The connector: How UTA’s gaming boss is reconciling discrepancies between the attention games attract and the revenue they make

Person gaming

If you’re into gaming then chances are you’ve come across Ophir Lupu’s work. No, he’s not a flashy esports player. Nor is he a visionary creative director at one of the top studios. And neither is he a streamer adored by tens of millions of fans.

Lupu is, however, responsible for the fact that you’re seeing and hearing more from all those individuals, whether it’s as you’re watching a Hollywood blockbuster or listening to a podcast. He represents some of the fastest-growing stars in entertainment as the head of United Talent Agency’s (UTA) gaming division where business is on a tear.

So much so that 2021 is shaping up to be a bumper year for the division; among those highlights:

  • Lupu brokered the sale of video game developer Klei Entertainment (Eets series, Shank series) to Tencent.
  • Lupu partnered developer Moon Studios (Ori and the Blind Forest, Ori and the Will of the Wisps) with publishing label Private Division for their next original game franchise, a new action role-playing game.
  • Both UTA’s video games and music brand partnerships teams connected rapper Post Malone with video game franchise Pokémon for a headlining performance at a special virtual concert celebrating the title’s 25th anniversary in February 2021.
  • Lupu’s team including agent Mike Lee and UTA’s esports boss Damon Lau closed a groundbreaking multi-year renewal deal for leading Twitch esports content creator NICKMERCS to stay on the platform exclusively for live streaming content.

It’s a far cry from the projects Lupu worked on 18 years ago when he first started out at Creative Artists Agency’s game division. Back then the life-long gamer represented developers, not just to Hollywood studio bigwigs but to game publishers. Now, he does that and more — he also represents professional esports athletes, content creators and live streamers to all manner of companies, from Hollywood studios to big brands. Gone are the days when it was enough for talent agents to secure a client in the latest buzz-worthy project. These days, they have to be creative; they have to create jobs for their clients – something that’s only going to intensify as creators get better at reconciling discrepancies between the attention they attract and the revenue it generates.

“Gaming IP has exponential value because it spans generations now,” said Lupu. “I remember playing the Legend of Zelda for the first time on the floor of my buddy’s room 30 years ago. Now, I get to experience that series with my kids for the first time. It’s that generational growth that is key to the exponential growth of games.”

That emotional connection to games informs so much of Lupu’s job. 

It definitely did last year when he and his colleagues launched a Slack channel for UTA employees — aptly titled “Game On” — where people from across the agency’s different offices and divisions could gather to talk about all things games, whether it was to arrange play sessions or take part in a virtual book club for games. Even before the pandemic — and gaming’s unabashed growth because of it — Lupu’s enthusiasm not just for games but the culture around it informed a lot of his strategic thinking.

Before UTA firmed up it’s presence in the esports arena back in 2018, Lupu and his colleague spent six months doing “at least a phone call or a meeting a day” to understand the market. With so much insight, they successfully convinced UTA CEO Jeremy Zimmer that this was an industry they needed to operate in. Soon after the pitch, UTA acquired Press X, an esports talent and marketing agency, and Everyday Influencers, a company that represents streamers. While some of UTA’s contemporaries were pursuing a similar strategy at the time, the way it went about it stood out. It acquired endemic companies to kickstart its push further into gaming rather than building its own versions from the ground up — a move that would’ve been costly as well as time-consuming. The way Lupu tells it, the decision came down to how well UTA could establish itself in a market where talent management has traditionally been handled by smaller firms and even friends and family.

That this shift is even happening suggests a broader story: gaming IP is the furthest it’s ever been into mainstream culture. The pandemic made sure of that. It inflated the amount of time people spent playing games, and in doing so brought into sharp focus a number of shifts that were already underway. Namely that gaming is the fastest-growing, most creatively ambitious area of a media industry in a state of flux where people’s time spent on the dominant medium TV is increasingly being redistributed.

Cue a scramble across the industry, from esports teams like Faze Clan to Twitch streamers like Symfuhny, to cash in on gaming’s cultural cache, and their own stake in it. Indeed, big brands are turning to creators of all sizes to differentiate themselves in the eyes of younger audiences. And yet, only those up in the rarefied atmosphere of the industry tend to bank the bulk of the media dollars up for grabs — proof that the creator economy, for all its talk of the democratization of media, is yet to spread the wealth the way promised.

Expect this to change as the creator economy gathers momentum, said Lupu. And when it does, he wants to be in a position to capitalize on all the subsequent opportunities — not just for high-profile clients but for the start-ups and up and comers he reps too. If anything this is where the real opportunities are. While being a video game superstar may not have been a viable career when Lupu was a kid, his own children are growing up in a very different environment — one best summed by how often gamers are becoming the face of mainstream brands. 

“The reality is you can be an amazing creator and a terrible negotiator,” said Mike LaBelle, a content creator who streams himself playing the Fifa game on Twitch. “I would say that creators that have good agents go much further and they monetize much better and they have more longevity in the scene. We’re going to see a transition at some point where I think there will be a bunch of agents that don’t even touch anything but gamers.”

That’s not to say the likes of LaBelle couldn’t make it big without the nous and know-how of big talent management firms like UTA. It’s just harder because more often than not doing so means relying on talent managers who can navigate the inner workings of the gaming industry but can’t necessarily do the same for the wider entertainment industry. For some creators that’s fine; they are dedicated to being “video game influencers” in the gaming space and so prefer working with smaller endemic talent firms. For others it’s not enough; they’re chasing fame and fortune beyond gaming. Think about it: some of the biggest celebrities over the last decade, like Ninja, have built brands almost exclusively around games.

To reach full potential, however, they needed to partner with skilled operators, which is where Lupu and his team can make the difference.

When the number one female streamer on Youtube Valkyrae wanted to explore her commercial options it was Lupu’s team including Hana Tjia who secured her a stake in gaming organization 100 Thieves, making her the first female co-owner of an esports team. Before Rick and Morty co-creator Justin Roiland created his own games studio it was Lupu who introduced him to the person who would eventually become his co-founder. Once Faze Clan’s overseers got serious about branching out beyond esports, they turned to Lupu’s team for help. Several years ago these deals were unheard of save for the odd outlier. Now, they’re increasingly par for the course given games and the IP they’re built on are consistently reverberating through culture. In fact, Lupu may be one of the most influential people behind the pervasiveness of gaming — who many in the industry have never heard of.

Consider this: Lupu’s name tended to trigger bemused stares from several marketers, media agency execs and esports vps who were asked about his influence. Mention his name to those who aren’t on the periphery, who operate at points where the lines between gaming and media are blurring, and his name triggers a different response. 

“He had a deep understanding of the industry and landscape, but what really set him apart from others was his ability to identify what was ‘next’ and connect the dots with talent,” said Doug Scott, chief managing director at gaming entertainment holding company Subnation, who has worked with Lupu in the past. “Ophir also took a personal interest in game developers and their ambitions, as he understood the important role they play in building the experiences that drive the community.”

In many ways, Lupu’s time at CAA was the perfect preparation for this moment. He and his colleagues there were at the forefront of the cult of personality that formed around the talent behind the biggest franchises in modern gaming, from Ken Levine, the creative mind behind the meticulously-crafted Bioshock series to Cliff Bleszinski, who brought the Hollywood-blockbuster franchise Gears of War to life. Now, history is repeating itself. This time, however, it’s the fans of the games who are the talent. But as much as the agent’s role has evolved as a result the basic principles remain the same. 

“I tell every client that I view our relationship as 10 years or more in longevity, meaning it’s not about a deal we close today or tomorrow, it’s about how we can work together to build a career over the long-term,” he said. Game developer Ken Levine, the creative director behind the seminal Bioshock series, has been a client for over a decade, for example. For many creators, it’s the dream to have a career, and more importantly their own IP, that spans decades and spawns franchises like Levine’s Bioshock. It’s not easy to do this in any entertainment industry let alone one that’s as competitive as gaming. Little wonder then why so many of Lupu’s clients have stuck with him over the years — even when he left CAA. Good agents will always put their clients first, a trait Lupu said was drummed into him from his first day on the job. In fact, he has gone so far as to become a banker of sorts for his clients. 

“Six years ago I went and got series seven and series 63 licenses,” said Lupu. Doing so has allowed him to act as a financial advisor for clients. “We’ve sold six companies and been involved in over 20 transactions since we got those licenses, he explained. “We realized that’s was going to be an influx of capital into gaming and so wanted to make sure that we were going to be able to advise them accordingly. So far, it’s been an area that’s greatly contributed to our business.”

And it could continue to do so given M&A activity is on a hot streak in gaming. “There’s an incredible amount of consolidation in the space,” said Lupu. “You can’t go a week without seeing another investment firm that’s spinning up a gaming-specific fund, for example.”

With the growth of opportunity in esports and gaming as a profession with global reach and high compensation, gaming and thereby ‘gamers’ are now recognized as big attention drivers among specific audiences, opening the gateway to sponsorships, endorsements and other commercial opportunities. Why now? The respectability of gaming as a legitimate activity and as a profession. As a result, gamers, generally young stars with limited business acumen, have looked to talent agencies for opportunities and advice, no different than ’stick and ball’ athletes did in the early years of formal representation.

“You’re going to see developers and publishers reach out much earlier in the process of developing games to connect with the people who play their games and are essentially professional streams to seek their advice on game mechanics,” said Lupu. “Conversely, those same individuals are going to try and build their own games or even set up their own esports organization.”

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