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Jaci Hays was advising European soccer teams on how to become media companies when an investor in esports and media organization FaZe Clan called her about a job. She’d never heard of the company, but the pull of its 230 million social media followers was hard to ignore. “FaZe is like the world’s team,” says Hays, who has become well versed in the power of gaming influencers since assuming the role of FaZe Clan COO in January.
Launched in 2010 after its three founders began making a YouTube series featuring their Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 gameplay, FaZe Clan has come to define a new type of media organization, one that makes the gaming lifestyle trendy through its digital programming and branded hoodies. The Hollywood company, which counts Offset, Pitbull and Jimmy Iovine as investors, boasts a roster of 39 pro esports players across eight teams who compete in tournaments featuring such top games as CoD, Fortnite and Valorant. (EsportsEarnings.com estimates that Faze Clan has won $9 million in prize money. Individual players can make upward of $100,000 a month as gaming influencers.) On the content side, gamers like 23-year-old Alexander Prynkiewicz, aka FaZe Adapt, create YouTube and TikTok videos from the company-leased Burbank mansion where seven of them live. (FaZe Clan parted ways with one of its biggest stars, Turner “Tfue” Tenney, in 2019. He sued the organization, claiming that his contract, which entitled FaZe Clan to take up to 80 percent of his earnings, was “oppressive.” They settled in August.)
Hays oversees content, merchandising and esports for the organization, which has about 75 employees. This year, the Oregon native — who repelled wildfires for the U.S. Forest Service before transitioning into executive roles at GameSpot, CBS Interactive and GoPro — spearheaded the launch of a talent incubator, FaZe Academy, that will train the next generation of gaming influencers, and inked the organization’s first major Hollywood partnership, teaming with Spotlight producer Michael Sugar to develop TV shows and features under the FaZe Studios banner. Under her leadership, FaZe also worked with digital studio Invisible Narratives to produce the scripted horror film Crimson, directed by Get Out film editor Gregory Plotkin and starring member Brian Awadis, aka FaZe Rug. “I’m attracted to the digital space and how it puts all the creativity into the hands of the creators,” Hays told THR during a November Zoom call from her Silver Lake home, where she lives with her husband, Supernatural actor Richard Speight Jr., and their three sons.
What’s your approach to making gaming content that can stand alongside other entertainment mediums?
Unlike other orgs out there, we were born out of content creators, and that means that content they’re creating is relevant and connects with the youth in a real way. FaZe is like the world’s team. When you watch football, not a ton of kids think they can actually do that. When you’re watching our esports teams or watching some of our top Call of Duty players or Fortnite players, all these fans identify with them. We wouldn’t be this big if they didn’t.
How can Hollywood connect more to the $160 billion gaming industry?
One way that we have done it is by partnering with Invisible Narratives and actually bringing one of our talent [FaZe Rug], who really was interested in doing a movie format. Remember, these creators, they’re making millions already. Rug alone reaches 26 million people, so he doesn’t need the fame. He just wants to exercise a muscle that he has never exercised before. Partnering with Invisible Narratives allowed him to do that.
What is your vision for these ongoing original projects?
FaZe is a collective of creators who all support one another. We are looking for the next one who wants to do it [after FaZe Rug], and we will get behind that second one. They all have their unique talents, whether it’s trick shooting, prankster jokes on TikTok or dancing. So whatever lends itself to a longer format is what we are going to be attracted to, and we’ll help them grow in that way.
Is it difficult to market esports to wide audiences?
No, it’s going to draw a crowd simply because it’s incredibly competitive. Once you start watching, it’s hard to turn away. I might not like basketball, but once I know the teams, I’m in. The content creators just open that up to a bigger, wider audience by pushing it out a bit more. Look at the Lakers. If every single player was also a content creator and pushing out that game globally, probably they’d attract more fans.
What’s your goal for FaZe Academy?
They are joining a team, and we’re putting the spotlight on them to potentially reach this huge audience. So it’s upon us to make sure we develop them and give them every single tool they need to be live if they’re live-streaming, but also to give them every tool they need so that they are ready to speak to this large audience. It is also on us to look at cultural sensitivity training and review our code of conduct with them. They’re young. When we reach them, they’re kids.
What can Hollywood learn from gamers?
These creators are charismatic. They know how to authentically talk to their fans, and their fans know it and can read “fake” a mile away. So, I think, listening to them. We can’t ignore the numbers or the accelerated growth of streaming. If that’s where the youth is, we’d better go talk to them.
This year has seen a shift toward exclusive streaming deals on Twitch. What do you think of that trend?
Twitch is here to stay. We work with them quite a bit. In terms of exclusively locking them into one platform? I don’t really have a strong point of view on that, other than saying that these guys can go anywhere they want. They are not driven by money. They have an audience. Their audience is vast on Twitch. They are streaming content, and we are able to help with cutting pieces of content and letting it live on YouTube and all the social platforms out there.
How can gaming become more inclusive to women and people of color?
It is really difficult. We’re not going to solve it alone, but when you reach an audience of 230 million youth, it’s on us to push key messages out to our audience and to lead. And by leading in the space, others will follow. To not say anything and be silent is not a choice we have at all, not in this climate.
Many people probably heard of FaZe Clan for the first time when Turner “Tfue” Tenney filed a lawsuit against the organization. What did you learn from that experience?
We deal with talent in a very up-front, fair way. You’ve got to make sure the contracts are signed and renewed to reflect what the content creators want. And that’s what we’ve done.
Did FaZe pivot its content strategy during the pandemic?
Live-streaming tournaments were such a natural path for us. We pulled off our first one, which was Fight2Fund, and it went gangbusters. We were able to donate $125,000 [to charities impacted by COVID], and from there it just took off. At one point we were playing UNO online and it got incredible numbers because fans are eager for content. We also put effort into TikTok. We bring in revenue through branded content, and that has skyrocketed. That’s just breaking records every single day, so we’re really expanding that process to go beyond FaZe Clan to actually create content for the youth on other platforms. As we see a lot of media companies falling, gaming has not. They produce more.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Dec. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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