Ep. 26: Making Esports More Accessible with Rob Johnson
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.
Rob Johnson, Chief Operating Officer at Nerd Street Gamers, joins Rob Cressy to talk about how Esports is becoming more accessible. How can more gamers play Esports in person? How do adults get into gaming? How are niche communities being formed around games and how can brands integrate into them? How is technology being used to transform the industry?
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Rob Cressy: (00:04)
Welcome to the game day 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 Cressy and joining me today is Rob Johnson, chief operating officer at nerd street gamers. Rob, great to have you on the show.
Rob Johnson: (00:30)
Thanks for having me.
Rob Johnson: (00:32)
Can you give a quick overview on who you are and what you do?
Rob Johnson: (00:35)
Yeah, I'm Rob. I'm chief operating officer, Nerd Street Gamers. Like you said, my background has been almost entirely traditional pro sports until the past few years. Eagles, Jacksonville Jaguars, Philadelphia flyers really leaning into consumer entertainment and seeing where fans money was going. And you know, over that time started to see the pool of video games and what for under 25, there's generations form of entertainment is starting to be common. It's, it's more and more video games. And you can see, I'm sure you've read plenty of stats or seeing headlines that the gaming industry is bigger than, you know, all of music and movies combined. It's a monster and from there, I left traditional sports to, to go make video games and find out, you know, really what's behind this and start to learn the business behind this interactive medium that is really taking over the world. And from there, you know about a year ago got an opportunity with Nerd Street Gamers, John Fazio, our, our founder, he's been building this out of Philadelphia the past few years. Right now it's building a rocket ship while it's flying.
Rob Cressy: (01:47)
Are you a gamer yourself?
Rob Johnson: (01:50)
I am. I've always been a casual. I'm a casual gamer and I won my first, we'll call it a e-sports contest, video game contest in a Walmart in 1993, Nintendo was releasing their Star Fox game and they did there's 2000 between Walmart and Toys R Us, different popups for one weekend and every region could compete and they picked one winner and you got this sweet bomber jacket that definitely doesn't fit me today, but I'm really, it's really cool that I haven't. That kind of started my love affair of games and casual gaming. I'm not by no means a lot of the people that we work with and a lot of the competitors that come into our venues anywhere near or close to the skill of the but you know, appreciating video games has been a lifelong passion.
Rob Cressy: (02:39)
So I'm curious how other, let's call them adults or casual or non-gamers can get more into esports because we see the growth opportunities in the industry. But I think that there's almost a barrier or a fear because I don't know what I'm doing. This is new, so you can see an opportunity but not know how to get into it.
Rob Johnson: (03:01)
Yeah. And it, it really comes down to one, you know, a non-game or getting into esports is like a non-sports fan getting into hockey, it's, it's unlikely to happen and people have different flavors. However, there's two and a half billion gamers on this planet. We don't need to make more of them. We need to make more competitive gamers and what the offering of nursery gamers does. That's exactly it. And it's bringing more accessibility and bringing this out into the open where you know, these terrible stereotypes of kids sitting in their basement or adults sitting in their basement as loners. Where's the, where are these places to play? Where's the infrastructure? And we look at all these pro teams across the world at this point. Overwatch, for example, now has franchises. They're owned by traditional sports teams. But where is the infrastructure, the little league fields, the soccer camps to get people into the pros to build a fan base. So a lot of what's happened in traditional sports where you started with, you know, a lot and then you had semi-pro and then you had major league baseball. ESports went a little backwards and it really started the money went to the top without a really clear infrastructure of how to get people, not only to the pros, but becoming fans, spectating the career options that are coming from e-sports in this industry. Whether that's on the hospitality networking to video game development. You know, there's plenty of career paths and opportunities that are coming out of this when they're sure gamers are doing. We're going back for more building America's infrastructure to do that.
Rob Cressy: (04:30)
You said something that I have never heard before and it set a light bulb off in my head in terms of relating little league to e-sports. So imagine, alright, your son or daughter wants to get into esports. Alright, well what if there is a center where they can go play and then you think of what a parent does. All right, well my kid's playing little league. I'm going to sit there and watch them and you may have very limited knowledge of something like that, but all of a sudden I can start to see where the learning curve can start to improve because one of the biggest challenges of a non-gaming parent would be they don't really get it at all and they've never really watched video games before. But if all of a sudden you had the ability to watch your son or daughter play a game within a little league environment for E-sports, all of a sudden I was like, click, that makes complete sense how an adult would all of a sudden understand it more through their child.
Rob Johnson: (05:34)
Yeah. And that's one of the biggest things we see and our typical demo is not a typical demo. We're 13 to 40, and we actually skew older than even I anticipated coming into this and working for you know, previously the Philadelphia flyers, which became an older fan base. You know, gaming is, runs the gamut and it was much older than I anticipated. And you know, with kids and camps and even parents that grew up with Goldeneye, there's, there's still love there. There's just no access, there's no opportunity to play and even doing that, there's, if you do that at home, you know, sometimes you're sharing a TV or it's in another room and you don't know who your kid is talking to or who the adult is. Even talking to the anonymity of the internet can become toxic. So you know, really bringing this into an open space and having people play together is akin to your soccer rec league, your dodgeball league, anything that you're doing recreationally, all the way to what is a fun way to build teamwork in an environment where we already know that this is, this generation's form of entertainment
Rob Cressy: (06:45)
What I'm envisioning right now is you know, how quickly a large majority of 32 young, 40 year old people could get involved back in video games. You said Goldeneye but there's also Mario Kart and those things don't go away certainly on the Mario Kart side of things because I think about the number of girls that I knew in college that loved Mario Kart and imagine a scenario where you're dropping your kid off at this little league of esports. Oh by the way, we just might hold a parents tournament for Mario Kart or Goldeneye or God forbid, when another one of the new games that everybody's playing.
Rob Johnson: (07:25)
And that's where we see the opportunity and why we're racing to build. And we're now fully capitalized to build 110 local hosts for our venues. We're going to build those throughout the country. Right now we have two in Philadelphia. One we're going to vastly expand shortly. Another one is built into the Wells Fargo center. And this is an amenity for the flyers in the six years to help sell tickets and to help bring the fan base a little bit younger. We have Denver, Colorado and then also Huntington beach, California and then we'll have approximately 16 more of these going into 2020. So the demand is they'll, the scale is there and what we see is access and the opportunity and the integrity of play is something that we're building naturally today.
Rob Cressy: (08:04)
So you mentioned access. So let's talk about the accessibility for E-Sports. And one thing that you mentioned to me previously is gaming is more fun in person. So as we look at the fan engagement side of things, I was like, that is the no brainer of the century. So talk to me a little bit more about the, how you can make this more accessible by offering more opportunities to play in person or if you can just roll up to a console and play for $2 and 50 cents an hour
Rob Johnson: (08:35)
It's not quite the console and what we're talking about an e-sports in the high end and what the pros play and what you're watching on mixer or watching on Twitch. These are $3,000 PCs. So let's talk about the access first. These computers are not available to most of America. It's now only for the upper middle class. So when we talk about we're bringing these high end pro PCs to the rest of America to play for just a few dollars an hour, even after school specials in local communities where we'll open this up for free in order to give again, the opportunity, our next pillar here. So that you know, more people have the ability to do this and it's not a bunch or a whole family crowded around one X-Box. You know, it is another problem. But you know, for high PCs and giving really the way the game was meant to be played by the publishers and you look at Overwatch and then you call of duty and the way that they look and feel it 200 frames per second is entirely different than you're going to get an experience at home.
Rob Johnson: (09:32)
So that's something that as we build these, our local hosts have the highest PCs that we can possibly have. We refresh them at our rates and make sure that it's always the best in clas and that's, that's really where the access comes from here is being able to bring that across America.
Rob Cressy: (09:47)
I really like that. So let's talk about the next thing in terms of ticketing around this for E-Sports. So you'd mentioned to me previously, Hey, there is no ticket master for e-sports. So what can be done around this?
Rob Johnson: (10:03)
Yeah. So one of our companies, we have four verticals here at Nerd Street Gamers, it's esports infrastructure company. So soup to nuts. We bring a sports wherever we need to. So local hosts that talked about, these are the physical brick and mortar venues. Our national championships series, this is again extends access over a thousand events per year in different communities in 13, 14 States that we're doing it. Then let's get into ticketing and lobby.gg. This is where we decided to build into dog food. Our own ticketing system and access system is built for gamers. And there's some things that your ticket master otherwise can't offer. And that's, you know, bracketing and being able to save your settings and to know when you sit at this computer, I'm ready to go into, providing a frictionless experience. Much like when you walk through the gates of a ballpark, you're now scanning your ticket on your phone. It's really easy. It's simple and now you're at the game for computing and for games and for you know, e-sports, there's really nothing that has been limiting this friction. So using our access platform, we're using a ticketing system. We're going to make this a much better experience for everybody.
Rob Cressy: (11:10)
So does that mean that you're moving this past just we want to get into the venue, but more of a personalization and customization? Almost like if you're going to take the traditional, we're going to go see an NBA game where you say, listen, we know that you love to eat this or drink this and we're going to have that at your seat already ready for you.
Rob Johnson: (11:34)
That's where the whole world is going. You know, being able to connect with the PC and to know what genre of game this person is playing, what their preferences are, to be able to go to any of our local hosts across the country and have a very similar experience. Again, this doesn't exist today. This infrastructure was completely missed when we built out e-sports in the United States. From there, it's important to remember from traditional sports ESports that there's not just esports fans, there's fans of genres. So a battle royale fan might not want to watch league of legends and definitely vice versa. So being able to, you know, find what people like the communities that they like to be in and whether that's the fighting game community and smash brothers you know, certainly a lot of the real time strategy games, StarCraft, we just had a huge championship here in Philadelphia. But being able to bucket into segment those people into the communities that they want to grow in, that's immensely important from a data and an access platform. So we're showing them the right things and the right content and with content. And we also have NSG TV, Our fourth vertical of the company. We play on Twitch. We make sure that we're at least hosting the everybody that's coming into our venues or into our tournament's that we're giving them you know, really a showcase for, for their talents to grow and to grow in pro or semi pro. And we've seen a few people start at our venues and end up on pro teams. And that's the great story that we want to continue happening. But also, linear and we can't forget linear and you know, we, we did a test a few months ago with a show at NBC sports. Philadelphia was called for the wind, Philly FTW Philly and we took a magazine show and went behind the people that were getting into these communities and the stories behind them and not just showing gameplay. And it turned out to be pretty successful. It got picked up for a full season. We're going to likely do it again next year here in Philly, and then take that with us as we travel from city to city where we can really showcase who these people are and those stories they're just skipped and there's just no medium for them to be shown
Rob Cressy: (13:36)
On the highest level. Who is responsible or in charge of building these communities? So is it the game publishers? Are they becoming these natural organic communities? So really how did these things cultivate? Because once you've built a community, there's so many opportunities that come from them.
Rob Johnson: (13:59)
It's a little bit research and we'll look at Reddit, we'll look at discord is a major social media channel for gaming. And we'll listen and we'll find out what people want and where they are, and we'll work with leaders that you know, want to have these tournaments and we'll invite them into our local host. And that's how we build the relationship with the different games and the different gaming communities because they're all very different and, and have different needs. So that's, you know, the first way that we do it as far as targeting advertising, getting more people on top of that. Facebook and Instagram have really great targeting based on games. If that didn't exist, this will be a lot harder. But really the first step is working with, we know that there's so many gamers out there going into the community, finding these leaders and then bringing them in and saying, we have this, this great essentially gymnasium for you to practice your craft and grow into build to build the community.
Rob Cressy: (14:52)
So let's then talk about brand integration and brands wanting to get into ESports, but the potential accessibility problem more so from who is the internal champion at a brand who can understand these things. So imagine someone just like you, but who hasn't been in the E-Sports world who says, listen, we identify that we like this demographic. There's communities that are being built there. So how are these brands then or how are the handshakes being facilitated between the gamers, the gaming companies and the brands?
Rob Johnson: (15:32)
It's always complicated and we, you know, very much want to stay on the line of what's authentic and what is true for the communities that come in. When you bring in non-endemic sponsors. It has to be an offering that's good for the community or just be rejected. So what we see from a valuation standpoint of sponsors coming in. They all love this space, but they don't know how to value, how to put a valuation on it. You know, that's what helps with Twitch and with linear television and if you add media components to it outside of traditional experiential marketing you really have a hit here and experiential marketing. This is, this is millennials and this is gen Z in tournament's in a room in one place for five to eight hours a day on weekends is something that really no other entertainment offering can give. So it becomes unique in that standpoint, but again, it needs to be authentic and it needs to fit what the community is looking for.
Rob Cressy: (16:23)
From a technology standpoint, What has your eye from a forward thinking side of things, so you mentioned as you've gotten these high end computers and terminals, you guys are constantly upgrading, but where else is technology really having an impact?
Rob Johnson: (16:39)
The cloud and you'll see stadia, working out its kinks right now, X cloud from Microsoft. This is going to create more gamers and at the same time, yes, this is gaming at home. Well, we're going to have a much bigger pool of people that are excited about gaming, excited about gaming in person and bringing their skills to a local host because now you'll be able to play high end games in 4K on almost any device. Now, why you play should play in person, particularly in a tournament atmosphere is you're not going to solve for the speed of light. So if I'm further away from a hub than you are, my Internet's better. There's some competitive and definitely integrity issues. So playing in person, you can make sure that one, the court is the same length. You're making sure everybody's on the same machine and that you can't buy your way to a victory. So that's why in-person gaming, even though you know, cloud gaming will make it more prevalent where you have high end games everywhere. We will ultimately think that that's just going to, to drive more competitive gamers into an atmosphere where you have the integrity of play.
Rob Cressy: (17:41)
What should we be following? So help us take into your mindset a little bit. So we want to be more knowledgeable about esports. So what has your eye that we can learn from you that we should be following or tracking?
Rob Johnson: (17:59)
You can look around you and the one thing is trying to find ways to remove this awful stereotype that exists with gamers. A lot of people when, when I go meet them in business or I meet them out casually, they won't volunteer to me that they're a gamer until I say what I do. So you know, the, the first one is look around you. There's gamers around you who have conversations, be able to talk about it because the demand is there and it's just not very talked about because there's this little stigma that still exists. But as far as watching what's going on, you're going to see this one, we're going to have 110 venues, so we're likely going to have one near you. So please come down to a local host as soon as we open to watching your pros teams. Try to incorporate and you'll see the NBA 2K league exists. We've already built a local host into the Wells Fargo center integrating e-sports into the offering of a traditional sports team. So just paying attention and if you want to read it, you know esports insider, esports observer they do a pretty good job of keeping up to date of what is very endemic news. But otherwise this is, this is the mass market, this is arrived, this is culture. It just for some reason doesn't, there's a stigma that doesn't get talked about often. So the first thing is find more gamers, ask people around you if you game and you'll likely be pleasantly surprised.
Rob Cressy: (19:17)
We recently had Kevin O'Brien, the executive director for DePaul esports on the podcast. And one thing that he talked about that I didn't realize was oftentimes when people are watching other gamers play it is really to try and learn from them to get a competitive edge. Like, Oh man, I see that. So if we non gamers who are coming into the industry, say, alright Rob, I'm down with what you're saying. I'm going to start watching some of these games. What should we be looking for so that we can sort of understand this a little bit better?
Rob Johnson: (19:53)
It starts with participation, not just watching. That's a critical, critical step here and again, why we build these local hosts and why we have the national championship series. You need to play the game to start to understand a little bit. It's not to say if you like ice hockey that you had to play it to understand. However, there's so many different games and there's so many different varieties and it's so personalized to your unique likes. You know, pick up a controller, play fine, get a PC play, come into a local host and play and start to find out, you know, really what you like from there. You'll find ways and you'll start to, if you explore on Twitch and you start to, you know, see what other people are watching it organically come to you and you'll see, oh, I didn't even think of that. Or oh, that was a great move Or oh, I'm going to try this next time, the next time I play. But as far as spectating and watching people the best, we will take the Overwatch league for example. You're watching the best in the world at their craft and the speed that it moves and just to appreciate that is very akin to, to any other traditional sport.
Rob Cressy: (20:52)
Rob, I dig everything that you guys are building. Is there anything that I didn't ask you that you think would be beneficial for the audience to know?
Rob Johnson: (21:02)
No, I mean check us out where we're going to be in a neighborhood near you. So you know, nerdstreetgamers.com love to have the tournaments and hopefully listeners here will show up.
Rob Cressy: (21:16)
And as always, I would love to hear from you about this episode. Here's what I want to know. Have you ever watched one e-sports video or match? If so, what was it from? You can hit up FanFood on Twitter @fanfoodondemand, on Instagram @fanfoodapp or on LinkedIn. As always, you can hit me up on all social media platforms @robcressy