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USF alum boosts Esports initiative

Margie Manning

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Will Cohen, founder and CEO, Top Corp.

University of South Florida’s Esports Fall Invitational is in full swing this weekend, with students from 40 schools taking part in competitive video gaming.

A partnership with Top Corp., a startup founded by USF alum Will Cohen, will elevate the competition to a new level.

Viewers will be able to watch highlights of the games on Top’s EstreamR platform, an online site that Cohen called the “SportsCenter of Esports.” The platform will serve as a repository of the best plays of this tournament and future tournaments, Cohen said.

Esports, one of the fastest-growing forms of recreation, is an officially sanctioned program under USF’s Recreation & Wellness department. It’s also the first program created from the ground up as part of USF’s consolidation, which in turn bolstered the program, Von Williams, competitive sports coordinator at USF’s St. Petersburg campus, told the campus publication, The Crow’s Nest.

“It allows us to join our numbers together and allows our students to be in communication with students at other campuses,” Williams said.

Reinvention

USF reached out to Cohen after Florida Funders invested in Top Corp. through the SEED Florida Fund,  a seed-stage fund created with support from a U.S. Economic Development Association Grant to USF.

Although Top Corp. currently is headquartered in New York City, Cohen graduated from USF in 2006 as an advertising major and has close ties to the area.

He worked in marketing jobs at Dillard’s regional headquarters in Tyrone Square and at Triad Retail Media in St. Petersburg, where he was vice president of product. In between those jobs, he started SongSway, a music company for independent artists, and co-created Rock the Park, a concert series at Curtis Hixon Park in Tampa.

He moved to Fort Lauderdale for a job in the gaming community and was living there when he launched Top in 2017. The company relocated the company to New York in January of this year, after being accepted to the Entrepreneurs Roundtable Accelerator.

The company originally was Topvote, with a platform Cohen called “Instagram meets Buzzfeed meets TikTok.” Viewers could vote on the “best of” from various consumer brands, drawing on Cohen’s conviction that consumers like providing feedback back to brands, and brands can use the data from that feedback to better understand their customers.

“We were doing a campaign with Priceline. Priceline wanted people to submit their favorite travel photos of 2019 and it went really well. Priceline said, can we put this technology on our site. That’s how we got the inspiration to take what we were doing from a business-to-consumer perspective and create a way for brands to license our software and put it on their own channels,” Cohen said.

The company has now reinvented itself, Cohen said. Brands can use Top Corp. software for a campaign on television, online or on Top’s own site.

“We are a full-circle, 360-degree live voting and engagement platform. Whenever anyone votes, if they enter their email to vote — and usually they will, because there’s an incentive to vote like a coupon — we take that email and come back with insights for the brand,” he said.

He cited a hypothetical campaign by Coca-Cola to determine how much consumers might like a flavor of Coke.

“We create an algorithm with [artificial intelligence] that says not only did this person vote for this flavor of Coca-Cola, but in the future this person’s propensity to buy this product by Coca-Cola is x times higher than the average user,” Cohen said.

Covid impact

Top was launching a B2B platform with a large telecom when Covid-19 hit in March. Top lost that client but found a new line of opportunity in Esports.

“All sporting events were online,” he said, “and the biggest thing online was Esports.”

Top partnered with an Esports gaming agency in Los Angeles to build EstreamR.

A top livestream from EstreamR

“We built it to be the SportsCenter of gaming. You go on it and see all the top plays from every video game – Fortnite, League of Legends, Rainbow Six, NBA 2K. We pull all the content from Twitch. It’s all highlights and people vote on their favorite highlight,” Cohen said. “It’s very similar to our Topvote platform we originally started with, but it’s only gaming.”

The partnership with USF will highlight the best plays from the current tournament.

“USF is competing in five gaming categories with 39 universities. We are giving them a place to see the top plays,” Cohen said. “It’s real-time highlights and they also live after the fact. After the tournament is over, you’ll still be able to see all the highlights. And it’s voted on by the fans. Fans have a voice which we know in my field, in advertising, customers want a voice.”

Cohen said Esports and entertainment may eventually become the cornerstone of his business, as people consume an ever-growing amount of digital information.

The USF Esports Fall Invitational began Nov. 5 and continues through this weekend. More details are here.

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