Esports Entrepreneurship: Zach Dixon and Players’ Lounge

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This interview is presented to you by the University of Nebraska — Lincoln Master of Arts in Business with a Specialization in Intercollegiate Athletics Administration

By: Joe Londergan, @Joehio_

Zach Dixon, co-founder of Players' Lounge Photo via: Zach Dixon

David Zachary Dixon, or Zach, as he goes by, is the co-founder of Players’ Lounge: a video game social startup that allows fans of EA Sport’s FIFA video games to play for cash and prizes digitally and at live events.

Dixon is a native of New Orleans and a graduate of Wesleyan University, located about two hours east of New York City in Middletown, Connecticut. If the name David Dixon sounds familiar, you’re thinking of Zachary’s grandfather: the legendary businessman who helped bring the New Orleans Saints, World Championship Tennis and the USFL into existence. It was this entrepreneurial legacy that helped inspire his grandson to develop his own legacy in the sports business.

“I thought I wanted to be Ari Gold before I graduated college, but I soon realized I didn’t want to do that. I figured that I love soccer, I love languages and I love video games. From there, I figured Major League Soccer probably isn’t a bad place to work.”

Dixon joined MLS as a player relations and competition intern for six months in 2012, where he was able to grow his knowledge of professional contracts and player agent relationships. However, some aspects of interning at the league office proved frustrating, prompting Dixon to look for new opportunities.

“Working at Major League Soccer was a great networking experience and I learned a lot how a league is operated and run. However, I was living in my uncle’s attic in New Jersey and I commuted from New Jersey to New York for six months, I made about $1,200 a month and nobody there was interested in hiring me full-time. So, the whole time I was there I was aggressively networking, trying to carve out an opportunity for myself somewhere else and I almost got fired a couple times for that.”

After his time at MLS, Dixon took a job in event marketing with Civic Entertainment Group in New York. As it sometimes goes in the professional world, Dixon and that position didn’t mix well and he was terminated after one year. It was in this time, however, that Dixon had the chance to connect with Sports Illustrated senior writer Grant Wahl, which opened the next door of his professional journey. With proficiency in speaking four languages (English, Spanish, French and Portuguese), Dixon was a natural fit for the world of international soccer.

“If you want it bad enough, don’t listen to people who tell you can’t do it and keep hustling. If you’re willing to go outside the box and work extremely hard, you’ll be able to find some success for yourself.”

“I met Grant a week before I was fired and I told him how big of a fan I was of his work. I also offered to work with him at the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil for free since I speak Portuguese. So, after I was fired, I headed off to Brazil for the summer to work with Grant. While I was in Brazil, I helped Grant out with his travel arrangements, transcribing interviews and stat analysis. I just wanted to do anything I could to make his job easier so that I could learn more about soccer and have that once-in-a-lifetime experience. For a year after that, I did freelance transcription for Grant and had the chance to help him put together stories on soccer stars like Vincent Kompany and Manuel Neuer. That was an amazing learning experience. Grant is a very professional and intellectual man who has always dreamed of working for Sports Illustrated and I cannot speak highly enough of him. It’s no wonder he’s the best at what he does.”

While Dixon thoroughly enjoyed his time working with Wahl and Sports Illustrated, his ultimate goal became to start his own business using his love of soccer and video games. While working a few other jobs, that chance soon came with the help of a friend.

“I came back from Brazil and I knew I didn’t want to jump back into another marketing job. What happened was the co-founder of Players’ Lounge, Austin Woolridge, and I saw skill based cash gaming online as an opportunity dating back to our college days, but we just weren’t clever enough to get it done back then. Austin came to me with the idea to start hosting video game tournaments at bars to see if we could make a little money, have some fun and try to grow a company from there.”

The Players' Lounge is out to change the way people play video games for money. Photo via The Players' Lounge

“We did that for a month and decided that we needed to come up with a cool name for this project of ours, so we came up with Players’ Lounge. Shortly after that, I was at a soccer marketing conference and I met a senior global marketer for EA Sports who works on FIFA. We talked for a while and he decided that he wanted EA Sports to sponsor Players’ Lounge. EA Sports would send us hardware to help grow this grass roots eSports movement. Then, AB InBev became a sponsor and they started paying us to run Budweiser gaming events. That was cool, but we weren’t making enough money to really grow a company that would really sustain two young men living in New York City.”

This realization prompted Dixon and Woolridge to take their operations digital and find a way to make their venture a full-time gig. This opportunity would come by way of a meeting between Dixon and fellow Wesleyan University alum Strauss Zelnick, Chairman and CEO of video game publisher Take-Two Interactive.

“I found out that he would always work out at the Harvard Club around the same time. So for six months every Friday I found a way to work out with him and got to know him. Then, in December of 2015, he was nice enough to let me pitch him on Players’ Lounge, myself and our team. He thought it sounded great and I asked him to be an advisor to the company. He said he would gladly do that, then asked what else he could do for me.”

“I told him that for the first year we were going to stick to FIFA, but we eventually wanted to expand into the Madden games as well as the NBA 2K series. Take-Two interactive publishes the NBA 2K series, so I asked if it was possible for him to introduce us to some of the senior marketers there at 2K because we wanted to work with them to help grow eSports. Zelnick agreed and also offered to personally invest in Players’ Lounge.”

At that point in time, Dixon was working as an account executive for NYCFC. However, Zelnick’s investment was large enough that Dixon decided to pursue his dream full-time and devote himself to growing Players’ Lounge. Players’ Lounge officially launched in February and has grown to over 10,000 users since then and has launched an official partnership with NYCFC. The company’s goal is to become the world’s number one destination for people to play sports video games for free and for cash competition. Dixon offered his insight as to where he sees eSports going in in the near future as well as his plans for the future of Players’ Lounge.

“eSports are only going to get bigger. The amount of money invested in eSports companies goes up every year and I think it’s going to continue going up for the next 15 to 20 years. You’re going to see stadiums in the United States sell out to go and watch games like League of Legends.”

“Second, how are eSports going to develop? That’s the big question mark that we’re hoping we’re an early mover on. There’s kind of a discrepancy with people that like games like League of Legends, they can only participate in their fandom when they are watching a streamer, when they are playing themselves, when they physically go to an eSports event or through something like cosplay. There’s a lack of availability for the game. Plus, since it’s a five on five game, you need a serious team to be a serious player. It’s hard to get matched up with four other people that you want to spend a lot of time with either locally or digitally, training and practicing and trying to go pro.”

“However, there is not that same scarcity in fan culture with sports gaming. Because with things like FIFA, Madden and NBA, you can watch soccer, football and basketball almost any time you want. But that kind of takes away from the cult potential mass growth of sports games as an eSport. So, we are hoping that we can help sports eSports grow over the next five to 10 years by providing a platform for people to create a brand for themselves. We’re going to try to do a college national championship for FIFA players in the next six months. We want to do 64 college campus tournaments, digitally, through our website and then we’re going to do conference championships and then we want to fly those conference champions to a national championship.”

On a personal level, Dixon’s experience growing his personal network has helped allow him to overcome professional hurdles as well as grow Players’ Lounge so significantly in such a short time.

“I create relationships and turn relationships into value. If you think about networking as this gross, dark thing that only sleazy salesman do, you are not thinking about networking in the right way. Networking is putting yourself out there and being vulnerable. If you are an interesting person and you have confidence and believe in yourself, then that’s a really good thing. If you don’t then networking can be a little harder. My biggest piece of advice for networking is be patient. Log a lot of hours and be yourself (fake it until you make it is not the way it works).”

Dixon also recommends that young entrepreneurs take a page out of his book and become familiar with one or more romance languages in order to grow their networking abilities.

“You can never make someone feel more at home then you can buy speaking their native language. Even if you can only learn entry introductory phrases, those are worth their weight in gold when it comes to networking.”

Through the ups and downs, Dixon can attest that perseverance is key in pursuing your dreams.

“If you want it bad enough, don’t listen to people who tell you can’t do it and keep hustling. If you’re willing to go outside the box and work extremely hard, you’ll be able to find some success for yourself. The last two years of entrepreneurship have been the hardest years of my life, but they’ve also been the most exciting and enjoyable and satisfying. Entrepreneurship is not for the faint of heart. If you’re going to try to build a business, I would strongly suggest that you take a job in sales or marketing or development after college for a few years, then find a friend to you know and trust and try to start a company.”

Follow Zach on Twitter here.

Connect with Zach on LinkedIn here.