Allied Esports CEO Jud Hannigan Has a Plan for Gaming His Way Out of a Crisis
The veteran entrepreneur's network of live-events arenas had to shut down, but some ingenuity opened up new possibilities.
Like the rest of us, Allied Esports CEO Jud Hannigan has been improvising. Normally, he'd be running his network of live-event arenas and mobile trucks — which both host and broadcast gaming competitions around the globe — from a comfortable office or conference room inside the company's Irvine, California HQ. Today, he's sequestered in his car outside of his Orange County home, secreting away best he can for an interference-free conversation.
And Hannigan has plenty to talk about. The veteran entrepreneur and content marketer, who has helped grow portfolios for everyone from the World Poker Tournament to Chinese developer Ourgame International, is overseeing an unprecedented and unexpected shift in Allied's business model. Up until recent worldwide lockdowns, the three-year-old company had helped innovated esports as a live-event spectacle capable of drawing tens of thousands of onlookers at branded venues (with gaming-accessory leader HyperX as a partnering sponsor) from here to Asia.
Now Hannigan has scaled things back to the medium's primitive beginnings, relying on the enthusiasm and determination of gamers who are more than happy to go back to playing in their living rooms and basements. Most notably, there's the passion of Allied Tournament Director Kevin Forsstrom, who's been voluntarily quarantined in his house along with three colleagues while overseeing virtual Allied tourneys practically round the clock.
Look out for our live check-in with that motley crew later in the week, but in the interim, Hannigan spoke with us about finding ways to fill the gaming community's void, being open to how this might change the way it does business and fantasizing about the sights and sounds of cheering fans filling the aisles soon.
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I thought esports could be Teflon to what's happening right now, but it's easy to underestimate the live-event component.
There is a path to weathering this in esports that is an easier road to travel down than what traditional sports is doing. There is that opportunity to continue to play online. But there are technical reasons why you want everybody together right there [in an arena]. There could be unfair advantages for people that are closer or farther from the game servers and things like that.
And there's still no substitute for that live event and bringing like-minded people together, cheering for their teams in unison. But from a game-play perspective, we can carry on from home, and it doesn't necessarily mean we're removing the social aspect of it. Part of what's made this possible is that you had several guys step up and say, "We'll kind of run point on this and quarantine together and do this."
Does that speak to how every company right now needs people on its team who are willing to make sacrifices?
We were thinking to ourselves, "What are we going to do? How do we leverage our infrastructure?" And one guy said, "I've got great internet at home, and I've got a four-bedroom place and it's just me and my roommate." And three other guys said, "Yeah, I don't want to be home by myself alone for this whole thing. Let's all move in there." That idea originated from them as we were just brainstorming how to keep the show going. We're very blessed to have folks raise their hands and be able to do that.
Have there been panicked moments where you're just thinking, "How the hell did we go from operating arenas to hosting online tournaments out of an employee's house?"
Oh, of course. I think the whole world is trying to figure this out. From our standpoint, our biz-dev folks were on the phones right away, trying to talk to our customers and clients about where the opportunities for us are as a business in this new climate. And in those first early days, it was a little bit of crickets. Everybody's just kind of hunkering down, a little bit nervous, not sure what to do. But I think as this continues to progress, the world is resilient and people are starting to come out of their shells saying, "All right, well, what about if we do this?"
People are trying to figure out how to operate in this world we're living in. We're all hoping that it passes and we get back to normal. The new normal will be different, because we've been motivated now by this to come out with an online offering. That online offering is here to stay, and we think that's going to be a really good funnel to direct people into our facilities around the world that we didn't have before. It's a silver lining in all this.
Effectively, this new normal is like an insurance policy for you, given that we have no idea when arenas will open up again.
Correct. And it's absolutely a challenge when you're managing something that you just can't figure out how long it's going to be. But again, we feel like we're in a pretty fortunate position to be in the industry we're in with the tech that exists today. We're leveraging all that investment in infrastructure we've made and those production tools to continue with this offering.
The Los Angeles Football Club soccer franchise came to you guys to partner on doing virtual LAFC tournaments to keep its players and their fans active and engaged. That seems to be another way that esports is rising to the challenge right now.
We're running what was their regular season schedule in online competition, amongst the actual players themselves, with the broadcast talent. That's a relationship that we didn't have on our road map prior to this, so yeah, it's a trip to all of a sudden to be growing these clients.
I think it's moving the rest of the world to where they're thinking about gaming more predominantly as a part of their business. We're seeing folks hiring gaming people in traditional sports to make sure that they have a strategy to leverage that audience.
Were you conscious of needing to be innovative right now so you didn't risk losing your grip on the gaming community?
There's this vacancy where competitive entertainment once existed, and if we can fill that void, that's the thing keeping us going, and we're continuing down that path. Everybody's at home right now, trying to figure out how to continue to engage. There's a lot of different angles. We're helping people who weren't previously engaged in gaming to its full extent get there, and they're getting there a lot quicker than they would have if this didn't happen.
Is this, in fact, the ultimate moment to try and secure some market share in esports?
Gaming has been the fastest-growing form of entertainment, and it's coming no matter what. Gen Z and millennials have grown up with it. Whereas I grew up on baseball, they're growing up with gaming being more important to them than some other forms of competitive entertainment. It's becoming mainstream in various forms. There are a bunch of different avenues.
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Can companies operating at a smaller scale in your, or any other, industry find comparable ways to make the best of this situation?
I think that what sets us apart is the fact that we've made so much investment in our infrastructure, and it's ingrained in our culture to be quick on our feet. Not everybody out there has those tools, so that puts us in a pretty good position.
When you envision your arenas being packed again, what does that look like for you?
We're going to see different faces. We're going to see more faces because of this online offering and the fact that we're now having more people engaged in our brand of each sports programming. I think much like the rest of the world, eventually we're going to get back to the place where people are congregating just as they used to. We're lucky to be that outlet for them now while they're home, and we're certainly going to be that outlet for them when it's safe to get together and in a big way.