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Former NFL Player Wants To Unite Gamers And Athletes

Former Chicago Bears linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer has one goal: bridge the gap between gamer and professional athlete.

To accomplish his goal he co-founded OverDog. The company's iPhone app allows athletes to challenge their fans in different games on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Eventually the app will expand to become a hub for fans to play in tournaments and enjoy exclusive content such as athlete-created videos.

We interviewed Hillenmeyer about his vision for OverDog, how much pro athletes play video games, what users can expect from the platform on day one, and why he's looking to Kickstarter for funding.  

How did this project start? 

We started about May of last year. I was the Bears’ player rep for five of my eight NFL years, and when you’re in that role, you’re kind of a liaison between the players and everything else that’s going on – whether that’s legal stuff or off-the-field opportunities. When we first started OverDog, we were thinking in a very general way about better, more fun, more efficient ways to connect athletes and fans.

One behavior and favorite hobby that both groups have in common is playing video games. You already see some athletes who are very engaged gamers jumping on their social media, whether that’s Twitter, or Facebook, Reddit, or whatever else and playing with their fans. We’re not introducing a totally new concept. We’re just building a better, easier, more fun, more engaging way to do something that we already saw happening.

Are you a gamer?

I was a huge gamer as a kid – all the typical classics. I was a GoldenEye 007 fanatic in college (though I usually got drilled by my roommates). I played mostly sports games during my NFL days, though as marriage and life crept in, they took a backseat more than I was used to. Perhaps the best perk of OverDog is that I can now head down to the basement to play FIFA, Madden, or Call of Duty, and justify to the family that I'm working. 

When will OverDog launch?

We’re deploying the very first version of the product in April – it’s a mobile app that connects people to play console-based video games. We’re starting with Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. The first version is focused exclusively on one feature: The ability for athletes to challenge their fans, and the ability for fans to accept those challenges.

In the long run, we have a bigger vision for OverDog than just hoping that you get the chance to play against your favorite athlete, especially as the popularity of spectating video games grows. Companies like Twitch, Machinima, and whoever else have shown that there’s such an appetite for that. We would love to be able to livestream athletes’ games, have athlete versus athlete tournaments, and fan versus fan tournaments.

The example that we always use is: Next year, when the Packers play the Vikings, we would love it if we would have Adrian Peterson and Clay Matthews facing off in a game of Madden, livestreaming that for fans to participate and watch, and then let fans pair off and go play against each other and have a tournament between Vikings fans and Packers fans to see which fanbase takes home the bragging rights.

A lot of the technologies required for that like an automatic version of results, capture of games, livestreaming technologies, things like that, they all exist. We have a roadmap to build all of those features, but we will be layering those into the experience over the course of the summer. The reason we’re using Kickstarter to start is because we deliberately want to keep the user base small, while we’re testing, iterating, improving the experience for everybody in the short run.



How does the technology work? Obviously on the 360 and PS3 you have friends lists. It’s a little difficult to get people added; there’s a lot of input involved. How are you streamlining that process to let people connect right away?
We do automate the friending process. When people sign up they share their Gamertag and from that we’re able to, with their permission, access certain information required. Whether there’s one winner to go play a heads-up game of Madden or FIFA or NBA 2K, or multiple winners if people wanted to play something like Call of Duty. We friend the participants so that the game is queued up and ready to go, and basically after they use the OverDog app for the connectivity portion of things, they just go turn on their console and start the game.

When you launch in April, what is your focus going to be? Do you know what game you’re going to kick off with?
We’re doing our best to be totally platform and game agnostic...We would like for athletes to be able to challenge their fans in any game they want to play. Part of that is there has to be an audience on the fan side that would be interested. But we don’t plan on telling athletes, “Okay, you’re a football player, you need to play Madden,” or, “You’re a basketball player, you need to play NBA 2K.” We’re going to let any athlete play any game, and you see that behavior already is pretty common in that just because you’re a football player doesn’t mean your favorite game is Madden. There are a lot of guys in the league whose favorite games are FIFA or Call of Duty or whatever else. The same overlap goes for other sports as well. We want to allow people to connect with their fans in any game that they’re already a fan of.

We’re not trying to change athletes’ behavior in any way; we’re not trying to put something in front of them that becomes work. Most athletes love playing video games. We’re just giving them an effective tool to do that with fans in a way that’s probably more fun for everybody.

You’re working with Robomodo. What are they doing for you guys?
So Josh Tsui is the president of Robomodo. He’s a games industry veteran who worked with Midway and EA and is now running the show over at Robomodo. He’s on our advisory board. Other than the occasional phone call to troubleshoot some technology issues that we’re thinking about, or making introductions to people who might be able to help us with the challenge of the day, we’re not involved day-to-day with Robomodo.

How many athletes are you hoping to have registered with OverDog when you launch in April?

We’ve probably already connected with north of 100 athletes. It’s worth mentioning that we’re also a successor company to a group called Pro Player Connect that has 28,000 professional athletes in the network.

Obviously, not all of those guys will play video games, but we have that huge installed base of athletes, many of whom will probably be rabid OverDog users once we get up and running. We would like to start with somewhere between 50 and 100 athletes in terms of guys that are active and immediately issuing challenges from day one, but we expect that to scale quickly.

What we’ve seen on the athlete side in the locker rooms that we’ve been inside – the Vikings, the Bears, the Titans, the Houston Dynamo – just random teams across multiple sports where we just happen to have talked with multiple guys in the same team, word spreads quickly. All of the gamers that are in that locker room want to be involved, and so we get a little bit of word of mouth marketing within teams themselves.

All we have to do is plant seeds in each locker room and each sport, and I think the recruitment process of athletes is pretty seamless from there. We don’t want to have every professional athlete on the platform from day one because we’d like to limit that side of things the same way we’re limiting the fan side of things through Kickstarter, because we would like to test, iterate, and improve the process and the product during April, May, June, before we layer in all these richer features and release a full, ready-for-the-big-time version next August, early fall.

Is there a fee for connecting? If you want to play against David Price, will there be a fee for the gamer that gets that opportunity?

What we’re selling on Kickstarter basically amounts to a subscription. Those subscriptions vary in their length of time that they give you access to athletes. There is no upsell in the event that you win the chance to play against an athlete. You pay for your subscription, and then you’re in and there are no extra paywalls that you would have to lay down a credit card to get into. Once you’ve subscribed, you have access to everyone on OverDog; there’s no limit on the number of challenges you can accept, and no limit on the number of games you can play.



Is there some concern that people will sign up with the notion that they’re going to play against Adrian Peterson, but never will? If the community gets too big and there are a million people on there, what are the odds of them playing that game against an athlete?

That is probably the question we think about the most with OverDog. There’s obviously more fans than there are athletes. OverDog in the long run will hang its hat on the experience we deliver to people who are not the ones sitting in front of their console playing the game with the athlete. That’s why things like fan versus fan, live streaming of video games, being able to invite your friends to watch, see athlete created content within the OverDog app where an athlete issues the challenge with a little video clip on their own cell phone. That personalized content is streamed to you, whether or not you’re the one that’s actually getting to play against the athlete. All of those things are doing everything we can to make this experience that can be one to many, and not just one to one. We hope that everybody that’s involved in OverDog, not just the one who’s getting to play against the athlete, is having a great experience.

With tournaments there usually come prizes. If you beat a professional athlete, you obviously get bragging rights. Are you doing anything on top of that, like cash rewards or prizes?

Obviously, we’re doing skill levels and leaderboards, and badges when you beat a certain athlete or beat a certain athlete in a certain sport like, ‘I beat an NFL athlete’ badge, or, ‘I beat a Chicago Bear’ badge. All of those things will be a part of the experience. We won’t ever be Virgin Gaming. There’s never going to be a competitive money-based element to OverDog. Mostly because that is a lot like gambling, even though it’s not, and because we’re sort of an athlete centric company with relationships, with pretty much every player association out there, we have to stay a mile away from anything that looks like that.

Where do people go? Is OverDog the portal where everything takes place?

Our web domain is TheOverDog.com. There’s a sign-up to get on our email list and everything else. But during the campaign, during the Kickstarter campaign, the only way to get access into OverDog is to support us through Kickstarter. We’re very deliberate about the fact that we’re using Kickstarter to populate the fan side of the OverDog experience, and hoping that we get a certain critical mass of fans on there. That would be the only group of people that has access to athletes in the immediate, sort of near-term future. We would open it up to the masses once this beta period is over.

Are you going to have different apps for different platforms? Is that part of the future of building it up?

We’re deploying first as an iPhone app, fast following with Android everything else. We have our website, but that will direct people to the app in the event that they have not already downloaded that.

What will your first OverDog challenge be?

I'm pretty sure my first game challenge will be in Madden, though I think the game I am getting into the most right now is FIFA.

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