Super League Gaming is an interactive operation that taps into fervent esports fan bases by hosting competitions in movie theaters across the Unites States.
Since its formation in 2014, the company has secured more than $28 million in investments. It’s most recent backing came Monday with a $15 million Series C funding from companies like Nickelodeon, DMG Entertainment, Toba Capital and owners of aXiomatic, and Jeffrey Vinik, owner of the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning. The initiative is to expand Super League Gaming into the Middle Kingdom, as well as bolster its footprint in US metropolises.
Ann Hand, the chairman and CEO of Super League Gaming, joined AListDaily senior brands editor Manouk Akopyan for our second podcast episode to explain how their grassroots-level esports operation has evolved to produce over 1,500 live events across 12 cities. Below is the transcription of the entire conversation.
Akopyan: Ann Hand of Super League Gaming is here to discuss a more interesting element to esports, which is building competitive gaming events at movie theaters around the country. Ann, welcome to the podcast. Thanks for being here and taking the time.
Hand: My pleasure. Thank you.
Akopyan: For listeners who are not familiar with Super League Gaming, what’s the elevator pitch that you generally introduce them with?
Hand: Our founders loved the fact that their kids enjoyed video gaming, especially around Minecraft, which at that time was what they were spending a lot of time with. And yet, they were struggling to get their sons excited to go to their soccer game or little league game. And so, the notion kind of sprang that “why don’t we try to create a little league-like structure around games,” and bring kids physically together, with all of the good things you learn from traditional sports like sportsmanship, teamwork and collaboration. What better place to do that than physical movie theaters that are often empty a lot of the days, and equally provide a really good [audio-visual] experience and allow us to project something on the big screen that’s really unique. So, we’ve been at this now for two years. We run over 1,500 live events. We now run events with both Minecraft and League of Legends, and they’re meant to be recreational all the way up to pretty heightened competitive leagues that allow us to find the best amateur players and give them a venue to compete in a tournament-like structure.
Akopyan: With the title of CEO, there comes a multitude of responsibilities. Can you take us through your day-to-day as far as some of overarching strategies that you focus on
Hand: Yeah, absolutely. So, in the early days, a lot of the focus, because we managed to sign up some great movie theater partners right out of the gate and we really wanted to understand the live-event component of the business, we really immersed ourselves in those events. Just understanding and fine-tuning what happens in those experiences in the theater, what’s on the big screen, what’s a compelling league structure that would make people want to sign up again and again and track their progress and vie to be the winning team in North America. And then, there was a big shift about a year ago where we knew that we had the live events piece somewhat under our belt, and then it became about how do we have Super League have a reach beyond just our theater footprint. We have about 100 theaters in North America and north of 40 major metros. But the idea of the company was always to create a social home base for a wide, diverse group of social gamers across different ages, levels of play and different games. And so, that means that we need a Super League offer for everyone. So a pretty significant breakthrough, and where I’m spending more of my time today, is an announcement that we started last November and have continued to supplement over the last few months—the introduction of city club teams. So we now have 12 city clubs established across North America. Those are branded city clubs that create a unifying banner for all amateur gamers to affiliate with. For example, in LA, it’s the LA Shockwaves. What I’m spending more time thinking about now is live events; [it’s] one piece of an offer that we bring to those social gamers. What are the other things we can do to make the experience of being a member of the LA Shockwaves go beyond just what happens in the physical theaters? What we love about it is those city clubs start to allow us to have people really identify and feel that they’re representing or rooting for their hometown in a way that we think esports is lacking today. So, that community and local connection is a pretty big idea.
Akopyan: Putting myself into the seat of the fans, if I’m a fan of Minecraft or League of Legends, how can I get involved? How can I learn more about it? Can you take us through the process of how you’re reaching out to the consumers? What is your marketing strategy to get people excited about taking a part in this new, live program?
Hand: In the early days, a lot of it was very grassroots and local. It was our theater partners doing a good job of putting up posters, running trailers and really kind of promoting it in local theaters. We did some school outreach with the Minecraft product. You know, did some geo-targeted placement on Facebook and on other relevant social channels, really trying to get the word out because the marketing challenge in the early days is tough—it’s a completely new category of gaming. It’s play-space gaming, so almost we’re more akin to a modern-day version of the arcade because everyone coming in our theaters are coming in with their devices, and they’re all playing together and seeing their gameplay in a unique perspective on the big screen. So, you’re trying to educate an audience that it’s not coming to watch someone else play in the theater, it’s actually you coming to play yourself and be a member of that team. We’ve been fortunate now that the game publishers that we work with have now offered to do more of that communication to their own community directly. So, the marketing challenge has . . . I don’t ever want to say it’s easy when you’re launching something very new in a new space. But certainly with the game publishers like Riot Games behind us saying “hey community, this is something that you’ve been asking for, and we think this is a neat way for you to experience something that only enhances your love of the League of Legends product.”
Akopyan: Super League Gaming is all about community, which is a very big component to esports as well and how it got here in the first place. The community is what brought it here. A lot of brands are trying to reach out to these communities and trying to garner their attention and their dollars as well at the same time. What is your advice to the partners that you work with? What are those conversations like when you’re talking about reaching out to these consumers?
Hand: In the early days, it’d be very easy to get excited about the brand integration opportunity from a dollars and cents point of view. I give credit to our partner Riot Games for really forcing us to continue to think about making sure we’re giving fantastic experiences to the players firs, and that all good things will fall from that. So I’d say, what I think now about the role of other brands with Super League, it’s much more thoughtful. We’re creating these unique city teams, and I think that there’s an opportunity over time for local brands to get behind these gamming communities and really just be another stakeholder, just like the players themselves, that’s trying to create the rich fabric of “what does it mean to be a gamer in LA?” So, where my head is at right now is the notion of trying to first identify what is the LA-gamer lifestyle about, and how is that different from the Chicago-gamer lifestyle. That will tell us what are the right partners that really should come to play in that space whether with Super League holistically, or maybe by geography. We’ve definitely been, as an early-stage company, stepping in very cautiously because we do want to first understand our customers really well.
Akopyan: You already have partnerships with Riot Games, like you mentioned. With you being a player in the space as well, how are you leveraging relationships to continue building the Super League brand? How can esports start-ups identify key players in the space and tag-team along for the ride?
Hand: In a way, I think we do look at it a little differently. We looked for games and game partners that were hugely relevant, that are fantastic games, top-tier games and also games that actually would work very well in a tournament-like system. They function and design well in that space. We were very fortunate that our office is just a few blocks away from Riot Games. We were able to very quickly build a lot of trust, prove the fact that we’d be very thoughtful with their community and with the fact that they’re giving us this beautiful brand that they’ve created. So, I would say, in a way right now, we’ve been given a bit of a gift and we don’t look at it so much yet as trying to leverage things off of it. We just take it quite seriously that they’ve given us an opportunity to construct leagues for their recreational and amateur players. So I guess my advice to people would be to really go . . . game publishers do something very wonderful. They hold their community very dear and close, and they have a lot of the answers. If you listen to them, I think they’ll guide you down a direction that’s really true to what their community needs.
Akopyan: So it’s safe to say to always be the 1B, and not try to be the 1A?
Akopyan: There are a lot of conversations today about the difference between esports and competitive gaming, and how those are two different audiences. I’m curious as to what you think about some of the opportunities competitive gaming presents, and how esports can fit into that as well?
Hand: It’s such an early space that we’re all trying to sort out the nomenclature. For us we do believe that we offer recreational competitive gaming. We are clearly not trying to go after the kind of 0.001 percent of esports elite and what is traditionally labeled as esports and the professionals, just because we think there’s such an underserved large market of the amateurs underneath of it. And we like the fact that we’re offering something that’s highly complementary to what the publishers already have established. So instead of fighting what is out there, feed a separate need that tethers nicely to those things.
Akopyan: You recently were speaking at the alist summit, as you were a featured speaker there. When you’re in front of a room of marketers, a room full of industry executives who are not necessarily in the gaming space but are looking at entry points into esports, the non-endemic brands as we like to call them—what do you tell them?
Hand: I’ve sat in previous roles on their side. So one thing I say often is “we’re all learning as we go in this space, and the numbers don’t lie.” I think it’s important that these people looking at the space take time to really get their heads wrapped around the numbers and to trust that, even if this is something that you can’t personally relate to, it’s something that’s a very real space. Another way to validate that is to just look at the number of other very credible brands and partners that are jumping into the space as validation. What I would encourage people to do is, just like I would say for all good brand marketing decisions, be willing to [invest] a bit of money to really try talking to new audiences and to make your brand a little bit more relevant to millennials. Trust the process that the numbers are proving this is a very important way for you to have a conversation with millennials and be willing to do a little trial and error. If you look at [esports] it’s almost like a tsunami, and sometimes if there’s a tsunami coming after you and you’re trying to apply traditional CPM metrics, you kind of won’t see the forest through the trees. I do take heed in the fact that the number of avid gamers is real and meaningful and that brands need to find a very different way to talk to them.
Akopyan: Everyone likes to also use the metaphor that we’re in the wild west of esports. And of course, during the wild west there was a gold rush. Do you think sometimes there are opportunities that are fool’s gold? Are all the numbers out there kind of fooling companies to jump in [esports] when they really shouldn’t?
Hand: It’s a great question because the numbers are huge, but I think if you then compare it to the amount of dollars coming in as far as revenue being generated from professional esports or branded-integration dollars, you’ll still see it’s a fraction versus the market size. That balance hasn’t swung the wrong way, where there’s over investment relative to the number of gamers out there and the potential revenue streams. I would say it hasn’t gone the wrong way. It’s actually a very smart time to jump in and really get smart now with a little trial and error because it’s going to quickly get defined here in the next three years. There will be some people who got in early and got smarter faster, and I think they will have the bigger benefits on the back end.
Akopyan: So if anyone is listening right now and is unsure as to which door to enter in, what would you say is the right entry path as a sponsor, a marketer, or even as an investor?
Hand: Look, I’m biased. I think we’re going after a very beautiful, large and serviceable market that gives a very real, local, intimate conversation with everyday gamers. There’s not a lot of ways to talk to everyday gamers today outside of the games themselves, and so we think that’s a really differentiated position. So certainly when we’re talking to potential investors or brand partners, we amplify what we think makes us unique and special. It’s probably more important than trying to spend time jumping too fast against professional and amateur—it’s good for a brand to do some reflection on themselves. What are they really trying to achieve? And especially for the non-endemics—this isn’t a NASCAR race, and I don’t mean that disrespectfully to NASCAR, but it’s a very different audience that you just can’t put a logo on something for the sake of it. So be true to your brand enough that you know what places in the esports ecosystem actually genuinely make sense for you to be a part of. It’s a segment that your brand talks to but equally is a segment inside esports, and also being okay with the fact that there’s certain segments you may choise not to talk to because it’s just not authentic to your brand.
Akopyan: What are some of the brands Super League has worked with?
Hand: Well we’ve worked with a lot of great brands. In the early days, we started out with our product that was geared more toward kids ages six-to-14-years-old. We had a lot of parents coming to our events. So, certain kind of brands like Logitech, who already are endemics but actually very generously gave us a lot of prizes so that we could create a lot more excitement to the experience. But in truth, we have had a lot of brand conversations and very few activations because we have made a decision strategically as a company that we want to walk before we run in that space.
Akopyan: With you being at the helm of the company, I’m sure not everything is smooth sailing on a daily basis. What are lessons you’ve learned along the way that have impacted your strategy and eventually made you better?
Hand: When you’re an early-stage company, there’s so much trial and error. Every day is trial and error, and you’re pivoting your strategy almost weekly, which can kind of make you feel bad about yourself, but equally, you realize that’s what comes with defining a new category of gaming. Early on, we had a lot of influencers out there trying to promote our product. Wonderful people, but we didn’t have enough of a product developed to know how to get the messaging right and even “who are the right influencers based on our targets?” So those were kind of some early marketing lessons that we learned. We didn’t have a defined enough brand and marketing strategy to know how to use that channel of influencers as well as we could have. But it’s just part of our learning curve. Certainly too, we now are much more selective about what events we run, which theaters are right for the gaming audience we’re trying to attract based on the game that we have. We just know a lot more demographically about those locations and how to really bundle the right programming based on the demographics of those different cities that we’re in. So just a lot smarter on the theater footprint, the types of programs we run and also the different marketing channels we use to drive great attendance and great satisfaction.
Akopyan: Before we close, one of the big driving notions of esports is the daily diet of surveys, studies and reports that hit our mailboxes and predict nice, flowery depictions of money, audiences and social engagement. I’m very curious about both sides to the coin. What are some things you’re truly concerned about in the esports industry and competitive gaming? And frankly, what are you most excited about?
Hand: It’s shifted over the last couple of year for me. In the early days I was concerned about the negative attributes people attach to gaming, and that starting to amplify over time. So much of why we exist is we want to bring even better attributes to it. We know it helps people with their computer literacy and other aspects of how it’s leading into a lot of jobs that don’t even exist yet. But what Super League is doing is bringing all of those great attributes that come when you put people together physically to play. I was concerned that the negative would outweigh our opportunity to prove that we could make video gaming even more permissible and more positive. Thankfully, because I think the esports explosion is so large and vast, I feel I spend less time worrying about that today. If anything, it’s just helping people realize this isn’t a fad. As we earlier, the numbers are material, and some very smart people out there have some bold predictions about how esports will eclipse traditional sports. I’m seeing a tipping point where more people are seeing the positives of gaming itself, and the positive direction the size of this market can go.
Akopyan: We look forward to seeing Super League Gaming at the epicenter of the entire industry and again, I’ll let you remind the listeners how they can get involved in Super League, and some of the cities that you’re located in as well as we close.
Hand: Absolutely. We currently run events in Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago and Dallas. And, more importantly, we’ve just launched events in Seattle, San Francisco, Houston, Phoenix, Denver, Las Vegas, Boston and New York. We’re really encouraging people to do join those teams because those city clubs are a way for all social gamers to unite. So, right now we’re running Minecraft and League of Legends leagues, but we encourage you to join those teams as a fan and follow through SuperLeague.com and our different social channels. What we’ll be doing over time is finding more and more ways for those local city teams to really connect in a meaningful way that goes beyond the physical theater events. I often say a 28-year old League of Legends player walks down a street. He passes a 10-year-old Minecraft-playing kid and they can’t identify with each other—that they have one thing very much in common, which is their love of gaming. With both being members of the LA Shockwaves, it’s a way for those two very different audiences to find that they do have a real connection with each other. And really, at the end of the day, we are trying to create local, social gaming communities.
Akopyan: There you have it ladies and gentlemen. Ann Hand, CEO of Super League Gaming, thank you very much for your time. Looking forward to continuing the conversation again down the road.
Follow Manouk Akopyan on Twitter @Manouk_Akopyan