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Q&A: Big Block Capital CEO Seven Volpone On Subnation, Esports And Gamer Culture

I recently sat down with Seven Volpone, the CEO of Big Block Capital Group, to talk about Subnation, which this week has created a fan-focused series of events celebrating gamers and esports lifestyle and culture at this week’s E3 video game conference in Los Angeles. E3 marks Subnation’s debut, featuring major sponsor Volkswagen Jetta and others in a series of branded experiences and events. Subnation will also produce a first-ever E3 afterparty Thursday featuring a performance by EDM star DeadMau5.

Subnation is part of a substantive push by Big Block and E3 to connect brands directly to the consumer fan base that built the gamer/esports worlds, which PwC estimates generated $23.4 billion in the United States last year.

Big Block Capital Group Subnation logoBrands that have been stymied in reaching younger audiences through traditional media are jumping on the game business as it becomes more mainstream, and esports and sites such as Twitch.TV attract millions of viewers. Volpone and I talked about the opportunities around Subnation, the lifestyle and culture around gamers and esports, and what brands are trying to do.

If you’d prefer to hear this conversation in a podcast, point your podcast app to Bloom in Tech, on iTunes, Anchor.fm, Soundcloud, Overcast, Breaker and several other platforms.

TVR: What is Big Block’s eSports background, and how are you working with brands?

SV: Esports is a really exciting avenue for Big Block. We’ve been actively involved in eSports for more than 15 years. We tend not to get involved in things just because they are the trend. We really are out there mining for the best things, before they become the best thing.

Managing Director Ed Tomasi was one of the founders of ESS, which later became ESL North America. I worked with ESL as an advisor, working on non-endemic strategy, cultivating projects around the lifestyle of eSports, the culture of eSports. After I came to Big Block, we brought Tomasi over as our Managing Director, and Tom Flanagan, from Leo Burnett, who was an evangelist for action sports before brands knew how to get involved.

Now we’re talking to brands and agencies about how they’re going to play in eSports. We have an authentic understanding of both brands and the eSports audience.

TVR: What kinds of marketing and content initiatives work with gamers and eSports fans?

SV: We’re actually taking a non-marketing approach. We’re focusing on experiences, things that the end user can benefit from and engage with.

Gamers and eSports fans are tricky to market to. They’re really savvy, They don’t want to be marketed to. So our entire agenda is how do we create an authentic relationship for gamers and eSports fans, so they have a protected community that really supports their passion. Then we find a way for brands to be involved that’s meaningful for the end user and supportive of the brand. And if the brand is supportive of that, then the end user over-engages with it because they feel safe and they feel trusted. That’s really important to have that authenticity.

TVR: So what is Subnation?

SV: Big Block just launched Subnation, a brand that’s really about the subcultures centric to esports and gaming. It’s lifestyle, it’s music, it’s apparel, it’s fashion, it’s comic book art, street art. We’re looking at eSports through that lens.

If you just go to a typical big eSports event, everybody’s focused on what the teams or players are doing, or maybe what they do when they’re not gaming. But we’ve seen that if you give fans something just a little left of gaming, they have huge interest in it. We’re catering to that.

Brands want to be involved in eSports and gaming but they have concerns. Six months ago, there was no Fortnite. Now Fortnite is the biggest thing in the world. So if a brand makes a long-term commitment to a specific game, how do they feel safe? Something new could pop the next week. What’s always going to be consistent, though, is that gamer culture. That’s why we’re creating a support system for the brand and for the end user. That’s really our sweet spot.

TVR: Do you expect to use this model in other sectors?

SV: Yes. Our goal at Big Block has been to take what was a service production company and turn  it into a consultancy and then into an intellectual property house, where we’re creating and innovating all the time.

We plan to launch several different brands similar to the Subnation model. So instead of people hiring an agency, they can be part of an experience that gets them all the benefits they would have from an agency:  experiential, content, media buys. But the experience also has this direct relationship to Cord Nevers, who are so tricky to reach otherwise. We’re creating those connectivity points.

TVR: As eSports occupy more of the cultural conversation, can we look to any previous cultural touchstones as a guide to the eSports future?

SV: The history of hip hop might be one guide. In the 1980s and ‘90s, you had gangster rappers in Compton, and the Bronx and they made music. The rappers and producers out of that scene have real authenticity that resonated much more widely.  The brands weren’t trying to market to them, but they did want to reach that girl in Nebraska who was getting into hip hop, buying the T shirt, the hat, the sneakers.

With eSports, the PC gamers are the gangster rappers. They give eSports authenticity but with console gaming and mobile gaming, the audience reach is so much broader than just PC games.

Through Subnation, we’re connecting the mobile gamer and the console gamer to the PC gamer, without losing that authenticity. We’re so embedded from the gangster rapper authenticity side of living this O.G. that we know how to really create that FUBU, that Rocawear, that sense of it, in the eSports and gaming lifestyle.