How to Connect Brands to College Esports Programs
Written By: Hauk Nelson
This is an interview with Dylan Liu, founder of Uconnect Esports.
Hi Dylan! Thanks for taking the time to chat with us today. Tell us more about Uconnect Esports.
Hey Hauk, thanks for having me! Uconnect Esports is a sponsorship marketplace platform that allows brands to activate across over 150 of the biggest collegiate esports organizations in North America. We have organizations like UCLA , UT Austin and the University of Illinois. We also work with a number of major brands like Twitch, Cloud 9, HyperX, and more that we can’t announce yet.
What inspired you to come up with this idea? What pain point does your business solve?
I’ve been in collegiate esports since it first started back in 2011 as a freshman in college, and haven’t left the space since. My first job was working for a game publisher running the same sponsorship and community activation programs Riot had done when I was a student leader. The biggest problem I had as a student leader was finding brands and knowing what they wanted to see.
From the publisher side, I had a huge problem with scalability and getting my post event deliverables from organizations. When you try to sponsor 100 different events, you’re dealing with 100 different event organizers that change every two years. Doing it by email was so painful and unnecessarily tedious. It got to the point where even though I was doing my dream job I wasn’t able to be creative or do anything exciting cause I was so bogged down by grunt work and logistics. The platform solves all of this so brands and Uconnect are freed up to run creative, authentic, and engaging campaigns.
Would you mind sharing more about your background? What led you to esports and what kind of work were you doing previously?
I was in the first generation of collegiate esports leaders as the founder of Texas A&M Esports. We were among the top 3 largest and most successful collegiate esports organizations at the time, and probably the largest student organization on campus. I managed to get tapped into a nationwide network of collegiate leaders after being invited to the Riot Collegiate Summit in 2015, where over 150 leaders from across North America were selected and flown to Riot’s headquarters to share our knowledge and network with each other. Afterwards, I ended up getting lucky and joining a mid sized game studio that wanted to do esports and was able to test out my collegiate community marketing initiatives that did insanely well.
Honestly I haven’t left collegiate esports, much less esports, my entire career. I’m all in on collegiate, have been my whole adult life and will be for the next couple years at least.
What do you think are the key differences between working in collegiate esports and professional esports?
Collegiate Esports is honestly more about the community. Professional esports is more about competition. I would liken collegiate esports more to the marketing/publishing aspect of gaming just because collegiate esports is more about the reach and size of your organization, event quality, and ability to execute on deliverables. At least that’s what the main value is right now. Everyone calls themselves collegiate esports organizations but really they are the gaming community on campus. Esports in collegiate has become synonymous with gaming.
The competitive side of collegiate is still important but it’s hard to get direct sponsorship value from it right now. What value you can get is mostly tied to on campus “arenas” and shared gaming spaces. Viewership is doing a lot better but only recently after years of weak viewership due to students not caring if their own school isn’t playing. Other than that, it’s pretty much a less experienced version of pro esports, understandably so, which makes it a great place to grow new professionals. Professional esports is also very content creation and influencer-centric, whereas collegiate esports is very event-centric.
What has it been like running a startup during the pandemic?
Honestly, we had some sweet brand deals and campaigns lined up that were all delayed due to the pandemic and the closing of schools and live events. I was initially pretty bummed out and it was a bit scary. I was thinking of putting the company’s plans on hiatus and wanted to use the downtime to bunker down on the platform. Then we did the Collegiate Rising Digital Summit as a hail Mary and that really helped us find out how we could pivot. I think the pandemic forced us to think outside the box and opened a lot of new opportunities, like our recent partnership with Cloud 9. It’s allowed a lot of new innovation from students as well, which I’m seeing a ton of. Besides that literally nothing changed. My team and I have always worked remotely and from home so it’s pretty much business as usual besides the initial pivot scramble.
What are your main goals for this upcoming academic year?
We’ve got some pretty big brands we’re talking to. I want to lock those down and start their activations this year and hopefully we’ll be able to do some live event activations in Spring. For now we’re spending our time showing brands what we did last Fall, finding new ways to activate online, and hopefully using the time leftover to put in some long awaited features, as well as work on expanding into some new opportunities.
As a founder, what are you most proud of during your time with Uconnect Esports so far?
I’m really proud of our campaigns. They’ve all done really well and our brands were all super impressed with our work. Collegiate has always been such a frustrating and tedious space, and to hear from brands and collegiate leaders about how much easier we’re making life for them is really rewarding. You know, to hear that from your own community and your own people. The platform is still in alpha and we have a lot of things we need to refine and add, but I’m happy that at least the core concept has been so well received.
In the startup world, one of the biggest struggles is finding a product to make that people want. Despite all the hardships, knowing you’re building a product that makes people’s lives easier, especially your colleagues and friends that you have the most respect for, makes it easy to keep pushing forward.
Also one more thing – when I went to my first gaming convention I just wandered around alone and had useless conversations with booth workers who didn’t know me or care about what I was talking about. I’m really proud to go to conventions now and be surrounded by friends and people I respect and not be a total loser wandering aimlessly on the convention floor asking if anyone’s heard of Uconnect Esports.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Yeah, if you’re a brand looking to activate in collegiate esports, or are interested in collegiate esports, go talk to Twitch Student. Mark “Garvey” Candella and Kevin Hoang are the undisputed leaders in the space. They can connect you with the best entities in the space. I see way too many brands being screwed over by “collegiate esports experts (or companies)” that have absolutely no idea what they are doing. It’s sad because brands, especially non endemic ones, are very much needed in the space. I’m also down to chat as well.
Kevin Hoang @kebunbun
Mark Candella @GarveyNYC
Dylan (me) @DylanSLiu
Collegiate Esports is way more unique and difficult to navigate than brands think because the ecosystem is completely unlike anything in traditional sports or the traditional collegiate ecosystem. It’s unique enough that even most veteran esports professionals have absolutely no idea how collegiate esports works or how to activate in it. It’s being built as it grows, so brands that try to hop into it with a cookie cutter activation are always going to be in for a surprise.
Thanks to Dylan for the interview! Check out Uconnect Esports for more information.