Leaving football, finding esports with Kenny Vaccaro

(ESI Illustration) Image credit: G1

RELATED: Former NFL player Kenny Vaccaro co-founds esports organisation G1

Career choices for a professional athlete after retirement are not as pretty as you might think. A quick google search yields a number of former pro athletes who have struggled with their post-retirement careers, and some even go bankrupt because of mismanagment and lavish lifestyles. Enter: esports. 

Kenny Vaccaro, an NFL veteran who played as a safety for the New Orleans Saints and the Tennessee Titans during his career, has hung up his helmet and picked up a keyboard and mouse — and seems pretty happy about it. Vaccaro is the Co-owner of esports organisation G1, or Gamers First (no affiliation with G2 Esports).

G1 launched in late 2021 after Vaccaro officially ended his pro football career and partnered with Co-founders Cody Hendrix and Hunter Swensson. The organisation is based in the United States, and currently fields a Halo team and a number of content creators. The team qualified for the first big Halo LAN of the season in Anaheim, a successful first step for the young organisation.

Putting players first

Kenny Vaccaro spent eight years as a safety in the NFL. American football’s highest level of competition affected him in a number of ways, and he’s carried some of those lessons to G1. The time spent in the league left him with a strong sense of comradeship, and he wants to build G1 with a focus on players. That’s why, in his own words, the organisation is called Gamers First. 

Vaccaro is poetic about his way of thinking. The only way you can achieve a goal, he claimed, is “by thinking selflessly and working together. We really believe the clearest path to greatness is found with a collective group of diverse personalities working together.” 

But not all lessons from the NFL were positive. Playing for almost a decade helps you see how things work from the inside, and Vaccaro noted that in the NFL, teams do not put their players first in a lot of cases.

“[NFL teams] often put business first or money first. When we went into this, I told Cody and Hunter I’d always want to put the player first, almost to a fault. Without the players, you can’t be successful and you can’t win, just like in the NFL or any sport. And that’s how we’re running this organisation.”

Kenny Vaccaro NFL esports G1
Kenny Vaccaro spent 8 seasons in the NFL before starting G1. Image credit: NFL

Choosing esports over sports

Surprisingly, Kenny Vaccaro left the NFL for esports and gaming. He explained that gaming was something he knew he wanted to be a part of from the first time he picked up a controller, but couldn’t do it because getting started as an organisation in the world of esports takes time and money. With those two obstacles now behind him, Vaccaro decided to quit the NFL and enter esports.

His decision is immortalised by a humorous (and powerful) part of G1’s video reveal, in which Vaccaro ignores a text message from the Atlanta Falcons on his phone and walks away. This, Vaccaro said, was not only a stunt for the video.

“Some people don’t know this, but G1 first quietly began in 2019. I was technically acting CEO of G1 in the middle of my Titans season. I had already started the transition but I wasn’t fully invested since I was a pro football player trying to do everything to perform for my teammates, my coaches, and the city of Nashville.”

The ‘seeds’ for the esports organisation were planted then and there, Vaccaro said. The full launch in 2021 was the tree starting to grow. 

Regarding the offer portrayed in the video, the former NFL safety said that he genuinely did pick esports over the NFL. “That is 100% the truth,” he insisted. “I did have offers and had multiple teams asking me to come in and play. But I had to tell my agent to turn them all down. 

“I have no regrets; this transition has been so smooth for me. I’ve been so busy trying to build our team, our company, and the organisation to the best of its ability that I don’t really have time to think about not being on the field.” 

Reinventing yourself

Passion is one thing, but business is something entirely different. Esports has seen dozens of professional athletes investing in the industry, from the likes of Stephen Curry and Shaquille O’Neal to David Beckham and Usain Bolt. But unlike some athletes, who act as little more than figureheads or investors, Vaccaro wants to take on a more hands-on approach. 

He believes G1 will be profitable in the future, and that esports as a whole has a bright future ahead — but he’s cognizant that it won’t happen overnight.

“It’s going to be a process, but it’s something I’m ready for,” he continued. “People in esports know it’s a journey. There’s going to be hard times, tough times, and great times, but sticking with it year in and year out will lead to success.”

The optimism of Kenny Vaccaro might be enough to draw anyone towards esports. He noted that the biggest thing for profitability is, of course, finding sponsors — but the money will come, Vaccaro insists. What some might see as a looming problem simply doesn’t concern him at the moment, and he concluded that he is “not really looking at G1 as a dollar sign right now.”

Vaccaro left football behind with ambitions and plans, but that’s not always the case. After leaving the NFL, a number of players report feeling lost and lacking direction. Many return to the football industry in one way or another, but Vaccaro thinks esports might be something of an alternative to coaching or managing teams.

“By the time you leave your NFL career, most aren’t going to be able to become a pro-gamer. By the time you’re 25 to 26, in most cases, it’s pretty much over. But there is a place for people like me, coming from the NFL, on the business side and leading these young gamers to success.”

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RELATED: Dignitas signs NFL player Boston Scott to its Rocket League team

One of his main goals is to bridge the gap between sports and esports and try and get more football pros to look at esports as a viable option. He spitballed the idea of signing an All-NFL Warzone team. 

“I’m going to start reaching out to some of my friends I know would love to be involved and signed under the G1 brand. They’re not necessarily competing, but they’re streaming under G1.” 

This is not a first; Dignitas recently signed Boston Scott from the Philadelphia Eagles as a substitute for its Rocket League roster, and FaZe Clan signed Kyler Murray as an influencer in 2021.

As of right now, G1 wants to stick to the fundamentals, which means competing in Halo. Vaccaro said that G1 does not want to “dip into another game” unless the org has a grasp on it, and with Cody Hendrix and Hunter Swensson being very familiar with its scene, Vaccaro said that Halo is “in the company’s roots.”

G1’s emphasis on its players and personnel is a theme that came up continuously throughout Vaccaro’s interview with Esports Insider.

“G1 is nothing without Cody and Hunter,” Vaccaro opined. “We really wear ten different hats under each of our roles. If those guys didn’t have the characteristics that they do, none of this would be possible with just three founders.”

The former NFL player’s sporting career will help create an interesting brand, and if the results on the digital field follow it, G1 has a bright future ahead. But for Vaccaro, this new journey is as much about success after football as it is about success on the pitch.

“Life doesn’t end just because you put down the helmet; there’s plenty of room to reinvent yourself.”

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