Capturing the Facebook Flag: Harvard, Yale Students Launch Rival “Social Online Sports” Companies

How to Build a Web Startup: Step 1: Get into a prestigious university like Yale, Harvard, or Stanford. Step 2: Organize some kind of Web-mediated event or service, and get a few thousand of your fellow students to participate. Step 3: Start answering the calls from venture capitalists and online advertisers.

It worked for Facebook, and now it seems to be working for two separate Internet companies, GoCrossCampus and Kirkland North, that have sprung up to commercialize the concept behind Old Campus Tree Risk, a team-based online strategy game staged by a group of Yale undergrads in early 2007.

Both companies’ systems help college groups and other organizations mount simulated, massively multiplayer campaigns to conquer “territory” such as the campus green—or the entire Northeast, in the case of an Ivy League championship run by GoCrossCampus last fall. The games resemble the classic board games Risk or Diplomacy, but with the board transposed onto online maps representing real geographies inhabited by the players, and with the action coordinated in a combination of online sessions and real-world team meetings.

GoCrossCampus calls the new genre “locally social online sports.” And it’s catching on fast: at Yale, 3,300 undergrads—60 percent of the student body—participated in the first game of Old Campus Tree Risk. Some 11,000 students from eight schools joined GoCrossCampus’s Ivy League championship (which was won by Princeton), and a recent game sponsored by Kirkland North at Stanford involved 750 students.

Now Kirkland North and GoCrossCampus seem poised for a skirmish of their own. Both companies credit Facebook and other online social networking systems for salvaging the Web from geekdom and making it a part of mainstream campus social life—but both acknowledge that there probably isn’t room on the market for two companies offering campus-centered, map-based strategy games (just as there wasn’t room at Harvard for both Facebook and its early competitor, ConnectU).

A somewhat sensationalistic blog post last week by TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington fanned the flames of the rivalry by saying that Kirkland North’s founders felt GoCrossCampus had stolen their business idea. That has some people directly comparing the rivalry to the extended legal battle between ConnectU and Facebook, in which the smaller company has accused Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg of stealing its basic software code to launch his own business. But both gaming companies, reached by Xconomy over the weekend, tried to extinguish the fracas.

Map from GoCrossCampus’s Ivy League ChampionshipArrington, after the March 21 publication of a New York Times article extolling GoCrossCampus, wrote that “The Kirkland North guys are obviously irate over what they see as a blatant rip-off of their idea.” But judging from my interview with GoCrossCampus CEO and co-founder Brad Hargreaves, a Yale senior, it’s clear that the GoCrossCampus team was the first to leverage the campus-strategy-game idea into a business. In fact, Hargreaves says he invited Gabe Smedresman, the inventor of Old Campus Tree Risk, to join the project well before Smedresman and several Harvard students founded Kirkland North.

Hargreaves recounted the course of events around March 2007, as the first game of Old Campus Tree Risk was winding down: “I was president of the Yale Entrepreneurial Society at that time, and I said, ‘Hey, this is really cool, I think it could make a great Internet business.’ So one other friend and I reached out to Gabe and said, ‘Hey man, do you want to start a company?’ He was pretty skeptical about how you would turn it into a company. And he was going to work full-time for Google the next year. So he wished us luck, and that was the last we heard of him for a while.”

Hargreaves and four friends—Matthew Brimer, Sean Mehra, and Jeff Reitman from Yale, and Isaac Silverman from Columbia—pushed ahead with GoCrossCampus, starting from code that Smedresman had released … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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One response to “Capturing the Facebook Flag: Harvard, Yale Students Launch Rival “Social Online Sports” Companies”

  1. Justin Savage says:

    I would just like to point out an incorrect statement

    “at Yale, 3,300 undergrads—60 percent of the student body—participated in the first game of Old Campus Tree Risk”

    I have 40 accounts at GXC, while some of my friends have up to 200, that way we individually have more power.

    To say 60% of the campus plays is downright wrong. There are perhaps 80 of us who see the glory of GXC, and to associate us with those losers gives all of us a bad name.

    – Justin