Electronic Arts VP Found Success in a Nascent Field

Electronic Arts VP Found Success in a Nascent Field


UCLA Anderson alumnus Brian Baron (’05) immersed himself in data analytics

march 3, 2023

  • UCLA Anderson alumnus Brian Baron is VP of studio analytics at gaming platform Electronic Arts
  • With degrees in math and engineering, Baron earned his MBA and immersed himself in data analytics when it was a nascent field
  • Anderson’s curriculum gave him a competitive edge to change careers and land management roles at Toyota and Nike

Data analytics weren’t on Brian Baron’s (’05) career radar when he graduated from Morehouse College with a degree in mathematics or when he earned a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Georgia Tech. Then again, analytics as a field was in its infancy when he decided to go back to school to earn his MBA at UCLA Anderson School of Management.

Since then, even as Baron immersed himself in the nascent field of data sciences, businesses of every stripe have embraced the power of analytics, from Amazon’s online shopping bazaar to Uber’s ride-hailing service to Major League Baseball’s front offices.

Spurred by evolutions in computer technology and the internet, companies are mining the mountains of raw information that they’ve digitally unearthed in an attempt to extract nuggets of value. The goal: to glean detailed insights into consumer preferences, to be able to pivot and make better strategic decisions faster, to reap higher profits. Or all of the above.

“I never would have anticipated that analytics would be where I’d land. But with my background in mechanical engineering and math, I’d already done a lot of work in coding and done tons of consulting work,” says Baron, who now works as VP of studio analytics at Redwood City, California-based Electronic Arts (EA). “Analytics seemed to push those elements together for me — the coding, the engagement with stakeholders, and the ability and opportunity to communicate complex concepts simply to key stakeholders.”

“I would be in an entirely different space had it not been for Anderson and my opportunity to use business school as a chance to change careers.”

He describes his experience at Anderson as “phenomenal.” “I have to admit,” he says with a laugh, “I had a very poor strategy for picking a business school. For me, it was Anderson or nothing. I was, like, if I go back to business school, I’m only going to the best business school in Los Angeles.”

Baron raves about his first-year intro to marketing class at Anderson, as well as a second-year finance course called Managing the Emerging Enterprise. The experience “felt like The Matrix,” he says, referencing the sci-fi movie franchise. “You think you have things figured out, and then all of a sudden you’re learning all this new and interesting stuff that you didn’t know about the world. Through the context of those ones and zeros, the world started to make more sense to me. I kept and looked back at the business cases and notebooks from Anderson to help me navigate some of the challenges I was faced with for the first five to 10 years of my career after Anderson.”

Post-graduation, Baron discovered analytics during a rotational program at Torrance-based Toyota, back when “they had really weird names for data and analytics,” he says. “They called it the ‘Business Intelligence Competency Center,’ which was a really bad name for data science.

“That was the perfect marriage for me, and business school gave me the tools to get there. I would be in an entirely different space had it not been for Anderson and my opportunity to use business school as a chance to change careers.”

After serving as analytics manager for TFS Business Intelligence at Toyota from 2007 through 2010, Baron joined Edmunds.com as director of business analytics. He directed a 15-person cross-functional team to analyze site performance. Three years later, he left Southern California for Beaverton, Oregon-based Nike to serve as director of North American business analytics and was responsible for delivering insights and recommendations to optimize product, campaign and marketing performance on the Swoosh’s website.

Making the transition from the sprawling urban life of L.A. to slower-paced Portland wasn’t easy for Baron and his wife, but their experience “unlocked parts of us we didn’t know existed,” he says. “Hiking and exploring the Pacific Northwest were things that we didn’t do when we were city people.”

His stint at Nike was an eye-opener. “What I got to experience at Nike was love for the product and what it stood for. It’s about motion, it’s about activity, it’s about the athletes — and that was something I had never experienced prior to joining Nike,” he says. “Even at lunch, dinner, weekends, time with friends, you’d find yourself talking about the product and the job and the athletes. You’re fully committed and connected to the brand.”

As director of global retail intelligence at Nike in 2015, and in 2017 as senior director of North American integrated knowledge, Baron orchestrated a multidisciplinary analysis of the company’s website. It entailed managing the consumer, digital experience, marketing and marketplace analytics teams to identify commercial opportunities to drive revenue and consumer frequency and retention.

After five years at Nike, Baron stayed in retail as VP of omnichannel analytics for Tailored Brands (best known for its Men’s Wearhouse and Jos. A Bank stores). A year later, he moved to EA, the publisher of such popular video games as Apex Legends, FIFA Football, Madden NFL, NBA Live, Tiger Woods PGA Tour, NASCAR and The Sims. According to the company’s latest “Year in Gaming” report, EA boasts some “600 million active players and fans around the globe.”

At EA, Baron manages a team of around 350 people, working with game teams to develop or deliver insights “that optimize the process of game development for our game-makers and improve and personalize the journeys of the players who engage in our games,” he says. “The interaction between our players and our games results in data that gives us billions of observation points to leverage, either to identify insights that help us improve the speed and efficiency of game development or to help drive game engagement and revenue.”

The application of analytics to gaming has proven to be an excellent fit, according to Baron, starting with the game-development process. “Take a war game as an example,” he says after noting that he cannot discuss current EA projects in detail. “If you create a game where the players are all getting stuck at one spot, and they’re getting sniped and stop playing, then we can leverage that data to make sure that there are fewer points of interaction that result in a negative experience that takes them out of the game. Because, ultimately, you’re designing for fun, for deeper content engagement that players enjoy.”

“Focus on meeting consumer demand and make sure that players can play how they want to play, when they want to play. Make sure they can have unified and personalized experiences.”

With EA, Baron has recaptured that kind of all-in spirit he experienced at Nike. “I’ve found that, at EA, people here love the brand and they love the products,” he said. “I played video games as a kid and loved video games. Madden and NBA Live were big titles for me when I was younger. NBA Live almost got me in trouble at Anderson because I was playing video games when I should have been studying for my economics exam.”

EA remains on a hybrid schedule in the post-COVID era, allowing Baron to work from home in the Bay Area or at a nearby satellite office and eschewing the long commute to the main office most days. Still, he has little free time to play video games these days, although he admits, “When I take a break and grab a glass of water, I play games on my phone. And, yes, Pac-Man is still one of my favorites.”

Now, his two young children (ages 10 and 5) have become his personal product testers. “What I try to do is watch them play,” he says, “so I can understand my company’s products better as well as learn about what our competitors are doing.”

With analytics now so ubiquitous at every corporation, Baron contends that one of the major challenges in the field is not so much the accumulation of big data, but how to distill that information into smaller, manageable insights that promote engagement and increase sales. “It’s easy as an analyst to get stuck in the many billions of rows of data and focus on the methodology you took to conduct the analysis,” he says, “instead of focusing on the outcomes, actions and recommendations for your stakeholders. It’s getting the latter that is most valuable to the people you’re working with. They really don’t care about the methodology.”

His advice to students and post-grads who are contemplating entering the field — UCLA Anderson offers an MBA concentration in marketing analytics and its Master of Science in Business Analytics program ranks second globally — is to focus on communication skills. “A lot of people moving into the analytics space have more evolved skill sets than many of the professionals in this function had 10 years ago,” he says. “They know how to run business intelligence software like Sequel. But the communication gap is bigger: the ability to take complex ideas and data and turn them into simple concepts and insights that your stakeholders understand.”

Or, as he summarizes it, “Being able to very succinctly explain in one picture or one number or one word the story that you’re trying to tell.”

As the video game industry continues to mature (estimated revenue: $200 billion, with some three billion users worldwide), experts are predicting that gaming’s next evolution will revolve around technological advances. “There’s a lot of discussion around Meta and VR and how that will impact gaming,” Baron says. “There are people who like to believe that everyone’s going to spend their entire existence in VR. That’s obviously a large potential unlock, but I think the jury’s still out on that front. There’s a lot of development to come to create better experiences in VR, and I think there’s a lot that we don’t know about how that’s going to go in that space.”

What’s most productive for gaming analysts right now, Baron says, is to “focus on meeting consumer demand and make sure that players can play how they want to play, when they want to play. Make sure they can have unified and personalized experiences.”