I’d like to tell you that Clinton Sparks, co-founder of esports organization XSET, graduated summa cum laude from Harvard, went on to a successful C-level career at Goldman Sachs, and then invested his considerable fortune into esports. But the real story Sparks shared with The Esports Observer over the course of several conversations is so much better.
Sparks is like a character from a Horatio Alger novel. His accomplishments almost seem improbable and exaggerated for one man (they aren’t): He is a Grammy-nominated, multi-award winning hip hop songwriter and producer, DJ, TV and radio host, serial entrepreneur, Twitch content creator, author, and marketing wiz who clawed his way out of poverty.
Sparks grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s in the low-income, six-square-mile Boston neighborhood of Dorchester with his single mother, who worked multiple jobs to pay rent and buy food. His dad, who battled the demons of alcoholism and domestic violence, left when he was four-years-old.
Growing up poor in a single-parent home, Sparks was bullied and sexually abused in the formative years of his life. He didn’t excel academically, but he did get an education of a sort on the streets of Dorchester, Randolph, and the Boston neighborhood of Hyde Park growing up.
He moved around a lot throughout his childhood; first he lived in Dorchester and then Hyde Park as a teenager. When he was 15, he was often in trouble, and getting arrested with a frequency that finally convinced his mom that he needed to live with his father for awhile in Randolph, a mid-sized town 17 miles south of Boston. There, he’d attend high school and continue to get in trouble while his dad was finally hitting rock bottom in his ongoing battle with alcoholism.
Sparks didn’t graduate from high school, instead focusing his energies on everyday survival. As he got older, he shoveled snow in the winter, did odd jobs in the summer, and committed various crimes to eat and buy gas for his beat-up Chevy Blazer.
When he was 18-years-old, Sparks moved back in with his mom, who was now living in Randolph, but soon found himself in trouble with the law again, and after a police raid at his mom’s house, she was evicted. His mom went her own way, without him. There was nowhere for him to go and he found himself homeless, just couch surfing with friends when he could, and living in his Blazer when he couldn’t.
At one point, on what seemed like one of the coldest winter nights he had ever experienced in Dorchester, Sparks was in his Blazer in the woods, with just the clothes on his back to fight off the cold. He went to sleep in the darkness thinking, “I’m going to die tonight.” He had hit rock bottom.
Instead of ending up in Walpole (the largest prison in Massachusetts) with a felony or freezing to death in his Blazer, Sparks eventually reconciled with his mom in Hyde Park and began looking for legitimate work so he could leave the life of crime and the trouble it brought with it behind.
He eventually landed a job at UPS, and excelled at it. Impressing his bosses and even changing the way the shop was run, things seemed to have turned the corner for him. And things were going great for a while until Sparks had an accident on the job and suffered a debilitating spinal injury. Maybe it was fate, dumb luck, or a combination of both.
Mr. Get Familiar
Sidelined by spinal surgery, Sparks thought about what he wanted to do, what he really loved that he could throw himself into. He had always loved making music (he had been doing it since he was 10-years-old), and had a natural affinity for understanding its structure, so he took what money he had, bought some equipment, and started making mixtapes.
Learning how to hustle on the streets, he was determined to get his mixtapes into the hands of anyone who would take them; the local radio station, producers, artists, the guy blaring music on the street from his car, anyone. He took road trips up and down the East Coast just to hand out his mixtapes, until eventually, people knew that this white kid named Clinton Sparks from Boston was some sort of hip hop wunderkind.
At the same time, Sparks befriended a local DJ and shared his mixes of popular songs, getting him air time on the radio. Overhearing conversations between the DJ and record execs, Sparks realized that being a DJ would give him the “in” he needed to get his music in front of them.
He continued to produce local artists and eventually got a gig as a radio host on a local station. With these new connections in the industry, Sparks convinced music execs that he had an internet radio show (he didn’t) and that they should send talent his way so he could interview them. In a studio he built in the basement of his mom’s house, Sparks met some of the biggest names in hip hop (Common, Eminem, and Wu-Tang Clan, to name a few) recorded interviews for radio, and collaborated.
Sparks would go on to establish several businesses including the biggest mixtape and urban ecommerce website called MixUnit, which further exposed his work and helped a number of up-and-coming stars get the exposure they needed to break out. His star continued to rise in the early 2000s, working at several high-level marketing jobs, all while continuing to host radio shows, write songs, and produce music.
Over the next two decades, Sparks would find success as a C-level marketing and business development executive at multiple companies, including all-over-printing apparel ecommerce site RageOn!, multi-platform urban apparel web retailer Karmaloop, online footwear retailer iSlide, and advanced video surveillance systems and software applications company IC Realtime for more than 16 years. He also spent seven years promoting Cîroc Vodka at house shows, in music videos, and anywhere else he could as an official brand ambassador.
It’s important to highlight at least some of Sparks’ accomplishments over the years: he helped Eminem launch his uncensored Sirius XM radio show Shade 45, served as P Diddy’s tour DJ, was a TV personality on E! News for five years, built his own syndicated radio show in 22 markets, produced multiple platinum albums (with Ludacris, Pitbull, Akon, Lady Gaga, and many others), discovered and signed DJ Snake and connected him with Lil Jon resulting in one of the biggest records of the decade (Turn Down for What), served as vice president for Dash Radio, and signed two major record deals with Interscope Records and Republic Records… as a singer.
FaZe in, FaZe Out
Flash forward to January 2018. Long-time friend and business associate Greg Selkoe called Sparks to tell him about an opportunity to work with a team called FaZe Clan that wanted to become a bonafide business by raising some capital. At the time he didn’t really know what Selkoe was talking about with this esports stuff, but he trusted his friends’ instincts on things, so he hopped in his car and drove to meet the FaZe guys.
After spending a week with management looking into the business and brainstorming with Selkoe, Sparks took on the role of VP of business development and started working on bringing together the culture he loved with this talented group of people. Over the next two-and-a-half years, Sparks would bring in some of the biggest hip hop talent in the world into FaZe as investors including Pitbull, Swae Lee, Yo Gotti, DJ Paul, Ray J, Big Boy, Offset, and many others. Behind the scenes, Sparks also helped raise millions in investment, worked on marketing and business development, and helped bring both endemic and non-endemic brands into the FaZe fold.
Working with some of FaZe’s management wasn’t always smooth sailing for Sparks, who sometimes felt like his ideas on activations, marketing, and diversity were not heard or simply misunderstood, despite his experience. Even as some of his ideas were sometimes dismissed, Sparks continued helping to bring some of the biggest names in hip hop to FaZe and raised millions of dollars for the organization.
Things shifted for Sparks, Selkoe (who was serving as president at the time), and Vice President Of Apparel/Special Projects Wil Eddins in July of 2020, when they decided they wanted to do something different in esports.
Seeing that esports and gaming have a diversity problem and weren’t doing much to promote social good, Selkoe, Sparks, Eddins, and Framerate founder Marco Mereu teamed up to start a new company, and in July of 2020, XSET was officially launched. In announcing the new organization, Selkoe told The New York Times that most esports organizations look more like frat houses, and don’t do much to represent their diverse audiences.
“Gamers are from all walks of life and all backgrounds. But if you look at the current organizations, they sort of resemble a frat house. They’re not reflective of the racial and gender diversity in the gaming world.”
At launch, the company announced its first swath of signings including several professional Fortnite players (Alexander “AV” Vanderveen, Tyler “KnightFN” McDougal, and Ethan “Rogueshark” Kammerman); esports host and producer Erin Ashley Simon (who later became an investor); Miami Dolphins Linebacker Kyle Van Noy, 14-year-old female skateboarding pro Minna Stess; Call of Duty content creator Jordan “Proofy” Cannon; TikTok gaming personality Ashley “AshleyBTW” Morales; Call of Duty: Warzone pro player Cory “Bartonologist” Barton, and Valorant player Zander “Thwifo” Kimand.
In August of 2020, XSET signed its first partnership – a two-year deal with lifestyle sports nutrition brand GHOST, and in October it signed Swae Lee as its first celebrity investor. In November, BMX pro rider Nigel Sylvester also joined the XSET family. XSET’s other partners include gaming chair maker Respawn and Wahlburgers, the burger restaurant owned by Mark, Paul, and Donnie Wahlberg.
XSET also made a major move towards promoting diversity with the signing of an all-women world champion CS:GO team at the end of 2020.
XSET looks to accelerate its investments, partnerships, and other avenues of revenue in 2021, and Sparks has hinted that some major deals will be announced in the coming months that will set the organization on a path to building the new blueprint of what gaming can be. More importantly, Sparks hopes to see the ideas he pushed for at FaZe come to fruition, and with a team that understands him and respects his counsel, it’s highly probable that will happen.
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