Seven years ago, Hunter Hillenmeyer was signing autographs in a Jewel-Osco supermarket up in Fox Lake, Ill., the kind of ham-and-egg gig that any Chicago Bear could expect at some point in his career if he was any good. It wasn't anyone's idea of stressful work. Smile, pretend to be famous, collect your couple-three thousand bucks for two hours of doing nothing. But then this dude showed up like something out of The Silence of the Lambs, and laid his right forearm on the table.
The guy was covered in tattoos—tattoos of Bear autographs. He thrust a Sharpie at Hillenmeyer, a linebacker from Vanderbilt who didn't expect to stay a year in the NFL when he was drafted in 2004 but somehow had made starter. Hillenmeyer's legal signature was about to go on the body of this freakshow—permanently.
"He holds out his arm, and I'm thinking, 'That seems like primo real estate,'" said Hillenmeyer. Sure enough, Mike Ditka's penmanship was right next door, somewhere around the ulna. Hillenmeyer grimaced and signed. "The next time I see him is at training camp [the next year], and right there next to Ditka is my autograph tattooed on his arm.
"I remember thinking, 'That's pretty creepy,'" says Hillenmeyer today from his home back in Nashville, where his new job, in fact, is brokering fan-athlete close encounters. Non-creepy close encounters. The key to that seems to be that no money changes hands, either from fan to athlete or, remarkably, from sponsor to athlete. The two just sit down and play a video game, something both were probably doing a lot of already.
Hillenmeyer connects them through an app developed by his startup, Overdog, which sells ads on the app. (Call of Duty and Activision had a big run during the game's launch month). It more or less is a big lobby that shows who among the more than 300 pros—and not just the big four team sports in the U.S., either—are online, and in what game. Fans who sign up can be notified when a player, or a player for a certain team or in a specific sport, or playing their favorite game, is online. When that guy is ready to play, there's a lottery draw among the fans who want to play against him. Hillenmeyer says of Overdog's installation base of 15,000, 88 percent of fans who signed in for two matches played at least one of them against a pro.
Because athlete-fan interactions have become such a transactional relationship to the popular consciousness, Hillenmeyer runs into a lot of disbelief that his business isn't just another scheme from an ex-jock trading on his previous life or, worse, trying to con other jocks by virtue of that connection. To be honest, I felt that way when I heard about Overdog last year, assuming its users paid $29.95 to play team deathmatch for 30 minutes with, I don't know, Antonio Gates. I assumed it was like going to a strip club and paying a dancer to have a salad with you during your dinner.
If that really was the job description, I couldn't imagine any current star, much less anyone interesting or relevant at any point in his career, signing on. Well, neither could Hillenmeyer.
"I didn't like the impression of an athlete having his hand out to bleed fans for $50 or $25 or whatever the price per game would be," Hillenmeyer said. "I didn't feel that was true to the experience of what we wanted to deliver, and if we used a subscription or a microtransaction model for these interactions, we would be left with a lot of disappointed fans. It left them with the chance of not playing, and no guarantee that they would—that seemed very tough to get over."
More importantly, setting up a service that did charge fans and pay players that cash, after taking a cut, would damn for sure ramp up the creepy factor, giving Overdog a lot fewer than 300 athletes and requiring a lot more money, paperwork and agent interactions.
"Part of the safety [in Overdog] is it's arm's length," Hillenmeyer reasoned. Most players do play with voice chat on; at minimum, gamers would get an introductory tweet from the pro welcoming him to the game. "It has that immediate back-and-forth interaction on Twitter, but there is some safety that insulates athletes from the autograph-line fear of crowds."
But what's in it for them? Why not just game against a friends list they build up naturally (and anonymously) like the rest of us?
Well, Overdog's stable does get some swag and perks, thanks to relationships with publishers and peripheral makers that send along free games, headsets and other goodies. Word spreads in a locker room really fast, the same way a free donuts email goes viral at any office. "We'll get some random guy on the Dallas Cowboys, then we'll get one more, then the week after we'll get six," Hillenmeyer says. "Word spreads around college teammates pretty organically, too. One day we'll get an Oklahoma guy, then the next week, five or six guys from Oklahoma."
They're not just Call of Duty and Madden steakheads, either. The former Vikings punter Chris Kluwe, very well known to gamers, will jump on to play Borderlands 2, which is problematic to Overdog because, with the multiplayer being a co-operative campaign, it can go on forever. Eric Brunner, a fullback for the Houston Dynamo of MLS, "is a huge gamer. Even before Overdog existed, he was already a streamer. He's a big League of Legends guy, that's an exception among athletes. Most are console and mobile gamers, but not PC."
Overdog's so far only connecting games on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, but anticipates supporting PS4 and Xbox One later. Hillenmeyer wanted to get the Overdog app running on Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network, but found that to be a bridge too far for a startup company. "For us to think that, as a startup with a new concept, we'd have carte blanche ability to pull the APIs we need and deliver the exact experience we wanted on the console was probably a little naive." Hillenmeyer said. "I still think it's possible and it'll happen sooner or later." For now, the mobile app was the next best solution; it's available for iOS and Android devices.
And Overdog does pay out money—"90 percent of athletes on Overdog are not paid," Hillenmeyer said, which means 10 percent do get something, but it's not from fans. When Overdog is shelling out for celebrity status, though, it's usually for something hugely promotional, like this video for something called the "Athlete Elite League," comprising five top running backs, all currently involved in an NFL season.
So, this isn't a charity. Hillenmeyer got his M.B.A. from Northwestern while he was playing for the Bears, and he's trying to make money off this idea. It's not a cute case study project he wrote up that he's fooling with while he manages the millions he made as an NFL pro. Overdog, Hillenmeyer said, had its origins in something called Pro Player Connect, which was basically a clearinghouse that found all sorts of ways for athletes, many of whom aren't household names, to make extra money off the field. Hillenmeyer was one of the 2,800 who signed up through it. "It was anything from go have dinner with a bunch of strangers to go sign a bunch of autographs," Hillenmeyer said. Often the compensation wasn't in cash, but a deep discount on, say, a set of golf clubs, or 40 percent off a rental car.
The idea had appeal because it streamlined a process that, on a one-to-one level, is often shrouded in contracts and lawyers. "If, in my playing days, I signed autographs at a Walgreens to promote getting a flu shot, I might get $1,500 for that," Hillenmeyer said. "The transaction costs were, literally, about the same as Peyton Manning signing a deal with Gatorade. There were just too many gatekeepers in the process, middle men, agents and such."
Good concept notwithstanding, Pro Player Connect wasn't making any money, and when it came time for its backers to consider going forward, they essentially reconstituted their investment as Overdog. This time, they're betting that bringing athletes and fans together in an activity they're both already doing and enjoying is going to create enough interaction that selling ads on it does make sense, and the huge weight of cash for contact—in meeting expectations and paying for the brush with fame—is lifted.
It wasn't just dealing with, well, gregarious superfans that could make a 6-4, 240 pound linebacker grimace. Sometimes you know your own resume and, frankly, can't believe you deserve the money. "It's creepy how many opportunities you have when you're on a team that is playing well," said Hillenmeyer, whose Bears went to the Super Bowl in 2007. "Out of 11 starters on our defense, I was probably no better than ninth or 10th best. But when you're on a good team, there are lots of opportunities to sign autographs or promote something. Five thousand, $10,000 for two hours, that seemed unfathomably awesome. I'd show up at a Dick's Sporting Goods and make $5,000 to sign autographs for two hours, and there would be 150 people there over the whole two hours.
"I remember doing the math in my head and thinking, 'This can't be worth Dick's money,' and almost feeling guilty," Hillenmeyer mused. "Somebody's marketing budget had to go to work here, and I felt bad that I was not a bigger draw. Somebody wasted $5,000 having me show up at this store."
That's not to say all of his interactions with fans are tinged with regret. The roar of a Soldier Field crowd when he forced a fumble is a kindness no athlete could repay. And there are friendships he developed that persist to this day.
"Some of my best buddies in Chicago are golf buddies that I got to know because we had the same hobby," Hillenmeyer said. "They're normal dudes like me, with a shared interest in the same thing. We still play, and it's not because they're big Bear fans, and it's not because I like it that these guys are hanging out with me. Now we go play golf together all the time."
Replace "golf" with "video games," and that's Overdog.
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games.