“My name is Reggie. I'm about kickin' ass, I'm about takin' names, and we're about makin' games.”
These were the words uttered by then industry newcomer Reggie Fils-Aimé while standing on Nintendo’s stage during the Electronic Gaming Expo (E3) in 2004.
Fils-a-what? “Ass”? Who the heck was this guy?
These were likely the thoughts of any soda-addled hyperfan who was purposely tuning into a video game conference in the year 2004. They were mine, at least. And here are the answers:
The name is “Reggie Fils-Aimé”. “Reginald”, actually. His last name is French, and his parents, Haitian. And in case you didn’t notice, he’s black. Yes, he said “ass” (although it was not his idea). And he was then Executive Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Nintendo, brought on to do one thing: sell Nintendo. In the 15 years since, Reggie, as the general public has come to know him on a first name basis, has done nothing else but sell Nintendo. (He famously dedicated his body to the cause.)
He sold Nintendo in 2004, when not a lot of people were buying Nintendo. He sold Nintendo in 2006, when seemingly nobody was lucky enough to get their hands on a Nintendo product – for years. And later, by the end of the 2010s when nobody was buying Nintendo anymore, he eventually figured out how to sell Nintendo once more, today leaving Nintendo in one of their best financial and critical places in decades, thanks to the Nintendo Switch console.
Now, Reggie will finally sell Nintendo no more. He announced his retirement from the company on February 21, 2019, effective mid-April.
To really appreciate the gravity of his departure, you have to understand what he did for his company. Really, this is evidenced by the fact that you are reading a feature article about a retiring COO on an enthusiast website, not a business one.
His are pretty big shoes, and not just literally. How big, exactly? Fils-Aimé helped translate Nintendo into the modern era. In doing so, he helped shape the overall gaming industry. And by doing that, he changed how people could feel connected to a corporation.
Objectively speaking, everywhere Reggie ever went, he didn’t only matter, he made other things matter. (Fascinatingly, it didn’t even seem to matter what that thing was.)
Here is what Reggie sold in the ‘80s-’90s, up until he joined Nintendo in the early 2000s:
- Healthcare, beauty, and home supplies. Out of college, he rose through the system to become the brand manager at Proctor & Gamble.
- Pizza. He helped popularize “The Bigfoot Pizza” over at Pizza Hut, in fact.
- Beer. He took the Guinness brand and sold it worldwide.
- Bikes and Chinese food. He directed eight totally different brands at Derby Cycle Co.
- Music. Maybe his most famous “baseball card stat”: Reggie was reportedly responsible for a 30% increase in viewership by shifting the channel’s demographics towards a younger audience with original programming, now standard practice in the music entertainment industry.
In the marketing world, Fils-Aimé was no secret. (Wikipedia has him good for six different major marketing awards, including Advertising Age naming him to the “Marketing 100” in 1998.)
Reggie’s Impact on Nintendo
On the strength of that resume was how Reggie began his Nintendo chapter. It makes sense; if you were hiring someone to market a large brand that has a parent company in another country, you’d want someone with experience bridging brands across multiple markets. Yet what Reggie probably didn’t realize then as a 45-year-old was just how instrumental he himself was going to become to that cause.
Sure, there existed figureheads like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. But especially before the era of Twitter and YouTube, it was usually game creators, not game execs, who stuck in people’s minds. After Reggie, no longer.
Let's review Reggie's premier, and why it changed things at Nintendo for good.
“So let’s get a couple things straight right off the bat,” confidently began Reggie from his first major appearance for Nintendo at E3 2004. “...I understand, if you’re among the terminally hip, Nintendo isn’t your only choice for gaming.” Brutal. He then went on to dictate Nintendo’s philosophy the company still uses to this day when he immediately followed up, “We’re not going to run our company just for hardcore gamers.” Even worse! This was not an easy sell in his first year with Nintendo, when image was everything. However, given he had just introduced a sizzle reel of games that included Resident Evil, Star Fox and Metroid, franchises all strongly associated with the “terminally hip”, it’s safe to say that seeds of acceptance were being cross-contaminated with mass appeal.
Reggie premiered the Nintendo DS (a system that would go on to become one of the highest-selling devices in modern electronics history), then teased their next console, the Nintendo Wii. Finally, Nintendo ended that show with arguably the most excitatory reveal in E3 history: a trailer for the game Zelda: Twilight Princess. It was a game that looked every bit the part of what people wanted from Nintendo at the time: gritty and realistic, not old-fashioned or childish.
Why focus on this first appearance for Nintendo? Here, his ultimate goal was to introduce the next era of Nintendo products in a positive light to hardcore media critics who, at that point, had largely written the company off in favour of competitors Sony and Microsoft. A scary task. People take for granted how elegantly he helped accomplish what many within the petering out GameCube-era thought was impossible.
Today, many feel 2004 was the company’s boldest in their history. Yet in retrospect, it’s truer that it was simply a year where a new face was spoon-feeding people “same old Nintendo”: that is, experimental, toy-like devices and Zelda and Metroid games, but spoken to them in their language.
Reggie sold people on Nintendo all over again.
This is precisely what Reggie did for Nintendo for 15 years: “translating” Nintendo’s actions, then selling them. And in doing so, he helped not just sell products, but make “Nintendo” a brand again.
Appreciate that Fils-Aimé guided the company through lucrative fads like 3D, motion controls, and toys-to-life, and was at the helm of the company during the dawn of both the online and esports eras. Take note on how he leveraged Nintendo’s massive back catalogue of old video games in such a way that the company could not only take it all away between hardware releases, but have customers begging to resell it back to them. He put his neck out for risks, too. Some, like Nintendo TVii and Wii U Chat, didn’t pan out. Others, like “StreetPass” functionality or cardboard gaming, did just fine.
And when Nintendo needed his guidance the most following the loss of their CEO Satoru Iwata to cancer in 2015, Reggie successfully steered Nintendo through two projects that were initially bridled with uncertainty: the Nintendo Switch, as well as what would become Pokémon GO for mobile. Not to mention he also personally issued a remembrance for their CEO on live TV (Unfortunately, Reggie had some professional experience to draw from even in this sector; he was actually in charge for all marketing for the Paul McCartney-led charity concert in New York City back in 2001, which took place only a month after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It garnered more than $35 million in disaster relief).
From day one, and two years later with Fils-Aimé as president, Nintendo never strayed from a tradition of risks, bold character, and leadership – all qualities difficult to scale to a company Nintendo’s size.
Reggie’s Effect on the Gaming Industry
It was in October of 2011 when Reggie sent us all a video to ask us a simple question: “What’s wrong with you?”
That question, you might expect, was directed to people who did not yet own a Nintendo 3DS, Nintendo’s latest hardware at the time. The message came in the form of a YouTube video uploaded by Nintendo themselves. It was a new attempt to talk directly to their customers.
This first video was, admittedly, a bit stiff. In contrast, the preceding eight years of videos set a new standard at Nintendo for goofiness, customer interaction, and transparency. When Nintendo eventually announced they were bucking the traditional yearly press conferences at E3 in favour of these “Directs”, the internet at large was initially livid. Today, yearly E3 conferences are increasingly an afterthought, while Nintendo’s online announcement videos are the things dreams are made of.
Through Nintendo Direct, greater than ever before did Reggie become the conduit between what Nintendo of Japan was doing and what Nintendo fans across the world were thinking.
Again, this was Reggie’s biggest strength, as well as parent company Nintendo’s greatest need. Admittedly, direct messaging is a strategy difficult to pull off without the appropriate “Jobs-like” figurehead. Lucky Nintendo. Before long, timely produced videos totally changed the way Nintendo interacted with their customers. In turn, developer videos posted onto YouTube have become more commonplace industry-wide indirectly because of, well, Directs.
Soon, not only was Reggie talking to YouTube fans, but he was taking his marketing show to late night talk shows, game awards, and much more. How many company presidents can you name who also ran as the primary mode of PR?
And speaking of important symbols, if not for the Nintendo Wii, Fils-Aimé’s tombstone may one day have read: “He was a black man leading a Japanese company.” In the grand context of diversity, Reggie’s presidency was not just industry-bucking, but an overall rarity in a world with so few minorities at the head of major companies. Reggie didn’t publically speak on this too often, but In an interview with Waypoint, he touched on its importance when asked about the issue of developer crunch:
...I believe the best way to lead is through example. And so what we do is reinforce with the way we encourage our business partners to act with the way that we encourage, if you will, the community that we touch.
And it's not only on work life balance. It's issues like diversity and inclusion. You know, with all of those tough conversations our mentality is that we're going to model the behavior that we want seen. So that's why I have a diverse senior management team. That's why as a black man leading a Japanese company, I feel good about the things that we do to deal with higher order issues and to deal with them in a way that models positive behavior.
Taken together, Reggie cultivated an environment of speaking directly to the people, and despite being worth an estimated $40 million, it didn’t matter to the fans: Reggie was the people.
Reggie’s Effect on Us
If this entire retrospective of a man who is simply retiring feels disproportionately like an obituary, in large part it is because Reggie’s departure is very arguably the industry’s largest resignation in many years. Fan sentiment is currently pouring in all across the internet to the tune of disbelief, frustration, and heartbreak.
He has been selling Nintendo for so long, he himself became part of Nintendo. And thanks to him, that’s the one thing everybody loves.
Through the endless memes and jokes that Nintendo uncharacteristically embraced, Reggie’s celebrity became one of the company’s greatest assets. It’s the one thing he could have never predicted when he began his tenure 15 years prior. And thankfully Nintendo never let it go to waste, as sometimes companies do after their employees become truly meme-worthy.
In his retirement video, Reggie left things a little fuzzy in terms of his future, other than to say he was going to spend more time with his family. What’s next for Reggie? Is he content to finally rest? Will he eventually move on to a brand new challenge? Are we due for another major CEO hitting the political circuit?
Whatever he does - whether it’s stay home with his family or take over the world – his track record strongly suggests that just like for Nintendo, he will find a way to make it matter.