Ep. 66: Learning From Esports Growth with Eric Johnson
In each episode of The Playbook presented by FanFood, host Rob Cressy discusses how leaders are modernizing today’s customer experience through technology in sports, entertainment and hospitality. We invite industry veterans to talk about how customer expectation have changed in today’s world, and how businesses need to change accordingly for greater operational efficiency and better guest experience.
Eric Johnson, CEO of the Electronic Gaming Federation, joins Rob Cressy to talk about lessons learned from the growth of Esports. How does Esports do a great job of elevating the customer experience by speaking to their niche? How has being a technology first industry helped with building a community and creating content? The Big East selected the EGF as it’s first-ever Esports governance, marketing, and distribution partner. How did that come about and what does that entail? What do we not know about Esports that we should? To see how your restaurant, establishment, or venue can benefit from FanFood’s platform please get in touch here.
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Rob Cressy: (00:08) Welcome to The Playbook presented by FanFood. A discussion around how leaders are modernizing today’s customer experience through technology in sports, entertainment, and hospitality. I’m your host, Rob Cressy. And joining me today is Eric Johnson, CEO of the EGF, the Electronic Gaming Federation. Eric, great to have you on the show. Eric Johnson: (00:31) Rob, great to be here, man. Rob Cressy: (00:33) Can you give a quick overview of who you are and what you do? Eric Johnson: (00:37) Yeah, so I’m the CEO of EGF. We are a division one intercollegiate e-sport varsity level company that is a governing body and also does production elements, media elements, all the scheduling, everything of that nature. My background has been in traditional sport. I worked at ESPN for almost two decades and have been a student of the entire sports space and saw what e-sport was developing at ESPN and wanted to get involved. Cause I think that this is an undeniable growth engine that we need to harness with the right level of business acumen to make it work. Rob Cressy: (01:20) So, let’s start with this. Why do you believe this is an undeniable growth engine? Eric Johnson: (01:25) Because I’ve been gaming, I’ve gained every single system in my entire life. And I understood what that meant to my success in my career. And I don’t think that that has been fully attributed to gamers. I think gamers have been misunderstood in certain levels and what I’ve seen and my daughter is in this space and we went through the process of working with oncologists to get her to get a gaming degree and that the undeveloped system that existed there became something that we wanted to help develop. And so along with that process and working with the schools, everyone is coming to the realization on the amateur side. What’s already happened on the professional side, which is the fact that everybody’s spending their time in this space. Everybody is the number of gamers that have been misunderstood is now being understood, and that is all developing, but how do we tie that to education? And how do we tie that to the collegiate experience, the high school experience? And this is what’s fascinating to me. Rob Cressy: (02:26) And I think a lot of people who aren’t in the esports industry who may look from the outside have a hard time understanding how people can get paid to play esports and, or be professional. And then the next level is that you can actually go to school to learn this to go down that track. Eric Johnson: (02:47) But it’s an industry. So, why could you not go to school to learn how to be in the entertainment space or to be in the sports space or to be in the medical space? Like this is absolutely that is a content engine in many ways. So, learning and having a passion for that tie directly to it. I would argue that at many universities, I’m a UCLA grad. I was a UCLA football fan. I went to UCLA because I love their football team. Did that help me in my economics degree? No, but if I’m into Esports and I made it to a certain college’s Esport sports program and then I use that to give game theory and get game design and get STEM programming as part of my education, and they excelled here versus excel there, doesn’t that lead more directly to my career path? Rob Cressy: (03:36) Very much so. What I like about this is people are learning how to do something they will love. When you find someone who does something that they love they’re going to be so much more engaged, they’re going to perform so much better in the growth trajectory is huge. And I think back to when I went to college and I was never really asked what I wanted to do. It took 10 years post-college for me to finally get to the point where I got to do something that I wanted to do because I ended up with a degree in marketing that served me, but guesses what? I thought I was dreaming that I was going to work for an ad agency being creative and coming up with ideas. But here’s the reality of the situation. I had no internships and it became a fast track to inside sales, where next thing I know I was just struggling to get a job. I went a year out of college without a job until finally I got a job in a Fifth/Third Bank call center selling home equity loans, making $10 an hour and I didn’t even have an email address. So, when I think about what you’re saying about being able to help empower people to do something that they love and I think about my own experience, I really would have liked someone to say, Rob, here’s a track where you can learn something. A skill that you can enjoy and make money at the same time. Eric Johnson: (04:56) I promised myself many, many, many years ago that I would never take a job that I did not have an incredible passion for. That’s how I got into sports. That was what I am passionate about. To all your listeners, make sure that they understand that, never have something. And as a business owner, I would say that the only employee that I ever wanted to hire is somebody who’s wholly passionate for what this is because the energy and the commitment and the output that would be given, and the understanding of the intuitive nature of the understanding of this is everything as an employee. So, it’s not only good for the employee, it’s good for the business to have those aligned, right? Because if you have passion, you have passion clearly. We talked before we started this podcast. This is what you want to do and it shows, that’s all we want. And as a business leader, you want to have that too.
Rob Cressy: (05:45) And for me, that then relates to customer experience because one thing that I know esports does such a good job of is, speaks the language of their customer. It’s something where there are people who are playing that are amateurs who watch the professional level and there’s this relate-ability between the two that I think esports has done such a good job of. And I’m seeing even more startups happening where they’re trying to almost create this level in between amateur and professional where maybe you’re not making six figures doing esports, but what if you could make a hundred bucks because you did something where you won a tournament, or you played some game that allowed you to engage a brand where all of a sudden you’re like, wow, all of a sudden I’ve got this free drink from this brand who wanted to sponsor this thing. And now you feel some sort of way about that brand and what esports allowed you to do. Eric Johnson: (06:40) I think that getting a profession in Esport for maybe a hundred dollars, maybe a thousand dollars, maybe ten thousand today, it’s going to be a hundred thousand dollars, a million dollars for lots of people in the future. So, this is absolutely an industry that’s going to be booming for a decade or two decades, without a doubt. This is a new tent pole of what entertainment is. And so all of those jobs, the ability to get experience and to learn how to understand how to work within this space and to learn all facets of the space, and then use that as a foundation to the ultimate career. To me, like I’ve seen this, I’ve lived this in many different tracks. I’ve seen in the music industry, seen in the sports industry and now in this industry, it’s absolutely going to happen. So, that’s the commitment that everyone should make. Rob Cressy: (07:30) So, you’d mentioned that esports is a content engine. And I think one thing that e-sports also does a very good job of, is being forward-thinking and especially with the use of technology. And I think about the use of Twitch and then the way that gamers almost become media companies because they have the ability to put a camera on and you can now watch them play. And it’s a level of fan engagement that doesn’t really exist in a lot of other industries, and is it hard? No, but do you have to understand sort of what to do to get it there? Yes, but it is a very technology first industry. Eric Johnson: (08:08) Without a doubt. And I would argue that all younger adults these days understand the idea of self-brand because of social media more than any other generation before them, obviously. But now in the esports place, what’s really interesting is if you’re going the professional route, you’re going that route in your early teens or late teens. If you’re going to college and EGF is very focused on college, then you’re probably not going the professional sport route. But you are still into that as part of the identifiable, this is who I am. This is me. This is who I relate with. And you also have probably earned money during this time. So, you during your teenager high school year, or maybe during your college years, the whole name, image, likeness of what has stopped Esport from being fully adopted by colleges because the other traditional sports haven’t had that yet has created Esport to be an outcast on campus in some ways. Because it can’t be folded in between volleyball and water polo because these people have made money. So, in theory, they’re professionals and that’s the way the world’s going to work. We’re all understanding our brands. So, we need to celebrate that. Part of what we do is celebrate that. We tell the stories, we give them opportunities to be able to do that. To create scholarship as part of it, but also to create a brand identity. And we want to have that flourish because that is the way the world is going. It’s just that some institutions when I say institutions I mean business institutions have not caught up with that. Rob Cressy: (09:47) Yeah, and I think that while I understand wanting to be part of the regular cadence of a score professional sports, once again, I will go back to the niche in the ability for esports to stand alone and say, listen, if you don’t get esports that’s no sweat off our backs because we do us and we’re in this world and bubble. But I believe the opportunity becomes how can you transition that to make it more accessible to more people, or to give more tools to allow new people to come in and experience it. And that’s another part of customer experiences. What can you do to help the first touchpoint? So, it’s like, all right, how is someone going to find out about esports? What is that experience going to be like? And then what can be done to continue that conversation? Eric Johnson: (10:35) Yeah. You know, it’s at that stage right now. And there are enough examples in the industry to show that that stage becomes a mega stage. And so I look back to the idea that in the early eighties I was very into hip hop and rap and the only place to get in was not radio, the old place to get it was to go to a swap meet in Torrance, California to buy mixtapes, cassettes. That’s the only place you can get it in California. And using that to see what that field has become now, that’s when I say undeniable, that’s what I mean. If you were part of that crew when there are some selection and some selectivity of being part of this smaller group right now, tight-knit, very understanding that you’re driven a community that’s very strong and interwoven to see what that is going to become but to hold onto the roots of what that is, is quite honestly the expectation of all of our future leaders to make that happen. Rob Cressy: (11:37) So, the EGF was selected by the Big East as its first-ever esports governance, marketing, and distribution partner. Can you share a little bit of insight into that for us? Eric Johnson: (11:50) Yeah, so essentially our goal to run what is a league-wide situation. So, we have 20 plus weeks of competition that have a regular season and a postseason that ladder up to a tournament and then a bracket-style at the end in April. That is a part of what we are putting on the table for colleges. Having and being involved with the Big East and doing a three year deal with them was that commitment. We’ve been working with them in earnest for a long time and created a great relationship for our understanding of creating empowerment for the students, creating educational opportunities, and making sure that it’s beneficial for the campuses. And ultimately we’re creating alumni basis over time. We’re creating away right now in the collegiate space. It’s a little bit fractionalized and it’s a lot of invitationals or tournaments. We’re trying to create an opportunity for it to be in a much more organized way. There’s a reason the NCAA and basketball exists. There’s a reason that the College Football Association exists. There’s a reason why the power five exists because the best brands know that they want to bring their brands together because that’s where they have the most power and the most force in the marketplace, to create the most audience and the most opportunity from a revenue standpoint. Rob Cressy: (13:09) You mentioned creating an alumni basis over time. I believe one of the biggest missed opportunities that I’ve seen in my lifetime is actually around collegiate alumni. And I think about my own experience where I was in a fraternity at college. I went to Miami University in Ohio and you have a built-in network. And the further you get away from the network, the less impactful it is. But what we’re saying right here with eSports is one of the powers is the strong community. So, I believe there’s such an opportunity for these schools or the Greek system or anyone to say, well, if you’re a part of a community once, what can we do to make sure that there’s a followup process to keep your part of what we’re doing? Because you know how much more valuable I am right now to the university or to my fraternity than I was when I graduated from college? The people who are there should want to know who I am because I can undoubtedly help them. Eric Johnson: (14:11) So, I would argue that that’s something that has not been fully connected yet, is that idea what you just said. If you were part of the gaming community you have friends locally, but you have a lot more friends that are around the world, right? Technology allows you to be able to be a part of communities that have no geographic boundaries whatsoever. How do you take that person, that student, and connect them more directly with the institution, but with the university too? Because they are going to be huge for alumni. And what hasn’t happened now is there’s a lot of tournaments that are happening where players are playing as part of their club teams in certain tournaments and they’re using the marks of what the school is, but the school’s not as involved as they need to be. We need to make this bond happen between the school having a stay and the student having a say and then ultimately that leads to that connection. So, that becomes part of my community too. So, I can have a community around the world, but I also have a community with this institution that I graduated from. Rob Cressy: (15:13) Makes complete sense. And it makes me think about college basketball and some of the challenges that they often run into. So, I think about when Lonzo Ball first went to UCLA and he had more social media followers than the UCLA athletic program. And then I think about his brother who didn’t even go to college, who decided to go and play overseas. And I think about that framing in terms of what we’re talking about right here, because there should be someone at a university that understands the magnitude of, wait for a second, there are personal brands who are a part of what we do in wish and want to be able to support them because the huge opportunity becomes we’re all personal brands, but then there’s going to be some that stand out and certainly in the world of esports. And I believe one of the challenges is you need some forward-thinking leaders within a university to say, all right, we believe in this as step one, we’re going to plant our flag. Step two, let’s create these processes to build our community and make sure that we can help elevate these brands and the people. Eric Johnson: (16:18) That’s right. That is the connection that’s actually happening right now. So, you’d be happy to hear like that is coming together, being woven together in a way that hasn’t been for the last number of years there. Everybody’s finally coming to that same space of what you bring up. And I’m glad you brought it up because I think it’s really important. But whether you get Esport or you get gaming or you play, or you don’t play for those who don’t play, they’re realizing the concepts and the notion that you just brought up as to what that means to be able to propel that image. And you’ve forgotten LaMelo who didn’t go abroad, went straight in and it was the number one draft pick this year. So, another Ball brother. Rob Cressy: (17:00) Yes. What do we not know about esports that we should know?
Eric Johnson: (17:10) I think the biggest thing that should be known about the gaming community is I think there’s a misnomer and I’ve heard it from a couple of institutions like, Hey, we have a retention issue with people who game because they’re too busy gaming and they’re not going to class. And I said, well, so what are you doing as a community on campus to bring them into physical locations to make them feel integrated with the campus, integrated with the school, a part of the community, what are you doing to make sure that that connection is happening? And they said, well, we’re really not doing much. So, is that retention issue because of the plaintiff games, or is that a retention issue because you’re not doing what you could be doing? What you’re doing with other students? So again, I’ve gamed my entire life. I’ve seen what it’s made for a career. For me, I’ve seen what it’s done to develop cognitive thinking, to develop problem-solving skills. I’ve seen all those things. I think the misnomer on gaming is that it’s draining your potential as opposed to what I think it is expanding your potential. Rob Cressy: (18:19) I love that. And I really break this down in customer experience into three words, engagement, intention, and strategy. So, when we’re talking about the areas where there is a weakness where a school or a university or community hasn’t done something. Number one, there’s a lack of engagement between the institution and the student. Number two, there’s just not enough intention about, well, if we think that retention is an issue, why aren’t we more intentional about it? And then if you want to be in more intentional about it, number three, well, why are we not creating a strategy to say, how can we engage that students a lot more because a lot of this can become, well, let’s just talk about the problem instead of just saying, well, instead of talking about the problem, let’s just be intentional about the way that we solve it by putting the right strategy in place. Eric Johnson: (19:12) Yeah. It’s a great way to lay it out. What I will say right now and what I’m so excited about in the timing is that that thinking has already been transformed or is transforming right before our eyes. We are in that moment of reflection to where everyone is stepping up and realizing I see what the potential is here and I want to go after it. So, that’s great and I think people are following the model that you just brought up is the idea of how do we solve this and also how important this is to the entire community. Rob Cressy: (19:43) The last thing I want to ask you about is the media side of things and how someone listening right now can take some of what esports does great. So, the content opportunities and opportunities for engagement from that are so abundant. And I believe there’s a lot that we can learn from the way that esports creates content and then distributes it in its ability to then use that as a positive brand building and marketing tool. What are your thoughts on this? Cause I know this is an area that you specialize in, in terms of what can someone who may not have anything to do with esports take away from the ethos of how e-sports creates content and utilizes the media? Eric Johnson: (20:27) Well, in so many ways. And I’ll use traditional sport as a backdrop to get to the sport’s answer. The traditional sport was all about live games, right? Live matches. That’s what we tuned in for. And then we tuned in for highlights of what that was. And then the evolution of storytelling about the players themselves has changed over time. And then social media created where you could be a hardcore sports fan of a team, pick any team. You could be a Miami Heat fan and you go to spend any time watching a mind heat game, but you know every result of every game and you follow Jimmy Butler and you understand all the story behind the team themselves. That’s all part of what it is. E-Sport was built the opposite way. It was built around the actual narratives of the people who were involved. They were the ones who created the storytelling in many ways. And then the competition came from that. It was a gaming community that became a quote, unquote esport. As opposed to a sports community that tried to say all of a sudden now the way media consumption works in the esport space is to identify with my team, identify with the player. I want to follow the player. I want to be connected. I don’t necessarily want to watch every single match, I just don’t. And I think e-sport has an upper hand in that way and I think we want to propel that. Rob Cressy: (21:44) Do you believe every brand or company can build a community? Eric Johnson: (21:50) Yeah, I do. I do. I absolutely do. And I think you can build the community the right way by getting to understand what each community is going to be. There are multiple communities. It’s not one community, right? It’s a multitude of communities, but the ability to be able to do that is absolutely out there. And I think listening and understanding if you look up a lot of the messaging that has happened during this Covid window from advertisers, from marketers, a lot of has been on point with what’s happening in society. It’s very much totally on point for what the pluses and minuses for everything that we’re going through right now. But certainly, we’re going through a moment which is not euphoria for all of us, obviously with everything that’s going on the pandemic, but the messaging is building towards that so it shows you as an example that of course, they do. Rob Cressy: (22:41) And the first example that popped into my head and I have no idea why was alright, well, let’s prove to everyone that this can actually be true. And you know, what came into my head, just cleaning wipes. If you were a company that just sold wipes that go on the table right there. And I’m like, all right, how would I build that community if I was the company that just selling cleaning wipes? Because I want to debunk the fact that someone listening right now goes, yeah, but that doesn’t work for my industry. And I’m like, alright, well, what audience did they have right there? And then I’m like, well, it’s people who actually like to keep things clean and there are moms and there’s actually people who do relate to making sure that things are tidy and homely. So, what I would do is if I was a company that sold cleaning wipes is I would talk about ways to make things look better and build a community of moms who have tips and tricks and ways to disinfect or live a healthier, cleaner lifestyle. And it just so happens, Oh, by the way, if you want to make that happen you can use our wipes. And I also think about a company called Dude Wipes, who I actually know the founders of. And it’s the absolute perfect example of someone who has revolutionized an industry where it’s men’s grooming, well not men’s grooming it’s men’s toiletry and wipes, and all of a sudden they’ve turned it into a brand for guys. So, it’s really about understanding your audience and then speaking the language of that. What would you say? Eric Johnson: (24:16) I would say those are all great opportunities for taking advantage of the situation, right? Understanding what society is in innovating a product and then marketing to that product to the world in that space. That’s fascinating and that is one end of the spectrum that is really interesting. The other end of the spectrum that’s really interesting to me is if you’re an automotive manufacturer and marketer right now, when you already had you know Uber and Lyft being like problems for car ownership, you’re now going to COVID situation when nobody’s going to work, nobody’s commuting, nobody needs a new car. How do you market your brand in that situation? To me that’s fascinating. And I’ve seen, and I’m telling you I’ve been in the auto business for a long time too, the innovation in terms of the messaging from the auto category has been exceptional the last 90 days, 120 days because they’ve realized they have to completely change. I can’t just show a car, show caning through a mountain road, and give a lease offer on the back end and think that’s going to move a car. Nobody needs a car right now, right? There are certain things that we don’t need right now. We don’t need clothes the same way we needed clothes. You put that shirt on five minutes before this podcast, I know you did. And I put that out as well, right? We don’t need the same thing. So, how as a marketer do you get that idea of I’m going to make that brand loyalty state clear to where they’re only going to buy my brand. And then how do I give opportunities for new innovation of product that makes them want to come to the table now? Rob Cressy: (25:39) Yeah, and the car example is great because I didn’t have a car for the last five years. COVID hitting all of a sudden I was someone who took the train. I rode my bike everywhere and I did Uber and Lyft. And you know what I would like to see, and somehow Subaru popped into my head. I don’t own a Subaru, but it’s about experiences because the reason we got a car is that it allowed us to drive an hour and a half to Wisconsin to go to a lake, to go camping, and something like this. So, now the car is actually a vehicle for the experience that I want to have. It’s not just about having a car. Eric Johnson: (26:13) But you just validated exactly what I said. I leased a car two months ago, a brand new car that fit the family for that reason. I needed to get out of the house. A six-hour drive all of the sudden sounds romantic because I just wanted to get out and be able to have space. And that became a contained, safe area for us as a family to be able to go explore. So, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. So, how do you market to that? That’s the harder challenge, but also the greater success in my mind. And I’m more intrigued by that. Rob Cressy: (26:44) Right. And that is like those two words you said, get out. If all we did was get out and the car gives us the ability to get out, because what are? We’re all get in right now. But if we can get something that’s going to get us out and explore and create an adventure, we could create a marketing campaign for cars and around five words. Eric Johnson: (27:02) You should be thinking about what’s going to happen in 2021 when the whole world opens up. Start thinking about what does the world looks like when that happens? What’s the human nature that happens in that space? You have a lot to talk about with that. Rob Cressy: (27:15) Eric, I had so much fun jamming with you. Where can everybody connect with you? Eric Johnson: (27:21) Yeah, so I’m a @EricCJohnson on Twitter or you kinda connect with me anywhere in the world. I’m around on LinkedIn. So check me out. That’s it. Rob Cressy: (27:30) And as always, we would love to hear from you about this episode, and there’s so much that we could unpack, but I’m curious. I want to hear about one community that you are a part of. Is it something like esports or is it a brand that you really like? Let us know one community you’re a part of. 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.