Confessions of a Digital Dinosaur: Esports Potential is Enormous. What Else is Going On There?!

I had to see this place with my own eyes.

The first university from a Power 5 conference to offer esports scholarships was the University of Utah. The Director of the program is A.J. Dimick, and he was kind enough to offer a tour to this digital dinosaur.

My directions led me to park in the shadows of the towering football stadium. So, I shouldn’t have been surprised that my greeter was a football guy. He walks me through a hidden patio and stops to point at his BBQ grill with a huge smile “We tailgate right there!” Just steps from the entrance to one of the best home field advantages in the country, this football nut is showing me around his version of heaven.

We make it back to the office, where I am surrounded by all sports posters from Utah teams of past decades. Yellowed newspaper clippings from his favorites hang next to each. Any memory that I would point at, he knew every detail down to the 2nd string backups.

I learned this guy I'm talking to was the captain of his high school championship football team, but always had wider ranges of interests. My greeter and former offensive lineman was A.J. Dimick. When he was a kid, he loved football and he loved video games just as much. He described, with great fondness, two different worlds of friends. He was grateful his parents let him play and imagine with both.

Dimick methodically dismantled another myth in the pointless debate of whether esports is a real sport, or not. It is not either/or. And, I am about to learn during this deep dive that sports are such a poor comparable, anyhow. Whatever you want to call it, esports is much, much bigger.

For over an hour, it was one of the most engaging visits I have enjoyed and his esports team, and the reason for my trip, had not even been mentioned yet. Dimick was uncommonly engaged in every moment, at each turn, on a variety of topics. He combined razor sharp insights on un-crowded facts (my favorites as an investor!), along with wide-ranging opinions on an unfolding future for the next generation of young people.

I had no idea in that moment that this was the start of an additional two-year research project for me, after already correcting how little I knew about esports more than three years ago. I surprised a lot of my traditional sports friends, and clients, when I realized three years ago esports was bigger than the next great sport, and by orders of magnitude the most wildly inclusive. For full disclosure, if I had any bias, it was against esports as a dad. I had no idea what else is going on here.

Parents, be curious and never convinced.

I could not help but notice every time I asked Dimick about his current esports team, he immediately started gushing about all the other players and students NOT on the team, and the projects they are working on. He was so grateful for the support of the school and alumni. He was most excited about their careers, after they finish school.

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Confused parents need to understand where the school’s esports team lives, and why. Notice the EAE. That is the University of Utah’s Entertainment Arts & Engineering program, and its Director, Robert Kessler, blew me away with its rich history of innovation.

The founders of little startups called Pixar and Adobe are among many notable alumni.

Kessler explains, “There was this play pen for brilliant students to learn about this crazy world of computer graphics. They could experiment and create fascinating stuff.”

One of my favorite minds and imaginations in venture capital belongs to Josh Wolfe, who likes to note, “When parents say, ‘It will rot your brain!’ it is always predictive of the next $10 billion industry.”

As I was about to leave, Dimick was kind enough to say he whole-heartedly agreed with my work concluding that esports’ superpower is inclusivity. He creatively kept adding more layers, and like most disruptive leaders, he did it by heaping praise on others. He gives all the credit for what was originally Utah’s fun campus club, now turned first-of-its kind esports varsity team – to a woman.

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I like building stuff,” Angela Klingsiek says (that’s her on the left). After hearing so much about this former student, who was responsible for this monster success, I had to track her down.

Born in Texas, she lived all over the world in a military family. “I grew up in a strict Asian household, where games were frowned upon and studying was the way.” Her brother introduced her to League of Legends which she loved because she says, “I am drawn to logical puzzles.”

Klingsieck explained, “When I came to the ‘U’ I just wanted to make sure people were playing together.”

Parents, esports is not a thing. It is a place and a language.

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Klingsieck told me that after working for a cyber security software company, she came back to gaming. She became the first female manager of a professional team in the NBA2k league, for the Utah Jazz. After pioneering that space, she then joined a data visualization software company.

(Here is an interesting note that my friends at Konvoy Ventures shared with me – adult women represent a greater portion of the video game-playing population, than boys under 18.)

A Pull Scales Better than a Push

A week later, my head still shaking back at my office, I got a phone call from a stranger named Joe. He explained that his company read about how much I underestimated the inclusive pull of esports, and that he too was a reformed dinosaur. Joe barked, “I hated my kids playing videogames. I didn’t understand it. I thought it was stupid. I wanted them to go out and do something useful. Then I became educated.”

Joe Besecker was about to take me to another level of this rabbit hole I had been digging but had not even considered.

His Foundation began working with the North America Scholastic Esports Federation (NASEF). Henry Samueli started NASEF, and he knows a thing or two about turning science fiction into reality. In 1995, his company Broadcom made the semiconductor chip that took 56k dial-up speed and made it 1,000 times faster, pioneering internet connections.

Samueli created NASEF around a mission of “Getting to kids where they are.” The Samueli Foundation investigated and studied esports’ relationship with academics. Their data revealed playing video games can improve visual acuity and attention, foster scientific reasoning, accelerate language learning, improve digital literacy, increase problem solving skills, and achieve higher math levels.

Parents, believe what you will, but at least consider what might also be going right. My own entire business model of money management was built on one principle: curiosity beats conviction. As a dad of five kids, I notice it works at home also.

This is not about sports, this is not about esports, and this is not about play. This is about learning,” said Gerald Solomon, Executive Director of the Samueli Foundation.

Besecker specifically wanted to bring this potential to disadvantaged kids. He gets so fired up talking about what he is seeing first-hand that it is contagious. He is taking the esports program to inner cities and schools with struggling kids. He shared, “A lot of these schools asked if they could add the programs in the morning. Because these kids haven’t eaten since noon the day before.” The schools were blown away by the connection of a desire to play with improving academics overall. And most importantly, attendance went up.

They are connecting with kids that the schools have not been able to reach, with any other activity. Their data showed 91% of young people like video games. Rather than convincing a kid of the merits of going out of their way to join something new, they went where kids already wanted to be, and joined them.

The Magic of Challenges

A partner in the NASEF program, and another true force of nature, is Dr. Constance Steinkuehler, professor at the University of California, Irvine. She developed curriculum for NASEF, after studying esports for many years, in her labs. A leading STEM researcher, she previously served as Senior Policy Analyst in the Office of Science and Technology Policy, at the White House.

She makes it clear that gamers are doing high end theory crafting and data science.

Dr. Steinkuehler explained, “We had a 10th grader reading at 6th grade level, and not faring well in school. I handed him a 15th grade level text from the game and he reads with absolute comprehension and 95% accuracy. This is called self-correction rate. When they choose the text, when they care about it, they fix their reading comprehension problems 2x more often as when they do not. We forget this in school all the time. If you care about a topic you will persist in the face of challenges.”

Discussing a small study where kids read 8 grades above level, Dr. Steinkuehler beams, “The magic is interest not games.” And, that shared magic pulls individuals into communities. She notes, “People were playing together not realizing they would hate each other in real life.” She talks about building social networks with such diverse backgrounds that would prevent them from ever meeting, anywhere else. Very different perspectives are playing together, people who would never be great friends otherwise, or even be near the same neighborhood.

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I’m trying to stay out of the way and share straight from these first-hand experts. But, while learning about the research team at UC-Irvine, I must note my favorite discovery was a measurable shift in kids, as they applied esports learning. I kept hearing kids in this program wonder out loud, “OK, that didn’t work. What can we do differently next time?” As a professional money manager, I would note there could be no better question asked in any board room of any adult led company!

I immediately recalled Annie Duke telling me something that I did not know, that decision-making curriculum has been cut back drastically in math departments of our early learning schools. Maybe parents should consider the most unasked question about video games – What else is happening there?

Valuing What Does Not Work

Tobi Lutke might tell them a LOT more is happening there. Video games may be an ingredient for the remarkably different culture at his company Shopify, which I have long admired. They have been able to magically see around a lot of business corners and create new solutions. Lutke believes that video games light up the brain’s circuitry board, grooving unique pathways different than any other activity because of the speed and amount of repetitions. He is so confident in his favorite video game, which rewards players mastering the data science of logistics, that it can be expensed by employees to the company.

Parents, they are not all wasting time. Do not underestimate the clues that the best skills in video games offer. They belong to kids who can pay the closest attention and master the non-obvious – two superpowers adults dream of.

Those kids’ voices we heard from earlier - “OK, that didn’t work. What can we do differently next time?” - will always ring in my when I hear about my favorite move in all of business, the humble pivot. In fairness to the parents still not sure where this can lead…yes, there have been some gut-wrenching failures. I had to learn about a guy who spent years trying to develop a video game, only to disappoint employees and investors, then call it quits to try something different.

Years later, he tried it again. Apparently unable to turn off his relentlessly active mind, he created another video game. It turned out to be a bigger failure, and he had to once again, call it quits to try something different. Those two different projects became Flickr and Slack, both founded by Stewart Butterfield, after pivoting. He says with wider-ranging insight, “The games do not interest me as much as the excuse to interact with people.” It is no coincidence that his two games-changing successful businesses were all about sharing more experiences, and communicating better as teams.

Parents, to solve complex problems growing exponentially in the digital age, I might pay extra special attention to the kids you overhear asking – what can we do differently next time? They might be building operating systems that adults value in the billions.

Creativity is intelligence having fun.” -Albert Einstein

The Most Inclusive Places and Languages

A dear friend, who works at Microsoft, has told me for years how different Satya Nadella is than any leader he ever encountered. He’s been lucky during a wide-ranging technology career, to work with many legends. The two of these men share unusual blessings in common, they each have a son with special needs, and abilities. When the softest heart I know personally, raves about another man’s heart being much bigger, capable of transforming entire ecosystems, I pay more than attention.

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We hit refresh on everything,” Nadella said. “Going from a know-it-all culture to a learn-it-all culture.”

The boundaries crushing good that Nadella has quietly directed is staggering. Let me give you a peek into just one of those more inclusive worlds. I should not be surprised anymore, but was overwhelmed when…yup, it involves video games.

This is a sign that hangs in Microsoft’s tech lab.

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It is estimated there may be at least a billion people with serious disabilities around the world. And, many others are temporarily disabled with injuries all the time.

Microsoft is building Adaptive Controllers that allow players with countless different special abilities to create their own custom solutions for games.

Their mission is to “Empower every person and organization on the planet to achieve more.” This is Bryce Johnson, one of the inventors of the Adaptive Controller. He explains, “We take that really literally so that if we don’t intentionally include people with disabilities in the products we create, then we are actively working against our mission.”

John Porter, on the left here, is the Inclusive User Experience Designer at Microsoft and a professor of Human Centered Engineering at the University of Washington.

Microsoft makes it clear, “When everybody plays, we all win.”

Here is an example with goosebumps of joy and lives changed. Meet Owen. He says, “No matter how your body is or how fast you are, you can play. That’s a really good thing to have in this world.”

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Born with a genetic disorder called Escobar syndrome, Owen has undergone 33 different surgeries at this point. His dad says it all, about the most powerfully inclusive shared activity of all-time: “He’s not different when he plays.”


Imagining/Operating Systems

I found this original Pong machine in the EAE Department of the University of Utah on my way out, at the end of my visit.

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Atari’s founder, Nolan Bushnell, autographed this one, his company’s first big hit.

Think about what all those kids see, when they pass this old game every day. After learning how much I did not know, I will take a more educated guess that it is not what they see, but how it makes them wonder.

I am told the first Pong game was installed at a bar, in Silicon Valley. The owner called the next day to say it was broken. An old bread pan was used to catch the quarters that were fed into the machine. Too many coins shorted out the circuit board. Bushnell knew he had something to work with, he just needed some help. He found a really smart technician, but he was hard to work with. Bushnell decided to ask him to work late. He explains, “It was a trick…I knew if I got him to work the night shift (his friend) would show upwho was working at HP, a savant no question about it.” This way Bushnell said he could get “two Steve’s for the price of one.”

After they helped Bushnell with his arcade game, there were extra parts left over. So, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak started building a new machine they called Apple 1.

Parents, imaginations are building operating systems more important than any game. My humble suggestion is that we should all wonder and wander more, about what might go right. The most underestimated question in esports is what else is going on there?!