This Real-Life 'Rudy' Gets Players Paid - OZY | A Modern Media Company
Notre Dame football player Mick Assaf's YOKE Gaming connects pro athletes with fans, and could soon be a financial boon to college athletes.

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because college athletes could market themselves as celebrity gamers.

By Andrew Mentock

On a cool October 2017 night inside Notre Dame Stadium, Mick Assaf donned his gold helmet and ran onto the field during a 49-14 rout of USC. A sophomore walk-on running back, Assaf was an unlikely sight to take meaningful snaps, especially against the No. 11 Trojans led by Heisman contender Sam Darnold at quarterback. But the moment quickly passed and, outside of sharing a few spirited words on the field with a USC backup defender, Assaf’s performance that evening was forgettable. He didn’t record a single meaningful stat. None of his teammates carried him off the field.

Of course they didn’t. But they might have: That same fairy-tale scenario had already played out at Notre Dame once, when teammates lifted 1975 walk-on Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger onto their shoulders after he recorded an end-of-game sack against Georgia Tech. This moment would become immortalized as the climactic scene in the 1993 film Rudy, loosely based on events from Ruettiger’s life. Rudy wasn’t a box office hit, but the film has stood the test of time and plays constantly on TV. He’s even on the minds of legislators: At a recent Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on student athletes profiting off their own names and likeness, Sen. Lindsey Graham mused, “I thought of Rudy. The guy never played but got to be a social phenomenon.” 

With YOKE, playing video games could become Uber or DoorDash for college athletes.

While every marginally athletic walk-on would love to become a “social phenomenon” and collect six-figure endorsement deals because of it, Assaf knows that won’t be the reality for the majority of football players, even those on scholarship. According to an estimate from The Athletic, Ohio State’s former five-star offensive tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere would only make $880 a year off his Instagram account. Still, thanks to the same grit and confidence he showed on the football field, Assaf has put himself in a unique position to help all student-athletes profit from their name, image and likeness (aka NIL) once the NCAA changes its bylaws.

Much of the NIL debate has focused on players appearing in video games, but what about playing them? While still a special teams player and backup running back for Notre Dame, Assaf co-founded YOKE Gaming, an app that connects fans with some of their favorite athletes in order to compete against one another in popular video games. 

In less than a year, YOKE has partnered with more than 500 professional athletes spanning the NFL, MLB and NBA, all of whom are looking to make some extra cash and engage with their fans through popular leisure activities, such as Madden NFL 21, Fortnite, and Warzone for PS4 and Xbox. All fans have to do is buy YOKE Coins, challenge one of the online participating athletes to a game (for Madden, this costs about $5) and, if the professional athlete accepts, the fan then joins them on video chat as they play with or against each other online.

Mick Assaf

Notable athletes gaming with YOKE include Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside, Texas Rangers first baseman Ronald Guzmán, and several 2020 NFL first-round selections such as New York Giants left tackle Andrew Thomas and Denver Broncos wide receiver Jerry Jeudy — who’s such a competitor on Madden that he’s one of a handful of YOKE athletes who have given fans who beat him a signed jersey. Assaf, co-founder Bailey O’Sullivan and CFO Nic Weishar (a former scholarship tight end for the Fighting Irish) have also signed up a handful of college football players who’ve opted out of the 2020 season and are now left to fend for themselves as they prepare for the 2021 NFL draft. This includes projected top-10 picks like Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons and Miami defensive tackle Gregory Rousseau. Player compensation rates are murky, though, as YOKE continues market testing.

For the time being, NCAA athletes violate their eligibility requirements if they work through the platform, even if they’re not getting paid. “We called the NCAA, and there’s a lot of room for interpretation,” Assaf says, pointing out that “no one’s stopping people from using Snapchat or Instagram or a lot of other social platforms.” But once those barriers are lifted — the NCAA is targeting fall 2021, with Congress also jumping into the fray with a bipartisan bill Assaf foresees his platform appealing to college athletes hoping to make money off their own reputations. Between strict team schedules and academics, most student-athletes don’t have the time or flexibility to work. With YOKE, playing video games could become Uber or DoorDash for college athletes. They’ll be able to log in at their convenience, play with fans for an hour or two and make a modest profit from the experience. 

Assaf grew up in Atlanta and is one of five boys. He originally committed to play football at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but he was introduced to the Notre Dame coaching staff when they recruited one of his high school teammates. He made a good enough impression to be invited to walk onto the team without a scholarship — a dream for a kid whose older brothers both attended Notre Dame. “I had to call the MIT coach and tell him I was gonna go to Notre Dame,” Assaf said. “He didn’t get that very often, but he understood.”

Though he’s an extreme example, Assaf, 22, knows the struggle of trying to find time to work as a student-athlete. He had planned to play his fifth and final season for the Fighting Irish this fall. But as the COVID-19 pandemic left people with a lot of time on their hands, YOKE was thriving in a way Assaf did not expect so soon. “I was able to work on YOKE 80 hours a week, and you can’t really do that when you’re playing college football,” he says. So Assaf hung up his cleats. 

“He was among the best, if not the best [practice] player that we’ve had that I can remember in my time here at Notre Dame. We’re going to miss him,” says head coach Brian Kelly. “It was a difficult decision for him, but he’s got a thriving business that he’s created in YOKE Gaming, and we understand that.”

Now fully committed to YOKE, Assaf is well equipped to navigate the soon-to-be changing NCAA landscape and partner with all sorts of college athletes. “Mick” might not get the marquee billing of Notre Dame’s most famous walk-on, but he could end up doing far more for the next generation of Rudys.

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