Aside from public appearances and social media, fans don't have many ways to interact with their favorite athletes on a personal level. Hillenmeyer argues there are "better, more fun, more efficient ways to connect athletes with fans." He sees an opportunity for video games to fill that role, and that's where his new service called OverDog comes in.
Teaming up with a number of developers and gathering advice from fellow professional athletes, Hillenmeyer's plan is to launch the beta version of a mobile app for iOS in April and deploying to Android users later. Athletes looking for some competition in their favorite games can challenge fans through the app, and one lucky fan will have the chance to battle against sports stars on the athlete's game and platform of choice.
"So many athletes are young, competitive and have lots of free time, and need that sort of dedicated rest time. And so it's no surprise that many of them go home and play video games every day," Hillenmeyer says. Athletes often seek out fans looking to challenge them through Facebook and Twitter already, so Hillenmeyer sees OverDog as an opportunity to build a service on that foundation, serving as a "personal way to build upon that desire to kind of rub virtual shoulders with athletes."
During the April closed beta, Hillenmeyer hopes to start off with "around a hundred" athletes in order to "figure out what features fans and athletes want to see more of in the long run," but he sees a large growth opportunity for the platform. To show potential opportunities throughout the sports world, Hillenmeyer cites a poll conducted during the 2012 NFL Players Association rookie symposium – an event that gathers every rookie player drafted to the NFL – which showed that 70 percent of incoming football players were "avid gamers." The official site for OverDog also claims that 85 percent of NBA players are "active gamers."
"Once we sort of get into a locker room, word of OverDog spreads really quickly. We've seen this happen [in the NFL] with the Bears, with the Titans, with the Vikings, with the few locker rooms where we already have athletes on the ground floor. I'm not that concerned with whether athletes will use it," he says.
Hillenmeyer wants to allow athletes to challenge fans "wherever they already play games." While the initial test run will be limited to more traditional Xbox 360 and PS3 multiplayer games, asynchronous games such as Words With Friends and Tony Hawk's Pro Skater HD aren't out of the question for the service's future.
Fans looking to compete with athletes will have a monetary barrier to overcome. The app will be free to download, but OverDog will operate on a subscription model for fans, which Hillenmeyer describes as an "all you can eat buffet." Instead of fans accepting challenges from athletes they follow on the service on a first come, first serve basis, every challenge results in the winner being drawn randomly from the group of fans accepting the challenge.
"For the same reason that people don't price, even if they could, price every seat in the stadium for the highest-priced ticket in the house, we'd like it to be an experience that everyone has access to," he says. "And that's why we're going with the model we have."
OverDog has a Kickstarter campaign starting today to fund the app's development. Should the project receive enough support, Hillenmeyer says the beta period starting in April would exclusively be for those backing the project on the funding platform. Each tier in the campaign coincides with a subscription to the platform, which allows fans unlimited chances at playing games against athletes using the service during the course of their membership.
"In that sense, there's never a better chance in terms of the number of athletes on the platform relative to the number of fans to get access to play against an athlete," he says. Pledging $15 to the Kickstarter campaign guarantees access to the connectivity tool for its three-month beta period, whereas the $150 "forever subscription" tier will be in effect for pledgers as long as the service is around. Fans that pledge thousands of dollars get guaranteed games with their favorite pros, and one tier offers tickets to real-life sporting events with Hillenmeyer himself.
If connecting with their fans weren't enough incentive, athletes will receive compensation for their time spent using OverDog. Hillenmeyer notes that it's not "life-changing money" for pros, and that some participating athletes such as Tampa Bay Rays pitcher David Price, cover athlete of MLB 2K13, will be donating all money earned from OverDog to charity. In Price's case, he competes for his foundation, Project One Four.
That's not to say athletes aren't genuinely excited about the prospect of playing games against their fans. Tally Hall, goalkeeper for the Houston Dynamo of the MLS, and Anthony Adams, former defensive tackle for the San Francisco 49ers and Chicago Bears, have already recorded videos to challenge fans on the platform. Hall even wore face paint for his video, encouraging players to take him on in Call of Duty.
Hillenmeyer's outlook for OverDog stretches beyond the organization of pro versus fan gaming, but includes "tentpole" events. "The vision that we see is next football season when the Bears are playing the Packers, we would like to have Matt Forte playing a game of Madden on the Tuesday or the Friday prior to the game against Clay Matthews from the Packers," he says. "We would live stream the games so that anybody could watch, and then right after that we would hold a tournament between Bears fans and Packers fans in Madden 25."
Hillenmeyer hopes that the streaming of matches, as well as "fan versus fan" and "pro versus pro" games, become a staple in OverDog's feature set. "We would like for there to be lots of other things that you still view as valuable, whether that's watching that game take place, being able to participate in a virtual chat while that game is going on, we want to make sure that there's plenty of other things for everybody on OverDog to do and that's why we're sort of capping the size of the fanbase for the early days of the experience," he says.
One of the "to be determined" items for the OverDog team is organizing the service so that there aren't privacy concerns for athletes. "Obviously in a perfect world we could create some sort of shield gamertag where the athlete could play as a certain person whenever they played on OverDog," Hillenmeyer says. One of the issues is that athletes don't want their OverDog games to be "segregated from their status ranking with whatever game they're playing in the first place." They care about win/loss records as much as any other gamer.
Hillenmeyer says the team has ongoing conversations with publishers such as Activision, EA and 2K Sports, as well as Microsoft's Xbox Live and Sony's PSN teams about technical concerns such as capturing game results and live streaming. Hillenmeyer is also discussing marketing opportunities, which he sees as "a pretty powerful endorsement for those publishers."
"We're looking at the first several months on the platform as a chance to see what people love, what people aren't so interested in, and to really have them tell us the story of what features and the sequence of those features we should be adding to the platform," he adds. Providing the Kickstarter campaign reaches its $100,000 funding goal, those features will get the green light and OverDog will become the platform that Hillenmeyer hopes is the standard for fan and athlete interaction.