The of $4 billion spinning brand marks the rise of a wave of interactive fitness startups like , , , and that combine a monthly subscription to recorded and/or live video classes with workout hardware. There’s opportunity beyond this initial “ for X” model, however, when you look at where the gamification of at-home workout experiences can overlap with actual games. We’re in the midst of rapid , the , the . The virtual cycling business is a five-year-old startup that has as a pioneer of fitness-gaming ― physical sport carried out in a virtual world. Athletes join together for group rides and races within a cycling game that hooks up to their own bike trainers at home in order to reflect their movements and physical exertion. Since users are represented as players within a social game, there is the benefit of network effects, opportunities for a in-game commerce, and audience viewing of the competition. I recently sat with Eric Min, CEO and co-founder, at the company’s London office. We discussed why he founded Zwift and how the product has evolved, the potential revenue streams available to an interactive fitness brand, and Zwift’s rise as an esport with ambitions to enter the Olympics. Here’s the transcript: Eric Peckham (TechCrunch): Do you view Zwift as a fitness company or as a gaming company where the bike trainer is just a controller? Eric Min (Zwift): We’re the fitness company born out of gaming. While we’re a fitness brand, we’re also a game and social network, two things that are converging rapidly right now. What we’re trying to do, though, is build this social network around real-time experiences, physical experiences, and I think that’s far more interesting. Crucial to that is being hardware agnostic though. We work with a lot of equipment out there so our users can come to the game easily.
, the company that owns esports org and the Overwatch League’s Toronto Defiant team, have announced that (real name: Abel Tesfaye) has invested in the company. In the world of esports, OAM is a big organization — the Toronto-based company, which launched in 2017, has teams in the League of Legends European Championship, Call of Duty World League, Rocket League, Starcraft and Smite. OAM is one of only five esports orgs in the world with permanent slots both in League of Legends and the Overwatch League. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, here’s a look at one of the Toronto Defiant’s recent Overwatch League games. The terms of the investment were not disclosed, but it would appear that The Weeknd will be contributing to some marketing efforts and building brand awareness around Splyce and the Toronto Defiant. “Abel’s standing in the music industry will provide our Toronto Defiant and Splyce brands the opportunity to reach more fans and engage new audiences,” said OAM CEO and president Chris Overholt. The release also mentions that Toronto Defiant fans will see “unique joint efforts” with The Weeknd throughout the 2019 Overwatch League seasons. Here’s what The Weeknd had to say, via the release: As a big esports fan, I am really excited to be involved in this project. I am looking forward to collaborating with OverActive Media in unique and innovative ways. The Weeknd is not the first musical artist to invest in an esports org. Drake and Scooter Braun in esports company 100 Thieves in October of 2018.
Drake’s latest collaboration isn’t with Kanye or Kendrick, it’s with Marissa Mayer. The rap superstar has joined a bevy of Silicon Valley investors, including Strauss Zelnick, Comcast, Macro Ventures, Canaan, RRE, Courtside and Marissa Mayer, to fund , an esports startup looking to pit gamers against each other in their favorite titles with some friendly wagers on the line. The startup has just that it closed $3 million in funding. The company, which has been around for five years, got its start as an esports startup looking to organize real-life matches at bars in New York City to play FIFA. That’s obviously not the most scalable business of all time, but last year after joining Y Combinator, the company really dove into a new model that looked to create an online hub for gamers to battle each other in titles of their choosing, with money on the line. The company has a heavy emphasis on sports titles, like FIFA 19, NBA 2K19 and Madden 19, but there are also some heavy hitters like Fortnite, Apex Legends and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. Gamers can set a match or join one in head-to-head challenges or in massive 500-person tournaments. The wagers are often a buck or two but can swell much higher. Players’ Lounge takes 10 percent of the bets as a fee. Because it’s a game of skill, not chance, there aren’t many issues with gambling regulations, though a few states still don’t allow the service, the company says. The startup plans to use their new cash to beef up their library of playable games and add to their development team.
Epic Games, maker of the ultra popular Battle Royale game Fortnite, is in prize cash for competitive tournaments in 2019. The company made waves in the esports world last year, announcing for the 2018 competitive year, dwarfing every other competitive title in one fell swoop. This year, a significant portion of the $100 million will be awarded to participants of the first-ever Fortnite World Cup. Each of the 200 players who qualify and compete will walk away with at least $50,000, with the winner taking home $3 million. The Fortnite World Cup will take place July 26 – 28 in New York City, offering $30 million total in prizes. One-hundred of the top solo players will be invited, along with the top 50 duos teams. So how do you get in on this? Fortnite is holding weekly open online qualifiers, each worth $1 million, from April 13th to June 16th. Eligible players who consistently place well will have a shot at being one of those top 200 players. This announcement comes at an interesting time for Fortnite. While the game still reigns supreme in terms of popularity, other Battle Royale games are picking up traction. Apex Legends (an EA and Respawn title), in particular, is growing in popularity. Several of the top streamers, including Ninja, Shroud, Timthetatman, High Distortion and Annemunition have started playing more Apex and participated in the first . Keeping the attention of these streamers is surely a priority for Fortnite, and for a game that pulls in some in in-game purchases, spending $100 million a year is a small price to pay.
A screenshot from Exato Games’s Elo Hell. A term that describes video game frustration has itself inspired a game from a Seattle-based independent studio. is a new narrative-based adventure from . Not sure what “Elo hell” is? “Elo hell” is a slang term from video games like League of Legends, where a player is prevented from advancing through their bracket due to bad matchups or unskilled teammates. A lot of players assume the “Elo” is an acronym, but it’s actually the name of the physics professor, , who invented a ranking system for use in competitive chess. Under the hood, many modern video games’ matchmaking systems (and ) still use Elo’s math. Some players and developers consider Elo hell a myth, or an excuse that lets a player blame a personal lack of success on external circumstances. Others will , born out of glitches in the system or problems with a game’s community. Now comes the game Elo Hell. If it sounds familiar and you attended PAX West this year, odds are you made it up to the sixth floor of the Washington State Convention Center, and you noticed Exato’s homemade-looking . In Elo Hell, which is built in Unreal, you play as a high school senior named Chance Betzinger. Chance is about to embark upon a potential career as a professional player of the brand-new strategy game Echo Star. E-sports tend to be a team activity, so Chance’s relationships with his friends and fellow players will play a major role in his path to the top, in the spirit of choice-based narrative games such as Life is Strange. If you support your buddy Jeff, for example, he’ll be a solid source of backup in-game when you play Elo Hell. If you decide you’d rather hang out with Brian, Jeff’s “frenemy,” then Jeff won’t be as interested. However, when Chance sits down to play Echo Star, it’s not abstracted out into a minigame or dealt with as an invisible skill challenge. You as Chance actually play Echo Star, a real-time strategy game with a few MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena) elements that’s packed into Elo Hell. The skill with which you play Echo Star determines the success or failure of Chance’s e-sports ambitions. John Getty and Angelina Tsimberov of Exato Games, staffing the Elo Hell booth at this year’s PAX West. (Thomas Wilde Photo) “You cannot tell somebody what Elo hell is without making an e-sports title,” said John Getty, the lead game designer and writer on Elo Hell. “It needs to be something strategic, something that makes people think at a macro, high level. It can’t be doing a brain-dead minigame to get to the next bit of dialogue.” “The whole concept of Elo Hell is in the struggle, and if we want to properly present its philosophy, games in Elo Hell need to be real, challenging games,” he said. “Even our mini games within the episode, representing stuff that the character is doing in real life, are challenging in different ways.” The idea is that the difficulties of the gameplay in Elo Hell will reinforce the feel of Chance’s narrative. At one point during our conversation, Getty referred to Elo Hell as the ”Dark Souls of narrative games”; he wants the final product to be accessible, but to still pose an actual test of the player’s abilities, in the same spirit as David Cage’s notoriously difficult adventure game Heavy Rain. The tagline on Elo Hell is that it’s an “e-sports sitcom.” It’s intended to be both funny and a reasonably accurate representation of how it feels to try to go from nothing to professional in the 2018 e-sports scene. Several professional players and streamers, such as , are involved as voice actors, and Getty has worked hard to make the game feel authentic to the actual modern e-sports experience. “The first season of Elo Hell is focusing on what brings the main character to his light bulb moment, of saying, ‘I wanna go pro in Echo Star,’” Getty said. “What triggers him to do that, what kind of butterfly effect springs into that moment.” “Then, after that, it’s a bit of him fumbling around trying to figure out what he wants to do while also trying to balance his preexisting duties in life,” he said. “He needs to figure out where he’s going to go to college. His friends are all involved, and he’s telling them his plans. What are their reactions to that? Are they going to be supportive or not?” At the time I spoke to Getty, he was working on forming a partnership between Exato Games and the , the University of Washington’s e-sports team, in order to make the experience of being a collegiate e-sports athlete as realistic as possible. Specifically, the lack of an actual talent pipeline in e-sports will present much of the challenge in Elo Hell. “Even League of Legends has its top 200 on the leaderboards, and the professional teams don’t really have access to the personal information of those players,” Getty said. “They can’t just go to Riot and ask, ‘Can we have the contact information for the top two?’ They have to figure out how to get to them, or the players have to figure out how to get to play for the team.” Getty says it’s a disconnect that physical sports solve by having the high school pipeline. “There just isn’t any good way for people to scout talent in the e-sports industry, because there aren’t arenas in amateur e-sports,” he said. “They’re just behind the computers. So how do you pull them out of the crowd? We’re going to represent that networking steps that you have to take, and show you some of the different events that you have to go to as a pro gamer. They’re not necessarily going to be the way to do it, but they represent a possible step.” At the moment, Elo Hell has a demo up on Steam Early Access which provides a small taste of the narrative, as well as a relatively full-featured version of Echo Star. Its first full episode is slated for release in the summer of 2019.