On Feb. 28, former NFL and MLS executive Matt Hill joined esports-focused digital media licensing platform ESPAT AI as its new chief executive officer. Prior to Monday’s announcement, Hill spoke with The Esports Observer about his journey back into the esports industry, the potential of the esports media rights business, and why so many sports business executives are making the transition from league and club front offices to gaming, esports, and esports-adjacent businesses.
Hill spent five years as a corporate communications coordinator at the NFL from 2002 – 2007, and returned to take on the role of director of business development, sponsorship & media sales for nearly three years from 2012 – 2014. He also spent two years at Major League Soccer as manager of business development.
But he is also very familiar with the esports industry, having spent six years at marketing advertising agency GMR Marketing as a senior vice president working closely with brands and companies to connect them with gaming and esports-related entities.
“GMR had been working in gaming more broadly for probably 15 years or so until that point, but was tracking the rise of esports and wanted to make that a more formalized practice,” he said. “So Dave Rosenberg, GMR’s chief brand officer, and I really built out that practice, hired some folks, got some of the GMR’s big clients like Comcast Xfinity on board and invested in esports, worked with traditional sports properties to help them build out their gaming strategy, and just built a lot of really strong relationships in the gaming and esports space.”
Joining the Team
His work at GMR Marketing led to him being honored by Sports Business Journal as a “Forty Under 40” in 2018, but his two stints at the NFL is where he met two of the three founders of ESPAT AI – Ed Brooks and Mario Prosperino. Prosperino crossed paths with Hill (who was doing public relations work at the time) during his time at Getty Images handling the NFL account. Hill crossed paths with Brooks when he worked at the NFL as a studio manager helping to launch the NFL’s in-house production studio. The trio kept in touch over the years as their career paths diverged into other things, but a mutual respect for each other grew alongside a decades-long friendship.
Hill said that he made the jump to the esports-focused B2B digital media licensing platform to help bring the kind of infrastructure that traditional sports has had for decades and to educate those who may not be familiar with the space by implementing new and emerging technologies into the company’s growing archive of licensed multimedia assets.
“You’re seeing new services and solutions that are fairly commonplace in traditional sports now starting to be applied to esports. And so I think that’s really exciting, and as we think about the ability to leverage technology like machine learning and image recognition within the images that we’re licensing, we also think there’s a huge opportunity to provide more context within them, make them more dynamic, more engaging, and in doing so both amplify the gaming community, but also accelerate the esports learning curve for the casual gamer or someone who’s entirely new to the gaming space.”
Ultimately Hill signed on with ESPAT AI because he believes that the company is at the forefront of the digital media licensing business, for now without peer, and in Brooks and Prosperino, who have a deep understanding of the space having worked for Getty Images, the NFL, and AP Photo focused on different types of media.
“You think about the business that the likes of Getty Images has built on the backs of major professional sports leagues like the NFL or the NBA… with ESPAT AI, we are essentially taking that tried-and-true licensing model (one that Mario is intimately familiar with from his time at both Getty and AP photo) and we’re applying it to the esports community catered specifically to the community’s needs. I think we are creating a new opportunity to monetize assets that the industry has not been monetizing to-date.”
Driving New Revenue Streams for Esports Stakeholders
Hill says that ESPAT AI has been working hard to educate stakeholders in the esports industry on the value of their digital media assets, and given some time to lay more groundwork, he sees an “opportunity to unlock a fairly significant revenue stream for those esports stakeholders.”
When asked what his top priority is as the new CEO of ESPAT AI, Hill said that he will focus on continuing to build the company’s B2B business, continue to raise awareness on what they are doing with stakeholders, implement new technologies to enhance images and “to unlock new monetization opportunities,” and generally drive scale in 2021.
“Those elements are going to go hand-in-hand, so it’s going to be an aggressive year for us. We’re also going to go out and raise a seed round of funding to be used to further both of those agendas – the continued development and fortification of the B2B licensing platform and the development of this new technology.”
Finally, when asked why he thinks so many sports business executives like himself have made the transition to esports, Hill said that, while the pandemic may have helped push some into making the jump, the limitations of climbing up the ladder at sports-related leagues and companies and a changing demographic (that skews younger) who are focused on consuming game-related entertainment content likely has more to do with this trend:
“I think the answer is probably two-fold; one, as we look at the change in consumer demographics and the rise of Gen Z and millennials as that next-generation consumer, we recognize that gaming is a huge passion point for that audience. That certainly makes the esports space more attractive to traditional sports executives. It also makes figuring out a gaming strategy really critical to those traditional sports leagues and teams, and I think we’ve seen that play out in recent years.”
But you also get to a point at these league offices where it’s tough to make your way up the ladder. A lot of those corner office jobs are not opening up regularly, and so you can sit and continue to pay your dues and be happy collecting your paycheck, or you can take a chance on building something yourself and taking the skills and the experience you developed in those roles with traditional sports organizations and apply them to an emerging industry like esports to really build something big.”
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