In 2016, UNLV alumnus Drew Brunson had the problem — albeit a happy one — of holding three MBA program acceptance letters in his hand: one from UCLA, one from Arizona State, and one from UNLV.
How to choose? The practical advice of Vincent Hsu, director of UNLV's MBA programs, was the clincher.
“Vincent reminded me that hands-on experience is the gold of MBA programs,” Brunson said, “and UNLV excels in hands-on education.”
He knew firsthand that Hsu’s pitch was spot on. As an undergrad, Brunson developed and launched his own company, ResiRatings. With the help of the UNLV Office of Economic Development, Brunson had conducted market research, obtained intellectual property protection, and secured funding for his online survey tool, which rates and ranks rental properties to help UNLV students search for housing near campus
So he returned to UNLV and the business development game — this time through an MBA class taught by Leith Martin, director of UNLV’s Troesh Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. One assignment challenged the MBA students to take an existing technology or concept that was ready and waiting in UNLV’s economic development queue, then create a viable business plan for it.
Brunson and two fellow MBA students found their curiosity piqued by the Resilient Arthroplasty Device, which could revolutionize knee replacement surgery by preserving all bones and tendons, a significant advancement over the current technique that removes several inches of bone and healthy tendons.
The team wrote a business plan and took their go-to-market strategy to the 2017 Donald W. Reynolds Governor’s Cup Collegiate Business Plan Competition, held annually in Reno, where they took first place. They went on to compete in the regional Governor’s Cup and then the Tri-State competition, taking home second place and $20,000. It was Brunson’s second assignment at UNLV to get funded and the first time UNLV placed in the Tri-State competition.
The project also represented Brunson’s second big win out of his class with Martin. Earlier that year, Martin had approached Brunson about an internship opportunity with Caesars for its fledgling esports program.
“Leith told me that the chief information officer of Caesars Entertainment was bringing in a number of esports interns in order to find the one he’d ultimately task with establishing the esports program,” Brunson said. “Leith thought I could be that one.”
Brunson had a tough decision to make. On the one hand, he’d been running ResiRatings for two years, and it was starting to show some real traction. On the other hand, the chance to develop a completely new vertical for Caesars was quite possibly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
The latter choice won out. Brunson was hired as an MBA intern for Caesars Entertainment in February 2017, where he developed esports financial models and launched the three-day-long Gears Pro Circuit Atlantic City Open, which attracted more than 40 amateur and professional Gears of War 4 teams from around the world to compete for a grand prize of $70,000.
While Brunson grew up challenging friends to games of Madden NFL, his familiarity with esports had been minimal before joining Caesars. But he wasn’t brought in for his esports knowledge; he was brought in for his new venture management expertise.
By the time the Gears Pro Circuit Las Vegas Open came to town a few months later, Brunson had been hired on full time by Caesars as part of its business innovation technology and strategy team.
Now as the esports lead, he defines the strategy and execution of long-term esports development at Caesars. In the last two years, he’s run four more professional tournaments (including the Rainbow Six US Nationals last December) and opened The Wall Gaming Lounge at the Rio.
He also works closely with gaming industry giants like Xbox, Twitch, and Alienware as well as other collaborative partners like his alma mater. Brunson assisted UNLV in the Mountain West Conference’s first-ever esports exhibition, where the university’s collegiate esports team 8-Bit competed and won.
Brunson meets weekly with Robert Rippee, director of the Hospitality and Esports Labs at UNLV’s International Gaming Institute, to discuss esports and gaming trends, consumer behavior patterns, demographics, and how these different components can intersect to create a good product.
“Robert has become a mentor of mine because he has both casino knowledge and academic knowledge around esports,” Brunson said. “He’s a good sounding board for me, and I enjoy speaking with him and expanding upon a knowledge base that really started at UNLV for me.”
Brunson pays it forward as well, working with UNLV students through various mentorship and internship programs. And when students tell him they want to work in esports because they love video games, he now has his own bit of practical advice to share.
“I tell them, ‘Everybody loves video games. What differentiates you from everybody else who loves video games?’” he said. “Caesars sought the skillset I developed at UNLV, trusting that I could apply it to esports. It was really the degrees I earned and the knowledge I gained through UNLV that differentiated me.”