”I want to see that there are other people in the industry that represent who I am,“ Howard tells TheWrap
Talent agent Amber Howard joined TalentX Gaming to lead its talent discovery and management division with plans to give the traditionally white male-dominated streaming industry an image overhaul.
TalentX Gaming, also called TXG, launched in May as a joint venture between esports organization ReKT Global and social media management firm TalentX Entertainment.
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“When I’m looking at talent, I want to see people that look like me. It’s no different in gaming,” Howard, who is Black, told TheWrap. “I want to see people who look like me. I want to see that there are other people in the industry that represent who I am.”
A former talent relations manager for the NFL, IMG and A3, Howard brought a small roster of streaming talent with her to TXG. They included Soleil “Ewok” Wheeler, a deaf 14-year-old “Fortnite” player who has over 129,000 subscribers on YouTube and nearly 175,000 on Microsoft’s Mixer platform (which will cease operations July 22). Wheeler signed with gaming brand and esports team owner FaZe Clan in July 2019 and is the organization’s first and only female recruit in its ten-year history.
Howard also served as manager of talent for Warner Bros.’ digital gaming division Machinima. During her time at A3, Howard recruited dancer and SMOSH creator Mari “AtomicMari” Takahashi, who recently began contributing to a Quibi show called “SpeedRun by Polygon,” a daily gaming news brief produced with Vox Media’s tech website Polygon.
Howard’s goal at TXG is to further diversify its talent roster and expose esports and gaming fans to talented creators that aren’t given as much publicity. She is also helping promote TXG’s first gaming reality show, “GAMEMASTER,” which will air on Amazon Prime Video and Twitch. The nine-episode series is already cast, and Howard helped select the 12 amateur gamers who will compete for a shot at $100,000 and a gaming contract. The show was set to film with all the gamers living in one Atlanta house but is adjusting to film remotely.
Howard spoke to TheWrap about her plans for the streaming industry and past work discovering talent. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell us about how your role at NFL prepared you to lead talent scouting efforts at TXG.
I started on the traditional side of the business and really was able to get a feel for talent as a whole working at NFL Networks because we worked with talent in a live setting all the time. After events and production, I really took an interest in talent recruitment and finding new talent for the network. I worked with the VP of talent on learning how to identify people who were engaging and what to look for and all the nuances that are necessary to be an on-air live television host. So I really got a lot of experience under my belt there in finding talent.
What was the catalyst that made you interested in signing esports and gaming talent?
A couple of interesting things happened down the line at IMG, in (around) 2015 they hired an esports agent. I didn’t know a ton about esports at the time, but IMG is very well-versed in sports on both the collegiate and professional level, so for them to get into esports, I thought it was interesting.
The other thing that happened was the Staples Center sold out for a “League of Legends” competition in 30 minutes. I’m a big Lakers fan, and for me, just understanding what that meant was huge to me and so I started looking into what “League of Legends” was. For my next venture, I knew I wanted to be in digital and take a step away from traditional (media) because that’s where the industry was shifting, and I was also interested in esports.
I played games growing up, but I never got into PC gaming, and (Riot Games) likes to ensure you’re well-versed in the culture and understand everything about the game (“League of Legends”) and the community. I became a consumer of the content and was going to YouTube and figuring out what videos I could watch to get better at the game. I realized there was something there with the audience and the amount of people that were immersed in this community — that until it hit mainstream and was selling out the Staples Center, I had no idea even existed.
What makes a good streamer?
It’s who’s engaging, who’s funny, who do I find myself laughing at even if I don’t understand necessarily the content that I’m watching. It’s about personalities, and that’s what I learned at NFL and developed at IMG.
Streaming platforms like Caffeine, Mixer, Twitch and YouTube are all competing to exclusively sign top streamers fast. What’s your take on these “streaming wars”?
It’s just a precarious situation right now because everyone is just making a grab for talent, and it’s not necessarily about diversifying the roster. It’s, Who’s available? Who has the biggest numbers?” That’s what they’re looking at, in my opinion. I haven’t seen a huge diverse sign from any of them recently.
And where are the mid-tier creators? I don’t see (platforms) going after them, and making a big press release about them — even if they are signing them, there’s no word put out.
What role do these streaming companies play in terms of broadcasting diversity?
I think they do have a responsibility. When you are recruiting talent and looking to diversify your platform and make a strong representation of the community, there’s no reason why (streaming platforms) shouldn’t make a press release about some of these more diverse streamers. They need that same press, attention and validation. I think they have a huge responsibility to make sure they’re elevating not just the giant names they’re signing, but who makes up the rest of the community.
It’s on (streaming platforms) even if they are signing those people to make sure they’re putting it out there. People need to see it and they want to identify across all platforms wherever they go. The audience being able to see that might help get more of a following. It needs to be more about that entertainment value and making sure we’re entertaining for the masses, and not just entertaining for sales or numbers. We have a responsibility to make sure we are appealing to the entire audience.
What motivates you to find and boost the careers of diverse talent?
When I’m going out and looking at talent, I want to see people that look like me. It’s no different in gaming. I used to look up to Pam Oliver at the sidelines at NFL before I even got to the NFL. I was like, “Oh, she’s a Black woman, and she’s on the sidelines at football games and interviewing all my favorite players.” And I thought that was incredible. That was always something — I want to see people who look like me, I want to see that there are other people in the industry that represent who I am. But it’s also a level of success and accomplishment, like, “Look, she can do that. That means I could do that, too.” And so it’s one of those things I certainly identify with.
Lots of esports competitions recruit Black athletes to play celebrity openers for their matches — including the March “Call of Duty” LA Home Series event that featured Michael B. Jordan. But when it’s time to compete, that diversity isn’t as clear on stage. Why do you think that is?
Well, it’s like, here are — forgive me, but — our token Black people that play “Call of Duty” that are celebrities, but (then) you don’t see that same representation when it comes to competition. I don’t believe it’s because those creators aren’t out there, I think it’s because they’re looking for the best of the best. I think there’s a responsibility to make sure that even if some of the creators aren’t as good, we’re looking at entertainment. People want to be entertained and sometimes people who aren’t as good can be entertaining.
What has your experience as a Black woman working in these mainly white male-dominated industries been like?
I have predominantly chosen careers that are part of a boy’s club. NFL, a boy’s club; IMG, agents, it’s a boy’s club; Machinima is a boys club. I’ve always had to come in and prove to my peers, my coworkers, even myself, that I could come in and do the work and function at a level as high as or even higher than my coworkers. I’ve always had to do that just being a female and especially being a Black female on top of that in all these male-dominated worlds.
Some of the things I’ve had to go through just to get recognition were unjust. I’ve always had to prove myself, I’ve always had to go above and beyond other people and make sure that I’m representing myself in a class and a level that is above all of my peers — because I’m already being looked at differently because I’m a Black woman. So I have to make sure that when I’m going out and signing a talent and putting my name behind them, that I 100% believe in them and what they can do, because that success is (for) both of us.