Dr. Robert Macy: Entrepreneur and Business Professor By Day, Gamer By Night
Dr. Robert Macy was positively chipper as he sat across the table, happily rambling on about his career as an entrepreneur, his favorite podcasts, and his love of video games.
You’d never know he was running on three hours of sleep.
“I’m way too old to have a two-year old,” says Macy, 47, of his young daughter, the cause of his now irregular sleep habits. “I was up with her all night.”
Macy, a professor in the Smeal College of Business, spends long hours on campus, often staying in his office until as late as 9 p.m. As head of the Farrell Center for Corporate Innovation and Entrepreneurship, he’s responsible for helping the college run competitions, venture capitalist funds, educational programs and classes, and conducting practical research on business.
There’s also the classes he teaches, one of which was about to prepare for its final examination: a game of Diplomacy.
When his day is finally over, he drives back home to Williamsport, located more than an hour away from University Park. That’s where he’s woken up by his daughter all the time — at age 2, Macy says she’s just begun having nightmares. She’s just starting to form her imagination, Macy says, but she still can’t express what’s wrong even if she wanted to. So she cries. A lot.
It’s a big change from his younger days, the life he knew as an entrepreneur.
Growing up in Seattle, Macy spent the first 40 years of his life immersed in the laid-back, independent lifestyle of the West Coast.
Part of that easygoing lifestyle had Macy taking a few years off after high school to explore his interests, before enrolling at Washington State as a 23-year old freshman. After graduation, he earned a law degree from the University of Oregon, followed by a Master’s in business, before finally becoming a Ph.D. in business strategy – all while managing the companies he created since he was 16 (oh yeah, he’s also got a degree in rocket science).
For years, Macy was happy being his own boss, navigating the often cruel, choppy waters of business. Being an entrepreneur was part of his DNA. But when he married, his wife asked him to consider leaving the world he loved for the sake of their relationship. Incredibly, he didn’t hesitate.
“When I got married, the deal with my wife is that I’m really not allowed to be an entrepreneur,” says Macy. “She didn’t approve of the way I was spending my money. Which is good, because when you’re young and stupid you blow through a lot of money.”
When his wife accepted a job as a research academic at Penn State, he followed her to central Pennsylvania. It was at University Park where he discovered a new talent: teaching students how to become successful business leaders.
However, the time difference on the east coast wasn’t the only change. There was a different mindset among the student body, something he had to adjust to as an educator with years of experience in a city nearly 3,000 miles across the country.
In the northwest, the entrepreneur scene was more developed, filled with creativity and “free spirits.” At Oregon, pushing business students through structured coursework was like herding cats.
In State College, things were a little bit different.
“It’s a different attitude,” says Macy. “People up there push the upside. People here, at least in Central Pennsylvania, tend to protect the downside. At Penn State, students will do exactly what I tell them to do, and nothing more. There’s not quite as much creativity or willingness to just go for it.”
Part of the challenge of teaching entrepreneurship is getting students to set reasonable expectations. The “rags to riches” success stories appear on the front covers of magazines in newsstands across the country, but the grueling grunt work it takes to actually start and maintain a business is an important, oft-forgotten side of the story.
“In popular press, everybody thinks they’re going to be Elon Musk and start SpaceX,” he says. “Most of the time, even if it’s going well, it’s unbelievably stressful. You’re working all the time.”
In his experience, it’s the people who are chasing the passion, not the money, who are successful.
“You don’t do it to get rich,” says Macy. “You do it because you’re like an artist. If I don’t do this, I will die.”
For those interested in seriously pursuing a career as an entrepreneur, Macy has one piece of advice: Watch the film “Indie Game: The Movie,” a documentary about the struggles of independent game developers.
“You see the lives of these people catastrophically destruct, and they were all successful?,” he says with a wry smile. “That’s what it’s like to be an entrepreneur.”
Believe it or not, the man who plays video games on three separate monitors (the main one being a 45-inch, 4k resolution behemoth) with an “asininely huge” 18-inch Alienware gaming laptop, surrounded by iPads, Surface tablets, and android phones, was not always a fanatic.
“My first real exposure to games was in college,” says Macy. “My roommate was a humongous gamer, and I was not.”
Coming from the generation that remembers when Pong first debuted, Macy’s dive into the video game world started with classic text-adventures. In a world years before the Internet would come into existence as the World Wide Web used today, graphics were impossible to configure, leaving most games text-based.
However, that didn’t stop the entrepreneur in Macy from getting involved.
With his college roommate, he started M.Y.T.H. Inc., based on a fantasy series published from 1978 to 2002, known for its whimsical nature, myriad characters, and liberal use of puns. At the time, it was the second commercial massively multiplayer online role playing game.
“We started way earlier than all the online multiplayer games, like ‘World of Warcraft’ and ‘Everquest,’” he said. “That industry, but pre-graphics. Back in the text-based days, when they were doing MUDs (Multi-User Dungeon) mainly, but those were free.”
Today, Macy considers himself “platform agnostic,” meaning he plays on Mac, PC, Xbox, Playstation, Wii — you name it.
On Thursday nights, he and a group of friends, including one Penn State faculty member and two physicists, sit down to play team-based online shooters, like “Battlefield,” “Call of Duty,” or “Halo.”
“We’re all a bunch of older guys that have Ph.D.’s, and we’re playing video games!” he says with a chuckle.
Unfortunately, a Ph.D. is worth nothing in a highly-competitive online gaming arena.
“We don’t have any twitch reflexes at all,” he says. “You just kind of have to embrace the suck.”
Along with first-person shooters, Macy says he plays a lot of games on handheld devices, like his Windows phone or PlayStation Vita. Through word of mouth, he’ll find out about the latest trends.
“I’ll play a lot of little bits of stuff, just to see what people are doing,” he says. “If students suggest something, I’ll go check it out and see what it’s like, because I’m really interested in the industry, still.”
In fact, many of his friends work in the gaming industry, and will often send him alpha versions of games for him to test and explore.
“I’ll just play random, weird crap,” he says. “So I spend most of my time testing and helping other people with their games, because it’s fun. It doesn’t bug me that it’s unpolished, because I know how that goes and I like to try and break it.”
Over the past few years, he’s enjoyed watching the gaming industry climb the charts, becoming what is now recognized as the largest entertainment industry in the world.
“People talk about ‘Avatar,’ like, ‘Wow, it made a billion!’,” says Macy. “Well, ‘Grand Theft Auto’ did that in a weekend.”
Although TV and movies have the advantage of using “pretty people” to promote their creations, there’s been a movement among major companies in the last few years to sponsor professional gamers and tournaments, leading many to migrate toward the gaming scene.
“There’s a lot of people now who self-identify as gamer, or geek, or nerd,” he says. “There’s even a backlash against ‘posers.’ Like, you don’t get geek cred. You were popular all through school. Don’t try to get on the geek wagon now.”
All kidding aside, Macy is hoping to build the “geek wagon,” joining Penn State’s E-Sports Club as an adviser along with fellow Smeal professor Stephen Humphrey.
Now signed with Tespa, the largest network of collegiate gaming & eSports organizations in the world, the club is hoping to grow from its current level of 150 dues-paying members to more than 2,000. That would make it the biggest college gaming club in the country.
With support from Tespa sponsors like gaming giants Blizzard and Twitch.tv, the world’s largest live streaming video platform, Macy hopes to grow the prize pool at the next gaming tournament from $200 to $10,000.
And if anybody can do it, it’s him. With years of experience in the industry, Macy understands the business aspect of video games better than most. He even taught a class on the subject seven years ago, and is looking to bring it back into the fold next year.
With top-dollar prizes and free swag giveaways, he envisions other schools flocking to Penn State to compete in a pro-style tournament. It’s the classic, “if you build it, they will come,” approach.
“We just gotta make this huge,” he says.
While spare time is hard to come by these days, Macy still finds himself getting involved in all sorts of projects.
Along with a few friends, he helps produce three podcasts, covering a large array of topics. One is a general variety show named “The Hour of Awesome” (he swears he had no input on the name), where he and his friends talk about whatever happens to be on their minds. There’s also a guitar show for playing enthusiasts and beginners alike, as well as an interview-based show with developers and content creators for a deeper look inside the gaming industry.
In a matter of weeks, they can all be found on his new website: JesterCat.com.
“We wanted to help other people do new media stuff,” he said. “Most people are really good at content creation, but they can’t sell their stuff worth crap, or run the infrastructure, or set up the sponsoring deals, or any of that. So we’ll do all the back-end things, but in order to make sure we’re doing the back-end right, we should put out some content – even if it’s bad – to work out the bugs.”
A full-time teaching job, a role as the director of a university-wide innovation program, three podcasts, a new media venture, and taking care of a two-year old daughter?
No wonder the man only gets three hours of sleep.