Raghav Mathur spoke on a panel at Betacon 2017 in Portland, OR. He had the chance to interview Ashton Eaton, Olympic decathlete and organizer of Betacon.
Black Shell Media: How did you go about choosing which people you wanted to invite for Betacon? Were you doing cold emails to people that you thought would be interesting?
Ashton Eaton: Yeah, it goes in my background, I retired from track and field in January, which is what I used to do and then I was thinking about what I wanted to do next. I was talking with a buddy, he goes, “Well, we have this event in April coming up. Would you help us do that while you’re thinking about what you want to do next?” He was my college roommate and he’s put on a lot of stuff. I was like, “Okay, sounds good. But what’s the event?” And he told me.
Athletes, we’re like very competitive people and so I always played competitive games when I wasn’t training. So he told me I was in charge of programming.” I said, “Cool, what’s that mean?” He said, “Well, we’re going to have a stage and there’s going to be people on it. You have to get people there.” Then he told me what Beta was and their vision for it. So I started making my own idea, too, based on what they said, and I liked it. A place in Portland, because you have, obviously, north and south, a lot of big things going on, but a place for people here because there’s a lot of talent here. People care a lot about here.
Getting the presenters then, I had never done something like this before. I just started cold calling, emailing, people, researching names in Portland. I would just email or call them and they’d be like, “So . . . what is it?” I feel really bad for those first people I called. Great people, but they told me, “Yeah, you know, come back when you have more stuff going on.” Crap. So I refined my pitch and it continued cold calling people.
BSM: It worked out though.
AE: What happened was, I would call somebody and they’d get really excited when I talked to them. “You know, you should talk to so and so,” and that happened, literally, every single time. I would talk to somebody and I’d end up talking to three more people after them that they referenced.
BSM: That’s good. You got to tap into other people’s networks as well.
AE: Yeah, I understand it because in the athletic world, the track world, everybody knows everybody. It seems like this is the same thing in indie gaming. Everybody’s going to GBCs and PAXes and E3s, or they’ve gotten into the industry because of their passion. It’s like, “Oh yeah, I worked on this game,” and, “Oh, you must know so and so then.” Every time.
BSM: I like what you did with the schedule, where the first talk was the history of consoles and everything, and the last one is about the future of indie. I like the continuity going through.
AE: I tried to do something like that. First, it was really getting the people and what they did, just making sure they were passionate. Then, after that, it was, “Okay, what do they do? Where can they fit?”
The only one I thought was out of place was the creative development panel that I was on, but I thought it was actually pretty good, anyway.
BSM: That was the one with the people from Nike.
AE: I wanted it to be different, because Nike’s getting into digital. I know that because I’ve been involved with Nike as an athlete I wanted their presence here. I have worked with them on the creative development process in a lot of ways and it’s super unique. They’ve been saying for a couple years that the future is digital.
BSM: So speaking of, how did you get started in track? Were you running and doing stuff since high school, middle school, or earlier?
AE: Yep. I started as a young kid. I grew up three hours south of here in Bend, Oregon. I was always outside running and jumping, just doing it slightly better than all the other kids. It’s a weird thing as a kid, when you realize, “Oh, you know, I’m a little bit faster,” but it doesn’t translate into, “Down the line, I’ll win races if I start doing this.” You’re just running around, having fun. I just liked the feeling of moving. Once I got introduced into sports, I was hooked. I thought to myself, “I can run and do all these things and people will cheer for me.” I’ve been doing sports ever since I was like five.
BSM: How did you get introduced into the competitive aspect of things? I know you mentioned that athletes are very competitive people, so how did you come to realize or nurture that competitive side of you?
AE: I think it’s been innate, frankly. There was a time, I remember that—I say in a lot of talks—I went outside, and I found two sticks. I don’t know where I got the idea—maybe I saw a long jump on TV, maybe I didn’t—but I set a stick down, and I walked a little ways and set the other one down. I must have been eight at the time. I went back behind the first stick, and I ran. I jumped and I tried to clear the second stick. Where my feet landed in the ground, I moved that second stick to there. I went back and I jumped again, and wherever my feet landed, I moved that stick there.
Obviously, after some time, I wasn’t landing on the stick or in front of it, but I kept this up for probably four hours just because I wanted to move the stick. It was me competing with myself, for whatever reason. I think it’s been innate since then. The way I got involved into sports was my Mom saw me doing these things out in the yard. She probably thought, “I need to have an outlet for you or introduce you to things.” Baseball was first, then martial arts, and then football and soccer. Track, wrestling, basketball, pretty much everything. And every time, it wasn’t so much about winning. Rather, it was about getting better.
BSM: One thing that we get asked about a lot in the game development world is people who are getting demotivated. As is the case with any kind of creative endeavor, you’re working for yourself or you’re trying to improve, like you said with the stick jumping: you’re trying to improve on your own projects, improve on what you’re doing. A lot of times, if you don’t have a more structured environment in which to do that, it’s very easy to get demotivated. Did you ever, over the course of your lifetime doing track, feel demotivated? Did you turn to mentors, did you turn to your coach? How do you deal with feeling like you’re never going to be good enough or feeling like it’s harder to improve?
AE: Oh man. There’s one time I remember having that feeling. Until that time, which was probably three years ago, I’d never ever felt like I wanted to give up. I never understood it. But when it hit, I thought, “Holy crap, this makes total sense.” Even though I felt it for probably two minutes, I knew that if I felt like that for a week, I would definitely have quit. I just couldn’t feel like that every day. It was horrible.
I don’t know where it came from. It hit me out of nowhere. I was doing a workout and I was running. Right in the middle of me running, something came in my head and told me, “You should just stop.” I was really struggling that day anyway but it surprised me. I’ve never had myself tell me to stop. I pushed through it and I had another rep so I did my rep again. In the middle of that rep, almost at the same spot, the voice said again, “Just stop. You should be done.”
If I would have stopped, I think I would have quit. This was a couple years before this last Olympics. I didn’t stop. I went through and for quite a few hours, I thought, “What the hell was that?” It was a funny thing: I actually felt stronger from not having stopped. What I thought was when you go in to the weight room to get strong, you put weight on your back or you’re lifting the dumbbells. The way muscles work is you put weight on your shoulders, you drop down, and then you lift up against the weight. The way you get strong is you do that repeatedly for a really long time. I thought, “Okay. If that’s the way to get physically strong, maybe the way to get mentally strong is the same thing.” Maybe that feeling of wanting to give up or these things we call struggles, those are just mental weights that are weighing us down, making us want to give up, and we have to struggle against them. When we do, we get stronger mentally. That’s how I do it now.
What helped me get through this last Olympics, because it wasn’t as easy as I first was anticipating, was when I would get to a struggle and setback, I would say to myself, “I just need to push through this one, because there’s going to be another one. It’s inevitable and it will probably be harder than the one I’m facing now. In order to be strong enough to get there, I have to get through this.”
BSM: It sounds like you had a pretty good network of peers and mentors over the course of your lifetime?
AE: Yeah. My mom and whole family were very supportive. Every single one of my coaches, too. You can call them mentors, for sure. I don’t necessarily think I ever reached out to anybody to say I need help and I think that’s because I never had to. They were always just there. Yeah, you could fill a pretty sizable room with the amount of people that I needed to be successful in track.
BSM: Switching gears, how did you get started in gaming? Did you have time to play games while you were competing so intensely?
AE: I did. My fondest memory of my very first intro to gaming was my Grandma had a regular Nintendo. I was in second grade, and it was a school night at 11:00 p.m.. My Grandma woke me up. Keep in mind I’m in second grade, like eight years old. She goes, “Hey, Ash man, I can’t beat the water level on Mario. Can you get me out of it?” I still remember always playing games with my Grandma, which is kind of funny. From there, it just took off and I really got serious. I was in middle school when the Xbox came out and it was pretty much marketed towards us at that age. Halo was unreal. I was lucky to be at that age in the Halo era and we started doing LANS. I remember carrying my tube TV to my friend’s house so we could system link our consoles.
I gamed a lot through college, got into RPGs and other things, and I’ve kept it up. Mostly as a communication method because all of my college friends, we separated. Instead of doing a Skype thing, we’ll get six of us playing Overwatch. “Hey, how’re you doing? How’s the wife?” It’s really cool.
BSM: One thing I want to ask you—and this is a big debate that’s happening as eSports get more and more popular in competitive gaming—as someone who is very competitive in the field of athletics and sports but also has a little bit of a competitive streak in gaming, what are your thoughts on the whole dilemma of parents and their kids who are interested in eSports or competitive gaming. A lot of parents are still holding on to that viewpoint of, “Video games are bad, you should go outside and play sports. It’s better for you.” What are your thoughts on that? Should we be able to nurture kids to do competitive gaming at a young age the same way that were nurtured to get into sports at a young age?
AE: I don’t think so, because I don’t think it’s a nurture thing, I think it’s a, “You love it, so you do it” thing, but as a parent, I think your duty is to provide balance. Not to say that games are bad, but I think the parent should open the door and the kid should be the one to walk through. If the parent is observant and they see, “Oh, my kid’s playing a lot of these video games, instead of being in the house by themselves, I should see what opportunities are there in video games for them to be with other people.” That kind of thing. They could maybe, say, “Hey, Janie, Johnny, have you checked out this eSports thing?” Then they go to tournaments, they’re competitive, and they find something else to do and meet other kids. I think that’s good. I don’t think parents should just be opening doors unnecessarily, pushing kids through them. I’m not a parent, but if I were, I think I would do that.
BSM: What about the term “eSport”? Can the term “sport” include games?
AE: Definitely. Because I think a sport is anything that’s like a competition. They don’t call it “chess sport,” but rather a tournament. I get into this debate a lot with my girlfriend who’s a runner. She says that eSports are complete nonsense. That they’re nurturing such bad habits. People are getting fat sitting there at the computer getting carpal tunnel. That’s not to say that doing athletics is all safe and healthy for you, though. People get injured all the time and get all kinds of health problems that arise from athletics. I think that you’re right, it is a different kind of show of skill, the ability to coordinate within your team and the ability to communicate effectively. League of Legends streamers are clicking like crazy all the time. That definitely takes some skill and a lot of training and practice. These guys do practice a lot.
BSM: There are also a lot of classrooms these days that are using tools like Minecraft and other video games to enhance the living experience and, like you said, build buildings, show off creative endeavors, and learn how to communicate effectively.
AE: They really already do. To me, this is like the military. The whole planet, every nation has a militarized force, which is, essentially, the biggest group of people in each country with—top to bottom or lateral—some of the most effective communication and effective objective accomplishing things on super large scales. Pretty much every country has one. If the military, instead of being used for some forceful action, could be used in other ways, well that’s an unreal thought.
To militarize or to get a force of people moving toward a common objective like that is outstanding, logistically. It’s the same thing with eSports or video games. For those kids that have those skills, it’s incredible and when you see them applied to something that makes sense to the general public, they actually get the recognition they deserve.
BSM: Being such a high performing athlete, you must have a very rigorous work ethic of training, practice, and improvement, as well taking feedback. Can you give some advice on what the mindset of an athlete is like and how that can be applied to creative endeavors?
AE: Sure. I’m going to say, I think a lot of people might think this is a really morbid way to live life, but I’m just never satisfied with what I do. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy periods of satisfaction, but I think things could always be better. Also, I’m always in anticipation, or when I was an athlete, I was always in anticipation of problems. I was never looking for the good thing, always looking for the bad thing. It seems like a bad way to live, but I found it a little bit better. I don’t know how else to say it.
BSM: That makes sense. Never being complacent.
AE: Yeah, when somebody wins, you go away from a competition thinking, “All right. Let’s go celebrate.” The person who’s losing or who lost, they’re leaving thinking, “Okay, what can I fix, what can I make better.” If you’re walking those two separate paths, you stay that way.
BSM: Like what you said earlier about facing adversity pushes you to do more and pushes you to keep going.
AE: Yeah. It really depends on your objective. If you really have a clear objective and say, “I just want to win this and I’m happy for the rest of my life,” that’s easy. If your objective is to never stop growing, I think, by necessity, you can’t be satisfied with where you are. If your objective is to always get better, maybe that’s why it’s tough, because you have to accept what that environment requires.
Athletically, the learning factor is your body and I was starting to make improvements less and less and when I did, they were smaller and smaller. That’s helped me decide when to retire. It’s also a cool thing because I felt like that was all I could do. I think I did all I could.
BSM: That’s interesting. It’s different also in creative endeavors versus in athletics really. You said the limiting factor is your body and what you’re physically capable of, whereas if you’re in business or in the creative field sometime, there’s usually always something more that you could be doing or you could start a new project.
AE: That’s the thing too. You could shift; there’s nothing wrong with shifting. That’s not giving up or never growing. It’s actually probably growing more.
BSM: Any parting words of wisdom for any new developers, creatives, or athletes out there?
AE: It’s tough. I like to try to give practical advice, but I don’t think I know much about the creative process. Maybe I do. I would say the key is just having a very clear objective.
That’s why sports were so easy. Win and you knew what winning looked like. Here, it’s so different. It’s like, “Okay, put on a great conference that brings people together and hopefully ideas are shared. And maybe if you’re lucky, somebody’s mentions, ‘Yeah, I went to BetaCon in 2017. We started an indie game group.’” It’s a very intangible objective to measure.