As Ultimate continues to creep out of its sub-culture shell and into the mainstream, dynamic organizations have sprung onto the scene to answer the call to grow the sport. On the forefront of this movement is NexGen Network. After their NextGen Tour, NGN brought their sophisticated streaming and game video production services to two of the college majors this season (Stanford and Easterns). The technology behind NGN’s streaming stems from Portland’s Elemental Technologies, a video software company that has worked with HBO and Comcast. Eli Blackman, a Tufts E-men alumnus, works at Elemental with his brother Sam, the co-founder and CEO. Skyd is pleased to present our interview with Eli about how Elemental is dedicated to helping to grow the sport through partnerships like with NGN.
Eli Blackman: I graduated from Tufts in 2008 with a B.S. in Quantitative Economics and minors in both Entrepreneurship and Communications. I played for the E-men for four years, captaining the team for the 2006-2007 season. I still play some club ultimate in the Portland area but I must say, I haven’t put in the same level of commitment since graduating from Tufts. Playing college ultimate at Tufts was incredible and I haven’t really been interested in trying to replicate the experience since then. I still love Ultimate, play a decent amount and am involved in the Frisbee community here.
I’m a Field Marketing Manager at Elemental. I’ve been with the company for over 3.5 years and have held multiple roles in that time (like anyone at any start-up). What is Elemental? Officially, Elemental builds innovative video processing and compression software that harnesses the power of massively parallel, off-the-shelf hardware architectures. Translation: We develop the underlying technology that allows companies to convert both live and on-demand video to play on new media devices (PCs, tablets, mobile devices). Elemental powers all the on-demand video found on the ESPN family of websites or their ScoreCenter mobile app. Same goes for the HBO Go and Comcast Xfinity mobile apps. If you’re watching video on your iPad, there’s a pretty good chance it’s there because of Elemental.
Elemental is touted as the technological engine behind NGN. What is Elemental’s connection to Ultimate? We understand there are a lot of Ultimate players working at Elemental?
Eli: Elemental’s connection to Ultimate starts at the top. Sam Blackman, CEO and Co-founder (and yes, brother 10-years my senior), has been an avid player for over a decade. He played briefly during college at Brown and also played club here in Portland. Before founding Elemental, he was able to play lunch pickup three times a week while with his former company. Since starting both the company and a family, he simply has not had the time to play. He hopes to start playing again as his kids get older (and start playing themselves!). I also play, as mentioned above. And probably our most-committed Ultimate player currently is software engineer Troy Unverdruss. He plays club, is involved with PUFF (Portland Ultimate Frisbee Federation) and also volunteers his time running Ultimate clinics at local elementary schools. So as you can see, Ultimate players span the executive team, marketing team and development team.
Fun fact: About once per quarter, several of us pack into a Zipcar and head to the suburbs to play in that same lunch pickup game that Sam played in for years. We also designed and gave out Elemental discs as the party favor for our yearly barbeque last July.
What sort of stuff does Elemental typically work on?
Eli: Compared to the rest of the market, Elemental systems have a unprecedented amount of processing power. Because of this, our typical customers are those who produce lots and lots of content. As mentioned before, ESPN, HBO and Comcast are included in this list, as well as the Big Ten Network (live streaming of network content to BTN2GO) and ABC News (top-ranked iPad news application). French television network TF1 used Elemental Live for live event capture and delivery of the 2011 Rugby World Cup in France. Latin American Internet service provider Terra also used our gear to stream the 2011 Pan-American games worldwide. Stanford University uses our systems inside their venues to provide fans in attendance to stream instant replays to their mobile devices. Pretty sweet. Other customers include several of the major sports leagues. Other news regarding our involvement in large 2012 sporting events will be coming shortly as well.
How and why did Elemental connect with NexGen? What did Elemental see as worthwhile in a NGN partnership?
Eli: I first reached out to Kevin around the time of the Club Championships last fall since NexGen was contracted by USAU to stream them. They already had their workflow ready to go for that tournament, but we agreed to reconnect afterwards. Elemental had recently completed a similar sponsorship with another organization and so it was pretty easy to get the same set up going with NGN. Boiling down the details of the sponsorship, they basically get to use our encoder for one year and we get to do case studies, press outreach, access to footage for demo purposes, logo placements, tickets to the NexGen Tour event in Portland, etc…
Elemental was interested for a number of reasons. The personal connection to the sport was certainly key, but also Ultimate is a fast-growing, quickly-evolving sport. There are a huge number of people who play and a dedicated fan base that follows coverage of the sport at both the college and club levels. So far, Elemental has received press for its connection to NGN and will likely be pursuing more for a couple of the major tournaments NGN streams later this year. We will also be doing a joint case study around Ultimate with another vendor that NGN is using for its platform. All of this will be put to use by Elemental. There is certainly great potential for growth and Elemental is proud to be a part of it.
Fun fact: Kevin Minderhout (NGN) played on the same club team as Sam while Kevin was still in high school. This is totally random and unrelated to Elemental’s interest in a sponsorship with NGN, but a cool coincidence nonetheless.
How is Elemental helping to make NGN successful?
Eli: Mainly by providing the encoding hardware/software platform to stream the games. We are also helping NGN work through some technical troubles they have encountered. There were some rough patches initially, but we have full confidence in NGN to deliver an improved experience to users for the upcoming tournaments. Every venue provides unique challenges and it can be difficult to make everything run smoothly with only so much budget. It’s clear that NGN’s main driving force is its love for Ultimate and its enjoyment of being around the sport and getting to share this experience with as many others as possible.
What does Elemental see as the future of an Elemental/NGN partnership? What about the future of Ultimate?
Eli: We are hoping that NGN can get off the ground as an online streaming network. We would love to keep working with NGN following the duration of the sponsorship and hopefully they are able to generate some revenue to own their very own Elemental Live system!
The future of Ultimate is an interesting topic. Regardless of how successful the AUDL is, I think the sport is trending in that direction. The growing popularity of Ultimate just adds to the intrigue in the marketability of the sport. It’s amazing to see how quickly NGN garnered interest and what they’ve been able to do thanks to the capabilities of the Internet. A couple years ago, who would have thought there would be the opportunity today to watch a live Ultimate game at high resolution complete with multiple camera angles, commentators and instant replays? Amazing. The other piece of Ultimate’s future is tied to the talent playing the game. For the marketability of any leagues that arise, it will be important for them to feature top athletes. This is evolving as knowledge about the sport grows and kids start playing at younger and younger ages. Maybe parents of aspiring wide receivers and cornerbacks will be looking for a new sport for their kids to play so that they don’t die when they’re 50. Is Ultimate a pretty good alternative? Let’s see: it’s a low-entry cost team sport that features competitive one-on-one matchups, requires world-class athletic ability, great hands and field sense—not to mention it’s fun. I think before long we’ll see kids walking around the school hallways tossing discs to themselves alongside the kids dribbling basketballs. And not just in Amherst.
Eli: People can head over to the Elemental website at www.elementaltechnologies.com. There’s lots of good info to read about there, including how our underlying technology works, a list of our disclosed customers, press coverage we’ve received and case studies about who we’ve helped.
What else should people know about Elemental?
Eli: That you should work here! We are growing rapidly and always looking for talented people to join the team, especially engineers. Elemental is a sweet gig: you’ll be surrounded by lots of great people, we’re located in the heart of downtown Portland, we feature a comprehensive benefits package…the list goes on. If you’re interested (and you are), check out: http://www.elementaltechnologies.com/company/careers/opportunities-at-elemental.