevin O'Brien: (07:08)
So I think what the Big East really stuck onto was League of Legends is probably the biggest game worldwide in terms of fan base as well as users. And then they also wanted to have a game that might be more up and coming. So Rocket League is a low barrier to entry game and I think that's super important in the collegiate space. League of Legends, being a more strategic based game from a five-person standpoint, it's not easy to just pick up the game and be like, "I'm going to play League of Legends." So having League of Legends, the demand was already there and I know that all these schools already had League of Legends student organizations within it. And so, I can't really speak for the Big East necessarily, but what it looks like with a lot of the schools is that League of Legends is one of the most popular ones, and then Rocket League is probably one of the easier ones for people to understand when you watch it. It's essentially 3v3 car soccer. The concept behind it is get the ball in the net. And so when it comes to that, the games are shorter, it's easier to understand and it's one of those games that you can just watch it, you can understand it, but it's really, really hard to master, so you get a better appreciation for the game. That's why I think that they chose those titles. What's not to say that, you know, there's other leagues out there, league organizers that are doing a multitude of games.
Rob Cressy: (08:41)
Would we see something like a Madden or if we look on the sports side, cause you said Rocket League has sort of this game element type of play. And I think from a more casual standpoint, you see how bananas everyone goes for NBA 2K or Madden releases or things like that. They do incredible jobs of building communities and we know how much people love them and spend time on that. Where does that fall in all of this? Because I believe the general population can better understand Madden or 2K than they can League of Legends.
Kevin O'Brien: (09:18)
Yeah, absolutely. And I think it kind of shows, because I think the NBA 2K season is now going into their third season, and so I think there's 23 NBA teams that have a NBA 2K team. And one of the really cool things about that is it allows people who are at home to be a part of the draft. And so the draft every single year, it's okay, here you go: the drafts open. NBA 2K: if you can make it, if you're the best, here you go, so NBA 2K is a really great one that has low barriers of entry and everyone has that nostalgic feel on it. Madden, same thing. You'll see on TV the Madden Championships and people playing for large prize pools, and so being able to, especially from a college standpoint, utilize both PC and console games is one way that you can start attracting different audiences to come together. I think you brought up a great point being able to attract the different levels of quote "gamers" to be able to come together and form a community. And so yes, the traditional sports games are very good for breaking down barriers to entry and then creating a new community within that.
Rob Cressy: (10:45)
So I think one of the biggest challenges people who are older have is the comprehension of esports. And for me, I think about my own journey and I saw the numbers of what esports viewership was doing and I didn't care what else I didn't care about anything else above that. I'm like "there is a tension here, I need to at least start investing in my knowledge and understanding of it even if I am not a consumer of the content." And I think a lot of people would say, why would anybody want to watch video games? And for me that answer is irrelevant. I don't care why, because the numbers are already telling me why. So can you try and help simplify this? Because I know there's a large majority of people out there that don't understand this and I really want to help be a gateway for them to better understand e-sports because it's something that very much has my attention and let that little be a red flag for everyone. If it has my attention, it should probably have your attention from a brand marketing dollars standpoint.
Kevin O'Brien: (11:54)
They bring out the question how many people are United States? You know, somewhere in 350 million people are in the United States, and within that 164 million people would consider themselves gamers or are gamers. That is huge. I mean, 164 million people are playing a game, and then 32 million people are in the esports realm, whether it's viewers or players in the United States. And so that's the audience and I understand from like the perspective that you're speaking about, not being able to understand why people would watch. Most people that are watching at least, you know, for a large majority, they're watching to gain competitive advantage right now because they're trying to see things that the pros are doing that'll help them. Over half of the viewers play competitively. Whereas you look at something like the NBA, it was only like less than 5% of the viewers that watch the NBA play, and so there's still the disconnect between getting that brand awareness between the players, but a lot of the people are playing because this is the new form of entertainment. I also did a lot of studying into the cord cutting phenomenon. And so if we trend that way, you know, people are growing up now never knowing what traditional cable was, but they're spending all their time on YouTube, on Twitch, you know, and then communicating through different platforms like that. Marketers are getting excited because it's hitting an age demographic that they've never been able to tap into, that being the discretionary income of early twenties. They're trying to increase their brand awareness to different age groups. I think one of the most important things to look at is the Fortnite phenomenon. Everyone knows in some way, shape or form or has seen someone do the floss. That was a social movement more so than it was a gaming movement. It is still the most used platform between ages 10 and 12. And so when you kind of look at the progression of social media as a whole, what is that age group going to be doing in 10, 12 years when they really like being social with a hundred other people in Fortnite?
Rob Cressy: (14:19)
You mentioned a few different things that I wanted to touch on. Let's start with the marketers. So in the last year I had a potential campaign that I was going to be working on with one of the largest esports teams out there and I was going to connect them with some brands. What I learned from that experience is there's a challenge in the marketplace on several sides. One on the brand side; they can say, "I'm interested in esports and I want to get into it. The challenge being, I don't know how to do it." On the flip side, let's call it on the team level, they say, "hey, we want to bring in more brands," but guess what they are not? They are not used to saying, how do I speak to brands and agencies to build this connection? So you have two people who are interested in saying we would love to work together, but neither of them has experience in working with either one of them. How do we sort of help make esports more relatable to each other knowing that the brands and marketers see the attention, so they see the dollars and the teams or leagues want to bring in the dollars. Well, we've got to make both of those fit.
Kevin O'Brien: (15:37)
Yeah. And I think that that has been a very big topic and something that you definitely see happening in the marketplace. For me, whenever I hear about brands that want to get into this space and they ask me, you know, where is my brand best fit? I always tell them the same thing as just start educating yourself a little bit more on the esports world. The one thing that most people might not realize about the esports community is that they're very tight knit. They're very educated and they're very tech savvy. And so when you start throwing brands on a team or on a company, just to try and get your tag on the shiny new object, it's important to understand that the, the users and the players and the people that are really dedicated know what everyone's doing and know the impact of all this, and so one of my biggest things is to really understand that. And then on the flip side is where are the, I wouldn't say the more educated people, but where are the people that understand the user side as well as understand the business side. I think that is a really cool thing that DePaul Esports is doing. My whole goal with bringing on the Student Leadership Board was to help foster and create the next generation of industry leaders. That doesn't mean get an "esports" degree. That just means get your marketing degree, get your communications degree, get your psychology degree, but understand this market, the esports market, to be able to have that type of expert opinion and have a little bit more leverage when you're coming out of school to be able to come in and help companies learn how do they better situate themselves into the market? How do they better represent themselves? And so I think it's happening slowly, but from the business side it accelerated tremendously over the past couple of years, so I think people are trying to figure that out.
Rob Cressy: (17:38)
The best tip that I can give, and I think of esports similarly to how I gained knowledge about blockchain technology. I had a business partner of mine who was talking about blockchain a few years ago and I had no idea what he was talking about, like 0%, but I want to get down like he's getting down. So I'm like, listen, the best thing that I can do is inform myself. So what did I do? I went and found the number one book about blockchain technology to say, all right, let me at least get more information than the average person who just listens to the news and sees that Bitcoin is tanking, and they go, "oh my God, blockchain doesn't work," when in actuality those two things are completely different, but if you don't understand what's going on between the two, that people are just misinformed, andI never want to be that. I love the way that you're thinking with this because you have to say, "listen, I don't know about esports or blockchain technology, but how can I," and that's by informing myself. How do you do that? Listen to podcasts, read books, have conversations with people so that all of a sudden you can start to give yourself a new perspective based on the way that you're seeing the marketplace.
Kevin O'Brien: (18:53)
Absolutely. There are a ton of different resources out there, whether it's on, you know, TV, there's TV shows that are showcasing esports now, there's news channels that are showcasing it, so it's just up to the user to be able to go out there and really start educating themselves in the market.
Rob Cressy: (19:12)
And here's another thing. I'd recommend. Watch an esports game on Twitch for a second and you're like, "well, why in the world would I do that?" Because you at least want to understand what in the world is going on. So if you've never seen League of Legends go on Twitch, and here's the thing: go watch Ninja. He's the number one of the, arguably one of the top e-sports players or celebrities out there. Just see what he's doing so that if you hear the name Ninja, you're not like, I have no idea what's going on. Like it's a very simple name Ninja. I like Ninja. That's cool. You just follow that. And at least if all of a sudden you're having a conversation with someone in there like, "oh, this brand's working with Ninja and Juju and Drake," you're like, "oh, esports ding, ding, ding." And now you can start putting the dots together.
Kevin O'Brien: (19:59)
Yeah, absolutely. And I'll say this just from a really cool experience. We were just in New York City with our Rocket League Team for the Big East Finals. We had a Big East Championship where we flew out to New York City and we got to spend a whole weekend playing other Big East schools. It came down to DePaul versus Seton Hall in the finals. It was a grueling seven game series, went all the way to the very last seconds. And looking around and watching the people, you know, who may not have ever watched this before, I bet you no one walked out of there saying, well, that was boring. They were on the edge of their seats. By the end they had the team that they wanted to win. There was cheering. It was, it was really cool to see two worlds kind of come together over a game. Yeah, they're watching people play video games, but they are cheering and it was amazing. So I challenge everybody to, you know, at least go out there and start watching a documentary or watch an actual match or watch commentary and listen to it.
Rob Cressy: (21:05)
One thing you mentioned is the tech savviness of people in esports. So from a technology perspective, where are things going?
Kevin O'Brien: (21:15)
Let's go back to the Fortnite phenomenon. Fortnite made over $2 billion in a game that is free to play. When you have a game that's free to play, what is happening is people are using microtransactions to be able to pay for different skins, which don't give you a competitive advantage - it just make your character look better. When you think about it from that perspective, it's that they are changing the way that we're purchasing, changing our purchasing power. And then also they're hitting a market with different brand items that are driven by influencers, social media and stuff like that. So from a technology standpoint, it's a new way to market and a new way to communicate within a new generation. And then just from the student's side, there is a lot more content creation going on. And so more students are gumming up to their computer and streaming on Twitch and creating YouTube videos and, and being more social and more aware of just everything that's going on in the world. I think technology is really growing with the sports world and the gaming world in itself.
Rob Cressy: (22:44)
I absolutely love this thought process and for me, I wish I could push a button at this moment and say, how can I get in the microtransaction digital purchasing landscape? There's a term that I heard when I was talking to a founder of an agency who's a very big into esports. And what he mentioned to me is twinning. And what twinning is, is taking an object or thing from real life in creating the digital twin of it and then having the ability to sell that. So imagine this anywhere from a piece of art to being able to sell 10,000 LeBron James shoes for your Fortnite character. So you could say, here's a one of one of something amazing in real life. And then digitize that all the way up to the ability to digitize anything and then sell them in the microtransaction or digital currency world. And I'm like, sign me up immediately for all of this.
Kevin O'Brien: (23:46)
Yeah, and so when it comes back down to 164 million people in the United States calling themselves gamers or gaming on a regular basis, that's 164 million people that your brand can extend to. As long as you're making sure that it's authentic or making sure that you're integrating yourself into that brand into that game in a way that doesn't feel forced. You know, and when you think about Lebron James and if you would sell shoes in there, they're already wearing shoes, and so how do you just throw your brand into that space? Utilizing the way to extend your reach into a new market is fantastic, especially for companies that are trying to look for new ways to market themselves.
Rob Cressy: (24:38)
Right? So maybe the better example would be Juju, Smith, Schuster, because I know he plays esports, and he plays games like that. So someone who was more one of them as opposed to here's LeBron, are we seeing him on Twitch? On the regular though there probably is a huge opportunity for NBA players because they play a lot of video games.
Kevin O'Brien: (24:58)
Yeah. And I think it was a JuJu Smith Schuster who said he's excited to see the next athlete that is playing professional sports and as a professional esports player because a lot of these guys and girls who play professional sports in their downtime, they utilize gaming to keep their mind healthy but also another way to de-stress and also hang out with their team and bond. So as much as it is a new aspect for the competitive scene, it's also a huge way to increase socialization within communities.
Rob Cressy: (25:35)
Well, yeah, I would much rather my star player play video games than go to the club. Of course I love going to the club, but if we've got a big game and he's like, "oh my God, he's spending three hours playing Fortnite," guess what? I'm cool with it.
Kevin O'Brien: (25:48)
Yeah, absolutely - as long as they're not staying up all night playing.
Rob Cressy: (25:53)
"JuJu questionable because he didn't go to bed last night." *laughter* So Kevin, I really enjoyed this conversation. Is there anything I didn't ask you that you think would be beneficial for the audience to know?
Kevin O'Brien: (26:10)
I think for me, the most important thing about this industry is to just really educate yourself before entering into it. Like I said before, and I tell a lot of companies, that you really want to make sure that if you go into this space, you go into this space right. For me, making sure that, companies are really looking into this space, really listening to the younger generation and the students is the key to all this.
Rob Cressy: (26:47)
Kevin, I love this conversation. I love the forward thinking and just sort of the mindset around all of this. I got a ton of value from this. Where can everybody connect with you?
Kevin O'Brien: (26:58)
The best way to connect with me is on LinkedIn. You can find me with my username, which is Kevinmob on LinkedIn. That's the best way.
Rob Cressy: (27:09)
And as always, I would love to hear from you about this episode. I want to hear what your knowledge is of esports right now. Have you ever watched a match? You can hit up FanFood on Twitter, @fanfoodondemand, on Instagram, @fanfoodapp, or on LinkedIn. And as always, you can hit me up on all social media platforms @robcressy.