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

3/25/08Follow @wroush

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the Web—where all players can see the game map and participate in chats and other forms of online social networking—in the context of on-campus rivalries, such as those between dorms or fraternities or colleges, that are nearly as old as the university system itself.

“We wouldn’t have been able to do this before Facebook,” says Hargreaves. “Facebook made college students comfortable with the being on a website, sharing their information, and generally interacting with others in a way that’s not nerdy. But I think the reason why this really takes off at colleges is a mixture of that Facebook factor and the fact that people see this not as an online game but as an intramural sport. The game is not really what matters. What makes it work is people saying, ‘That’s my dorm, that’s my team, I want to play for them, I want to support them.”

Smedresman agrees. “People get really excited when there’s something going on that involves their home territory,” he says. (Indeed, the name Kirkland North, he says, derives from a particularly climactic series of events from last year’s game at Harvard, where Kirkland House is one of the dorms for upperclassmen.) The original Old Campus Tree Risk, Smedresman says, “was really all about this idea of an online game that had a presence in the real world. Even more important than the specifics of the rules was just this idea of having a game going on that was reflected in the group, that uses the real social network, which is everyone’s friends.”

These days, of course, any activity that gets people online daily is seen as a business opportunity. And while neither the GoCrossCampus team nor the team at Kirkland North is entirely sure how they will monetize their games, both companies are convinced that lucrative revenue streams will bubble up.

At GoCrossCampus, players don’t pay to enter. Sponsoring organizations such as student governments do pay a fee if they want the company to handle the extensive on-campus marketing that goes along with setting up a game; but if they take care of that part themselves (which they have in every case so far), there’s no charge. GoCrossCampus plans to run for-profit games as team-building exercises for corporations—in fact, Google’s New York office has signed up for a game, according to the New York Times article. And eventually, GoCrossCampus will sell advertising on its website. “Advertising is going to be a big revenue stream down the road,” predicts Hargreaves. “Ever since the New York Times article came out, we’ve been getting a lot of requests [from companies interested in] sponsoring games or advertising in games.”

At Kirkland North (which was until recently called Space Capsule Games), the business plan sounds a little less developed. “All I can say is that Facebook itself is still looking to see how they can monetize what they have,” says Smedresman. “So I don’t feel too bad that we still have to work that out.”

I asked both Hargreaves and Smedresman whether, in the end, they think there’s room for two opposing companies under the old campus tree. “If the two companies are running the exact same game, probably not,” answered Smedresman. “From what I’ve seen of GoCrossCampus, they’ve stayed pretty similar to what Old Campus Tree Risk was. But we’re looking to expand and innovate in a lot of ways.”

Hargreaves answered similarly—but seemed to suggest that he expects Kirkland North to flinch first. In the market for Risk-like campus games, he says, “I don’t think that in the long term there is room for two companies.” But the team-based gaming space—by which Hargreaves means online games with factions build around groups with preexisting rivalries—”is very open, and I think there is room for more than one company in that space,” he says. “The Kirkland North guys are smart, and since they are an earlier-stage company, without VC backing yet other than Y Combinator, I think they will be agile enough that they will find a place where they can succeed. Right now we’re kind of like two people walking down the hallway toward each other. You both move right, then you both move left and then right again. We are getting in each other’s way, because we haven’t yet figured out a way so we can both walk down the hall.”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • Justin Savage

    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