Rex Stover and Jeff Palumbo of Lenovo: “Gaming was already one of the fastest growing and most popular activities”

Jeff: Interest in esports within education continues to be a growing trend in the gaming world, with an increasing amount of secondary schools and universities implementing esports programs. The National Association of Collegiate Esports has more than 170 U.S. colleges with varsity esports programs and approximately 16 million dollars per year in scholarships is being […]

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Jeff: Interest in esports within education continues to be a growing trend in the gaming world, with an increasing amount of secondary schools and universities implementing esports programs. The National Association of Collegiate Esports has more than 170 U.S. colleges with varsity esports programs and approximately 16 million dollars per year in scholarships is being offered. Plus, there are a substantial amount of new careers popping up throughout the industry, which is extremely exciting for current students.

As a part of our series about what’s around the corner for the toy, game, and video game industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rex Stover and Jeff Palumbo of Lenovo.

Rex Stover is the Sr Gaming Product Manager and Gaming Product Lead for Lenovo North America, responsible for strategic direction, growth and performance of Lenovo Gaming PC’s.

Jeff Palumbo is Lenovo’s Global Esports Solutions Manager. With a decade of experience in the videogame industry and an MBA in Innovation Management from Syracuse University, Jeff is tasked with building out Lenovo’s esports infrastructure, solutions and services for the K12 and Higher Education spaces

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?

Rex: I grew up playing games on the original NES when it first launched and have continued the fun while growing up through all the subsequent generations of gaming consoles and devices, so I guess you can say that this career path was already seeded from a young age. I was fortunate enough to be able to work in many different industries that helped to lead me to this role, but the most notable and relatable experience was with Epic Games working in both marketing and user experience (UX). Being able to get a more intimidate understanding of the gamer and what it actually takes to make any sort of game gave me a whole new appreciation into the efforts and work that went into making the gaming experience come alive. I’m grateful to now be in a role to develop hardware that gives our customers the best gaming experience possible at all the various spec levels.

Jeff: Sure thing! I have over a decade of experience in the video game industry and an MBA from Syracuse University in Innovation Management. I started my gaming career as the marketing and brand manager for the Escapist Magazine. From there, I joined Lenovo and five years ago helped launch Lenovo’s gaming brand (then called Lenovo Gaming) globally. I stayed on as the global engagement strategist and then paths eventually led me to today, designing and building Lenovo Esports as the global esports solutions manager.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Rex: When I worked for Epic, there were a lot of college students who had interest in working or getting an internship there, as you can imagine. During one event in Raleigh, there was a college student who brought his portfolio by our booth in the hopes to have one of the artists review and provide feedback, but the first couple of times he visited, the artists were not around or available so he politely thanked us and came back later. After about the fourth time, I decided to take a look at his portfolio and I was blown away by his concept art. It was pretty amazing from my perspective. We had a private event going on within the convention center, so I went ahead and brought the student to that area because he was so humbly persistent and his artistic talent seemed very, very good. Once we got to area of the private event, I was able to pull away a Senior Artist who checked out the portfolio and was impressed as well. I left them two to chat, thinking that the student accomplished his goal for the event. So about 3 months later, I was walking through one of the halls at Epic HQ and came across that same student from the event. We both recognized each other and I was like, “Great to see you, but how did you get in here?” He proceeded to tell me about his convo with the Senior Artist, and after the event, they eventually offered him a summer internship. From that internship, the student went on to become a full-time artist later that Fall.

There’s a lot of takeaways here, from both my perspective and from that student’s, but I think some of the key things that have stuck with me was the humble persistence in pursuing a goal, and for me, always being receptive and finding ways to help others. It’s a two-way street as we progress in our careers in the help that is needed to reach the next step.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Rex: I’m grateful for all my managers and bosses who took a chance on me at my various roles, current and in the past. There have been good leadership qualities I’ve learned from all of them that I’ve been able to take away and apply in some capacity as I move forward. It takes a lot to maintain a positive culture and optimum work output while growing the talents of the team. I try to take all of the good qualities from those people (and supportive friends/family) and apply them as I continue to move forward in my career and life.

Jeff: For my career, I give a lot of credit to Alexander Macris, who hired me to work at the Escapist Magazine. He gave me a shot to prove myself and show what I had to offer. At the time (back in 2008), having an MBA and being in the video game industry was odd, if not even unheard of, mainly because most of the industry were artists, designers and coders. Even the marketers came from that world or community management, instead of having an actual marketing background. However, Alex was able to see past that and see me as someone with a background who could be of high value. I wasn’t without my rough edges or even close to perfect, but Alex never once told me “no” when I had an idea I wanted to try, as long as I shared with him the sound reasoning behind it. In short, he allowed me to fail without consequence, only asking that I learned from it. It was that type of support which allowed me to build my interactive engagement theories, test them and achieve success for Alex and the Escapist Magazine…and I still use those strategies today. But I could have not have proven myself and begun to succeed without a CEO who was willing to allow me to fail.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Rex: When I look at myself and where I’m at in my career, I’ve never really looked at it as success, but more like I’m just very grateful to be in this opportunity. If there’s anything I hope that folks can take away from my experience, it’s that we’ll learn and grow the most when we’re facing challenges that push us beyond our comfort zones. For me, sometimes my introvert tendencies keep me in the comfort zone of avoiding situations where I could’ve helped someone out. I think this happens to many of us, but if we could take a step outside that comfort zone every now and then, there would be a lot of hidden good opened around the world.

Jeff When I was Lenovo’s global engagement strategist, I was also streaming on Twitch a few times a week. Instead of Lenovo taking the money from subscriptions, bits and donations, we would send it directly to Make-a-Wish Foundation, which ended up being around 10,000 dollars overall. I started streaming again on the Lenovo Legion channel a few months back, and Lenovo once again agreed to donate the money, this time to Extra Life. The fact that I can use my continued success in the industry to now benefit others, while also having a company like Lenovo to support me, is one of my great achievements so far personally and professionally.

Ok fantastic. Let’s now move to the main focus of our discussion. Can you tell us about the technological innovations in gaming that you are working on?

Rex: The latest battle-ready additions to our Lenovo Legion gaming portfolio were just announced at CES 2021 and use artificial intelligence (AI) to auto-enable seamless gaming. Gamers can count on integrated machine learning to elevate gameplay setting and framerates to pro levels, and our new Lenovo Legion 7 features the world’s first 16” QHD display on a gaming laptop.

The latest Lenovo Legion laptops are expertly-crafted with intelligent Lenovo Legion Coldfront 3.0 thermals for an increased airflow of up to 18 percent gen-to-gen to better manage the heat and noise generated by the raw processing power — optimizing performance and all-day mobility with a long-lasting battery life. To deliver the high-resolution quality, smooth response and panel color accuracy of gamers’ dreams, Lenovo is also doubling down on more immersive experiences with the world’s first 16-inch QHD 165Hz gaming laptops, the new Lenovo Legion 7 and Lenovo Legion 5 Pro.3.

The Lenovo Legion AI Engine is our smarter combination of best-in-class hardware, software, firmware and driver support that all work together to help overclock PC’s performance by sharing Thermal Design Power6 (TDP) between the CPU and GPU to better manage any heavy-duty gaming requirement. It ultimately triggers the internal system actions and software features necessary to channel any unused power from your CPU to the GPU or vice versa, depending on where it’s needed most, so players have the best-in-class gaming experience. Combining our new AI technology from Lenovo with the smarter, next-level RTX Tensor Cores 3.0 of NVIDIA®, we are able to take image realism to new heights with the stunning graphics effects of new Ray Tracing 2.0 with next-level NVIDIA GeForce RTX™ Laptop GPUs (coming soon).

How do you think this might disrupt the status quo?

Rex: Gaming was already one of the fastest growing and most popular activities before the pandemic and the growth of video games as a source of social interaction has accelerated even more due to COVID-19. Gamers are spending more time in front of screens and want a premium gaming experience with modern design — and we’re here to deliver. With the new additions to our Legion portfolio, Lenovo is bringing even more savage gaming performance with innovations in hardware and software. For example, Lenovo Legion’s new 2021 laptops are amongst the first to feature the next-gen AMD Ryzen™ 5000 H-series Mobile Processors for remarkable performance.

Jeff: Interest in esports within education continues to be a growing trend in the gaming world, with an increasing amount of secondary schools and universities implementing esports programs. The National Association of Collegiate Esports has more than 170 U.S. colleges with varsity esports programs and approximately 16 million dollars per year in scholarships is being offered. Plus, there are a substantial amount of new careers popping up throughout the industry, which is extremely exciting for current students.

To meet this increased demand, Lenovo recently announced our Esports Solutions for Education — which includes expert consultants to help schools build and manage esports programs, as well as provide the equipment, software and hardware needed to successfully implement such programs. From consultation on schools’ program objectives, planning and installing dedicated esports arenas to helping setup and manage varsity teams for league competition, Lenovo is a trusted resource to advance gaming within educational environments. With schools across the US continuing to navigate hybrid learning environments, we also offer at home capabilities. Students can join a school gaming network and play from home with matchups and leader boards to spur competition, or just meet other students in their school that they previously may have never known shared the same interests.

Being the #1 provider of education technology for student and teacher devices and solutions, Lenovo understands the challenges schools face in transforming education with new models of teaching, learning and collaborating, all while managing cost, efficiency and security. Our consultative approach, along with our Lenovo Legion hardware and esports partnerships, allows schools to confidently create or expand a future-proof esports program.

You, of course, know that games and toys are not simply entertainment, but they can be used for important purposes. What is the “purpose” or mission behind your company? How do you think you are helping people or society?

Rex: Lenovo is a global leader in delivering smart technologies that improve the way we live, work, play and connect. This applies to all areas of Lenovo, especially our work across the gaming industry which is allowing us to foster an environment centered around inclusivity and bringing people closer together through video games and smarter devices for all.

Jeff: Esports in an education setting provide students with opportunities to develop soft skills like teamwork, collaboration, problem solving, persistence and self-discipline. Additionally, esports can spur a student’s creativity, help them connect with their peers who have a similar passion, and encourages them to do well in the classroom, as well as help them identify and develop skills career skills. Esports is likely to be a school’s most diverse program, because no matter your gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, or physical capabilities, everyone is the same when you hit the mouse and keyboard. Absolutely wonderful.

I’m very interested in the interface between games and education. How do you think more people (parents, teachers etc.) or institutions (work, school etc.) can leverage toys or gamification to enhance education?

Jeff: There’s a strong correlation between gamification in the classroom and a higher level of information retention and achievement as students challenge themselves to win. Some forms of gamification include quiz games, scavenger hunts, and leaderboard competitions, and we anticipate that the success and rise of esports may encourage more gamification in the classroom as teachers witness the power of gaming.

Gamification, and esports specifically, is great for students in terms of motivation, engagement, and achievement, and is an excellent way for teachers and faculty to connect with students and support their achievements.

Lastly, gamification also leans into the student-athlete standard where being on a sports teams requires students to maintain a certain GPA and level of conduct to be part of the team. Failing to do so means not only letting themselves down, but the whole team if they have to sit out a tournament due to academic performance.

How would you define a “successful” game or toy? Can you share an example of a game or toy that you hold up as an aspiration?

Rex: I believe that if a device/game/toy has a low barrier to entry or understand and is also built in a way to remain relevant in the future to bring in new audiences and users, it has a higher likelihood of ongoing success instead of being one-hit wonder. In gaming, Fortnite is a great example of a title that started out slow in the beginning — but with the addition of Battle Royale and the ongoing updates which include relevant pop culture icons and concerts — it continues to keep the prior and new audiences engaged. On the non-gaming side, companies like Peloton/Mirror have benefited from the virtual workout explosion — which can be attributed to the lockdowns and public safety measures due to COVID-19 — but even before 2020, those companies went in a new direction to engage audiences and allow for people to exercise with a personal trainer at home anywhere in the world.

Jeff: I would say one of the most successful video games ever is League of Legends and it is still one of the most played esports titles in the world, with one of the biggest prize pools. It’s published by Riot Games and has been around since 2009 and claims to have 115 million users. Riot does an amazing job in continuing to crank out new content and skins, as well as extending their well-known brand characters into new titles like Valorant, Teamfight Tactics and Legends of Runeterra.

What are the “5 Things You Need to Know To Create a Successful Gaming Product” from a Lenovo perspective and why.

Rex: I have 4 things 😊

  1. Listen to customer feedback (good and bad)
  2. Address the critical feedback, involving UX teams and testing to validate efforts/updates
  3. Understand the competition and market trends
  4. Spend time searching for ways to push design and development to new limits each generation

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Jeff: I would ask that schools, both K12 and Higher Education, keep an open mind regarding esports. I speak to a lot of school leaders, executives and directors who see esports as “just playing games”, which is no longer the case. Esports is not only growing as an industry — estimated to be worth 1.8B dollars by the end of 2022 in some economic reports — it also allows students to engage with their peers, create friendships, find a career they may be interested in or just having a place they feel welcome and accepted. Plus, almost anyone can participate in esports, whether it’s playing competitively or behind the scenes in production or any number of other focuses. Let me restructure this as a question to educators: “How many students at your school can throw a football 30 yards perfectly in step with a receiver who can catch it, kick a soccer ball the length of a field or hit a homerun off of a talented pitcher? Not many I would assume. Now, how many kids in comparison can pick up a console controller or sit down at a PC to play a video game?” Correct, almost all of them.” Most esports programs are normally less expensive to start than most traditional sports and the hardware can be used for 2–4 years. So, less cost than traditional sports, more potential for students to be involved and it can even be done from home if the student has a PC. To me, those sound like good reasons to at least consider esports as a valid program at any school.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Rex: “One of the sanest, surest, and most generous joys of life comes from being happy over the good fortune of others.” — Archibald Rutledge

The more we can practice genuine happiness for others good fortunes, whether big or small, the more we’ll find joy all around us.

Jeff: “We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” — Walt Disney

I love this quote for multiple reasons in my personal life, but in terms of esports, I feel it’s profound. For administrators, it means they are the key to unlock those new doors for students, even if you (the administrator) personally don’t understand the desire to walk through it. Students are already gaming at home, you have the opportunity to create a safer environment with more opportunity than “just playing video games” — so lead by example and do it. For students, it means to not letting fear override your curiosity. Get offline, go meet people, put yourself out there, feel what it’s like to win and lose, see what the world has to offer and what you may love in it. Keep being curious!

How can our readers follow you on social media?


Twitter: @rexoli

Instagram: rexoly

Jeff: Linkedin is where I post most often

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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