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Q&A: Weedmaps’ Cody Dragon on the company’s push in esports

The term “prohibition” is used to refer to the 1920 nationwide ban on alcohol in the United States that lasted until 1933, but Cody Dragon, director of esports and gaming at Weedmaps, says we are living in the new era of prohibition. The war on drugs and classification of cannabis as a schedule one substance has been the subject of much debate. States such as California, Colorado, and Washington are leading the charge on recreational legalization despite continued stubbornness from the federal government, bringing with them a new wave of tech startups looking to fulfil consumer needs. Weedmaps is one such startup. Founded in 2008, Weedmaps has been described as the Yelp of cannabis and dispensaries, cataloguing the many cannabis services available to users over eighteen across the country where they are available. As legalization has spread and gained more support, Weedmaps has decided that now is the time to get involved in another industry that is growing just as quickly: esports. The company’s sponsorship of the recently concluded Smash Summit 3 was, according to Dragon, a massive success and a sign that the esports community is ready for many more partnerships with the cannabis industry.

Slingshot’s Cameron Regan had the chance to interview Dragon about his company’s involvement and goals within esports

Cameron Regan: What was your experience at Smash Summit 3 like?

Cody Dragon: Smash Summit 3 was pretty much everything we hoped that it would be. You know, coming into esports and gaming we have traditionally had an approach that is very community oriented. Not meaning a lot of people, but a really tight-knit group. Everything we’ve done so far has been that way. And everything that we’ve done so far sponsorship wise or event wise has all been kind of this house party style of gaming tournament, where there’s no sacrifice of quality of gaming. Smash Summit 3 has a really great contrast where they have the top players but they’re all having a great time. We don’t think that they’re (mutually) exclusive, you know, where you can be playing video games at a really high level but you can still have fun with it and not get too stuffy. So I think it was just amazing to see it right there and it gave us a lot of energy going forward to say that this is a format we want to stick with.

CR: What was it like working with the people at BTS?

CD: It was a total breeze. Beyond the Summit, those guys are — they’ve been on both sides of the aisle. They’ve been gamers and now they’re in this role so I think they have a genuine passion for what they’re doing and what they’re providing. I think they’ve been in a position where they’ve dealt with tournament organizers and with production teams who don’t have their stuff together. It’s so funny. The format of Summit is so who they are as a group of people that it was really fun to be able to hang out with them and toss a couple of beers back, shoot the shit, and those types of moments where it’s really casual are where their best content comes from. Their video content. You know, (Kevin “PewPewU” Toy) and (Zachary “SFAT” Cordoni) sitting in a bathtub together. Those ideas are so funny and it comes to them so naturally because they’re just a great group of people. All in all it was a super positive experience and we got everything that we wanted, so it was a total honor to be working with them.

CR: Were you rooting for any player in particular to win singles?

CD: Yeah, it’s so funny because in Smash personality is a big thing for me. Seeing what these players are like outside of the game. Everybody loves (Joseph “Mango” Marquez) for his carefree attitude, and I really wanted Mango to win for sure. Other than that, I really started to root for (Jason “Mew2King” Zimmerman) because I got to meet him. For me, that was really cool because watching the documentary and seeing who he is as a player and how he comes off — he maybe seems unable to connect on a really intimate social level with people. Once we were at the house he was a totally normal person, and that for me was really cool to see. I like rooting for that. I like rooting for people who come to gaming to find a place, and I think that Mew2King and other players there, gaming for them is their place where they feel powerful, and I like rooting for that.

CR: What was your favorite moment from the event overall?

CD: Team Beer. Team Beer was awesome. I think for me Team Beer was like — it went to show just the whole philosophy of this community. It was almost like a joke at first, but it became not a joke. Don’t overthink things, just have fun with this, enjoy what you’re doing. Those are real messages here, and just to see it, it was really nice because it carried on through the whole event and players were really relaxed but they took their games seriously and the partying was fun. We had a great after party after the tournament. For me, Team Beer was one of the coolest things to happen. It was awesome.

CR: You mentioned on the stream that you got bodied by (Hugo “HugS” Gonzalez) at your first local tournament. Did you ever manage to get revenge on HugS at the viewing party?

CD: No! HugS was actually unable to make it to the viewing party. I really wish he would have shown up. I’m sure I wouldn’t have won or taken a stock off of him, but what stuck with me after I played HugS for the first time — I was living with a group of guys and we’re all gamers. Somehow they started watching the Smash Documentary, and that started to kick start their interest in playing Smash, like so many people, that gets them into the game and wanting to become part of this storyline. So we’re playing and playing, and we saw HugS (in the documentary), and I didn’t think anything of him and had never seen him before, but we randomly heard about a Smash Bros tournament going on at UC Santa Barbara. So we show up and I see that my second game – if I won my first one – was against HugS. I thought “Oh my god, I wonder if that’s the real HugS.” And it was, and he just destroyed me. I pretty much gave up halfway through the set, just because I knew that it was over. What was really interesting about this was that when he beat me, he had a look in his eyes. He knew that he had to play the best of his ability, but at the same time demoralizing people was not the best thing. So that right there for me showed that community, it’s like we’re all holding each other up, and the more people in on it the better. That’s why HugS as a player stood out to me: because he recognized that bodying people, being belligerent and talking crap isn’t a good thing. It’s more about taking care of people and helping them get better, and I really like that about him.

CR: He doesn’t take any pleasure in it.

CD: Yeah, he’s just doing business. Making some money. I think he won the whole thing. It was just really cool because I come from a different community; I come from Halo, where the online community can be really toxic. There’s not a lot of grace with the players when they win or when they lose. The FGC has a very different philosophy on learning and getting better, and the way of the warrior kind of thing. It’s really real.

CR: Do you think that comes from the environment of having to meet each other at these FGC tournaments as opposed to a game like Halo or League of Legends where it’s all online? You don’t have to see the person you’re trash talking.

CD: I think it’s two things. First, it’s online. Second, in FGC there’s no teammates so you don’t have anyone to put your loss on other than yourself. You can’t rage at people and blame them, and tear teams apart, and then go to the next and try to make it work. It doesn’t have an opportunity to cannibalize itself like in other games.

CR: What factored into Weedmaps’ decision to become the title sponsor of the event?

We had been going back and forth for a couple of months. Beyond the Summit was on our radar for a while as a production team because we know that we’re not a traditional sponsor, and we have to earn our stripes in the esports space and build up a following. In order to do that we have to work with independent organizers and production teams. We can’t go to Blizzard and say we want to sponsor this or Riot for the LCS. They’re not opened and they’re not going to accept us right off the bat. So Summit was really attractive to us because it’s a huge channel and they’re people just like us, so we thought that would be really cool to see if we can try to make something work. They brought up the Smash Summit, and they said this is what we’re thinking. I’m familiar with it from Smash Summits 1 and 2. We’re huge fans of Smash in general. So I know about all these players and I thought this would be a great opportunity for us and for myself as well, coming in as the director of esports, I’m a fan of this. I thought this would be a really cool thing for me to do, and with Weedmaps it made total sense. There are things that I vouch for that may not make the most sense business wise, but with Smash Summit that was not the case. There are some things with some of our Halo programs that people say, “Halo is a dead game, get off it.” For us, it’s really important to show that games that are older are still relevant. Smash is a 15-year-old game that’s still fresh with a developing community. So I think the story here is the power of the community. This is really all about who we are: community, building esports, and doing things that other sponsors just can’t do because it doesn’t sell the sexiest graphics card or the latest motherboard. All that kind of stuff. It’s like the gaming-industrial complex, we’re not part of that. So we’re able to do things that other sponsors just can’t do, so Smash Summit for us was an opportunity to go big. We know we’re going to be controversial, so let’s just be this title sponsor and be in your face with it at that point as opposed to being a fly on the wall. We know people want to talk about this, so let’s just make it part of the conversation.

CR: Now that it’s over, would you say you guys reached the goal you set out to achieve with the sponsorship?

CD: Yeah, I think we did tenfold. We knew going into this that it was going to be big, but what was so interesting to us was that when the announcement was made, the buzz that came off of that alone was — we were expecting a great response, but we had interviews with Yahoo and Kotaku and WWG. It really caught people’s attention, and we wanted to start the conversation. And for every one person who said that we should keep marijuana out of esports, there were three people – like a three to one ratio – supporting it. People were saying that it’s going to be legal for those who are 18 and up, and this is not the thing to do to sponsors who want to come in and be there for people who do maybe smoke, or who are into cannabis. We shouldn’t push these people out just because you don’t agree with it. We should let them in, but let them in responsibly, and I’m positive we achieved that. In our messaging we stressed that you need to be 18 and up, in our app you cannot do certain functions unless you verify that you are of-age. So it was just very exciting that Smash Summit went so well. The ballot measures went so well. We’re very optimistic about all of this because there’s no — it’s legal in California now. Conversation’s over there on that point. We’ve got to just get the rest of the community and society up to speed, and we’re really excited. Smash Summit was right on point for all that.

CR: Do you feel that there are more barriers to entry getting involved as a cannabis-related sponsor in esports? Now that you’ve earned your stripes somewhat, would you consider becoming involved in something bigger if they would have you?

CD: Yeah, definitely. There are ways to do it. Contractually, there are certain reasons why Riot and other game developers cannot get close to us. Maybe just because that’s in their writing, their charter, or whatever their policies are. But we are going to get involved with major esports one way or another whether these companies will accept us or not. We’re going to do things for the community, we’re going to do things for the industry that other sponsors just can’t do, and we’re going to put people first. Our goal is that if this esports industry wins, we win too. And right now we’re not confident that the esports industry will win five or 10 years down the line. We know that it’ll keep reinventing itself. Gaming will always keep popping back up. But you see these leagues, we’re starting to see that there are devils in the details of some of these leagues. I don’t know if people are going to become full-blown millionaires off of gaming yet. It’s happening, but it’s .001 percent right now if you really think about the total number of pro gamers and those who are really successful. No player right now is even comparable in salaries or endorsements or sponsorships to those of traditional athletes. We want to help bridge that gap. To answer your question, we are looking to get involved with big leagues and big games. If the league wants to work with us, great. If not, we still think we can provide a lot of value to those games in other ways that doesn’t necessarily directly tie us in.

CR: Would that maybe involve something like an individual sponsorship for a player in, say, Smash, in the same way that Nike might sponsor a basketball player?

CD: Yes, definitely. That’s something that’s attractive to us. What’s happening right now with this gold rush of esports investments, these big organization owners want to be careful. They pretty much own the players right now for pennies. If you look at a total roster of the players getting paid, in Smash especially, there aren’t huge salaries for these players. So we hope that we can find a spot with them, but if not we are confident that we’ll be able to pull in really big players and put them on the Weedmaps team, and maybe form our own gaming organization if other organizations aren’t willing to work with us but the talent, the players are. We’d be happy to facilitate that transition.

CR: It makes sense that esports and marijuana share a demographic. Why do you think it is that we haven’t seen much overlap between the two in terms of sponsorships until now?

CD: It’s been a “black market” thing, you know? It’s not like you can be sponsored by your local dispensary. It’s not part of their business model. But we’re a tech company, a major tech company, and the industry needed something like Weedmaps to kind of bring it all together and essentially be the Airbnb of it all. There wasn’t really a company that was big enough or if it even made sense for them to get involved in gaming. The only business that goes below Weedmaps is the dispensary and the growers, and then you have the consumers. So there’s nothing really in between to drive the business, and that’s essentially what Weedmaps is all about.

CR: What do you think the state of marijuana legalization is going to be like in five years, or 10 if we want to look farther down the line?

CD: I think the writing’s on the wall right now. It’s only a matter of time. I think in five or 10 years we’re probably going to see 90 percent of all states either being medical or maybe 50 – maybe 40 or 30 percent – being fully legal recreationally. You know, with California being the — I think it’s almost the world’s sixth largest economy – just the state itself. I mean, it’s massive GDP, just in California alone. I could be totally wrong (he wasn’t). I know that our economy is huge. It’s larger than most first world countries. So I think that if it can be done successfully in a state like California and they test it on a larger scale, other states will surely follow based on tax revenue alone. Who doesn’t like money? And if it’s being done in a responsible way and society isn’t being dramatically affected, I think it’ll happen way sooner than later. We’re really happy with the way things are heading.

CR: By that five or 10 year point, do you think it will be acceptable for professionals in esports – whether they be players, personalities, or anything else – to be open weed smokers? Because there are probably a lot of people involved in the scene now who are weed smokers but don’t want to be public with it because it’ll hurt their brand or their image.

CD: We talked a little bit about this and it’s funny — you know, a lot of players at Smash Summit, they really support Weedmaps and the concept, but they haven’t really had a platform to talk about it yet because there has been no business to back them up and say that if you talk about us and support us, we’ll support you. It’s been kind of a one-way street, all risk and no gain to even be talking about it right now because we’re still coming out of the prohibition era and there’s no financial reason to even support it because it has been, “I can smoke back home and nobody has to know and it doesn’t change anything.” Now all of a sudden you put a major sponsor on the line and say that if you represent us, we’ll take care of you. I think you’re gonna see a huge shift in public opinion just based off of the fact that pro gamers, who people love, are now riding with Weedmaps. I think it’ll have this trickle-down effect. Down the line, I’m not exactly sure if this will be considered a performance-enhancing drug. I don’t know if the leagues will take it that far. But I think that the public perception of this is — if it hasn’t already changed, it’s a matter of doing things like Smash Summit and continuing to do those things and those big sponsorships. Because when people actually come to a Weedmaps event they say, “This is awesome. This isn’t some cheesy weed company.” This is just gaming, and we know weed is there. Sure, if people want to smoke, they’re free to smoke. We give people the option. We do not want to alienate people because if they don’t smoke, they’re more than welcome to be with us. It’s all about legalization and allowing others who do want to smoke the ability to do so. That’s what our bigger mission is.

CR: Now that recreational marijuana is officially legalized in California, what do you think is next for Weedmaps?

CD: In California specifically?

CR: Or as it applies to these new states that are rolling out medical legalization.

CD: Yeah, our business changes based off of the legalities. So for instance, when you look at the finer details, California will not operate like some of these newer states like Massachusetts or Maine because those are just coming online for the first time. For California we’re really excited. Our whole core business is going to start changing. I don’t know if it changes that we do anything specifically different in California other than what we were already going to be doing, but I can tell you right now that we can now go to states like Massachusetts and Maine and do things because now it’s going to be medical. And now we can start to go there and bring awareness to cannabis through gaming in these newer states. So that’s something we’re really excited about because in these new states that are coming online? Boom! Now we can go talk to them. Before there was no reason, it wasn’t even medical. So, as these little states start churning we’re really excited to bring them in and have the conversation with them. And then for California we’ve got one of the biggest states in the country that’s fully legal. So I think that just sets a tone. It’s just a matter of time before the whole thing goes with us, so you tell us what side of the curb you want to be on. Do you want to be behind the ball or in front of it? And a lot of players and companies are starting to realize this. So we’re really excited right now.

CR: Any closing thoughts or shout outs?

CD: Yeah, huge shout out to the Beyond the Summit team for bringing us on and taking that leap of faith with us. It was an awesome experience. To all the players who had a great time with us, we really appreciate you guys coming out and doing what you do. To all the players themselves all around, this is what it’s all about. The story of gaming is the story of marijuana in a way. They may not be directly interlaced, but even to get to the point where “gaming” changed into the word “esports,” you know how much dedication there was there? I was told as a gamer that this would take me nowhere, and look where it’s taking us. The same can be said of people who smoke weed. They say you’re a failure and you’re never going to be able to accomplish anything. Look at where we are now. So I think right there there’s a lot to be hopeful for, there are a lot of exciting things coming on the horizon, and Weedmaps is extremely excited to play a major role in all of it.

Cover photo: Screenshot