Leader Interview: Andrew Weilgus

LIGHTs On-Leader Interview: Andrew Weilgus, Director, Esports Innovation Center (EIC) at Stockton University


Leader Interview: Andrew Weilgus,

Director, Esports Innovation Center (EIC)


Jane Bokunewicz (JB): Hello everyone, welcome to the LIGHTs On Leader Interview. My name is Jane Bokunewicz, and I’m the Faculty Director of the Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality and Tourism at Stockton University in the School of Business. Today I’m interviewing Andrew Weilgus and he is the Executive Director of the Esports Innovation Center at Stockton University. So, welcome Andrew and thank you so much for taking the time to interview with us.

Andrew Weilgus (AW): Thank you Jane, I appreciate it.

Portrait Andrew Weilgus
Andrew Weilgus,
Director, Esports Innovation Center (EIC)
at Stockton University - Atlantic City

JB: So, I’m going to start out with a very broad question. Who is Andrew Weilgus?

AW: I think I am somebody who is extraordinarily passionate about the work that I do. On a personal level, the first thing I always say when I identify, if you ask me who I am – I’m a dad. I have a wonderful 10-year-old daughter, who is the apple of my eye, so to speak. That actually plays into my role in Esports – seeing it through the eyes of somebody up and coming in that, and watching their passion take hold as well.

I’m somebody who is deeply deeply passionate about building a sports culture in Atlantic City. I’ve been here for close to 20 years and it's a place that I grew up visiting, but always sought wanting to live here and make it my permanent home. And since I have, my desire has been to try to build and foster a sports culture, both from a professional nature, but also an amateur nature. Really use sports as a vehicle to not only make Atlantic City look the best it possibly can, but also to enrich the lives of the kids that live in the city, of the people that that want to see the city succeed, and really to build an identity in the sports world for the city. That's sort of led to the various projects that I would say I’ve been involved with in Atlantic City over the course of the last 20 years, most of which have turned into businesses.

JB: I love that you have your priorities straight with your daughter being at the top of your identity, so good job on that.

AW: Hundred percent.

JB: This question sort of tailgates on what you've just started to talk about. What are the highlights of your career, which led you to becoming the executive director of the Esports Innovation Center?

AW: Absolutely, I’ve always been a serial entrepreneur. As a freshman at Syracuse University, I was fortunate enough to meet my still current business partner, Nicholas Bilotta, who grew up in Margate and then moved offshore, went to Mainland High School and convinced me to move down here. Then, since I was a freshman, I kept coming down here every summer.

We launched our first company when we were both 19-year-olds, and that was The Live Network, which we still own. Originally that was an audio engineering production technology company. What we did was create a system that allowed you to record a concert and produce instant CDs of that concert as you left the arena. So, we worked with over 500 bands, including groups like the Grateful Dead or The Dead what was left of them, and The Allman Brothers. A variety of different amazing acts, including some world-class festivals, like the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, which still uses the technology today.

We ended up selling that company to a competitor. Then I was able to take a step back, go for my master's degree. I was fortunate enough to get into the University of Pennsylvania at the Wharton School, in a joint program called the Executive Masters in Technology Management, between Wharton and Penn Engineering. That really let me take my love of technology and figure out the best way to build it into business development. From there, I began working in a variety of different fields, mostly related to sports, fantasy sports, and things of that variety - with application development, with white labeling, with third-party companies. We were one of the first companies ever to conceptualize the idea of daily fantasy sports back in 2008. At that point, I met the folks that were running the Tropicana at the time, and we had started working on a project in fantasy sports that unfortunately some folks in Las Vegas thought looked a little bit too much like sports betting at the time and legally squashed it before it happened. But, we were going to build the first fantasy sports bar inside the Tropicana where you could play daily fantasy games, and then hopefully cash out and enjoy you know dinner and events.

Because of that relationship, even though that particular idea didn't work, that led me several years later – I should mention at the same time, in 1999 when I first moved down here, my business partner and I started a second company which is very loose and easy called Quizzo Trivia. It was a game that was very popular and played in Philadelphia, and we had seen it being played and we thought this would be amazing to bring to every bar in South Jersey. So, in 1999 Maynard’s [Café] was the first bar that signed up; we were working with another host who had gotten that. Over time we took it to over 14 states, every major chain from Applebee's to Buffalo Wild Wings to TGI Fridays, and really made it a staple of activity on a weekly basis in the Atlantic City area. We have four active venues in Atlantic City alone that run the game every single week.

JB: – and they’re still going today, right?

AW: Oh, absolutely!

JB:  I played that, I didn't know that you were –

AW: Without a doubt, if you go to QuizzoTrivia.com, you can get a list of all the bars near you that play the game and it's our hosts in the field. We absolutely love that.

That was a fruitful enough endeavor to allow us to invest in a professional sports team, which was really my dream, since I was a little kid. I’m sure as the dream of a multitude of other people but getting there is obviously a crazy challenge. My business partner and I launched Atlantic City FC and Atlantic City Esports in 2017 -- as both a professional soccer team and professional esports club that would specifically be competing in soccer-related esports for starters to build the brand of Atlantic City FC. We were extremely blessed to get a sponsorship from the Tropicana, that not only saw our headquarters be established inside Tilton Fitness at the Tropicana but also allowed our players to live at the Tropicana during the season and really experience a first-class experience in Atlantic City. I know I said experience twice there, but that's how good the experience was folks that I said it twice.

We've had a lot of success on the soccer front, the esports has been amazing because that team that competed in virtual pro gaming and a variety of other leagues competed against world famous European teams that are part of like England's topflight and divisions like that. So, it really expanded the borders, and it really showed me what esports can be, not only as a marketing tool, but just in building this sports culture that I so passionately want for Atlantic City.

Really, where else do you have a world-famous city where everyone outside knows it and there's no identity in terms of a professional sports team at all. We're always compared to Las Vegas and in the time Las Vegas has boomed, they've added professional football, professional hockey - they have the NBA summer league that's housed there. It's just an incredible amount of sporting events. In Atlantic City we've had multiple teams come, and multiple teams go, and nothing has really stuck.

Getting to the bottom of that and figuring out why that's the case, and then using esports as a driver to make all of that makes sense and come together, because, again, we have nine operating casinos and 30,000 hotel rooms and the beach, and the best internet in the world, so those resources needed to be galvanized to come up with a strategy to use sports and esports together. Really, to promote the city and to raise the quality of life, too. I mean, you know people don't recognize this, but when the Atlantic City Surf folded so did little league baseball in Atlantic City – hasn't returned. Those have tangible consequences, and it was really my passion to try to figure out ways to enhance the sporting experience here.

That led to esports, and led to Atlantic City FC, which again is a great conduit to just building a sports culture in the city. Then, when I heard about the Esports Innovation Center being formed and the support that they had from the state division, I really felt like this was an opportunity that I couldn't pass up to get involved and to do so with the resources that I’ve already put together. But also, this exceptional vision that's come from Stockton University and from folks at the Economic Development Agency and in New Jersey, to really understand what esports can be. Which just, people have such a misnomer that it's just people playing video games. The average video game title that gets produced costs $150 million to build. It has a full-time team of technicians that maintain it, update it, modify it. The ecosystem is supported by the biggest companies in the world, Apple, Sony, Microsoft, Oracle. So those high-tech jobs are really the way to change Atlantic City in terms of how people perceive it is a working environment and to have all of that, in a very tight space, meaning a very small, easily able to travel space, is unheard of. Las Vegas, for example, they have some esports stuff, but everything is all over the place and it takes a long time to get anywhere, so you can't really put everything in one spot. Atlantic City doesn't have that issue. We've got the six casinos right on the Boardwalk, and the three in the Marina, so we have this unique opportunity to sort of harness these things. All of that experience in sports and developing sports kind of led me to what I believe is, statistically is, the number one growth sport in the world is esports and also the type of thing that is unique for Atlantic city to take advantage of.

JB: Well, I can see why you were selected as the executive director, because you have the entrepreneurial spirit, you have the vision, you have the local knowledge, you have experience in so many different sides of the industry.  So, good luck with your new position.

AW: I appreciate it.

JB: You also started talking about some of the key success factors that Atlantic City has, but what do you think are some of your greatest challenges in making your vision come true with the Esports Innovation Center here in Atlantic City?

AW: Yeah, so right now, I think we know what the challenges are and by no means can anybody look at this as some sort of silver bullet that's going to save Atlantic City. What we have to do is really position ourselves to become a stop on a tour. The first thing that needs to be done is infrastructure. Atlantic City does have tremendous resource, but the full infrastructure necessary for running a multitude of esports events and to have an esports presence is not here, yet. It will be. There are components in place, including one of the fastest internet servers in the world, run by Continent 8, which is exclusively for igaming now, but does have the potential to add esports onto it. Combined with a variety of things that I know they're working hard on, that I don't want to talk about in too much detail, on a state level to incentivize companies to place resources down here. Those things are in the works and that's what the EIC is going to take the lead on. The end result is going to be high-paying, high-tech jobs in Atlantic City and a supporting network of companies that have everything to gain by being located here and having that proximity to the casinos. But also, the other advantages of Atlantic City in terms of property cost, in terms of tax, in terms of proximity to other major metropolitan markets without having to pay for it, an hour from Philly, two hours from New York, an International Airport that's expanding.

Esports Innovation Center Logo

Visit www.esportsinnovationcenter.com to learn more

All of these things are very, very unique to Atlantic City that should position us very well. Once the infrastructure gets built, once we know what that plan is, once these incentives are put in place by the State, we're going to bring in companies that are part of this ecosystem, to set up shop in Atlantic City; to bring jobs into the environment, and to plan the innovations in the esports industry. One of the beautiful things, Jane about esports versus anything else, sports is comprised of all the individual sports. You have volleyball, you have soccer, you have baseball. Outside of pickle ball, which is the thing that's really sort of swept the world in the last, I can never remember in my lifetime, a new sport happening. You can't just say, ‘Oh, I’m going to have 500,000 people playing this combination of soccer and hurling and cricket it tomorrow,’ you have to go through extraordinary lengths to get that even adopted by a handful of people willing to play it, let alone learn it, let alone be good. Not the case in esports. Esports can release a title like Valorant, which four years ago didn't exist and now as a top five competitive esports with $100 million in prizes that they've given away. That is the beauty of this as a differentiator versus other failed attempts to have an industry spark real change in an area. I firmly believe Atlantic City as a North American destination should be exceptionally competitive with the rest of the global world to bring talent here, to have those jobs based here, because you have nightlife you have great restaurants, you have the beaches, you have proximity to every city that you would want to get to, at maybe half the cost. That's what I see as being the path forward for this really taking hold. Permanent jobs located here.

This is something that's interesting. When a movie production happens, and the state is incentivizing movie studios constantly to come into this area, when a movie production happens, and it wraps up everyone leaves they go on to different projects. The jobs leave the state they might go on to Louisiana for the next project that might go to Georgia for the next project. That doesn't happen with video games when a studio sets up shop they’re permanently there. Even if they release a title, that title requires years of updates, and maintenance, and patches, and new releases, and new stuff. You have this major differentiator [with] the esports industry versus the movie studios, but still the same concepts in place. Incentivize these groups to build permanent studios here, and you will have high-paying jobs that are in the area. The other thing that they obviously want is workforce and I’m very proud to be associated with Stockton University, because the potential for workforce development, not only at Stockton, but all of the state institutions. We are less than an hour from two Ivy league schools, that's not bad either. You have one of the finest state institutions in the world in Rutgers, and Rowan, and Stockton, and also a really robust community college program, which is embracing esports and certificate programs and technical advancement. Those things are exactly what publishers and high-tech companies want that's what they look at in terms of setting up shop. So, if you combine these incentives, along with this academic outreach – those are the barriers, but they're also the path forward.

JB: So, can you give us a sense of – I hear your vision and it really does sound exciting – but can you tell us what will this all look like in a few years? Not what's the end game, but what, in your vision, will Atlantic City look like, and how is the Esports Innovation Center going to play [a role] in creating that future vision?

AW: The end result has to be being a viable stop on the tour. That that's what I intend to build. To make Atlantic City a viable stop on the esports tour. What I mean by that is, people should look at it like the NCAA Final Four, the Super Bowl, it rotates cities and every single esports game that's worth anything, has a rotation of different tournaments and places that they go through. The beautiful thing about esports is there are dozens of titles. What I want Atlantic City to be is a group hosting a Madden, a massive Madden event one week, and League of Legends event the next week, and a Valorant event the week after, and maybe that's spread out over the course of months but being a stop on the tour for every single one of those events. That takes care of the event side.

The second side is, I want us to be a beacon for attracting high-tech companies that are the innovators and esports. That permanently locate offices, that permanently work with institutions that we have here like Stockton on hiring, on training, on internships, and then build that symbiotic relationship where you have it all in-house, all in this area. The events are going on, the ability to run those events and tap into them is going on, but also this tremendous technical ecosystem that's coming to life, where you have business incubation, you have company ideas, new software, new hardware. All of those things being developed out of Atlantic City, which further the esports ecosystem.

JB: Well, I can see people wanting to move here to be those employees. So I think companies that do move into the area have a great opportunity to attract people to want to come and live here because we have so many amenities going for us in this area.

AW: There's no question. Especially if you're young and you're into nightlife and those things, and you want them. Like my God, I mean, what else would you need in Atlantic City. It has literally everything. Really, the Tropicana has 25 stores, 25 restaurants and an IMAX movie [theater]. That's one casino –

JB: Yeah.

AW:  – that's one place. My team, I used to tell them, you actually never need to leave here. You can physically stay here for the rest of your life and probably be OK.

JB: OK, so you talked a lot about careers in the industry. What advice do you have for people that are interested in a career in esports?

AW: I would say that you need to match your passion with the realization of what your skill level is and what you're best suited for. Kids that grow up wanting to be the shortstop for the Phillies should not be deterred in trying to get a job in baseball when it doesn't work out that they're not going to be the shortstop for the Phillies, and it's the same thing with esports. Almost all of the people that are in the industry are also players, and they are also very passionate about the game. I would say, find what you're good at, whether it's event management, whether it's marketing, whether it's technical development and engineering, and then match that passion with the sector of the industry that really would excite you. I tell my daughter all the time, it does not feel like work when you love what you do. When you really love what you do and you're passionate about it. Everything just falls into place, and you can get out of bed with a smile on your face and work your butt off without it ever causing stress or mental anguish or hardship you just, you're fired up, you want to do it.

I think this industry is unique, because all the people that are peripherally involved are so into the games and the sports and that aspect of it, so you have this immense passion. It's a matter of marrying that passion with the right skill sets and developing those skill sets at a very intricate level so that these players that are part of the Stockton esports program, which has the No. 2 rocket league team in the world. In the world. In one of the most competitive esports games. They just placed two in the internationals, which is incredible for a school like Stockton, which has just made so many strides to go from a college to a university, all while I’ve been here. Those kids, 700 strong, better part of that program, they need jobs. They need jobs in the industry. For them I would say, go out, seek out the right internships, seek out the right opportunities, prove your worth to these companies. Really dig into what skills do I need to hit the ground running when I do these events. Go volunteer. You want to be in esports event management find a major event, call up the company running it, and say, I would like to volunteer, how can I be useful.

What we plan on doing at the EIC, if this entire process comes together the way I just explained, you will have those opportunities right here in your own backyard. There will be countless events to work at, countless events to get training at. The EIC itself will be a physical location, holding training events and networking events and seminars and panels on a constant basis. Ultimately working with the Levenson Institute on finding this nexus between gaming and betting and esports, and helping that become a blossoming industry in Atlantic City. We haven’t even talked about that – 

JB: Perfect fit though for Atlantic City for sure.

AW: Absolutely.

JB: Well, thank you for all of those great comments. Is there anything you'd like to add to what I’ve already asked, is there anything you'd like to comment that I didn't ask about concerning your vision or your background?

AW: I would just say that we do have a really unique opportunity in this city and it's something that everybody should want to take part in. The EIC is open to assist and help develop everything whether you're a K-through-12 school whether you're a community college, whether you're the boys and girls club, who we're already working with in Atlantic City, reach out to us, let us know what you're trying to do in esports, and we will help; both getting resources pushed in your direction and knowledge and information. A lot of times it's just these groups saying, ‘OK, we want to do something in the community, but where do we start, who do we contact, what do we do?’ We will be that clearing house where you can come to us, and hopefully we'll be announcing the physical location plans and roll out of that as well, but we will have an incredible space on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City that's going to be open, probably six days a week. It'll be there for people to come as a resource and learn about new technologies, but also to learn about what they can do to spread this entire package into their community. It's more than just saying to parents, this is about your kids playing video games. It's about educating your kids about the jobs in engineering and graphic design and marketing and event management. Getting them prepped for those so that they can continue the thing that they love, but also make a living doing it, while bettering our entire economy with those jobs coming to Atlantic City.

JB: Well, thank you so much. Every time I hear you speak, or I have a conversation with you, I get so excited about this future growth area for Atlantic City. I think you have a great vision and I’m so excited for Stockton’s role in this vision. Thank you for your time today. It was really great interview.

AW: My pleasure, and I’m very grateful to Stockton University and the State EDA. They really are committed to this, so it's a pleasure to be a part of it.

JB: All right, thank you and thank you to our viewers who tuned in to watch the interview.