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E3 2014 Interview: Extra Life Games for Good, Raises Millions for Sick Kids

Posted on Friday, June 13 @ 20:38:39 Eastern by

I sat down with Jeromy Adams Founder and Managing Director of Extra Life, one of the most popular and far-reaching charities with a focus on gamers. Read our full interview and be sure to click links to learn about Tori, the young girl whose passing inspired Adams, in addition to some of the initiatives Extra Life has been taking to expand.

Game Revolution: I haven’t actually participated in an Extra Life event. I haven’t done a stream because I don’t know what I’m doing with that but I know our sister site PlayStation LifeStyle participated in the most recent one and if I remember correctly your website was actually hacked or I think it was a DDoS attack.

Jeromy Adams: It was more like a traffic jam. Some jerk just clogged us up.

GR: But in the end you guys bounced back and had a record number of donations, right?

JA: Oh man, it was amazing. At the time we went down our Extra Life community was raising about $7,000 a minute for local children’s hospitals and it was quite trying on our nerves when the DDoS attack happened. But to clarify something, Extra Life doesn’t really involve streaming. People do it optionally but Extra Life is really just about doing things you like to do to help others. It exists because of a little girl that changed my life and she really just made me want to do something to memorialize her when she passed away, when Tori died of leukemia. I had an e-mail from a friend who wanted me to support him on a bike ride he was doing.

I thought, you know, if you can do that, if people can run and raise money and bike and raise money and all kinds of crazy things to raise money, why can’t gamers game and do what we love to do. I don’t run, I don’t bike, I don’t hop on pogo sticks. Like, I wanna do something that I love doing to help others. I couldn’t think of a good reason not to, so we got together with our local hospital where I live in Houston, Texas Children’s Hospital and we put on the first Extra Life hoping to raise $10,000. We ended up raising $120,000 that year. The next year, $170,000 and in 2010 I actually donated the intellectual property to Children’s Miracle Network with the understanding that they would help invest in and help us grow Extra Life and take it to more gamers so that our gamers could raise money for local hospitals where they live.

The response beyond that was immediate and obvious. Gamers went from raising $170,000 to half a million, then a million, then two million, then last year $4 million. Every penny that’s raised with Extra Life stays in the community that the gamer decides it stays in. Usually, it’s their local Children’s Miracle Network hospitals, but we do let you choose because these days we all move around a lot of people aren’t where they used to be anymore. We have a lot of military supporters and they move around a lot too. We let you pick the hospital you want and we’ll help you connect with your local hospital if you want. But you sign up and you play games and you don’t have to stream yourself. As a matter of fact you might not want to because a lot of people just participate from their house and I’m pretty sure a high number of our participants are in their underwear and I’m totally OK with that as long as they don’t stream themselves.

GR: Hey, if we podcast in our underwear you should be able to generate charitable donations in your underwear.

JA: [Laughs]

GR: The violence in gaming is overwhelming my senses at E3 this year. I sat through Mortal Kombat X yesterday and I say sat through it because it happened to me and I felt violated but I find that the stories of gamers doing something charitable to be so uplifting to me and my mind in this medium especially given the portrayal or image of “the gamer” so what would you say… how would you describe Extra Life’s role in changing the image of gamer in the modern age.

JA: That’s a very good question. I’m very proud of our community, our Extra Lifers out there are… the image was already changing but we’re definitely helping it to change. Our community is out there constantly sharing the Extra Life story. We have guilds, Extra Life street team guilds in 25 cities now where they’re out on the street, these are gamers not just doing things digitally. They come together once a month and they’re at concerts and they’re at game releases and they’re at movie premiers and they’re constantly out there sharing the Extra Life message and advocating for kids and I think, as you pointed out, that is definitely helping to shift people’s impression from the pale anti-social kid in mom and dad’s basement. And I don’t think gamers are changing, we are what we are. I think people are realizing that that’s not it.

We have more friends than you. We’re moms and dads and we’re sisters and brothers and aunts and uncles and engineers and garbage men and clerks and all… we’re everyone and we’re not growing out of it. The average gamer’s age is getting older every year because it’s not something you grow out of because who would want to? Who would want to grow out of gaming? It’s the best thing in the world.

GR: That’s the thing, like even though I feel overwhelmed by it, I still feel like, you know, especially narrative games have this ability to teach people these incredible things and I… when I look back on some of my adolescence and growing up, I feel like I played a narrative game that taught me what it was to be an adult and in that span of time I was also playing things like Mass Effect and all these Nintendo 64 games and learning how to be a better brother because me and my brother could settle things in Smash Bros. as opposed to just punching and kicking each other which we did. We did that too.

JA: [Laughs]

GR: But I wanted to ask you about Awesome Games Done Quick because they had a very lengthy charitable stream earlier this year… and I’m bringing it back to streaming, but how do you perceive competition? Obviously, it’s not competition because it’s all charitable, but what do you think about the landscape of giving gamers and other groups out there.

JA: Well, we weren’t the first. Child’s Play has been here longer than any of us and they’ve been doing amazing work and I’m a big fan of theirs but I do definitely believe that Extra Life has had a great deal to do with the sort of meteoric trajectory that Extra Life has followed in terms of our impact and our reach and it has had a great deal to do with attracting other non-profit organizations and other charitable causes to come to realize the value of the gaming community. There are 250 million gamers out there. 250 million of them.

Last year we had 43,000 participate in Extra Life. There are plenty of wonderful people and plenty of wonderful causes for everyone and so I think that I am thrilled and honored to see some… there are folks that are doing stuff that is literally a clone of Extra Life and I’m just thrilled that our gamers are finally getting the credit they deserve. I mean, for the longest time gamers were sitting there with disposable income, with a huge social network, and no one was asking them to help. They were sitting there going after women 25-34 in a certain demographic or something and gamers in general were kind of ignored over there and now they’re coming after gamers and asking for help and I think that’s fantastic because just as you mentioned earlier it helps to change everyone’s perception of us.

GR: How does Extra Life’s overhead reflect its mission and the dedication to that mission where, say, another charitable organization might say “well, let’s throw a big party with catered food.” How much easier and how much more money do you make when you just say “everyone’s at home and they’re gaming and they’re just doing what they can to help”?

JA: I think one of the best things about Extra Life is that every dollar that’s raised stays there. We don’t take a cut of that or something from our hospitals and then send them a check for $0.50 on the dollar. We, as an organization, chose Miracle Network Hospitals and operate at $0.12 a dollar raised. The industry standard—

Clint Curry, Extra Life Media Relations Director: Everything is considered great under $0.35 on the dollar.

JA: Yeah, so we’re at $0.12 and our team of people and our organization is only about 130 of us that work and the number of people specific to the Extra Life program is only two of us. We work night and day and that’s our job. I believe that, uh, we have something special for our gamers I think our gamers deserve transparency in what’s going on with the money and where it goes. It’s so much easier to just say all the money you raise is going to your hospital. Our overhead is covered in two ways, actually. Children’s Miracle Network hospitals has underwriters like Walmart who right us checks to help us do our jobs. They say, here’s money for your payroll and your staff and that’s how the money we raise can just go to the hospital.

This booth was donated by the Entertainment Software Association and IDG World Expo. They gave us the space to do our work, so this was all donated space and this is to me, I mean, we could never afford that nor would we. That’s a frivolous use of funds in my opinion. This is something that if someone is willing to give us the space so we can share Tori’s story with someone, then I’m more than happy to be there and do it. This is the third or fourth year in a row they’ve given us the space.

GR: Do you consider yourself a superhero? The banner behind you has someone opening their dress shirt to show the Extra Life logo.

JA: No, no that’s not me. Our gamers and our community are the superheroes. Our job isn’t to lead them. Our job is to get things out of there way so our gamers have stated that they want to get out there, that they want to do what they can for local kids. Then they tell us very, very bluntly that this is in my way. Get this out of my way. I don’t like this. I wanna be able to change teams or I wanna be able to do… all these parts of the experience of raising money for these hospitals. It’s our job as a team to say what can we get the hell out of their way now. Let’s move this, let’s make this experience better for them.

GR: Would you say that you’ve taken ideas of game design and applied it to charitable giving?

JA: Yeah, we’re working on it. We’re trying to gamify… as a matter of fact in July, we’re unveiling our achievement badge system so as you fundraise for your local hospital it’ll contribute to an overall Extra Lifer score that we’re excited about. We’ve got forums coming in, we’re starting our own forum community and while still staying true to our kind of credo that we’re going to come to gamers where they’re at. Most… so they don’t have to join our forums to be a part of Extra Life… I think a lot of fundraising programs that are out there and there are some great ones out there, there are some fantastic programs, but where they make a wrong turn is that they say “alright, we’re gonna raise money so get over here, come over here at this time, do this thing, in this place, and get your number on and then walk this course” or whatever it is, right. But with our philosophy at Extra Life is “hey, what are you doing over there? Can we come?”

We meet the gamers where they’re at. And so you can play any game you want on any system you want. Board games, video games, tabletop games, kick a ball against the wall. It doesn’t matter. Do what you wanna do and do the things you love and it makes us insane sometimes because it would be easier if it was like “yeah, you do this marathon and you have to do it on that day.” It would be easier to market and tell people about, it would be simpler, instead of having to explain how yes, that’s OK too a hundred different times. I think that’s why Extra Life is growing so fast because people can hack it. People can hack it, not attack it, but set it up however they want.

When you sign up, you can delete every word on your gamer profile and make your own thing. You could conceivably create your own fundraising program within our Extra Life universe and do it your way and people have. October 25th is still a ways away and people have already done their own gaming events. We’ve already raised a quarter of a million dollars this year. We’re twice where we were last year because people are already done with Extra Life this year.

GR: Maybe they’re not done, maybe they’re just getting started.

JA: [Laughs] Maybe not!

GR: You know, it gives me a little bit of faith despite some things I see in the industry. There’s so many cut-throat business tactics and preorder campaigns and it’s all about getting that money and having it in the bank before you’ve even been given a product and Extra Life seems so antithetical to that. What was the first game that someone played for Extra Life?

JA: It was 2008… um, I think it might have been Call of Duty: World at War. It was in beta at the time so everyone had a beta key so we were playing the same map on Call of Duty: World at War until like O-dark hundred and it was basically console gamers at first and just sort of spread outward and our friends at Rift and Trion Worlds helped us take it to the MMO world and then our friends at Wizards of the Coast helped us take it to the board and tabletop community a little bit more.

I wanna comment on one thing you just said and how competitive everything is. This industry is so cut-throat and so competitive and these companies have lots of money they need to make, but with Extra Life if you go to our website you’ll see some of those companies as supporters of ours and you’ll see something you don’t normally see. You’ll see the Microsoft logo right next to the PlayStation logo and you’ll see the Activision logo right next to the EA logo. One of the things we tell our partners when they come on board to help us with Extra Life is that this is a noncompetitive environment. There is no platform exclusive to saving the lives of children. So, if you wanna be a part of Extra Life you’re gonna be a part of it with anyone else who wants to be a part of it. So far, it’s never heard us. We’ve never lost out on the chance to talk to someone’s customers to ask them to join Extra Life in anyway.

If anything, I think it actually makes it easier for them to participate because they know they don’t have to beat someone at something or get first or get best, then they can just do their best.

GR: Is there a specific item or, let’s say I don’t have a lot of money or I don’t raise a lot of money, is there something like controllers that hospitals need that gamers could send in, or do you prefer gamers to strictly donate funds or sell it at a garage sale and send in the money?

JA: That creativity that you’re talking about is pretty integral to what we’re going for so the money that goes to these hospitals, wherever the gamer decides where it goes. What that hospital needs the most… if they need play therapy, if their child life department needs more games, then they’ll use them money to do that but if Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia is on the verge of another big breakthrough like they had a couple months ago on Leukemia, then it may go to cancer research there, but if we made it all about cancer research then what use is it to a small hospital in Texas to help a neonatal intensive care unit to help premature babies survive birth, so we live this open to our hospital to use in a way that provides care or life-saving equipment or research in that area. So, it could go to that, but as far as donated goods and stuff it would be… it’s far more preferable that someone were to figure out how to liquidate that and put that against their fundraising total.

GR: Has the health care reform act enabled more money or better use of the money in local or bigger hospitals?

JA: That’s not something I know about. I consider my role with Extra Life to be… I’m not a doctor but there are some smart people out there. I can say that every year of Extra Life’s existence since 2009, we’ve doubled or better what we’re able to raise for these hospitals so that’s been consistent no matter what. I don’t really follow that stuff at that level.

GR: I have subscribed to health care through that platform and I have to admit I’m a little afraid of hospitals, but to tell people that they can contribute to that environment but from the comfort of their home doing the hobby that they love is so enlightening to me.

JA: And I think it’s worth expanding that you’re not the only one afraid of hospitals and blood, kids don’t like going to hospitals normally. Many of them are working really hard to make these hospitals someplace as welcome as they possibly can. We even hear from some of the kids these days that they can’t wait to go back because it’s so much fun at the hospital. We’re able to inject things like the Child Life profession [Read more here] which is basically about letting kids live a childhood life in the hospital with their siblings because the brothers and sisters of a sick kid lose so much attention to their sick sibling so these child life specialists treat the whole family when a child gets sick, so we’re working very hard to make sure that our kids see the hospital in slightly better lenses than what you see them in.

GR: Let’s say someone is reading, what would you say to them to get them to not just pop in a game, but to look at Extra-Life.org and start participating?

JA: All I can say is that a lot of people will come to you in a lot of different times and say I want you to give me money or I want you to participate in my thing, so it’s easy to get kind of skeptical of things and rather than let this opportunity, which this is, you’re hearing this for a reason or your reading this for a reason, rather than letting this opportunity pass you by, take a leap of faith and see if you like it. It doesn’t hurt anything, it doesn’t cost anything to sign up. Just go to Extra-Life.org and say “I’m gonna try it.” Give us a chance and see what you think about this amazing community and see what you think about being connected to some of the best gamers on Earth. The most generous spirits in the world are these folks that raise money for our hospitals. What could it hurt to be around people who love to help kids and love the same thing you do?


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