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

Xconomy Seattle — 

While I can understand professional video game playing, I was, until recently, baffled by the millions of avid fans of e-sports. I didn’t get why people—perhaps more than 300 million—would spend countless hours watching someone else manipulate the controls when they could be playing themselves, or doing any number of other things.

A recent conversation with Ben Gilbert, the interim CEO of Taunt, the Seattle-based maker of a platform for socializing around professional gaming, helped me understand the appeal of video games as a spectator sport. Our chat helped me realize that watching people play has been part of gaming since the arcade days. As it reaches new levels of sophistication, why should this activity be considered any different than watching professional football or other traditional sports?

Here are edited excerpts from the interview with Gilbert, who is also a co-founder of Pioneer Square Labs, the startup development shop from which his company, Taunt, emerged earlier this year with a $1.75 million funding round, led by Foundry Venture Capital. Gilbert had been up late the night before monitoring professional matches in China ahead of the release of an initial version of Taunt this week.

Xconomy: What attracted you to e-sports in the first place?

Ben Gilbert: E-sports was one that a couple other people at Pioneer Square Labs and myself were taking a look at from the outside for a while. We have a lot of hardcore gamers. A lot of talented engineers are hardcore gamers also, so you’d always get these little snippets of news, like, yeah, you know, this prize pool just broke the record for the largest prize pool ever, and this turnout just broke the record for the largest turnout ever, and year over year over year, just constantly breaking records.

At some point, like, January-ish this year, I started to get a real conviction that even though the eyeballs were way ahead of any of the monetizations in this space right now, it was going to be something that was going to have staying power and last for a long time, and you could start real businesses in.

X: Prior to that, were you an e-sports watcher? Is that something you grew up doing?

BG: I’d say gamer, but not e-sports watcher. I started playing a lot of League last year—League of Legends [published by Riot Games]—now obviously, very deep in it. I grew up playing Halo at LAN parties at my friend’s house, and a little bit of PC gaming. I was late to the console era because my parents wouldn’t let me have a PlayStation until after my Bar Mitzvah, so I had a lot of time at friends’ houses doing a lot of console gaming.

X: Do you think you could’ve been an e-sports athlete in a different life?

BG: I would’ve liked to. I’m too old now.

X: It ends?

BG: Yeah, it’s like the fast-twitch muscle. You literally can’t keep up with the mouse and keyboard after 24 or 25, which is wild.

I don’t know if I would’ve wanted to. It’s a tough life. A big issue right now in e-sports is mental health and players’ lives after they finish being pros.

X: Thinking about this from the fan’s perspective, I recently watched a friend’s son watching YouTube videos of someone playing an early version of Super Mario Brothers, and narrating what he was seeing. You go back to the arcade days and the image of the pinball wizard and everybody gathered around. So, in some ways, maybe it’s not such a new phenomenon?

BG: Yeah, I think pinball wizard’s a great analogy. I’m going to start using that. This is the pinball wizard but with extremely inexpensive broadband Internet tacked on, and instead of just three of your friends standing around, you can actually have a global following.

It’s a perfect storm of wide availability of streaming video to the masses and the games getting good enough where the skill required is so intricate that it starts to look more like real sports than video games—at least the video games that we would think about—and the very simple mechanics.

The games have really become these living and breathing organisms. There is getting to know the incredible depth of the game itself, getting to know the other players who play it, [and] getting to know what people care about when they’re watching these games. I think it’s just as complex as the real world.

Gilbert. Photo via Taunt

X: Tell me how Taunt fits into it?

BG: We want to make watching e-sports more fun.

Right now, it’s a very single-player experience. Sure, I’ve got a handful of friends who also watch, but we don’t really do it together in a physical situation. There’s no NFL Sunday and having friends over to your house. For some people it is, but that’s not the widespread default behavior.

X: What is the widespread default behavior for watching e-sports right now?

BG: Desktop PCs, and largely alone, at your house.

X: So, you’re at home. You’re a teenager probably or a tween?

BG: And ever-increasing [people in their] 20s and 30s also, because there’s lots of people who used to play but don’t have time anymore, but still care about what the pro scene looks like.

X: Is it something you’ve got in one window on your PC while you’re maybe doing something else?

BG: Predominantly, and you’re just paying attention to the exciting parts, like when you hear the commentator start to get loud, and the crowd starts to get loud, and then you switch over to it and pay attention, watch that crazy thing, and then go back to whatever it was you were doing.

X: Which is how people watch a lot of sports.

BG: Totally.

And the thing that’s really well developed in sports that’s not really well developed in e-sports right now is 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.