Game On

Alumni-owned OverDog has recruited hundreds of professional athletes to play the video world’s most popular multiplayer games, including Call of Duty, Madden NFL, FIFA and NBA2K, with fans via the OverDog mobile application.

From the Summer 2014 edition of Vanderbilt Business

Overdog's Bernstein and Berneman, with Luke the dog
Thomas Bernstein, MBA’10, and Steve Berneman, MBA’10, with rescue dog Luke, who often comes to the office with his owner, Berneman

A pro athlete on the road returns to his hotel room and wants to unwind by playing video games on his Xbox or PlayStation video console. How does he get a killer competitive game of Call of Duty or Madden NFL? The OverDog app, which connects professional athletes to their fans in playing the video industry’s most popular games.

OverDog is the entrepreneurial venture of Steve Berneman, MBA’10, JD’10, and Hunter Hillenmeyer, BS’03. Thomas Bernstein, MBA’10, is the Nashville-based company’s chief product officer.

The company has recruited hundreds of professional athletes to play the video world’s most popular multiplayer games, including Call of Duty, Madden NFL, FIFA and NBA2K. When they want to play, athletes issue a challenge to fans via the OverDog mobile application. Fans enter a drawing and a random winner is selected to play against the athlete.

“OverDog creates meaningful connections between sports fans on video games,” says Berneman, OverDog co-founder and CEO. “My co-owners and I all come from the sports world. We tapped into our athlete network and what we found is not only do fans want to play athletes, but athletes want to interact with their fans in this way.”

OverDog research shows that pro athletes demographically fit the profile of gamers: in their 20s, competitive, possessing a little bit of excess income, and having downtime at night. “After working with the unions, we found that 75 percent of the NFL self-identifies as avid gamers, meaning they play one to two hours a night,” Berneman says.

How big is the market? Well, for starters, there are 60 million Xbox live subscriptions in the United States and 69 million PlayStation Network Subscribers.

“The video game industry is significantly the largest entertainment industry,” Berneman says. “Call of Duty: Ghosts, which is the top grossing game, did a billion dollars in sales its first day. They outpace any movie, television show, theatre production or music.”

Merger of sports and business

Berneman worked in sports before attending Owen. Co-founder and president Hillenmeyer played linebacker for the Chicago Bears for eight years and was on the board of directors of the NFL Players Association.

“When he retired, he began working at a startup,” Berneman says. “I was a corporate attorney. I did high-tech mergers and acquisitions in Austin, so I was mostly working with small and growth stage companies, but the goal had always been to move into entrepreneurship.”

“Hunter and I both were in relatively secure positions and we wanted to start the company,” he says. “We had some venture capital interest from a mutual friend and he enticed us by funding the company a little bit on our way in.”

Overdog logoOverDog makes money from sponsorships and advertising. The app itself is free and the athletes are not paid to participate. “They’re going to play tonight anyway and we provide them an opportunity to connect with their fans in an organic, fun way,” Berneman says. “Nothing about our app feels like a promotion. And we work really hard to make sure that it remains fun for the athlete.”

Currently, OverDog has more than 400 active professional athletes onboard and its app has been downloaded more than 25,000 times. Some of the athletes fans can play against include Tampa Bay’s David Price, Major League Soccer Rookie of the Year Austin Berry, Houston Dynamo’s Eric Brunner, and Marshawn Lynch of the Super Bowl-winning Seattle Seahawks. In addition to making connections between pro athletes and their fans, the OverDog app also connects fans to play against other fans.

The company had its public product launch on Labor Day 2013. Since then, OverDog has released a new version of its user experience, continues to add active monthly users and has grown to 10 employees. Plans include continuing to expand the athlete roster and to upgrade with new features on a regular basis.

“We offer something where our fans are thrilled with us and our athletes are thrilled with us,” Berneman says. “What’s fun is our athletes are inquisitive and they’re technology-friendly. Half of them say, ‘I want to work with you guys because I think startups are cool and I just want to be a part of one.’”