Ryan sits down with Matt Arden to discuss the growth and rise of NBA 2K League.
In this episode, Ryan sits down with the Head of Content and Media at NBA 2K League, Matt Arden.
Matt, a 3 time Emmy Winner, and executive producer, dedicates his passion for story telling in his work at the NBA 2K League.
Ryan and Matt discuss several topics in this episode:
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To stay up to date with the league, follow @NBA2KLEAGUE on Instagram
Ryan Alford [00:00:00] Hey, guys, what's up? This is Ryan Alford, host of the Radcast. We are in part six or seven of the eSports series, it's been a good one. I had a ton of interaction and today I'm super pumped to have Matt Arden, Head of Content & Media, NBA 2K League. Matt, great to have you on.
Matt Arden [00:00:37] Thank you very much for having me. I Appreciate it.
Ryan Alford [00:00:38] Can I drop it? Three-time Emmy winner. Do I start there or do I have to butter you up?. I want some good stuff.
Matt Arden[00:00:47] If I didn't win it with the NBA 2k League, don’t count anymore.
Ryan Alford [00:00:49] I am so excited to have Matt on. We shared a few stories for our mutual friend, one of the voices of, if not the voice of the NBA 2k League, Scott Cole, a good friend of mine and super-talented. So it’s great to have that connection. But what's going on, man? On ESPN almost every week. A lot happening with you guys.
Matt Arden [00:01:16] Yeah, it's been crazy. I mean you and I were talking before we hit play that I hesitate to say that this period has been fun because obviously, so many more global implications have not been fun. But I think that we've made a very good run at making the best of it. And we have found the silver lining in all of this. And I think weirdly, it's been bearable because we've had NBA 2k league to lean on. And I think that we're always really like outwardly focused on the fans. But it was weird how when we focused internally on how we're going to handle this whole situation, we realized what fans we are of sports and eSports and the 2k League. And for us that work on the league, it's been great for us because it's been an escape for us, too. It has saved us.
Ryan Alford [00:02:08] Exactly right. I never knew how much I miss sports until the gap between the NBA and I'm not even a huge MLB fan, but I was like Braves are down the road from us here in Greenville, quasi Braves fan. I'll catch a few innings here. I'm like, I was missing MLB like, I'm sorry. I'm not the biggest baseball fan but I was just missing the sports and I was praying for the golf not to get canceled when it started back.
Matt Arden [00:02:37] I was watching Cornhole following us on ESPN2 a lot of nights and I was glued to that when we went off the air. Anything competitive, anything that feels like sports we're in.
Ryan Alford [00:02:46] I've never watched as much Korean baseball at 3:30 am in my gym. I'd have it on ESPN, in the gym, and yeah lots of Korean baseball. I'm rooting for these guys.
Matt Arden [00:03:00] You know what’s cool though with all that, again, trying to find the silver lining, now I kind of have like little fandom with certain Korean baseball teams. And I have the ability that it's given us to expose us to different sports and different people. As for me, I look at the core, I'm a storyteller. And to understand some of these new stories and meet interesting people and understand their backgrounds, all that's been super cool in a weird way. And again, I would like us to get past this and I would like not to ever have another covid era, but it has exposed us to some cool things. And there have been some cool moments so I'm don't want to throw it all away.
Ryan Alford [00:03:39] I love it. So let's start storytelling. You open the book perfectly for me. I love it. I know your background. I know again, we mentioned the Emmys, but let's start there a little bit. Your background in storytelling and producing them, then maybe teeing off to give a little bit of that back history of Matt and what led up to where you're at now.
Matt Arden [00:04:03] I got really lucky in college. I worked my way through college, working in sports media at Virginia Tech. Go Hokies. Sorry, I know you're a Clemson fan. I worked at the newspaper and the radio station and the TV station down there and then I landed an internship at WRC in Washington for the George Michael sports machine, and at the time he was the biggest syndicated sports program on Sunday nights globally. And I learned a lot from him. And the biggest piece of advice he ever gave me was that your college degree is great, but don't try to prove to everybody that you can write circles around them. You want your stories to be embraced by everybody in America. His whole thing was my mom pop beer, can better understand what we're trying to say. And that's sort of how I approach storytelling as an executive producer. I started as a sportscaster on-air and then found myself incredibly lucky to get hired down in Atlanta. I lived in Atlanta for 11 years and worked for the majority of that time at Turner Sports and Turner Sports was amazing for me in so many ways. One, it introduced me to the NBA product and I got to work on the NBA and that is a big part of my career. I got to meet my wife, which I would, no offense to the league, but I would put her above the NBA. I got down there as part of my maturation in storytelling. I got exposed to two very important people in my growth. One was Ernie Johnson, I was on a show with him. He hosted the show that handed off to my show. And he was instrumental in giving me a lot of advice and was always very kind to me. And you talk about Scott Cole and some of those shared friends that we have, Ernie Johnson and Scott, those guys' homework was always the thing that, do your research, know your homework and tell the story the right way. And he hammered that home with me. And the other one was Barry Turner Sports you are still there. Craig was a huge influence in my life, he hired me from CSU down there as employee number one and as the first thought and he hired me under him as a P.A. and I didn't know much but learned everything from him.
Ryan Alford [00:06:10] Are these like Dominique Wilkins, Spud Webb days?
Matt Arden [00:06:18] I'm not that old. I’ll say in my second year, I won't give you my age, but I'll say my second year in CSU was the LeBron and Melo draft years. So that'll date me a little bit.
Ryan Alford [00:06:30] Yeah, just a little.
Matt Arden [00:06:31] So anyway Turner Sports was great to me. Craig was great to me. I learned a lot down there, shared time with some incredible writers and producers, namely Jerry Watkins and Matt Marsteller and we all came up together. And then my wife got a job offer in New York City. I grew up in Virginia. I lived in Atlanta. I had never lived north of the Mason-Dixon. So I was like, all right, let's try it. So I quit my job, moved to New York. I worked for a great company right when I came here called Maggie Vision. Just a lot of work with ESPN and does the NFL owners and then with the agency side, brand side for a while with a company called Screenvision and then the NBA for the last year and a half or whatever, kind of felt like a homecoming, honestly, because I spent so much of my career working on the NBA product that it just felt like that after eight years or seven years in New York City, it felt like I finally landed at home. It was where I was supposed to be. It's just been great.
Ryan Alford [00:07:25] What's been the transitioning from the NBA proper to 2K league the video game side, which the games have gotten so realistic, so much crossover as we said, Scott calling the games and everything else in the league, the realities there. But what was that transition like from there, was it probably more seamless than you think?
MattHarden [00:07:54] It was to a degree. The biggest thing I needed was an education in eSports. It's a very tight community, it's a grassroots community and I am an outsider to a degree. I play video games. I have an Xbox. But to say I'm a gamer would be false, at least at the time. I'm a casual gamer and this is a real endeavor. This is a real practice and this is a real career for so many. And so gaining the education, earning the respect of the players and the League Gaming Council. Our managing director, Brendan Donahue was incredible, getting me up to speed. Sam Isfahani, who had the role before me, who now has OS studios here in New York, would spend time with me and teach me some of the ins and outs that I didn't know. On our internal team a guy I didn’t know A.J. Canty, is incredible, he gave me a ton of knowledge and filled in the gaps. Some outsiders too, Ariel Horn, people like that. I sought a lot of counsel early on to learn the eSport side of it because when you're talking about the transition from the NBA side, the easy part was storytelling, storytelling and unlocking a great story and telling a great story and giving people an incredible visual representation of a sport or a game. Those fundamentals remain. But it was making sure that I was being authentic and I needed to learn the core values where players and teams and leagues come from. Once I sort of started to get that education, the storytelling became a little easier and it became much more automatic for me. I didn't have to think through it as much. And look, the NBA is an awesome company, with resources, and people, to help you walk through these things. It is a great place to work. And the transition was made seamless for me. I didn't have to fight too hard.
Ryan Alford [00:09:37] To talk down that path and I do want to talk about some of the content of it, enjoying that on the YouTube channel. That's where I digested the frenemies. I watched that last night. So it's really interesting, the stories of the players and all that. And there's such a lot of storytelling that I see there being in the business it’s great. Talk about your role and what are the goals ultimately like? What does success look like? Both your role and then what success looks like in that role of content media for you guys?
Matt Arden [00:10:09] Well, look, we're a small team, right? We're a startup within the NBA, so I think success is several different platforms. And for our marketing team, our legal team, for our league overall, for our players and teams, there are probably different benchmarks that marked success. But I think for the content and broadcast team, I'll put it this way, when ESPN came on during all this and more obviously the app all season long and we've been on ESPN2 several times, the success for us looked like them saying, hey, we're interested in this, but can you guys produce a show that belongs on ESPN? And our answer was yes. And they looked at our product and we looked at our product and everybody went, wow, you guys are producing a real thing here. And so I think that the first measure of success for us was that we're not producing in a way that we feel we can get away with. In fact, in many ways, we're also producing and making it much more beautiful than it probably needs to be. And that felt good to us when ESPN said, sure, no problem, let's get you on air. That felt like a really big measure of success for us both creatively and artistically and narratively. And I think that for us was the goal, at least on the content and broadcast side, to continue to make compelling content despite the restrictions that we're faced with now with covid and keep pushing forward narratives because honestly, our players and our teams are awesome. They are some of the most compelling characters I've ever worked with in my twenty-two years in sports and broadcasting. So if we can continue to push those stories forward and find partners that help us tell the stories that'll be successful.
Ryan Alford [00:11:58] Yeah, I love it. And so on the production now, I'd love to go down that path with maybe using the most logical ESPN2 connection. Like, I'm sure we could spend the entire episode talking about what it takes to pull that off or what brought that together. But I think it would be fascinating just to understand, maybe a little bit to give our listeners kind of just how complex that is and what is happening. You've got announcers at home. You have everyone, I imagine is remote in somewhat. Maybe you have a core team. But talk to us about some of that production.
Matt Arden [00:12:40] So we had about three or four weeks to figure out how to go from an arena in Hell's Kitchen that has a broadcast facility built in it to produce the same level of content and broadcast quality from 30 living rooms in two countries and twenty-two states. So, yeah, it was a big deal.
Ryan Alford [00:12:59]No big deal.
Matt Arden [00:13:03] The first question was?
Ryan Alford [00:13:04] Is there an app for that?
Matt Arden [00:13:06] Ironically, yes, there is. There's this cool app. I have the iPad that I can pull up all of our camera angles and I can call shots from home. But the first stop was always game sanctities, always the first question. So first off with us was league ops and they're an incredible team. Daniel Bradham, on that side of our league, made sure that in our office, our partners talked to make sure the game was going to be stable. We could do it. We knew we could pull it off from a gameplay perspective. And then it was, OK, let's stack the broadcast on top of it. And what we did was we ended up building twenty-three mobile broadcasting units. We call them fly packs. And essentially we said, what are the base materials we need for someone to broadcast from their living room? And we got this stack of components in our partners at de facto who produce our show with us. They were incredible at helping us synthesize and figure out, what are those core elements? And we built twenty-three, fly packs and we sent it to the twenty-three teams and de facto then figured out a broadcast strategy that would take in all these feeds, understanding that they're going to be coming off twenty-three different Wi-Fi signal strength. It’s all completely variable, and it's not only variable by who has what bandwidth available, but what's the weather like? What's the traffic like in that region? It’s insane. So we built it all into a hub and we've got it being produced half in Vancouver at the factories headquarters and the other half our core. On the back end is Toronto at the Rogers Center there. We've got our TD and our A1 sitting in a room there and making sure that whatever gets pushed through the pipeline on fiber that goes to our platform partners, whether it's ESPN or Twitter, YouTube, that they're getting a concise, mixed, synced official HD product. And that's how we run our operation and we have three and a half weeks to figure it out. So that's a big deal. And then not to mention your point, Scott is in South Carolina and his home and the casters at his home in Illinois. So we had to build two more fly packs for them and then we built two spare fly packs. We bring in Julian Viognier's aerial power sometimes as guest casters. So we have these floating fly packs that we use when we want to bring in extra voices. And then we figured out how we can integrate Skype in any other way to sort of broadcast to bring in special guests. Our graphics department uses a company called Hiser Van McCleod out of Houston who built a show that would look like we produced it in a broadcast facility. But it's being run out of everybody's living room. And I'm here in New York and half the team is spread out across New York in different places.
Ryan Alford [00:15:56] And you are making it work. I'm hearing a story within the story here. I hope someone's documenting what it took to make that work.
Matt Arden [00:16:04] I think if we go back and document it we're all going to have PTSD. I think we just got to keep moving forward.
Ryan Alford [00:16:08] So talk about the partnership with ESPN. What's that been like? I can only imagine having the eyeballs and I know that you've had other on-air content before covid. What's that done for you guys and what's been the reaction to the more mainstream live broadcast?
Matt Arden [00:16:33] Look, I can't say enough about them as partners that the people that we work with on the ESPN side have been awesome. And I think we worked incredibly hard to be ready for whatever eventuality came during this process. We're incredibly proud that they thought the product was a great product to put on their air. And, since the initial announcement, ESPN has picked up an additional twenty-one nights on ESPN2 alone and of course, on the app the whole time throughout the season. So I think that's a testament to how we've been able to work together and how we've been able to grow the product together. They've had input on different advancements in different content storylines in the broadcast that do on ESPN2, and we take those suggestions very seriously. And in many ways when we're on-air with them, we're working on the show together and they've just been awesome creative partners. And from the linear side, we're proud because we're meeting a new audience every night now that we're with them. And we're hearing the feedback and we're seeing people come back from the ESPN2 to broadcast on twitch chat and we'll find them following us as we go on different platforms on different nights. And so, like anything else in life, it just comes down to opportunity and we're just really proud that we were (a) given the opportunity and that we were prepared to step up to the challenge when the opportunity was presented. So we've been overjoyed with what we've seen with them.
Ryan Alford [00:18:01] What are the featured stories both on broadcast and like I mentioned, your series on I- Digest on YouTube. I'm locked in. Yeah, but talk about sponsors AT&T. We'll give them a shout-out. They seem to be doing a good job with it. I'd love to know what brings to life those stories? And, the players themselves, as you said, are so dynamic or more than you've maybe even realized. But what goes into bringing those stories to life?
Matt Arden [00:18:43] A couple of things. One is I appreciate the shout-out for AT&T, but the truth is they deserve a lot of credit because they're not just a partner with a name on the show. They've helped us produce the show this year because Locked In is a series we created last season and we spent a lot of time and effort traveling and shooting and filming. And, it's a full-on immersive production for 18 weeks. How do you make that show in season? How do you give that show a season 2 when we're all isolated and quarantined? AT&T became an active participant in the production communication, and they gave us 20 different, fully loaded, prepped phones that they shipped to us with AT&T service. And so we use those phones to record the show. We ship them to the teams or players. They're fully ready to upload the footage back to us on a server using the AT&T service. All the footage, for the most part, is shot on these AT&T phones, and they became an actual production partner to solve this problem with us. This has been amazing because we figured out how to produce a full show during a time when we couldn't be face to face with anybody.
Ryan Alford [00:19:50] We talked about sacred cows, production, quality, all these things that have been there for so long, and all we have to do is shoot it with the 4k. And like this and we have this, And I got to have craft services over here. And I mean, good grief, it's like the reality is that if you could tell a story, the content makes the story. The quality is secondary or fifth.
Matt Arden [00:20:16] I'll argue with you on that one for one reason; One thing we said going into this was we're going to get a lot of free passes. We're going to make a lot of excuses for quality. And I don't know if this makes it fun to work with me or difficult to work with me, but I refuse to accept any of those excuses. We still dedicate a ton of quality to it. I don’t know if you hear my computer dinging with five o two, so obviously, there's an emergency somewhere so I'll start with you. But the truth is, I'll fight you on that a little bit in that the quality matters. And so we have an incredible production partner in a company called MAUL Media here in New York City that does a lot of our shoot and edit all of our edits and we dedicated the same energy to the craft as we would have otherwise. We just recognized that we were doing it a little differently. But we still dedicate a ton to the edit in graphics and sound mix and design, and we want to make sure that we're still producing high-quality content despite the free pass that might be out there collectively in the greater ecosystem. We're still going to push a high-quality product. And I think you're seeing that is locked in. And to answer your second question about where do we find the stories? One is where we're just really dedicated to paying attention to more than just the Xs and Os. And we've got this great guy, Grim Warden who is our community ambassador, he goes online by black and white. He knows everybody in the community, everybody in the 2k community, in the 2k league and he's a huge asset to have on our team because he can bring those stories to the surface for us. Hey, you guys got to look at this person. You guys got to look at this team and have been talking to some players over here and they're doing this cool thing. And so we're able to unearth stories in this very organic way because it's all coming from a very real place. We're not just making cold calls to teams and being like, hey, you got anything cool going on? We actively know what's going on by continuing these conversations. And so we chase down a lot of these stories that (a) you wouldn't normally hear and( b) aren't necessarily tied to wins and losses and Xs and Os.
Ryan Alford [00:22:16] I love it and by quality, I don't mean time in production, but more I don't mean whether it's a smartphone, a twenty thousand or hundred thousand dollars red camera.
Matt Arden [00:22:30] It's true. But what we're learning is that guys like me and you are finally being able to affirm that a good story is what matters. There are no more tricks. There are no more bells and whistles. It's just the raw truth, that's what matters.
Ryan Alford [00:22:47] It's so hard to think past covid and not that it even matters necessarily, but what does the future hold for you guys with the league and what can we do? Is there anything you can share that we should be expecting as far as content or stories or different things like that?
Matt Arden 2 [00:23:10] I mean, growth for us is you can see it in real-time, right? Season one had seventeen teams. Season two is twenty-one teams. Season three is twenty-three teams with the first international and traditional eSports franchise, Shanghai Tigers. So our Tigers from Shanghai are international qualifiers. So I don't think there's any gray area there. I think it's pretty easy to see that active hint that we want to be a truly global league with divisions in Asia and Europe and Genge is a huge first step in that they're helping us even with player identification in different regions. And so I think that from a league perspective that is what you're already seeing. From the content broadcast side, I think it will just continue to get bigger and better. We have a virtual studio now, so that's been a fun thing coming out of this covid era. But I think we'll continue to experiment with virtual technologies and remote productions even when we don't have to because now we know we can. And there's s tons of value to it. And I think just obviously continuing to find more distribution platforms that want to play with us and ESPN has been a great example of that. We've got EGG in Southeast Asia and SportsNet in Canada. We've just been able to make great relationships and find some cool distribution that's given us access to a whole new audience in different places. So I think you'll continue to see that level of growth and I think as far as the production process, you'll continue to see more one on one content so we can explain the game and the league to people who are joining us for the first time or the first few times. I love this series Twenty Four Seconds with Autumn Johnson that's sponsored by Tiso. I think we'll see more content like that with your quickfire Stackable. Learn more about our players. We've got this new series behind the screens with Jeff Eisenman, which takes a deeper dive and spends more time with players and understanding how they became eSports professionals. I think those are important stories to tell. And you've got the final four episodes of Locked-In still in production so I don't want to give away too many hints on those. But you see some storylines and stories. I think later in the season you'll see storylines that are tied more to our core principles and some of the pillars of our growth and what we can do with these eSports in the gaming community at large. So we have a couple of things to work on from our living rooms.
Ryan Alford [00:25:29] Just a couple. Are we going to see more linear with eSports? It seems like it's coming fast. I mean, as a whole it seems like it’s the next frontier among many.
Matt Arden [00:25:43] No I think it'll become much more part of the general fare. You have seen FIN coming online here in August. I saw the leaked teaser trailer for G4 so I guess that's coming back too. I think all the signs point to greater opportunity for greater distribution for eSports and gamers. So I'm encouraged by everything we're seeing. And I think we're right in the mix with it and I think we're an awesome product that hopefully, we find homes in all these places.
Ryan Alford [00:26:17] The interesting thing with eSports is the ecosystem is so large with the games and the segments and I know the foundation is with more of the shoot them up games, as I call them. And, I'll go down that route. I have asked every guest that we've had on, I have four boys under the age of 11 and they all are gamers. So do they have a future, a career in this? Like my 11 year old specifically wants to know, so I'm asking every guest, it seems like it might be closer than it ever was, but is this a career path?
Matt Arden [00:27:04] ESports, for sure! I think even broader than gameplay, I think what we're realizing is that like marketing professionals in league operations and developers, I think the career paths that eSports has opened up are so much broader than just becoming a gamer and a professional game player. Everything from people who were used to traditional television production, to content creators to C.R.Os, CMOs, are businesses that are going to continue to grow. And I think that the multitude of careers that can be attached to eSports is limitless right now. I would say one hundred percent this is a career that'll be there for them when they're ready to join the workforce and take my job from me.
Ryan Alford [00:27:53] Alright. Well, we'll see. Hopefully, we're both retired and on a beach somewhere. I think we're about the same age. What's your perspective on the whole for eSports and the growth? It seems like the mainstream is here. I still wonder and I don't want to get into the whole issue of violence and all that, but it just seems like it and that's why I love what you guys are doing. I'm pushing my kids more to the sports side because, look, at the end of the day, I think people hurt people. Games don't hurt people. And, it's like I get to teach them right from wrong and all those things. But is that going to be a hold-up for brands of things? I mean the violent side of it seems as it could be I don't know.
Matt Arden [00:28:48] As a father, I think, I'll probably answer differently than in my role. But I think ultimately what we're finding was two things. One, I would say with all that aside, I just love our product and I love that we're ready to do it for everyone. And we're having a good time with a great sport. But I also think that when you talk about the mainstream, I don't know that there is a mainstream anymore. I think there's something for everyone now. And I think niche markets are important. And so whether or not everything that we're talking about becomes globally massive, everyone, tons of eyeballs, I don't know what the future looks like. I don't even know what ratings look like in the future and it doesn't necessarily matter, because I think niche markets and powerful niche markets will be very interesting to the future of media. And so we're just going to keep cranking on this thing that we love. And we are really happy with what we're seeing so far. And we're just going to keep grinding because our fans love it. We're finding new fans every day and we think we're providing a cool product. And we're focused on that.
Ryan Alford [00:29:47] I love it. Matt, it's been awesome. I appreciate your insights, your transparency with everything going on with the league. The storytelling is awesome, whether it's remote or not, I don't think the average I would know because the stories are compelling. The players are compelling. The league itself seems limitless for where you guys can take it. So really appreciate your time and coming on today.
Matt Arden [00:30:17] Thank you very much for having me. I appreciate the opportunity and the fact that you guys are taking notice of it. It has been cool. So thank you very much.
Ryan Alford [00:30:24] Yeah, it's been great. Hey, this is Ryan Alford, host of the Radcast. I really appreciate Matt Arden coming on today to talk about all things NBA 2k league. To follow more, just Google NBA 2k league. They're right there at the top. You can learn more about the league and everything that they have going on and go follow their series on YouTube. It's great content. This is Ryan Alford. We'll see you next time.