After the GameSep 10, 2018

After the Game: Eric Brunner at Twitch

Follow your passion. It is advice that many of us hear as we try to decide what to do with our lives. Professional athletes have clearly taken that advice, chasing their passion all the way to the highest pinnacle of their sport through hard work, dedication and sacrifice. But, the career of a professional athlete is notoriously uncertain and even in ideal circumstances, shorter than most. So, once you have followed that passion to its conclusion, what do you do next? If you are Eric Brunner, you buckle down and follow another.

Brunner played 7 years in MLS with 127 appearances for the New York Red Bulls, Columbus, Portland and Houston. As a defender, he took his share of knocks over the years including two ankle surgeries and a particularly challenging concussion in 2012. By the time Brunner reached his late twenties, he found that he needed to start thinking about what his body was telling him and what that would mean for his career and the rest of his life. “It was one of those things where, as you know, the majority of MLS athletes weren’t earning enough to retire after playing. So you have to have a plan.” said Brunner as he was forced to consider, “How does my body feel? How long do I think I can go for?”

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Ten years was the goal Brunner had set for his playing career, but he didn’t quite make it. In the end, the prospect of 3 more years on injured ankles and the effect that would have on his future quality of life simply didn’t make sense. “I had two ankle surgeries over two years,” Brunner recalled, “So I was like ‘Ok well, I can grind it out but I’m still gonna need to work. So, do I maybe want to start that new career now?’ That was the decision making process, it really came down to my ankles.”

Of course, these decisions aren’t easy, but Brunner felt that his work as an athlete prepared him, in some ways, for the challenges ahead. “You’re planning your next steps after something that you’ve invested probably three quarters of your life in and now you have to start something new. It can be overwhelming and scary,” Brunner said, “but I think as an athlete you kind of are used to those challenges and trying to push through them and succeed through them. If you take it from the positive light, it’s like a new challenge. You get to learn a lot of new things and apply what you’ve learned about how to get through challenges.”

Fortunately for Brunner, he had another passion, and he hadn’t completely let that fall by the wayside as he worked to excel on the field. That’s because his other passion was gaming and it fit nicely into the life of a professional athlete. Given the stresses of playing professionally and the challenges of the schedule, the two pursuits were almost symbiotic. “I had an agent, a long time ago when I was a rookie, and he told me ‘You need to find something to do with your time, because you’ll just go and train and then if you think about soccer you’re gonna eat yourself alive. You need to find something to have fun with,’” Brunner remembered, “So I was like, ‘Ok cool maybe I’ll go and play video games again.’”

Brunner had been a big fan of video games as a kid. He started with console games like Super Mario Brothers but soon graduated to the more open and complex worlds of PC games. While playing soccer for Columbus and New York, he didn’t play very often, but by the time he reached Portland he was ready to pick it back up. The games were a welcome escape from the stresses of his day-to-day professional career and provided a space where he could relax in relative anonymity. “I think the fun part of playing games as they moved online is that no one knew who you were,” said Brunner of playing video games while he was also a professional athlete, “So, I never told people I played soccer a lot of the times. It was nice to just be part of a gang playing video games. I was the same, it was just that sometimes, having people know you’re an athlete, they may not act the same. So, it was nice to have people not know what my background was.”

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The video games also provided an unexpected path to a post-soccer career. Brunner, who had majored in New Media and Communication Technology at Ohio State, was always fascinated by the digital landscape and remained a kind of unofficial student of the space. In line with that interest, he happened upon a livestreaming platform called Twitch. The platform had started as, a general-interest live streaming site, but quickly identified an underserved niche in the video gaming community. Twitch is now the largest streaming site for video game content in the US and has 2.2 million broadcasters monthly and over 15 million daily active users. Brunner was immediately intrigued and saw a way to incorporate the platform in his life as a player. “It was the early days of influencer marketing,” Brunner recalled, “Twitter wasn’t huge yet, Instagram, I think, no one really used at the time. So I thought,  ‘Hey I’ve always liked video games, it could be an interesting thing to have an aspect of my brand be around video games.’”

While training and other demands on one’s time as an athlete can be very challenging, Brunner still found there was room in his schedule to explore his other interest. “You have tons of downtime, so you can invest in the weird things you want to learn.” he said, “I learned how to broadcast through the internet, basically I was on my own tv channel. I thought it would be interesting to see how people would perceive an athlete playing video games online, how it would unite communities or different fans.”

Brunner broadcast on Twitch under the username Broomsweeper and began to build a following. Soccer remained his priority, but through this outlet he found a welcome break from training and an opportunity to learn about an area of technology and human engagement in which he had a real and abiding interest. His work on his channel wasn’t to be an end goal in and of itself. In fact, it is no longer available on the network, but that was only because Brunner had leveraged his interest, and its pursuit, into something bigger.

I understood what agents looked at for their clients and how to explain to them how to look at Twitch and how to build their brand around it."

While he was still playing, he found time to stop in at Twitch and get to know some of the people there. Brunner was fortunate to have a soccer connection at the Twitch and would constantly ply him with questions about the company, the technology and the growth of the live streaming medium. This networking put him in a position to look at the company as an opportunity when his playing days were coming to an end. “When I retired I called him up and said ‘If you have any opportunities I’d love to figure out what I can do there,” said Brunner of reaching out to his contact at Twitch. “I did content acquisition and used the skill set that I had for understanding deals when I was playing. I focused on mainly UGC (user generated content) and working with other content creators. I understood what agents looked at for their clients and how to explain to them how to look at Twitch and how to build their brand around it. I got lucky, is what it kind of boils down to.”

But it wasn’t just luck. Brunner had a passion and he chased it. He had advantages as a professional athlete and he used those. He also understood some of what made him valuable to a potential employer and was able to communicate that to the team at Twitch. “You might not have the ability to run a company right away,” Brunner said, “but you have a lot of skills that you’ve learned from playing that aren’t just athletic related. It depends on how you define yourself as a player, but for me it was hard working, dedicated to the cause. I think I have the ability to sit back and observe and make assessments and make sure that they apply to the common goal. As a soccer player you have a common goal, but it takes individual efforts to help it get there. If you don’t have the experience you have to learn it from others around you."

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Brunner has now been at Twitch over three years and his role has evolved considerably. He works in business development and is very involved in “bridging the gap between gaming and sport.” He works with teams and leagues to figure out ways for them to utilize Twitch to develop their brands and help players work on their own. By all accounts, his transition from soccer to Twitch has been an admirable success, but he admits there are challenges in that transition. Working in an office is a different kind of grind from training and performing in high-stakes games, and there are basic skills that non-athletes take for granted that he has had to re-learn, but even there, he thinks his experience as an athlete helps.

“In the corporate world, I think you have to be constantly learning because it's all new,” said Brunner when asked what he could bring from his playing career into the corporate world, “I would say practicing the basics, as weird as that sounds, meaning focusing and continuing to work on the things that you aren’t the best at and working to improve those. To give perspective, I had a call with a guy I used to play with a couple of years ago and asked him, ‘How’s email treating you?’ I mean, it’s a whole new concept for a lot of athletes. They never used email consistently or scheduling on a calendar. Those are all things that I was never used to doing when I played. Those types of things are the things you have to get used to working with to be proficient at them.”

But, if there is one thing he thinks younger players need to understand about a potential future in the corporate world, it is that the “grind” still exists and that they are, whether they know it or not, particularly equipped to deal with it. “There’s a point where work is fun, and there’s a point where it’s a grind.” Brunner said “The summer grind is what we would always call it when we played. That occurs and just having the resilience and the right mindset allows you to get through that grind. I think, for me, that’s the best thing that translated from soccer to the working world, that there are things that you don’t necessarily want to do but you’ve got to do them. You don’t want to run. I hated running, but you’ve got to do it. There’s gonna be situations like that at work but you just do it to the best of your ability and put the effort in even though it may not be your favorite thing. You still do it to the best of your ability because it’s going to benefit you later on.”

Brunner understands, from experience, that the transition from the game can be “overwhelming and scary,” but he also knows that athletes aren’t just one-dimensional people. Yes, soccer is clearly the primary passion and pursuit of a professional soccer player, and it should be. But, players are people with other interests as well, and they have a well-developed capacity for learning. He encourages players to explore those other interests and to “ always be learning.”  Lastly, still speaking to those players who still have this transition ahead of them, Brunner said, “Just know that there’s a huge network of athletes that are doing things, and they should feel free to reach out to us. We want to help people. We’re a huge fraternity, and we can help each other out.”

You can follow Eric on Twitter