Former NFL Safety Kenny Vaccaro Found New Teammates With His G1 Esports Organization - bdsthanhhoavn.com

Former NFL Safety Kenny Vaccaro Found New Teammates With His G1 Esports Organization

After logging eight seasons as a starting safety in the NFL, Kenny Vaccaro had a choice last offseason: sign a free-agent contract or quit football to launch an esports team. He chose esports. 

Vaccaro is now CEO of G1, or Gamers First, which runs with co-founders Hunter Swenson and Cody Hendrix. G1 fields esports teams in Destiny and Halo. A Texas native who starred for the Longhorns, Vaccaro runs G1 from Austin where he applies many of the same coaching lessons he learned in football to his esports team. One of his early priorities is a focus on promoting good mental health. 

As a football player, Vaccaro was a first-round pick of the New Orleans Saints in 2013. He played five seasons there and then three seasons with the Tennessee Titans, starting 109 of his 110 career games. He finished with 10 interceptions, four fumble recoveries (one touchdown), 11 1/2 sacks and 610 tackles.

On his start in gaming . . .

I’m 31 now, so when I was a kid, that was the rise of gaming. They had Atari. Gameboy came out. Gameboy Color came out, and I started playing Pokemon. Obviously PC already had video games, but it wasn’t that cool to play on PC like it was on console and Gameboy back then. And then Super Nintendo, Nintendo 64, Playstation—all that was like my upbringing. That was one of my favorite things to do. There’s a lot of people with the same interest. They just probably didn’t have the same passion to pursue it like I did.  

And I also love sports. I played every sport when I was younger. I trained like I wanted to be a professional soccer player, track, football. My mom put me through the wringer. She always hated video games; I always loved them so we butted heads there. But yeah, I started six years old, seven years old.

On getting serious about esports . . .

When it really hit me, though, is when I started playing FPS shooters and how competitive they are and not just a role-playing game where you’re playing through a story and you’re not even going against real people. But I think the evolution of online gaming and [playing] your friends is what changed everything for me. When Halo came out, you actually all had to go to the same house and plug the controller in, right? And there’s like four split-screens. Everybody has a small box, depending on what size the TV is. So you always go to the friend with the biggest TV. 

Then it came to online gaming where you can connect with somebody across the country, and that’s really when I became vastly consumed with the thought of one day owning esports org and treating it just like sports and taking everything I learned from the NFL and putting that into my teams, which I do. I have talks like a coach. I have talks like I’m a GM. I have heart to hearts There are a lot of elements that I’ve gotten from the NFL that have been easy to implement into esports. 

On establishing credibility with gamers . . .

The gaming community is different. They don’t really care that I played in the NFL as long as I did. That’s not really cool to gamers. They are who they are. And for me, I kind of had to [go on], I call it, ‘A Respect Tour.’ When I wanted to start G1 in 2018, I talked to some of the people in the community—Destiny was the game at the time—and they’re like, ‘Nah, I don’t think anybody would want to join. He’s just a token football player, doing the classic throwing money at something, but he’s not really in it for the long haul. They didn’t believe that I cared just as much as them.’  

So I basically started streaming every day for eight hours a day when I could, when I wasn’t playing football, to earn the respect of my peers and everybody in the community. And then when I wanted to start a org, yeah, everybody came. It ended up going from everybody was skeptical to ‘man, this dude really is passionate about it.’

On funding G1 . . . 

I initially put my own money into it just to get the things funded and started. I didn’t know if the money would just run out and I would have to put more in or whatever. But we ended up building a cool enough brand where I had a lot of investors that wanted to be a part of it. Anytime you want to scale—even if it’s small—you’ve got to bring somebody else in, right? Smart people spend other people’s money to build their business, in my opinion. Obviously they get equity for it, but it’s hard to come up with that by yourself.  

Gary Keller is the CEO of Keller Williams and the CEO of his family fund believed in me and handed me a check that was worth as much as any NFL contract I could have took that year and said, ‘I’m only doing this if it’s you. You’re the brand. I like the identity.’ I didn’t have a team signed at this point—well, I had a Destiny team but not a Halo team—and he was just like, ’Let’s see what you can go do.’ So it’s really kind of like a Cinderella thing.  

I had offers from NFL teams, and that same day, Mitch Johnson, the CEO for Gary’s fund, was like, ‘I’m ready to write you a check, Kenny.’ I pitched him almost like a napkin pitch. I’ve been able to do that for a long time. It’s kind of a talent of mine. So he was like, ‘Listen, as long as you’re here and you’re the face of this thing, let me know when you need money.’

On whether it was easy to retire from the NFL to go full-time in esports . . .

For me, it was. I’d made good money. I was a first-round pick. I played out my five years in New Orleans, played my fifth-year option, got an extension from the Titans, played three more years. So this was more about a number of things. One, I knew G1 wouldn’t succeed the way it should without me, staying in Austin, being the CEO and being the captain of the ship. Two, my body was starting to—I was a safety, I’ve been banging people for a long time. I came into the league when you could hit people still, right? My rookie and second year, you could literally throw your face into somebody, and they wouldn’t call it a penalty. I probably had three, four more years on me if I wanted to stretch it out. But my health and the mental part of it played an aspect. And also three, I coach my son’s seven-on-seven team, the No. 1 team in the country, and I get to spend time with him coaching him. So it’s been a blessing for me. 

After eight years in the NFL, Vaccaro retired to pursue a career in esports.

After eight years in the NFL, Vaccaro retired to pursue a career in esports.

On the differences between the industries . . .

In the NFL, it’s really a business, right? It’s a business in esports, but [in the NFL] they’re not putting the player before the brand. They just don’t. Everybody knows it’s a business at the end of the day, and it’s all transactional. I came in with a thought process of, ‘Yeah, I’m going to make smart business decision for me, but I’m also going to treat players how they need to be treated.’ I call them athletes because they really are. It’s remarkable what some of these kids can do, and there’s a reason why other people can’t do what they do. I wanted to put the player before anything and develop relationships the right way, just like some of the good coaches that I’ve come across. 

On the name G1 . . .

Gamers first. That was just part of the mantra. Bungie Studios created Halo back in the day, a billion-dollar company that just got purchased by Sony, and the Destiny came out. I was speaking out on my love for the game, and I ended up getting invited out to their headquarters. Their creative director at the time, Luke Smith, asked me, ‘Why are you here?’ I was like, ‘I was a gamer before anything. Before I picked up a football, I loved being a gamer.’ When we finally created the org, I was like, ‘It’ll be G1, it’ll be Gamers First,’ because that was what I associated myself with, even before being an NFL athlete. 

G1, also called Gamers First, offers esports teams in Destiny and Halo.

G1, also called Gamers First, offers esports teams in Destiny and Halo.

On what he learned from Mike Vrabel . . .

Even when I was let go by the Titans after the Covid year when they had the veteran purge—the salary cap tanked a little bit, we lost like $30 or $40 million so if you were making above a certain amount and you weren’t playing at a freakin’ All-Pro level, it was GG’s for you. Mike Vrabel was just such a good guy. I didn’t feel like he was my head coach; I felt like he was almost a big brother. He has that vibe. Just his mentality, the way he treats his players, the relationship he develops.

On counseling his team and his employees . . .

I’ve done the same thing with my gamers. You can ask anybody. I’m always there for him. I answer calls, we have tough conversations. A lot of people struggle with mental health outside. It’s not just sports, the gamers deal with it, too. I had a guy the other day, he’s struggling, he lost his job. I just made some calls, and immediately I found him a job through some of the businesses that I’ve had the opportunity to own.  

I had one of our guys who’s struggling with alcohol addiction, hour-long calls. He’s one of the best designers I’ve ever seen, but he’s always struggled with substance abuse. And I’ve had long conversations with him about things I can do to help him and ways for him to get out of that cycle. Everything’s not all pretty.  

I’ve had situations where I’m talking to my Halo team, and they’re not playing together and they don’t like each other. They’re not meshing, and I’m literally tearing up talking about playing beside Kevin Byard on the football field and what it means to play for your brothers and how much better you play when you’re playing for someone you really care about. It’s the same thing in gaming. In Halo, if your four people can’t mesh, you’re not going to win a championship. Same thing in football. If those 11 or 22 people don’t come together for a common goal to achieve something, you’re probably not going to win a Super Bowl.

Vaccaro runs G1 with co-founders Hunter Swenson and Cody Hendrix.

Vaccaro runs G1 with co-founders Hunter Swenson and Cody Hendrix.

On the around-the-clock demands of the job . . .

We’re on Discord. I am constantly on my phone. My wife hates it. This is a 24/7 job. It’s worse than football because gamers, they’re nocturnal, man. Some dues will game from 6 pm to 6 am. So I’m working all day, the business side—I called probably five sponsors today, had some good calls, working on some deals, working on a merch drop today—but then at nighttime, that’s when my team goes, they do their scrims.  

On Discord, we’re like in a locker room, almost. There’s a G1 office that our Halo team is in. I will pop in there, and we’ll just shoot the shit and talk. And then I have everybody’s numbers, and I check in that way, just because that’s the type of person and owner I want to be. I just think it’s authentic.

On growth plans for G1 . . .

I’ll probably re-raise, I’ll probably do a bigger seed round at the end of this year. In order to scale, you do need to go into more games and sign bigger content creators, but that takes funds. I want to do bigger merch drops. I want to do better content. And all that takes money, but we’ve got a good foundation. We started in the game that we love, and then Halo, the other game we’re in, we have a lot of tradition and history.  

I would never want to jump into a game just because it’s popular and not know the whole landscape. I want to have a good feel for it. I’ll spend 100 hours playing the game before I start a team, just to make sure that I understand everything about the game. So the game plan for us, after Halo and Destiny, would be able to get into War Zone. It’s a huge battle royale. That’s the biggest thing in the world now, battle royales. Nobody cares about anything else. War Zone is the best for content. I would love to have an Apex team, Valorant 

We’ve just got to make sure we do everything in the right order, that way we don’t have any slip-ups, or we scale too fast. You never know what could happen, but the plan is to get bigger and better, faster—but you’ve got to do it a smart way.

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