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Notre Dame Football

YOKE Gaming the Next Step for Mick Assaf

August 18, 2020

Mick Assaf might have a long-term goal of changing life for the walk-on program at Notre Dame, but in the present, he’s focused on building his company YOKE gaming. 

The business launched in earlier this year and allows fans to play video games with professional athletes. Assaf and his crew have over 470 athletes on the platform, including Golden Tate, Chase Claypool, Justin Jefferson, Quenton Nelson, Tee Higgins and Hassan Whiteside.

Assaf has always had an eye on business after seeing his brother start a few businesses while they were in high school. 

“He was kind of at the forefront of Twitter marketing,” Assaf said. “He had a bunch of parody accounts and stayed up all night working. 

"He didn't want my parents to know he was running a business. I think it was because of the money he was making. He wanted to keep it under the radar. People would come by when he was working with people in Atlanta and drop off thousands of dollars at a time. He ended up making just over $100,000 his sophomore or junior year of high school.” 

Seeing his brother make money off Social Media, Assaf decided it looked fun and with his drive to work in the sports world, YOKE was formed. 

"He ran it all from his room, so I figured it wasn’t that hard, but it is that hard,” stated Assaf. “I set out with YOKE because it sounded like a lot of fun. You go to Notre Dame because it sounds like fun, but you don't fun fall in love with the fun or game days. You fall in love with the grind of it and that's kind of what happened with YOKE. 

"I wanted to work in sports. I always wanted to run an NFL team, but there aren't many options available right out of college. I was looking at the different people I know and how I could work in sports, but also help those people. I think I was talking to Equanimeous (St. Brown) about his marketing and how his opportunities come about. There was an opportunity for athletes to monetize their likeness and social platforms more directly to their fans. A lot of their monetization happens only through brands." 

In 2019, Assaf was put in touch with Atlanta rapper Young Thug and YOKE started to gain more steam as something that could find a niche. 

"I had a wide vision for what digital interactions could be and I got connected with Young Thug through someone I know through one of my brother's businesses,” explained Assaf. “I talked to him about it and if Young Thug is involved, I knew I had to take it seriously. I started putting in a lot more hours in the late spring of 2019.

“That's when I brought Lil Baby onboard and Nic (Weishar) right after that. It's been a huge learning process. It's kind of like getting a Master's from scratch. I've had to learn so many things that come with starting a business and that's been one of the really fun parts about it." 

Irish Sports Daily
Lil Baby and Mick Assaf

Weishar, a Notre Dame teammate and close friend, says it didn’t take much convincing to go all-in on YOKE and Assaf’s vision. 

“Mick was my roommate for my fifth year and he was always coming with new ideas for a business,” Weishar stated. “He’s a very entrepreneurial spirit and was always drumming up ways to make his first million. It honestly wouldn’t have mattered what the idea was when he approached me, I would’ve worked with him regardless. He’s got a fearless mindset and drive that is contagious.”

In January of 2020, YOKE was somewhat officially launched to the public. By April, YOKE had found its niche and it allowed for a more direct focus to combine athletes and the gaming world. 

“Our January launch was a beta test, but it was a website allowing us to test different forms of digital interactions,” explained Assaf. “By April, we realized this video gaming side of the interaction was one that was really interesting and it was sticking. At that point, we launched our IOS app. 

"Ever since the app launched, I think the growth has been pretty incredible compared to what we were expecting. We definitely got a little bit of quarantine effect in terms of the number of athletes and fans coming to our platform and downloading the app. It's been exciting and something has caused us to be way busier than we thought launching a business. Quarantine was easy for working long days, but it's harder once people start going back to normal things." 

In those four months, Assaf was able to learn a lot and perhaps the biggest lesson was learning about what his consumer wanted over what he thought they might want. 

“There are so many different ways to approach your vision,” said Assaf. “It's really hard to build something people want without getting their feedback. You can have incredible ideas in your head and think the product is awesome, but you learn a lot more when you take it to market. 

"For us, it's been about trying to listen to both sides of the market and understand what people really want opposed to what we think they want. That's an ongoing daily challenge to figure out how to improve our product and make it something people really want to use." 

Rick Kimball/ISD
Nic Weishar

Assaf and Weishar both agree the challenge has been learning what they don’t know everything, but admitting they don’t know everything. It’s been trial by fire, but being in the unique position of being former athletes, it’s allowed them to connect with both sides of their market. 

“The most challenging aspect of building YOKE has just been dealing with all of the unknowns,” Weishar said. “You don’t know what you don’t know and starting a company from scratch certainly makes you aware of that. Luckily being athletes, we’re very accustomed to dealing with new things on the fly and we’ve been able to come up with great solutions thus far.”

The growth of the app has allowed YOKE to get higher profile athletes while continuing to reach more fans. Weishar has been surprised by the growth and it’s provided more motivation.

“I’ve been a little surprised with how fast we are growing but at the same time I know how hard we’ve worked to get here,” Weishar explained. “We’ve seen some early success with the help of a lot of different people but we still have a long way to go to get where we want to be.” 

YOKE will have many opportunities moving forward as the concept works and there is clear value in the product. 

Assaf knows a huge opportunity could be on the horizon as the Name, Imagine and Likeness legislation could allow for a huge expansion into college athletics.

"We've had a lot of college athletes inquire about joining the platform,” said Assaf. “So many college students have a chance to do a side gig like DoorDash or Uber. College athletes, the time slots and availability is really limited. They could be able to earn some money or whatever by interacting with fans. 

"A lot of people will try to use Name, Image and Likeness to tamper with recruiting. I think our platform is a little bit more regulated than that and will hopefully be something college athletes can use. I've been a college athlete and seen my teammates. An extra $20 or $40 a week would be meaningful to many of these kids. It's something that would be really exciting if it's possible." 

Download YOKE gaming here: YOKE

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