Skillz is out to redefine what people imagine when they think of eSports on mobile devices. The platform is basically a tournament system that provides fair, carefully matched, multiplayer experiences for single-player mobile games. Additionally, players can compete for either virtual currency or cash.
The company also recently revealed that as of last June, its annual run rate was $50 million and its annual growth for the previous fiscal year (2015 vs. 2014) was 5.1x. As a result, the mobile game tournament platform accounted for a large portion of the predicted revenues for the industry as a whole. Skillz also announced that awarded over $50 million in prizes since being founded in 2012, and accounted for more than 30 percent of all eSports prizes in 2016, a significant increase from 21 percent in 2015 and 8.4 percent in 2014.
Skillz product manager, Bill Mooney, spoke with [a]listdaily about how Skillz ups helps create engaging competitive experiences with mobile games, and how brands can take advantage of this growing sector.
With the main focus being on PCs and consoles right now, how do you see eSports growing on mobile devices?
If you look at Hearthstone and Clash Royale, there’s a growing scene around them. Tencent is also investing in its games in China. But more broadly, I think the media is a couple years late to the story. The hypothesis of Skillz is that you can bring eSports to everybody. Only a tiny fraction of people can play basketball professionally, but a lot of people like to play basketball. With us, we basically plug into 1,600+ games and take a game that’s single-player and give it multiplayer.
So, a single-player game can be an eSport?
Yes, because what happens is that we give you asynchronous play, and we’re just building up our functionality for synchronous play for some cases. There’s some stuff around it to make sure it’s fair because of the cash component. We take the example of how we have a bowling game that people love playing. They create a Skillz account and can play for either virtual currency or paid currency. Then we match them into various tournaments with different brackets. Really what we do is provide the framework for the game while taking care of player matching, fairness, customer service and basically make sure that the stuff runs.
It’s a good deal for little devs, and interesting for big devs—because we have cash, we have a much higher level of security. Even the virtual stuff is much more secure.
How does Skillz work with streaming platforms like Twitch and Mobcrush?
We appear on those platforms as content. The key difference is that we’re a tournament management system. In some ways, we’re making sure there’s a fair playing field and we take care of the cash payments, customer support and legalities. We also make sure to match you with someone who is at an appropriate level, because one of the keys is to find you someone who is fun to play with and will have a good match with. Some people win, some lose, but we really want you to have a good match.
We have steady streamers who use us on their shows as a way to engage with their audience. What’s nice is we’re not paying for it and they’re not paying for it. In fact, they’re making money from it.
With Skillz, what differentiates eSports from traditional competitive multiplayer?
In my opinion, free-to-play sort of busted multiplayer, because the expectation is that the stuff I buy will help me dominate multiplayer. What Skillz fundamentally does to multiplayer—and it can be for casual or serious players—give them the exact same stuff. You play on the exact same board and play the same pieces against each other. It’s a perfectly fair match, and we go to great lengths to make sure it is. We even give you replays so you can see what’s going on.
So, a game like Bejeweled could potentially become an eSport?
Right, and I would argue that when people talk about eSports, there’s that vision of a bunch of guys playing Counter-strike. But when you think about sports more broadly, I think of it as the level playing field. With basketball, we’re on the same court with the same ball. I don’t get a +7 basketball. We don’t run out of basketballs or are limited to five shots before we’re out. That’s the big difference.
People tend to think of League of Legends for strategy, but I would argue that Clash Royale is a very good eSport, and Hearthstone is even more complex. Historically, 20 percent of everybody wants to play competitively, but mobile has its limitations that are akin to social games that almost make it need to be turn based in many cases. At core, we want to provide fair multiplayer, and the cash is an appeal to smaller devs because we’re another revenue source for them compared to ads. We split any money we get in 50/50.
How can a single-player game capture the same kind of excitement of one that’s designed from the ground up for multiplayer?
Some of the games that are working have direct, real-life analogies, like bowling. But what I think it comes down to is—Clash Royale, which I use as the best mobile experience so far, is three minutes. It’s three, very meaningful, action-packed minutes. It’s wonderful to see people who are excellent at anything. It’s a very different skillset to be awesome at Counter-strike compared to StarCraft or Hearthstone. The reality is, people watch more than one thing. They’ll like the NFL, but they’ll watch other sports.
I think one of the key things about games, you want to play it. Whereas I love playing Counter-strike, but I would never play it online because I’d get smoked. It might seem funny to think this about a bowling game, a match-3 puzzle game or a bubble shooter, but those are accessible and you can go play. Another good thing is that you get good matches, especially if you’re playing for money, because people care and will try. It’s like playing poker with your buddies. It’s more fun with money because people pay attention, and it doesn’t have to be a lot. And it’s more fun to play a bubble shooter for money because you know the other person is trying hard.
Do players place bets?
It’s an entry fee, it’s not a bet. It’s very clearly not gambling because it’s skill. For example, if you and I play a bubble shooter, we both put in 60 cents. If you win, you get a dollar, and Skillz gets 10 cents and the dev gets 10 cents. It’s a little more complicated than that, but that’s the essence of it. The other important thing to note is that a solid majority of games on the platform are virtual currency only. Something like 92 or 95 percent of our players never play for cash.
How can brands take advantage of this platform?
There are a couple of ways. One thing that we’ve just started to do is sponsored tournaments. So if a brand like Mountain Dew wants to run a tournament over the weekend, they could sponsor something. We’ve talked to people with games that incorporate brands as well. The brand aspect plugs in very naturally; things like skinning and [branded] boards would be easy to do.
Does Skillz plan to expand to other gaming platforms?
It makes sense, especially on the PC where there’s some precedent for it. I think we’ll do it, but it just takes focus. We’re 60 people and 3-years-old. In fact, I’m dying to do it for a variety of reasons, but it’s just a question of focus. We’ll probably do it when there’s somebody worth doing it with. But there are 2 billion phones, and that’s why we’re focused on that right now.
Do you see Skillz as a discovery platform for mobile games?
Yes. It’s one of the things that drew me personally to come to Skillz. One of the keys to success was that we tapped into a player motivation that hadn’t been easily served and was accessible. Mobile games are exceptionally accessible, they’re just hard to discover.
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