Rodger Saffold plays 'poor man's Stan Kroenke' to rising esports powerhouse

Tennessee Titans lineman Rodger Saffold, center, saw his Rise Nation squad soar to success during the Call of Duty World League season in 2018. The team, which missed out on Call of Duty League franchising, will get a new look soon. MLG

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- A rainbow of strobe lights dances across the championship banners that line a walkway leading from an ordinary, brightly lit convention center lobby to a dark arena that feels like an alternate universe.

Dramatic theme music fills the air, as smoke from a machine dissipates to reveal a gamer’s heaven.

Oversized monitors in the rafters broadcast the action, and speakers boom with an intense amount of bass.

Then, a team delivers a final kill shot, and a crowd of several thousand erupts in cheers.

In the middle of this scene at the Call of Duty World League tournament is Los Angeles Rams offensive guard Rodger Saffold. He finished mandatory minicamp only the week prior, and he’s tending to his other job as owner of Rise Nation, an esports team that he founded in 2014, which boasts several of the top video game players and teams in the country.

“The lights are crazy; the energy is amazing,” said Saffold, who, at 6-foot-5 and 325 pounds, stood out among the crowd, wearing a black sweatshirt and a diamond-encrusted pendant with a Rise Nation logo. “It’s also very stressful.”

For six months a year, Saffold is strictly focused on football. But when the season ends, the nine-year NFL pro fills much of his time with gaming. He grew up loving puzzles. Then during college, he developed a penchant for video games, more specifically “Call of Duty,” the first-person-shooter game.

“I was streaming my [video game] play on Twitch,” Saffold said, referring to a live-streaming video platform. “Somebody gave me the idea that we should probably just come up with our own team, and I decided to make it from scratch.”

The structure of an esports organization bears a resemblance to an NFL team.

As the owner, Saffold funds the organization, “like a poor man’s Stan Kroenke,” he chuckled, in reference to the Rams’ owner. He has a partner in longtime friend Kareem Horsley and hired former gamer Jonathan Tucker as general manager.

“In big decisions, we keep him informed,” said Tucker, who first met Saffold in 2014 at a gaming tournament. “Transfers, signings, big-money moves that could affect how we work, we have to consult him. ... But as far as day-to-day stuff, me and Kareem do most of it, because it’s just too many things to bother him with.”

Saffold, who studied business management at Indiana, has 10 full-time employees and a roster that fluctuates between 10 and 12 players among seven teams, depending on the games and tournaments the organization is involved in.

To develop his business, Saffold leaned on the friendships he developed within the esports industry. “Just picking everybody’s brain,” Saffold said, “we were kind of able to figure out a formula.”

He also sought the creative input of a Rams graphic designer to develop a Rise Nation logo.

“I wanted to be involved and invested into something that I have a lot of passion for,” Saffold said. “This seemed to be it.”

Saffold isn’t the only person from professional sports getting into gaming. Earlier this year, the NBA became the first professional sports league to operate an esports league when it launched NBA 2K, which features some of the best basketball gamers in the world.

Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal, Rick Fox, Alex Rodriguez and Jimmy Rollins are among former athletes who have invested in esports.

But Saffold is one of only two current professional athlete to own an organization, something he takes pride in.

“I’m making money at it,” Saffold said. “But at the same time, I started off with ‘Call of Duty’ and now I’ve ventured into different games and different sports, and we kind of developed a nice community of people surrounded by Rise that just enjoy the organization that we created.”

His gamer tag is Rise Blindside, and, during the offseason, Saffold can often be found huddled in front of three screens inside his game room at home, competing against friends and Rise Nation players.

“He is so supportive and so engaged,” said Daniel Loza, a member of Rise Nation’s Call of Duty team. “It’s not just a business thing, like you play for me. He gets to know you, know what you like. ... I’ve played [Call of Duty] before with him. I’ve played games with him. ... He’s a gamer, so he understands.”

At the Call of Duty World League tournament in Anaheim, fans in Rise Nation jerseys stopped Saffold for photos and autographs.

“At first they’re like, ‘Oh man, there goes the Rise Nation owner,’” Saffold said. “Then they’re like ‘Oh, it’s a Rams football player.’ ... So I’ve had autographs for my gamer tag as well as for football.”

But when his team took the controls, Saffold became all but unapproachable. His eyes were fixated on the screen as he hardly blinked.

“This is about to get serious!” he said to no one in particular, when his team heated up after a slow start. “This is going to be close. Wow, that shot was ridiculous. ... Let’s go!”

The running commentary continued until his team completed a come-from-behind win in the first game and swept the match. Following the victory, he quietly made his way to another screen to scout future opponents. Even during a meal break, Saffold clutched his phone to watch the action online.

“Before I got started with this, I was a fan,” Saffold said. “I wasn’t a corporation trying to just get into esports. ... So being able to come to these things and just watch game play, because as a gamer, I watch these guys, and I’m picking up tips.”

Tucker said it was rare to see an owner as involved as Saffold.

“He likes games,” Tucker said. “So it’s a lot different to come sit around all day with everybody.”

The four-member Rise Nation Call of Duty team has won three tournaments this season, including its most recent in Anaheim, where it took home $80,000 of a $200,000 prize pool.

Rise Nation's team is the favorite going into the Call of Duty World League Championship in Columbus, Ohio, in August, where the prize pool will increase to $1.5 million.

“Definitely want that world championship for Call of Duty,” Saffold said. “It puts us at another notch and just that premier level. ... We’ve got a pretty decent following, but I think grabbing a world championship would take us over the top.”

And other Rams want to get involved.

Saffold won’t reveal any names. He’s not ready to expand the business yet and doesn’t want to tip other teams to potential investors or owners when they could one day help him grow Rise Nation.

“At first we were thinking this was more of a hobby,” Saffold said. “But now it has kind of grown, and having more than one team and having players from all over the world has really been shocking thus far. We’re only five years into this.”