Interview: Meet Todd Harris, new CEO of WWSEF
With NASEF transitioning to become an independent entity operated by the World Wide Scholastic Esports Foundation (WWSEF) on January 1, 2021, we thought it would be a good idea to talk with the new CEO, Todd Harris, and learn a bit about him as he steps into this new role.
He has years of experience in both the tech and gaming industry. Most notably, he is a co-founder of Hi-Rez Studios in Alpharetta, Georgia. Hi-Rez is known for their MOBA game, Smite, along with other popular games like Paladins and Realm Royale. Currently, Todd is the CEO of Skillshot Media, a company that builds community through esports.
This interview has been edited for content and length.
We’ll start off with the big question — What do you see in NASEF that made you want to get involved?
I was drawn to NASEF’s mission of connecting play and learning.
Have you had an opportunity to make that connection with your previous work?
Yeah, I would say it goes back to my own first connection with video games. When I was young, I had a couple of formative experiences with video games. My first gaming experience was playing Pong with my father at home. Later, even before arcades, when the first Space Invaders came out the Pizza Hut in my neighborhood had one. I remember playing Space Invaders with him. So from the very beginning, I associated gaming with the social experience.
Then my father was a computer programmer at IBM, even though it wasn’t a common profession then. When the very personal computers came out, we were fortunate enough to win the employee lottery to purchase them. There were not very many games for the computer at that time; I played all the games for Apple II and the Commodore 64. I learned computer programming wanting to make my own games because there weren’t many available.
That was my second thing with gaming, it was both social and learning. It was my gateway to computer programming. For me, games have always been about those two things: social connections and learning/skill development.
I went on and got a computer science degree and worked in the technology field for quite a while before co-founding Hi-Rez Studios. I really credit video games for igniting a passion for what we now call STEM.
Todd with two kids from the Make-A-Wish foundation
Sounds a lot like Miyamoto making baseball games on his calculator when he was growing up.
(Laughs) Pretty much. It was basic and they were pretty rudimentary games. It’s funny you mention that. I’ve seen this same basic pattern play out with others. I played games with both of my kids and they would learn programming using the block language, Scratch, but then moved to other tools. My son figured out how to make games on their scientific calculator and literally taught a high school class how to make games on the calculator. He made a really awesome tower defense game and taught others how to do the same thing.
I know you have a ton of experience in gaming, so what are some of the skills you’re going to bring to WWSEF that will help it continue to grow and expand its reach?
That’s a great question. Obviously, NASEF started with really strong educators and a research-based approach. What I will be able to bring is a lot of game industry connections. Specifically, game publishers. As everyone knows, they hold a lot of power with the IP. Because I know the publishers and understand their goals, I’ll hopefully be able to bring those relationships to NASEF, which long-term should mean more games for students to engage with.
That’s certainly number one, number two, I do bring a passion for learning how to make and market games. NASEF already has a well-developed set of careers that span from gaming, but I think I can help just as a subject matter expert around some of the ones having to do with making and marketing games.
Finally, I’ve just been involved with technology automation for a long time. Before Hi-Rez Studios, I was part of quite a few technology companies. As NASEF looks to scale out their offering, more students, more teachers, and more clubs, there’s both a business side and technology side and I’m pretty familiar with that having done that with technology companies before.
We’ve seen how esports has changed education with NASEF so far, how do you see it changing education and our daily lives in the future?
I think that education has been doing the same thing for a long time while the world is changing around us. Clearly, Covid-19 has shaken up a lot of models; the way people think about what can be done remotely or at a distance. Or the power of something like live streaming outside of video games.
Gaming has always been on the cutting edge of technology and often on the cutting edge of business models. I think it has a lot of potential to evolve education forward. At the end of the day, the mission of giving all students an opportunity to develop these skills… I think we’re just at the very beginning of that.
Ultimately, the project-based approach of how NASEF that happens to use video games can influence all of education in a very strong way.
We see different education standards around the world, how is WWSEF going to tackle that challenge and bring NASEF’s mission to the world stage?
That’s a great question. My background is not education, but I know that when something works in general, it is generally adopted. And this is also a bit of a tangent from your question, but I spent the last semester in the college environment as an adjunct professor at Georgia State teaching esports with NASEF really being the foundation of the methodology. Students ended up, for their final project, fully implementing an Apex Legends tournament. They did every part of it, from promoting it to the tournament organization to the production to the shoutcasting.
Photo courtesy of Todd Harris and Skillshot
Seeing that firsthand was a great experience for me because it made me even more confident in the overall approach of delivering great student outcomes. A bit of a tangent, but I just wanted to make sure I got that in there.
When it comes to your question on worldwide, the quickest way is partnerships. NASEF has already done a great job starting to build relationships with other countries and education and government leadership in those countries, and WWSEF is all about continuing that. But when you go worldwide, you need to work with local partners and that’s what we plan to do.
Now for a few easy questions to finish out the interview: What do you love most about video games and esports?
What I love most is that it develops a growth mindset in students. Games are really good at giving you a goal and when you accomplish the goal you get a nice shiny that feels really good, and then you get a goal that is a bit harder. That feeling of deliberate practice and improving a skill, that’s a very valuable mindset. I would say it’s almost a superpower in today’s age.
What I love is seeing video games training students to have a growth mindset and they can take that growth mindset and apply it to wherever their passion and purpose is, even if that’s outside of video games.
NASEF is very easy to say, so how will we pronounce WWSEF?
(Laughs) I’ve heard wow-sef, but TBD on the final pronunciation. I think that will be one of the first acts we’ll put to a vote.
Final words as we begin this transition from North America to worldwide?
Really just appreciation for the Samueli’s for a bold vision and kicking this effort off and everyone involved with NASEF and their accomplishments to date. It’s very hard to go from nothing to something and the fact that NASEF exists and has this proven methodology and has touched thousands of students is something the whole team should be proud of.