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 … Next Page »

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