Contemplating E-Sports, NFL, and Fandom with Taunt CEO Ben Gilbert

(Page 2 of 2)

a social fabric outside the game.

In real sports, it’s fantasy. The NFL has grown tremendously because it’s become the reason why people get together and talk. It’s become the thing to talk about.

E-sports doesn’t lend itself well to fantasy in the traditional model because the dynamics of the games are so different. One great reason is the positions aren’t static, so you know, Russell Wilson could be playing defensive end in one game and quarterback the next. It’s tough to use that same sort of model.

So, what Taunt is doing is trying to do what fantasy did for real sports in creating the social, competitive atmosphere around the games in a way that’s appropriate for e-sports, both from an audience perspective and the game dynamic perspective.

X: And so, that means we’re both watching the same e-sports match and Taunt presents a challenge, guess what’s going to happen next?

BG: Nailed it. It’s basically real-time—that’s a major tenet of what we’re doing, because it’s a Millennial audience. It’s very non-committal, it’s very, I want the dopamine hit, I want it now.

I can just pop it open and suddenly I start seeing people that are weighing in—no, I don’t think this team is going to make a comeback, yes, I do think this team is going to make a comeback, and then being able to track who’s more right over the course of what we’re watching, and then have a little way to talk smack.

Taunt presents e-sports fans with challenges to help them socialize while watching games together. Screenshot via Taunt

X: It occurs to me that that basic model would be good for a lot of things in real time.

BG: Yeah. It’s funny, we were having that discussion last night. It’s like, well, we’re an e-sports company but, gosh there’s no reason why [not] … We’re probably not going to pursue anything but e-sports for a while.

X: Does a human moderator present the in-game challenges to e-sports fans in real time?

BG: It’s a hybrid right now. So, we do some pretty cool machine learning to figure out what are the probabilities of all the events, based on what we know so far in this game. We’ve collected over 2 million replay files of previous games and basically built a machine learning model to do win prediction and prediction of tons of micro-events throughout the game, and we use that to inform what challenges should we be presenting to people at what times, and what’s going to be the most compelling—what’s closets to even odds, what will grab people’s attention.

We aren’t far enough yet in our tech buildout to really make that an automated system, so we have game masters who are really the creative force behind what challenges go out. And these are folks who eat, sleep, and breathe the game, and are really creative and are crafting an experience for whomever is engaging with Taunt.

X: Is that a job for them? Are they getting paid?

BG: Yeah. Right now, it’s actually students from the University of Washington who are super into League of Legends. They have a thriving club up there and a collegiate team that competes. So, we’re working with a bunch of those students to basically be the entertainer and craft a narrative around the game.

X: I’m trying to look for the greater good here. Maybe it’s just entertainment, and we can have important discussions around e-sports just like we have around traditional sports. The NFL has showed us that in recent weeks. What is the broader potential impact of something like this?

BG: I think sports, broadly, is an imaginary reality that has no meaning, but we all collectively buy into it and then give it meaning. I think the thing with e-sports right now is that it’s following the exact same pattern, where those of us outside of the hardcore gamer crowd want to give it less credence because it’s digital and not physical, but to the extent that caring deeply about what a running back says and the wide publicity that goes out around that and the societal impact of their words—we’ve all just accepted the fact that that’s part of our culture and part of our society. I don’t think e-sports is going to be any different, and there’s positives and negatives associated with buying in to this imaginary story that what goes on in sports, or e-sports, is important.

There’s plenty of downsides, but from the upsides perspective, it gives people, obviously, entertainment. It gives a lot of people purpose and identity. Hard to argue with a lot of the folks that walk around [wearing football jerseys] on a Sunday or on Blue Fridays that the Seahawks don’t give them more purpose and meaning in their lives, in their social interactions, in their relationships.

X: And identity. It’s given the whole city an identity. We’re all the 12s, right?

BG: Truly.

And I think it’s only a matter of time before we see that with a Cloud9 or a TSM. At some point, here we’ll get the Michael Jordan of e-sports and I think it will be a wakeup call to all of us that sort of were wondering, will this ever be as important of a social fabric as regular sports.

X: Twitch, the Amazon-owned video game streaming platform, did a voter registration drive last month. Is part of this about connecting with a certain audience?

BG: It’s finding people—especially Millennials, and 65 to 75 percent of this audience are males—it’s finding Millennial males where they are, and it’s where they’re spending a lot of time, too. It’s not just like, aw yeah, they casually watch it. It’s like, they have Twitch on in the background for hours a day.

X: My own relationship to watching sports, particularly football, is evolving, particularly the more we learn about the brain injuries and the long-term impacts to players. It’s making it harder and harder for me to get excited about football each year. I’m not necessarily looking for e-sports to fill that void in my life, but it’s all legitimate entertainment and it all has its problems.

BG: E-sports is not without their concussion-type problems, too. It sounds silly, but seriously carpal tunnel; spending 16-hours a day doing gaming or gaming-related activities—you don’t develop the same real-life interactions with people and skills that you would in other facets of life; huge mental-health issues. It has a long way to go and it’s not without its issues, too.

X: Do you see virtual reality fitting in somewhere here as maybe the nexus for these two worlds, where physical and digital entertainment are going to converge?

BG: I think VR e-sports is going to be a big thing when the next cycle of VR comes around and there’s actually penetration into the market. Obviously, the number of units shipped just wasn’t anywhere near what we thought this time around.

X: The hype at the beginning of 2016 … I was contributing to it myself.

BG: When you try the Vive for the first time, you’re like, this is different than anything I’ve ever experienced before—how could it not be the next thing?

Most of the technology is too fragile right now to do anything actually physical like running or dealing with jerky movements or anything like that. But you have to believe there’s going to be some kind of cool hybrid at some point, where you’re competing on a digital field, but in your physical environment, where your physical variables affect the digital score.

We talked about the VR bubble a little bit. I do think many aspects of e-sports are over-hyped right now. We are going to see a pullback. I don’t think it’s going to be anything like an e-sports bubble bursting, but I do think making e-sports bets right now is a five- to 10-year bet, and I do think anybody that’s expecting it to double in the next year, or something like that, particularly in the actual monetization of the space—it’s a little bit more of a long play.

X: Who is making money in the space, anybody?

BG: Game publishers. Here’s the crazy thing about e-sports. The NFL owns many things about football, but they don’t own the game of football. In e-sports, publishers own the actual games, so it’s their world and everybody else gets to play in it.

Photo credit: Fans gather to watch an e-sports tournament live earlier this fall. Photo by Eva Anderith via Flickr, used under a CC BY-ND 2.0 license.

Single PageCurrently on Page: 1 2 previous page