One of the most interesting aspects of the rise of eSports is the potential it would appear to offer for true disruption, not only with regard to betting but across the whole space. A whole new milieu has been formed and companies are being formed out of this from the teams to the leagues, from associations and organisations on to data providers and, of course, betting operators. As much as we know that mainstream betting operators are themselves smelling the opportunities that are presented by eSports, it is also the case that in terms of startups we have seen a flurry of activity from eSports-only businesses which themselves spy the opportunity to grab a slice of the action. One such company which has already been around for a couple of years and looks set to position itself as one of the leading eSports-only betting operators is the Seattle-based Unikrn. GamCrowd took the opportunity to catch up with chief executive and founder Rahul Sood to chat through his hopes for the company and why he thinks that an eSports specialist will have more success in attracting an audience that is already attuned to the prospect of being able to wager on the activity. But first, we talked about the technology challenges that comes with eSports and why it would be wrong to treat betting on eSports in the same way you would with other traditional sports.
GamCrowd: What was the technology challenge when you founded Unikrn?
Rahul Sood: First of all, when you think about eSports in general and what it means with the wagering industry, the possibilities are incredible. If you look at traditional sports and look at how they build odds, it’s pretty straightforward. You watch a football match, you have people sending out live data about the game and that is being put into live-betting scenarios. With eSports a lot of the data can be pulled digitally, rather than being watched. That’s the odds-making side. Then on the skill side, there are lots of opportunities. A previous company of mine, PlayAll, we acquired it. We built skill-based betting years ago, 2009, so the biggest challenge is focus. What do you focus on first? And then how do you take the data you are getting and produce it into meaningful insights and meaningful content and also meaningful odds. Odds that actually work. It’s not easy. It’s very fragmented. There are multiple tournament providers, multiple publishers, multiple games and teams tend to change very quickly in the space. Players come and go. It’s fast-moving and a very early and nascent space. Our biggest challenge is to be able to gather all that information, automate the processes and build the algorithms and the technology that we’ve built to do that. We’ve done a pretty good job on that. We have something called Unikrn.io, which is an engine that we are building that gathers statistics from all sort of eSports matches, teams, historical data, live data, we can open and close matches automatically. There is stuff we are doing that no one else has seen in this business before.
GamCrowd: So you are matching the data capability with the betting capability? This isn’t something that traditional betting companies have is it?
Rahul Sood: Yes, that’s the first step. And the second step is that we are building a brand and a community and a fanbase within eSports that a typical betting company just doesn’t have. They will take odds and put it on with the rest of their line-up but they don’t know the community and we do. We’ve invested in lots of areas of gaming and eSports. We invested in Maingear; we have the investment in BIG (a new eSports team). We continue to make acquisitions in the space and we are developing the community because it is a very young eco-system. They need leadership and companies to help build this space.
GamCrowd: I guess one mistake would be to believe this is going to develop like other sports?
Rahul Sood: Yes, it’s a big mistake. That’s true. It’s not going to be like other sports. I saw something about the NBA saying they want to attract Millennials by shortening the games because they think that will help because, according to their analysis, the Millennials haven’t got the attention span. But that’s wrong. They will spend six or nine hours playing video games. It’s not true they don’t have the attention span. They tend to do things in online communities, they tend to want to talk to others while playing the game. They are very social. So, eSports is definitely not going to be like real sports.
GamCrowd: So as much as a technology challenge this is a cultural challenge?
Rahul Sood: Yes, it’s a huge cultural challenge. And yes, it’s both. Were partnered with Tabcorp, one of the largest publically-traded betting companies in the world. And very forward-thinking. So we set up this office on Sydney to help change the culture and to help them get really excited about this space. But yes, it is a cultural challenge and when you have a group of misfit gamers trying to infect a traditional horse-racing betting culture. It’s really interesting.
GamCrowd: Can you explain the eSports ecosystem to us? And your relationship with them?
Rahul Sood: Yes, there are teams such as Cloud Nine and Fnatic. There are the publishers – Riot, Valve and maybe Activision because of Blizzard and Overwatch. The publishers can take as much or as little control and they need. Then there are the tournament providers ESL, MLG. But Riot and Valve both do their own tournaments and Activision is looking at doing its own tournaments for Overwatch, with their own leagues. When I look at the parallels, Valve is pretty cool and has been the most open with its APIs. But Riot has a much more closed system. They want to control the experience from beginning to end. They remind me of Ferrari. Riot has the team, the products and the brand. We have relationships with all the companies. But the extent of the relationship depends on the type of work we do. Because we produce really great content, and things like, that, we get a lot of support from them there. But on the wagering side, they are much more hands-off. They can’t really associate with wagering. They have a lot of children who play the games. At the beginning they were adverse to what we do; now they are more ambivalent because they know we bring in more viewers and engagement. It’s a mix.
GamCrowd: What is the future for eSports generally and specifically when it comes to the potential for VR?
Rahul Sood: I think there are possibilities there. We’ve looked at VR and the skill gaming on the casino floor. With eSports it’s not different. We could be embedded in the game, maybe looking at the game through one of the leading participants. It’s something we have looked at. I’d like to see us in a physical casino; for us it is important for a number of reasons. Branding. Plus we think the casino business could really do with eSports. The slot industry is dying, and there is an opportunity is some of those areas. To make it a much more exciting experience for a different demographic from the current slots demographic. The second thing is we see ore titles coming into play and we’ll be supporting them and we will be opening up into more markets.