ESPORTS EXPERT JOHN DAVIDSON ON UTILIZING CONNECTIONS TO BUILD COMMUNITY
The importance of community cannot be understated, especially when it comes to a group of like-minded individuals sharing resources and working collectively to push culture forward. Throughout his multifaceted career, John Davidson has done exactly that, finding his strength in making connections and drawing from his diverse experiences to help others.
"DropLabs made me more aware of the different instruments and the different levels within the song than what I was just hearing audibly. When I started to feel it, it made me more aware of the music and the undertones of the music."
Early on, John was captivated by the world of skateboarding and its vibrant subculture, finding he had both a natural talent and passion for the action sport. First kick-starting his career as a sponsored skater at the age of 14, John went on to pursue his dreams in the form of skateboarding and traveling all over the country.
Through the wealth of experiences that skateboarding had afforded him, John witnessed firsthand how the culture of skateboarding has been influenced by decades of participants, showcasing how like-minded communities help to shape identity, encourage self-expression and even impact other facets of society. John went on to study marketing at Sacramento State before relocating to Dallas, with his following professional ventures sharing a common thread for bringing people together.
Currently, John is the Director of Business Development for the esports division of PRG, which is the world's leading event technology solutions company. In addition to his role there, John also sits on advisory boards for Dallas Influencers in Sports and Entertainment (DISE), Stadia Ventures and serves as Board President for the Esports Trade Association, all while making time for skateboarding whenever his schedule allows.
While John wears a lot of different hats throughout the course of any given work week, one common thread is in helping facilitate strategic partnerships and foster authentic engagement in the esports/gaming community. From helping support and produce Pretending I'm Superman, the upcoming documentary highlighting the cultural impact of Tony Hawk Pro Skater, to working on innovative projects aimed to serve the esports community directly, John has carved his own path by utilizing his network and diverse background to elevate others.
During an in-depth conversation with the DropLabs team, John shared more about what he does for a living, how to best use connections that build community and what he finds to be the most rewarding part about his distinctive role in the esports industry.
What do you do for a living and what helped you get started?
My life is focused on esports and finding different ways to benefit the community. That's what I do in a variety of different roles. My day job is at PRG (Production Resource Group), which is the world’s largest entertainment production company. The company has been around for thirty years. It started on Broadway and now also produces the Super Bowl Halftime Show, the Oscars, the Grammys, Coachella, world tours for most major artists, and more.
Innovation is really throughout the DNA of the company. The first piece of staging equipment on Broadway that moved by itself was PRG in Phantom of the Opera. The first animatronic light that did more than just turn on and off was PRG as well, on tour with The Who. We provide a lot of innovative solutions and the thing I'm excited about is being able to leverage that technology and use it to make experiences more engaging for fans, more fun to compete for players and more effective for brands that are sponsoring these events. Some productions we've worked on within the esports world include the Fortnite World Cup, Dreamhack, ELEAGUE Major, League of Legends, among others.
I have a business development role at PRG, so I'm always looking to find opportunities for us to work with partners, whether that be other production companies, teams or leagues, and helping to make experiences better by utilizing our proprietary technology and in-depth experience.
Can you tell us a bit about the other hats you wear?
The role that I spend the most time on it outside of PRG is as president of the Esports Trade Association. The way I seek to help people in this role is by improving business practices. When you look at the esports industry, it's a young industry, based on how long it's been around and it's also young, when you look at who's running it. There are benefits to youth and new perspectives, but there are also challenges. A key challenge in esports is not having decades of experience from a business perspective. There's no substitute for experience and you get experience through time and years. So, I'm working to bring the gaming community together alongside complementary experts who want to help learn, and lend their expertise, to help us develop more stable monetization models and help us maximize our partnerships, things of that nature.
There are two groups that I'm an advisor with. One is Stadia Ventures, which is an accelerator in sports, tech and esports. We have two core cohorts a year in St. Louis, and in Frisco, Texas, which is a suburb of Dallas. It's essentially like a real-world Shark Tank, but there's 120 judges instead of five, and none of us are billionaires… yet. That's another major difference [Laughs]. At Stadia, we have a number of startups pitch their business and we ask a lot of questions. We have them step out of the room and then we brainstorm together as a group. There's a lot of people in that group. There's the head of innovation for Under Armour, for example. We have VPs within many of the traditional sports leagues from the NBA, Major League Baseball, etc. There's a couple esports experts like myself in the room as well. We talk about our experience and our perspectives on each startup, then Stadia chooses about five startups to focus on for that cohort. They assign judges with relevant experience to each startup, and then through our contacts, experience and expertise, we're able to mentor these folks and accelerate them through investment and acquisition.
The other group I'm an advisor with is called Dallas Influencers in Sports and Entertainment, which is basically all the leaders in the sports and entertainment industry in Dallas, which is a big market. You've got the Dallas Cowboys here, the Rangers, the Stars, the Mavs. You also have a number of agencies here, and a number of brand headquarters located in the DFW Metroplex, including Toyota, Pepsi, Frito Lay, FedEx, Capital One. I can go on and on, but there's a number of them. I’m very thankful to be part of this group. We do a lot of things that help the community, which is important to me.
What would you say is the most rewarding part about your interconnected work in esports?
The last few years, I've really tried to figure out what I'm all about and what I want my life to be about. Essentially, it comes down to helping people. Putting others before yourself, loving your neighbor as yourself, that sort of thing. I think there's a variety of ways that you can do that.
I think when people think, 'Oh, how can I help people,' the first thing that comes to mind is giving money to a charity or helping at a shelter or things of that nature. Those things I do from time to time and those are great, but how do you help people through business? How can you have a perspective on helping people in your day-to-day life? The way I look at that is I help people through connections. I've been very fortunate to pull together a great network. I'm very often the guy somebody hits up and says, 'Hey, do you know somebody here?' I think I have a little bit of a gift, if you will, for seeing vision and opportunities and how people can mutually benefit each other. So, as a connector, I love to help people.
Through my role here at PRG, my view of helping people is helping gamers have more enjoyable experiences through the technology we're able to offer. At Esports Trade Association, I'm helping people by teaching our industry how to improve their business practices so their business can become more stable. If esports businesses are doing better, that means more tournaments, more leagues, more opportunities for up-and-coming gamers, whether you're a fan or you want to compete.
Overall, I strive—not perfectly of course—but I strive to focus on helping others. I'll tell you; when I make a connection and two people are able to find an opportunity together, that kind of thing, I get more joy out of that than even just if I was to land a deal or something on my own. There's just really something about giving that is so much more gratifying than if it's just all about you.
I think that perspective is opposite in a lot of industries that are competitive, and that's so refreshing. What do you think makes the esports community different in regard to welcoming others?
Because gaming is a subculture, there's an inside language and there are unspoken rules. It's like when you see somebody walking down the street and you just know that you're part of the same group. There's a lot of things you can talk about that nobody else can relate to. I always say that the gaming and esports worlds have a healthy skepticism. And what I mean by that is, you look in the past, up until about four or five years ago, gaming was looked down on, especially in the U.S.
It was that stereotype that the kid who didn't make the football team was a gamer. Now you have professional football players like JuJu Smith-Schuster who is a massive gamer. He's proud of it and it's part of his personal brand. He’s endorsed by Hyper X, which is an endemic esports headphone company. The skepticism comes naturally because this is a group of people who have been looked down upon, and now everybody's coming to them. Gaming is kind of the new cool kid in the group, if you will. But I think it's really healthy because if a brand or an individual is coming in with the right motivations, which is to be part of the community, to learn, to enjoy it with everybody else, then they're embraced.
If somebody comes in with the motivation of I just want to make money off of you, or I wanna get something for myself, or something like that, it is sniffed out right away and those people are essentially blacklisted, and don't get a second chance. Maybe that's a little harsh, but it's the reality. I think that's a great balance, because if you compare that to skateboarding, you know, the skateboarding world has a skepticism that I think is less healthy.. It definitely keeps the space pure, but it doesn't enable it to grow. I think the differences between skateboarding and gaming is a desire to go mainstream. Skateboarders do not want to be mainstream; they don't want to be in the Olympics. They don't want people who aren't skaters to be in their space. There's pros and cons to that. The gaming community has a natural desire to go mainstream and to be validated by people outside of gaming. As people learn more about it, and learn how to add value, the industry will continue to grow.
What surprised you the most about trying out DropLabs?
What struck me most about the shoes was the intricacy of the vibrating with the music. I was expecting just pure low-end. I think it's so cool that there's different filters to enable you to feel it in different ways.
When you think about something like this with speakers, with bass, you're thinking rap music, typically, right? Something that hits hard. When I was originally listening to rap with the shoes, and then I started experimenting with some other songs, what shocked me is how enjoyable it was to listen to different genres of music wearing them. I'm not super musical even though I have a musical background--my mom was a music major in college--and even though I don't play any instruments nowadays, DropLabs made me more aware of the different instruments and the different levels within the song than what I was just hearing audibly. When I started to feel it, it made me more aware of the music and the undertones of the music.
I also think it's amazing how the shoes can impact those in the Deaf community and enable those who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing to experience gaming and music in a unique way. For those of us who have our hearing, it's an additional sense to add to our experience, but for Deaf people, the fact that it is something that is brand new is just super cool to me.
What was it like trying out DropLabs with gaming for the first time?
I put them on for Call of Duty to see what that was like. Just feeling that jolt from a gunshot or the different sounds happening around you was really cool. The fact that there is some directional capability in the shoes too, where it's not just the same part of the foot on both feet that vibrates is really awesome. It feels differently in parts of the foot based on where the sound is coming from in the game. What I really enjoyed was just how the world felt so much more immersive. In Call of Duty, they built this beautiful world and you're pretty immersed in the visuals and the sounds, but to be able to feel it as well, just takes it to another level.
I didn't go physically skating in them but I did think about what playing Tony Hawk Pro Skater would be like in these. If you could feel it in your feet when your player lands and while he's grinding, that would be an amazing integration. I think playing Tony Hawk would be a lot of fun wearing DropLabs.
What are you currently working on?
One of the things I love about working at PRG is how we have the opportunity to work on such impactful projects. During this really challenging time with COVID, on the production side and on the technology side, it forces you to innovate. At PRG, a couple things that we're working on, with both esports and traditional sports, is enabling leagues to compete without fans.
A lot of people think about the fan experience, but what's just as important, if not more so, is the player experience. What we're doing at PRG is creating technologies and solutions for pros to compete at the highest level without having fans present. We’re also enabling musical artists to express themselves and reach audiences in new ways. If you saw Katy Perry’s performance of ‘Daisies’ on American Idol (link) that’s PRG’s production. It’s amazing to be part of a company that delivers these types of memorable experiences to people all over the world.
Check out John Davidson's playlist based on the songs he most enjoys in his DropLabs EP 01 Sneakers.
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