MINNEAPOLIS — The early courtship between Jonathan and Hannah wasn’t always particularly romantic. They officially met at her first party on the University of Alabama campus, but she had seen the hulking football player around study hall. He helped her get a ride at the end of the festivities, and they ended up ordering pizza and talking late into the night.
Jonathan Allen, the future Washington Redskins standout, would invite her over to his dorm after dinner at Bryant Dining Hall — she was a rower, and their schedules often included a late meal. It took a while before Hannah knew he was the one because of a peculiar recurring dynamic: She would come over, and he would play video games while she watched.
“I’m like, ‘What the heck?’ ” Hannah said earlier this summer over lunch in Reston, Va. “He’d be like, ‘I need just one hour of game time.’ And I would just fall asleep because I have to get up at 4:30. He still says that: ‘Just one hour of game time.’ ”
Jonathan glances over and adds with a smile, “Wanted you to know what you’re getting into.”
Hannah, indeed, knew what she was getting into when she said, “I do.” Family, football and video games are the three passions for Jonathan Allen, and the latter two are far from just a game.
Elevating a passion
The typically chic home of the Institute For Athletes sports agency, the Minneapolis-based firm that represents Allen, with its exposed brick housing glass-walled offices and original wood flooring, is bustling as kids move between 20 computers set up as gaming stations. Allen is on hand, along with agent Blake Baratz and 140 area high school students, for a weekend-long gaming tournament to mark the soft-launch of IFA Gaming, the new third arm of the agency.
The event isn’t just a promotional appearance for Allen; he is quite literally invested in the event. This is Allen’s world outside of football, and that’s why Baratz approached Allen with this vision. IFA already had a talent arm and a marketing arm of its business called Elevation, but co-founder Michael Zweigbaum had the idea to get into esports.
Zweigbaum asked his three sons a question one day: Would they rather go to an esports event or a baseball game? There was no interest in baseball tickets, and the seed for what would become E-Squared, the branded name of IFA Gaming, was planted.
“I just saw a really big opening in the Midwest for a really solid esports brand to be able to consult [other] brands on how to activate in esports,” Zweigbaum said. “And really, if we’re going to consult, we have to get at it and understand it from its infancy and then its core level. … Our core mission really is to elevate whatever you want to do within the gaming space.”
When Zweigbaum discussed the idea with Baratz, he immediately thought of Allen. They brought him to Los Angeles to meet with people from Next Generation Esports, an independent esports production company that works with E-Squared. Allen now has an equity stake in the company and sees this as a post-football career option. But his aspirations don’t stop there.
“Honestly what I like about video games is they’re competitive,” Allen said. “If it wasn’t competitive, meh, probably wouldn’t like it. It’s competitive. Football’s competitive. Video games, super, super competitive. ... I don’t know what my income is going to be after football for video games. Honestly, I don’t care. I plan to make enough money playing football so where it doesn’t matter. But I’m so passionate in video games that no matter what I do, I’m going to give everything I’ve got. I feel like when I give 100 percent something, I will be successful in it. I genuinely believe that. I just want to do something I love.”
Allen’s infatuation with gaming comes from his father, Richard, a career military man. Richard is the hero figure of the family, raising his sons as a single dad after the boys fell into foster care while living with their mother, who had mental health issues. His father was a gamer and his brother Richard III played, so Jonathan also played. It used to be a lot of football games — Madden NFL and NFL Blitz. Now he mostly plays combat-centric first-person shooters — another link to his father. If Jonathan hadn’t excelled in football, he would have followed in both of their footsteps as military men. His current favorite game is Rainbow Six Siege.
And so Allen was in heaven at the tournament, marking its opening with comments that called the launch of E-Squared “a dream come true.”
“Whether [or not] we were actually going to have our own brand ... we were going to be doing work with Jon in gaming regardless because of his passion,” Baratz said. “Once we decided that we were actually going to get into it and put our own time and money and energy into it, it was a no-brainer to involve him.”
His passion for gaming resonated with the kids in attendance. There were stretches where Allen sat alone in the waiting area just watching the competition stream.
“I saw myself in him a little bit because he plays football and I do, too,” 15-year-old William Bainbridge said. “I can really look up to him and his skill in that regard. And the fact that he has this whole other side of his life where he does esports and plays video games and has a Twitch [stream] and whatnot … just being able to talk to someone who shares similar interests, it’s just really enjoyable to see that it’s actually possible to balance both of these things. … I just think it’s really awesome. He seems really nice and genuine.”
“[Allen] adds so much legitimacy to the event,” said Jake Utities, a high school esports coach and consultant. “He really, really connects with the kids. They liked having him here. They got excited. … Part of it is that he’s a pro football player. But the reason they’re excited is this guy, who’s a big deal, gave a crap about them and we really never get any kind of attention whatsoever.
“Esports isn’t just kids playing games. It means a lot more to this group of kids. A lot of parents have said: ‘This is just more screen time for my kid. I don’t want them to be spending more time because they’re already not social enough.’ And then all of a sudden they’re in this program and have more friends than they’ve ever had. … So understanding that anything you get out of sports whatsoever — teamwork, camaraderie, friends, getting over adversity — all those things come from [esports, too].”
The game after the game
Allen wants to be known as the Michael Strahan of video games. The Pro Football Hall of Famer and former New York Giant has carved out a post-NFL career as a talk-show host and television personality, breaking free from the football world to star on “Good Morning America.” A large portion of the country only knows him from his television exploits, not as the player with the sixth-most sacks in NFL history.
“Michael is just like a celebrity, like an A-list celebrity just from shows,” Allen said. “… Smart. It’s genius.”
That’s the kind of cache Allen wants in the esports world. He quickly rattles off famous gamers and content creators such as Ninja and NarcolepticNugget as people he looks up to. The first thing he did with his first NFL check was purchase a custom gaming PC that now boasts 100 gigabytes of RAM, a two-terabyte hard drive and an i7 core processor with two GTX 1080 Ti graphics cards. In layman’s terms, it’s a powerful machine specifically built for gaming marathons.
The tie between professional athletes and the gaming world is already strong. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and investor John Goff bought a majority stake in esports franchise Complexity Gaming and opened a facility next door to Cowboys headquarters. Complexity’s players train in the same facilities as the Cowboys players, and the organization is run as a traditional sports franchise. Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert made a multimillion-dollar investment in 100 Thieves, another esports organization. New England Patriots owners Robert and Jonathan Kraft joined Los Angeles Rams owner Stan Kroenke as initial investors in franchises for the Overwatch League.
Reuters recently reported that global esports revenue will hit $1.1 billion this year. E-Squared is set up to be flexible enough to continue to hold events, possibly build an arena or sponsor a team and consult with athletes, brands or companies on how to grow in gaming.
“It’s like the cartoon where they light the powder keg and then the cartoon guy is sitting on top of it and it’s about to take off,” said Dan White, who has been running gaming events since 2003. “We’ve been saying for a while, ‘Get in right now because you’re on the ground floor,’ but this is the last ticket. The train’s leaving the station and, in two to five years, if you’re not already established, you’ll be coming in after the lines have been drawn.”
Allen is already fully on board.
Hannah Allen still gets pulled into watching Jonathan play for hours on end, despite an affinity for being outdoors and the fact she really only plays Words with Friends on her phone. It’s a far cry from the 20 hours per week Jonathan puts in during the offseason. She’s a runner and also the handyman of the house, single-handedly ripping bushes out of the yard and taking on other household projects. She drags Jonathan out for some adventures, but he also has to get off his feet and get recovery time from his NFL workout schedule. Hannah doesn’t mind and gets a kick out of listening to him play with her brother Jake, whom Jonathan convinced to start playing and is now “addicted just like me.”
The dynamic is not all fun and games, though. Jonathan approaches his passions seriously, whether that’s studying the Redskins’ playbook or watching other streamers to learn how they build and engage their audiences. When he’s watching others on Twitch or YouTube, things change in the Allen household.
“I’m not allowed in the room,” Hannah said with a laugh.
“I like to focus,” Jonathan replied with a shrug.