Rodger Saffold is sitting in a throne-like chair, head down, eyes fixed on his phone and muttering words of encouragement under his breath to the proceedings playing out on the screen.
If you were a fly on the wall, you’d think the starting offensive lineman of the Los Angeles Rams was watching film of every false start he’s ever committed in his career. Or, in some instances seconds later, all the times he pancaked a defender into oblivion.
But on this sunny Southern California Friday morning in July, preseason is still weeks away and there are no NFL opponents in sight. The seven-year football veteran is watching the waning moments between Rise Nation, the eSports team that he owns, taking on Cloud9 in the Call of Duty World League Stage 2 Finals.
The Rise Nation quartet is playing 30 minutes away at the ESL Studios in Burbank, but Saffold can’t attend because he previously committed to working out on the rooftop of a Beverly Hills hotel as part of an episode that will appear on the upcoming E! docu-series he’s starring for in Hollywood and Football.
Saffold, a Midwesterner through and through, is still getting accustomed to life in the big city. He was born in Bedford, Ohio and played college ball at Indiana for the Hoosiers where he majored in business management/finance with a minor in accounting before the St. Louis Rams selected him with the No. 33 overall pick in 2010.
He’s weeks removed from officially moving his wife, Asia, 3-year-old daughter, Aaliyah, and 1-year-old son, Price, from St. Louis to Los Angeles, where the Rams recently relocated. Although his infinity pool outside offers scenic views of the San Fernando Valley, he stiff-arms every room of the two-story Woodland Hills abode he’s staying in and heads straight to the garage, where after shuffling through boxes of unpacked clothes, a broom-closet-like space serves as his gaming compound. This is the only part of the house Asia has allowed for his 6-foot-5, 330-pound husband to play video games.
Saffold is entering the third year of a five-year contract he signed in 2014 that was worth $31.7 million, with $19.5 million guaranteed. Although his position versatility makes him a valuable commodity, three of the six seasons he’s played have been cut short due to injury.
In addition to relocating his family to Los Angeles, he spent the offseason rehabbing the shoulder injury that cut his 2015 campaign to just five games and is focusing on yet another position change—he’ll be the starting right tackle this year. He also used the spoils he’s earned to keep a promise he made to his mother when he was 9-years-old by buying her a Jaguar for her 60th birthday.
Saffold is far more than a football player. In addition to his eSports business endeavors, the 28-year-old owns Spirited 76, an indie record label. He’s also been featured in Gillette commercials, and now, the E! reality series which will show him and his Rams teammates adjusting to playing football in LA.
Although Tinseltown doesn’t typically offer glitz and glamour to video game stars, the made-for-Hollywood Saffold is an affable character who can break those barriers.
Dressed in full Rise Nation regalia, Saffold is soon pumping his fist in the air as his team wipes away Cloud9 with a 4-to-0 sweep. He shuts off the livestream, and we now have his full attention.
What kind of an impact have video games had on your life?
Growing up, everyone knew that I loved the challenge in video games. I used to play a lot of adventure games growing up. The first game that grabbed me was Super Mario—beating Bowser was huge for me. After that, it just kept going and growing on me with games like Star Fox. Call of Duty took everything to the next level. In college, I was on Modern Warfare constantly. When I was at Indiana, we went to our first bowl game [in 2007], and the gift was an Xbox 360. ‘Are you kidding me?’ I bought Call of Duty, and I was playing it like a mad man. I was better than everyone on my team, so then I started playing online. I was super passionate about Call of Duty, so I thought to myself ‘what’s next?’ People started telling me to organize an eSports team after I started streaming on Twitch, and I’m like ‘ok, that’s a no brainer—let’s get it done.’
How did you identify that eSports was the next big thing way before the big wave of the last 18 months came in? Why were you so intrigued in this being a legitimate investment avenue for you?
I just wanted to invest in something I was passionate in. Back then, it wasn’t even expensive. We were able to make the team up from scratch. I was able to use my resources from the NFL to help me get things going. My wife was making our jerseys at one point. Our amateur team got involved within the pro players system, and then out of nowhere, I’m in COD championships. Once we reached there, we’re like ‘this is big—we can really do this.’
What do you think makes a great eSports title? Are you thinking of expanding in to other titles?
Call of Duty is one of the hottest games on any console—period. Now, no matter how many different games come out, it’s still destroying sales numbers. Why not get into that? As it’s continuing to grow, I want Rise Nation to be recognized as an international organization, and in order to do that, I need to expand. With the expansion, it all comes down to timing and equity. I’ve been able to handle everything myself so far. Now, it’s time to bring in possible investors to be able to help out with the workload. It’s pretty much been a one- or two-man thing with me and my friend and co-owner Kahreem Horsley, who operates the day-to-day. We’ve been working together to get things done. We have already expanded to an Overwatch team, which we believe is definitely going to be taking off. It’s getting perfect ratings; the patches have been amazing. They have in-game content and in-game sales, which is really good. Then it’s time to go after the big hitters like CS:GO and a League of Legends team. But that takes time.
How do you think you could branch out beyond the United States to perhaps to the Asian market?
For one, some of the best teams in CS:GO are not American teams. They’re European teams. To do that, you need a European office. I’m not the first person to go out and start looking for one. I know Team EnVyUs did the same thing, and now they have a European office. You have managers based on the circle that they’re in. To even get to Asia, there are people from companies that travel to Singapore and other places around the world to work in eSports. In order to get those relationships, you have to talk to them. Then through sponsors, they introduce you to other people. Now, you’re picking people’s brains who are the companies and the organizations in those areas. Then you work from there. It’s almost like you’re in business with your friends. You design these relationships. Our partners are really great and I’m really excited to work with them. GFuel Energy, Scuf Gaming and Kontrol Freek—they’ve been extremely well. I love working with those guys.
How has it been working with brands? What kind of feedback are you getting from them?
I think brands want to work with me because of my background, but I also have to remember to humble myself. This is not the NFL, or any type of sports-related business. The only thing that’s going to make sense is your following based off of social media, or your livestream views. Endorsers are only going to talk to you as long as you continue to push their product, and people can see their product. One thing we had to do was make sure we got our following up. Now we have 40,000 followers on Twitter, which is good. I think you have to go out there and hunt these guys down. You have to literally say ‘hey, this is what I’m doing, this is what I would like to do; I think this is a great opportunity for you, as well as myself.’ Then of course, I put myself out there, too, to use me and my following to help raise awareness of what eSports is, to try to get the NFL kind of involved, you can use me . . . you get eSports, you get the NFL and now we’re taking over. That’s the whole part of this; we’re taking over. We’re literally growing at an alarming rate—almost too hard to handle.
What have you learned on the business side through the entire process of eSports? Are you glad you made the move into it?
The business side of eSports has definitely not been the easiest thing. I’ve definitely learned a lot. I understand that this is a true business. You can’t come without being prepared; you can’t come in without having the right paperwork; you can’t come in without being a true organization. You have to have your LLC in order, you have to have your taxes in order, you need to be a business, because all of these teams are small businesses. We have to handle it as such. I don’t handle any type of deal with any team, any sponsors, without talking to my lawyers, talking to my marketing guys through my agency, talking to the agencies that deal with the teams I’m looking into buying. All of these things are factors. When it comes down to profit and loss, everybody needs to know. It has to be known before you make any type of transaction. I’ve had many calls where everything looks good, but it’s not exactly where you want to be and sometimes, you have to back out of it.
Rick Fox, Shaquille O’Neal and Mark Cuban, among countless others, also have invested in eSports. Why do you think eSports is such an enticing and attractive space for sports figures?
I think that a lot of these athletes are jumping into eSports for one reason—it’s been widespread information, and it’s become an actual sport. By actual sport, I mean it’s recognized by ESPN. Because of this, you’re going to have guys that are interested. Who is telling these guys that this is something you need to jump on? The community is getting so big. I’ve [been called an] innovator for athletes getting into eSports. Next thing you know, everybody is getting involved because they see how profitable this stuff is getting. It’s not even just the competitions. It’s the money off of the game, through marketing, in-game purchases, merchandise and sticker prices for teams. It’s getting out of hand with how big it’s getting. The thing I like, with Rise Nation, I don’t have a bunch of people with their hands in it. I continue to want to be that guy. I also know that if I’m going to continue to make this organization bigger, I’m going to need partners, and that’s just going to be the next step . . . This is going to be so lucrative that not a lot of people are going to be able to control it, so I need to get everything together with my organization and get this going.
Broncos offensive lineman Russell Okung also invested in an eSports startup. What is the conversation like when you’re talking about eSports with players from the NFL community? Are they interested in a similar business endeavor?
It’s weird. I get a lot of people that run up to me randomly like, ‘hey, don’t you own a team?’ and I’m like, ‘yes I do own a team.’ They’re like, ‘wait a minute—they’re Rise Nation? I heard that they’re really good.’ Then they’re like, ‘how can my little brother get on the team?’ I’m just like, ‘aw, man!’ I can’t tell you enough how many people have wanted their sons on the team, or how they can get involved and I gave them the plan of how many hours go into it, how much work it is, and they’re like, ‘I don’t know if we can do all that.’
You have other passions aside from video games. You recently signed on for E!’s new reality show Hollywood & Football. You’ll also be featured on HBO’s Hard Knocks, too. Can you give us a sneak peek into what we’re going to learn about Rodger Saffold?
Through Hollywood & Football fans can learn about my businesses like Rise Nation, which a lot of people don’t know. It’s kind of funny, I’ve done interviews, tweeted, posted on Instagram and people are still like, ‘wow, I never knew that an NFL player owned Rise.’ I continue to try and branch out myself that way and spread some eSports awareness. I also have my own record label in Spirited 76. Plus, I just want you to know about me and my family. I’m pretty much a goofy guy. I like to have fun and do different things with my friends, so you’ll get to see that.
How’s the move to LA been? What will your close proximity to the entertainment capital of the world, Los Angeles, open up for you?
It’s my first time living on the west coast. Everyone knows about LA. There’s definitely a bunch of opportunities. The reality show is one of them, to branch out and show myself a little bit more, which we really didn’t get to do in St. Louis. All of the interviews and commercials, they’re all great, but I just want to make sure I don’t change and become too Hollywood, and keep my family grounded, too. It’s a give-and-take battle, and it’s a constant one.
Speaking of personal branding, you were a big hit with the Gillette campaign earlier this year. Do the bigwigs in Hollywood now have you on speed dial for the next big marketing campaign?
It’s extremely tricky. When I’m doing stuff off the field, you don’t want to do too much. You want to have that balance. You always have to remember that the check to do a commercial is good, but you’re not making anywhere near what you are as an athlete. With Gillette though, I’m already a dancing machine. I know this already in my heart of hearts. Now doing that with a bunch of pads on and cleats is a little bit tougher. I’ve also done a funny PSA on adopting animals. Now, in LA, it’s just going to keep coming in, so what are you going to do with that?
How else do you spend your down time? Do you play Madden?
Nah, man. I don’t play any type of Madden. I will tell you why—because I live Madden. I play Madden every day of my life. Your offseason is three minutes, mine is six months. I’m not going to be playing Madden when I’m already living it 24/7. Who wants to look at football when you’ve been practicing for three hours and you’ve been in the film room for about nine hours a day. There’s just no way. No way.
Your Madden rating was an 83 last year. What are you going to have to do on the actual field this year for the Rams to make that better?
The only thing that I can do is stay healthy. This game is just hard, period. It’s rough trying to watch the game from the sideline. I’ve already gone through a couple of shoulder surgeries. Everything is good now. I have a very positive attitude and outlook on this team, and on myself. The biggest thing I need to do is stay healthy and continue to play the way I need to play. I’ve had a bunch of unknowns happen to me where I’ve had to switch positions. I’ve played all four positions in one game on the offensive line, which is completely crazy. I’m definitely confidant in my ability. I have personal goals that I need to obtain. I intend on having a fantastic year and just opening holes for [running back] Todd Gurley.
The spotlight will be much brighter on you this year since you’ll have to keep the No. 1 overall pick in Jared Goff upright under center, and open holes for Todd Gurley. Do you feel any extra pressure having to protect the franchise saviors?
It wouldn’t be the first time. When it comes down to protecting these guys, protecting the franchise, Sam Bradford was the first pick overall, I was the first pick in the second round. It’s all about protecting the quarterback. We used to have Steven Jackson in the backfield. He was just a guy that was all about grinding. Now this is just a new lineage coming up. We’ll see how it goes. I think Todd Gurley has shown himself to be a great running back. He’s going to have a lot of challenges this year. People are going to design defenses just to stop him. That’s going to put a lot of pressure on Goff. He needs to make sure that he’s able to throw the ball, do it on time, make his reads, and read blitzes. There’s a lot of work that goes into this. It’s also going to take all 11 guys to make sure everything happens. I know that when Todd is running the ball, the wide receivers are blocking as hard as they can, the offensive line is blocking as hard as they can. We’re trying to move people, we’re being physical and we’re a bunch of bullies. That’s all I can say. We’re a bunch of bullies.
What philosophies—whether it be preparing for gameday, coaching or business—translate over well from the NFL to eSports? Have you used some of the tactics you’ve learned from, say, Jeff Fisher on your own players?
Yes. I’m definitely using the same process. Mentally, you have to be sharp in order to work on the business side. For my players, they definitely have to be on their A-game. We consider our players like family. We know these guys through and through. We hang out with them, we play with them on the games. I don’t know how many people do that, but we work together so you have to have that type of relationship. For them, they also know we’re paid based on our performance, and how we play. They’ve been killing it this year. When it comes to playing football and dealing with coaches, there’s not a lot you can say to these players. Those leadership qualities that I possess from playing football help out a bunch. When I talk to my players, I mostly talk about consistency. Consistency, hard work, be driven, play with a chip on your shoulder. I’m not like, ‘get your ass in there’ or ‘don’t jump offsides!’ Like what does that mean? Nothing is going to come from that stuff. I basically just tell them that we need to be consistent and make money together. My players on Rise—Danny, Jerry, Sam, Nick—they’ve done a fantastic job complementing each other and they continue to show why we’re an elite team. I stand behind those guys 1,000 percent. I really appreciate them and Kahreem. I have to thank those guys, especially right now. They’re making me look good, they’re putting me in a great position for great opportunities. I wouldn’t be doing any of this if it weren’t for those guys.
Follow Manouk Akopyan on Twitter @Manouk_Akopyan