February 21st, 2010

Personal Profile: John Diver

Sunday, February 21st, 2010

Name: John Diver (pronounced like “river”, not “diver”)
Nickname: “Div”
Job title: Director of Product Development, ESPN Fantasy Games
Full-time in fantasy: 15 years
Age: 40
Education: Washington ‘92 (English)
Family status: Married two kids (Ellie 6, Gavin 4)
Favorite fantasy sport to play: ESPN Fantasy Football
Favorite sport to watch: College Football
Favorite team (any sport): Washington Huskies
All-time favorite athlete: John McEnroe
Years playing fantasy: 20

I got my start in the fantasy industry when: Early in 1996 a friend who was working for a Paul Allen startup (Starwave) over the lake in Bellevue called and said they were looking to build online fantasy games. My interview consisted of showing the rules pages and spreadsheets from the “paper” leagues I’d been running. They explained how live stats, roster locking, standings, etc., could all be automated and managed real-time over the Web. I was hired and started the same day, writing the rules for what would be ESPN’s first fantasy baseball game.

Since then, my fantasy résumé includes: Almost every possible role other than writing software code. In all I’ve contributed to the launch of over 300 fantasy games titles for ESPN and probably won as many leagues. Here are the official job titles I’ve held:

Senior Director, Product Development - Digital Media
Director, Fantasy Games
Production Manager, Fantasy Games & Go Communities
Product Manager, Fantasy Games
Associate Producer, Starwave League Sites
Associate Editor, ESPNet SportsZone

Three questions

1. What were ESPN’s plans for and expectations of the fantasy games unit at the start back in 1996?

From the business side back then it was primarily about subscription revenue. As such our first task was to build a unique player-ownership fantasy game engine that would support the four major sports in a pay-to-play model. Our first year of fantasy baseball (1996) we had just over 7,000 teams join with an average price point of about $20. Fantasy football brought in about 15,000, the next season of baseball matched that and we created a nice little revenue stream for ESPN.

When the games started drawing sponsorship interest, we diversified and built “minigame” engines, i.e. “pick’em,” “challenge” and “bracket.” The first of such games was the salary-based Baseball Challenge 1997, and our strategy was to get users first into the free games then upsell and convert them to play the full-season pay games. Around 1998, the TV producers started to see the upside in creating games to help drive promotion/ratings for their products, and we extended the engines to work for such events as The ESPYs, Summer/Winter XGames and NFL Draft. By 2000 we were releasing over 25 game titles per year.

2. At what point did ESPN decide to get into offering commissioner-based games? What was the logic in making the games free to play?

The initial development for commissioner games started soon after we moved the group back East in 2002. At this time all our fantasy games were “standard,” in that everyone played with a fixed rules set and we played commissioner (ruling on protested trades, etc.). Our two main competitors — SportsLine and Yahoo — both offered users the ability to customize their league settings, so we started development of our own “League Manager” platform. At first we took the SportsLine model of charging on a per-league basis and launched Fantasy Football League Manager in 2003. However, after a couple of (difficult) years with little growth we changed direction and decided our best long-term strategy would be to offer both standard and custom leagues totally free of charge. SportsLine was charging about $120/league and Yahoo was still charging about $10/user for live stats, and we figured by going free with our marketing reach and brand name we would eventually win the never-ending battle for market share. The first year under this free model, our fantasy football unique users increased over 1,200%, and each year since over 25%.

3. What’s different about developing and producing fantasy games today from 1996? What hasn’t changed?

On the product side, the biggest difference is definitely scale. In the mid ’90s, we only had about 100,000 users playing fantasy football. By 2009, that number had increased to more than 3 million. As such we needed to re-configure our data models and hardware to match the load. Another thing that’s changed — especially over the last 3-5 years — is the acceptance of fantasy as a viable subject matter for TV content. Back in the ’90s ESPN never would’ve thought of producing an hour-long TV show on Sunday mornings dedicated exclusively to fantasy football.

On the “what hasn’t changed” side, fantasy football is still king. Fantasy football traffic rolled up is about equal to all our other games combined. Also, to this day, the single most-important factor in any fantasy product’s success is stability — especially when it comes time to do online live drafts and having accurate real-time stats on NFL Sunday’s. We’ve spent countless days/months/years working to ensure the games work to the level of quality users expect from an ESPN product.

Bonus: How long did it take before ESPN allowed fantasy guys to eat in that cafeteria we always see on the Sportscenter commercials?

Well really about 7 years, since the entire fantasy group was based in Seattle until one day in 2001 when we were told our operation was moving east to Bristol, Conn. Since then we’ve been allowed into the café where on any given day you’ll find yourself in the sandwich line with the likes of Hannah Storm, Bob Ley, Karl Ravech, Scott Van Pelt, Jamal Mashburn, Jalen Rose, etc. Every month or so you’ll see the Wieden+Kennedy folks filming a commercial for the This is SportsCenter campaign. And every now and then you’ll even see some random college mascot roaming the halls.