Back in August, we covered how fashion industry juggernaut Ford Models was starting their own esports division. In the months since, our crack team here at Syft has been able to interview an exciting slew of talent repped by Ford Models Esports and Gaming. Now, we got the chance to talk with the man making it all happen: Justin M. Jacobson, Esq.
Justin Jacobson is the New York-based entertainment and esports lawyer who, along with having his own law firm, being a law professor, and writing a book, is the manager of Ford Models Esports and Gaming. “I’m really involved in a lot of different facets of the same world,” says Jacobson. “The experience with contracts and branding and how you negotiate with teams… they’re all kind of really valuable from that angle and being able to take those connections and … understand how it all works.”
Often, gamers and content creators in the esports industry find representation through joining an established esports organization like FaZe Clan. These orgs have managers on staff to represent the talent joining their teams. An established management company like Ford Models has a long track record of representing talent in a similar vein, though outside of gaming and esports. From musicians, actors, influencers, and models (of course), it’s only with the founding of their new division that Ford is breaking into the esports industry. And with Jacobson at the helm, they have a leader with an enduring passion for gaming.
“I’m definitely one of those kind of lifelong gamers, like the earliest memory I have is… holding the Duck Hunt gun up against the TV— I had to have that half a second extra that killed the duck.” From childhood on, Jacobson describes gaming as a major influence on him. “It was kind of always part of my life, you know, playing Madden or FIFA or 2K with friends, it was just kind of how I socialized.” As he began his career as a lawyer, it didn’t take long for him to find a way to merge this influential passion with his work, even if it was something he couldn’t necessarily predict. “Ten years ago did I think I’d be an esport lawyer, doing deals with all these major teams, talking about Fortnite and NBA 2K? No, definitely not. I’d be lying if I were to tell you that. But is it amazing and did it fit like a glove? Do I think it makes a lot of sense? Yeah. It’s like the perfect marriage of what I’m doing.”
If you’re wondering what exactly Jacobson is “doing,” the short answer is: a lot. Aside from teaching, writing, running a law firm, and now heading this division for Ford, the real heart of Jacobson’s work is helping the talent he represents continue to grow their career. “I really loved talent development and brand marketing, influencer marketing… you know, all of these things that maybe isn’t law ‘necessarily,’” says Jacobson, “but when you’re working with talent, starting out with the music and sports world, and some cool street artists and some fashion designers… it really was just about handling and building them.” The passion for “building” the careers of the artists he works with is the major stepping stone that led from Jacobson’s role as an entertainment lawyer and his current position in talent management. “Yeah, I can do all the legal stuff, but I was more passionate and more excited about helping [artists] develop things and go to the next level… to set up interviews and… help you maybe set up an album release party, or like, some of the artists we work with do art gallery showings and live paintings.” Jacobson’s ability to operate in different modes, to wear different hats, is ultimately what made him a great fit for the position with Ford Models.
His experience as an entertainment lawyer working with what he describes as “more traditional pro athletes and musicians” was similar to Ford Model’s usual clientele. His interest in management and career-building expanded his expertise beyond simple legal representation and his passion for gaming acted as a throughline to tie it all together. Jacobson had already been able to bring gaming into his law career by running WorldWideJust, an NBA 2K platform, billed as “The one-stop informative site for all your NBA 2K needs.” He continued to build up his experience as an esports lawyer and, after accumulating some more esports clientele, it became natural for him to combine his unique mix of roles in the entertainment industry. “I kind of saw a nice way for me to come in and kind of bring something different to the table.”
When it comes to the gaming and esports industry, aspiring talent may find themselves wondering what the differences are between joining an established esports org and a newer division like Gaming and Esports at Ford Models. From Jacobson’s perspective, despite being newer to the industry, their role as talent reps is a bit more clear-cut and defined by their established position in the world of management. “They have a different trajectory… [with] the teams, you’re kind of married to them. They’re just almost trying to legally take a cut of their players’ independent sponsorship, which is like another way for them to almost act as a record label and make money off the players that… in their head building and trying to get as much return as they can on the money they’re spending.”
While a talent’s representative would also “take a cut” or commission on money earned by the talent they represent, the relationship is different because when a talent is with a team or esports org, they’re also making money for that team or org. Another facet of the relationship also has to do with the commitment to development. As Jacobson says, “With Ford or a traditional talent agent… I think that part of the development aspect and the management part is being proactive. It’s helping set up things that they’re [the talent is] trying to do and helping them develop. It’s not just necessarily being like a booking agent.” Obviously relationships between a gamer and their org differs depending on who their reps are and what their professional goals are, but the interesting thing about what Jacobson notes is that, as the industry continues to cross over, an established fixture like Ford Models has the sort of resources beyond the esports and gaming sphere that a lot of esports orgs are trying to cultivate.
Perhaps due to the fact that Jacobson has such a wide array of experience, his perspective on building career momentum allows for him to recognize the value of opportunities, beyond mere compensation. As he says, “I think that what’s nice about it is understanding how to be proactive. Understanding that I’m not necessarily making money off of setting them [my talent] up on an interview. But having an article [written about them], making posts, having new eyes, having someone talk about their story, creating these connections, these relationships, there is a value in that.” His focus and attention on making “these connections, these relationships” is an approach grounded in the idea of networking. From a bigger perspective, the gaming and esports industry is relatively new. There is a lot of experimentation and development with regards to how the business operates. More and more, it’s looking like the way the business of gaming functions bears a striking resemblance to the pre-existing entertainment and sporting industry.
As the crossovers become more and more prevalent, a man like Jacobson heading a division at a company like Ford Models is in a great position to make the most of it. “Yeah, [what] I love right now, which is kind of what I think Ford really loved, is the synergy and all the crossover between the non-endemic brand fashion and luxury brands that are kind of coming into esports… Gucci and Louis Vuitton, and more recently, Balenciaga.” While it’s not impossible for an esports company with its roots solely in the gaming industry to partner with a company like Balenciaga, the road is far smoother with an intermediary like Ford with a long history in fashion. It’s by bringing in these non-endemic brands—brand sponsors whose products aren’t directly linked to the market— that the esports and gaming industry gets the respect, attention, media coverage and money that have elevated it from niche interest to global market force.
Ultimately it’s an exciting prospect that is seeming to point the way to the future. For Jacobson, he “think[s] it’s just great to see how the traditional world is kind of loving and kind of embracing [gaming and esports]… I also really love the merging of the esports and gaming with the entertainment, music and sports world. The more traditional entertainment that we’ve known forever, is really kind of merging, whether it’s athletes playing games [or] musicians doing incredible experience.”
This merging is something we’re seeing more and more often with plenty of examples proving their potential for success, especially in a world where in-person events are made impossible because of the Covid-19 pandemic. As Jacobson notes, “I love what Fortnite is doing: essentially using the game as a way to congregate and watch a movie, to experience a Marshmallow concert or Travis Scott. It’s not just about playing a game, you can create these experiences for like hundreds, if not millions, of people.” If nothing else, gaming ultimately is about connecting with people. It’s an industry that got its start in the community of gaming enthusiasts organizing tournaments for themselves and in online communities sharing content they’ve created.
For Jacobson, a man who described gaming as the way he connected with and socialized with others, there’s a lot to be excited for regarding the future of gaming and its potential to bring people together. Obviously, his goals for Ford Models Esports and Gaming has a lot to do with “building our existing roster, getting them more opportunity, helping them kind of develop ancillary platforms,” but he keeps in mind that reaching out and helping others is just as important. Part of what Jacobson is hoping to do with the talent he represents is to find opportunities for them to continue “giving back, like, we did a big thing with Save the Children… Gaming Tuesday, we’re talking to the Wounded Warrior Project about helping them.”
Furthermore, Jacobson’s new position hasn’t kept him from continuing the work he’s previously done. He’s still a teacher and still has his own firm. Jacobson says he’s “definitely doing both, like all the teaching and I wrote a book… there’s a lot of synergy between it.” While undoubtedly a lot of work, Jacobson has been able to make it work for him. What’s more, having a working professional as an instructor even offers some valuable insight for his students.
When asked what he hopes his students learn from him, Jacobson shares he hopes they “Understand what I call the different parties of this esports business ecosystem. You have to understand how all the different parties interact.” Considering all of the “different parties” Justin M. Jacobson, Esq. has managed to successfully navigate and collaborate with to ensure the development of their careers—not to mention his own— it’s clear that this is something he is more than qualified to teach.