A 22-year-old Harvard grad launched his own amateur esports company for adult gamers

Teens won millions of dollars in video game...

Posted: Feb 23, 2020 11:01 AM

Teens won millions of dollars in video game competitions in 2019, and they're set to do it again this year. Last year, the oldest finalist in the most competitive rounds of the "Fortnite" World Cup was only 24 years old, despite the World Cup being open to all ages online.

That's reflective of how older gamers can see their reflexes slow down, which can be a hurdle in fast-paced competitions. Venture-backed company Lowkey.gg wants to give adults a chance to compete against other adults of similar skill levels without any prize money.

"The main thing is obviously the prestige or the clout that comes with it," Lowkey.gg's CEO Jesse Zhang said, adding that winners will get custom apparel.

Zhang graduated from Harvard at the age of 20 and is now 22. He came up with the idea for the company after realizing that when adults log on to game, they might be matched with seasoned gamers with a higher skill set. The service he created matches adult gamers who have full-time jobs that aren't in the gaming industry.

"There are a lot of people who can play these games now who are in the workforce, [during] free time after work, but there's no infrastructure there and no platform to bring people together," said Zhang. "We're not so interested in organizing one-off events one after another, rather than providing a more consistent, almost subscription-like experience for the players."

Lowkey.gg's investors include one of Silicon Valley's most prominent startup accelerators, Y Combinator, as well as Sixers Innovation Lab from the Philadelphia 76ers, the Sacramento Kings, and the founders of fintech company Plaid and dating app Tinder. Lowkey.gg declined to say how much funding it has received.

The company launched a "League of Legends" esports tournament in January that costs $39 to compete in. Employees from companies like Apple, Google, Microsoft, DoorDash and LinkedIn have formed their own teams to participate.

I've been testing out Lowkey.gg for over a month now. I'm ranked Gold in "League," which means I'm a fairly average player. I gave the tournament a try, winning my first week against Iron players, the lowest rank you can achieve in the game. I suffered a crushing defeat in the second game against a mix of Diamonds and lower ranks.

In total, it's an eight-week competition followed by a series of elimination playoffs. At times, the competition is either brutal or too easy, with a range of talent from beginners to elite veterans. "In the future, we do want the format to be much more balanced," said Zhang.

So far, players in the "League" tournament have shared mixed feelings.

"It's a little bit less organized than some of the high school esports I've been involved in. I guess it makes sense given that we're all adults and most of us are familiar with esports," said Michael Bilica, 43, a high school physics teacher in Sutton, Massachusetts. Bilica runs the school's esports program and teamed up with me for the months-long tournament.

Bilica said he tries to make up for slower reflexes by giving his in-game characters a speed boost with the purchase of virtual shoes. He also commits several hours a week to practice and is dedicated to learning new tricks and tips.

Rivalries between major tech giants have also found their way into video games, and players chat on the Discord app between games.

"We were looking for a competitive experience because we played in our own little league inside Apple," said Dustin Rudiger, a 27-year-old software engineer at Apple. "We thought we were shoo-ins to win when we joined, but then Google came in."

"There's been a bit of history to this team," said Google software engineer Prasanth Somasundar, 27, who explained that he had been playing with the Google Gamers since 2018, despite several roster changes.

While Google hopes to win the tournament, Somasundar said they still face some competition.

"Microsoft's team looks pretty scary," he said. The team is called Project Scarlett, a nod to the codename for the Xbox Series X, and features five high-ranking "League of Legends" players, including one gamer who is ranked Master, which is just a few tiers below professional esports players. The Google team features all Diamond players, which is a tier below Master, while Apple is a mix of Diamond and lower ranks.

In its first match, the Apple team, named iPwn 11 Pro Max, decisively lost to Google. There was a brief kerfuffle over whether an ex-professional esports player on Google's team should be allowed to participate in the league, since Lowkey.gg is aimed at people who don't play games as a full-time job. The ultimate answer was yes because the player hadn't competed professionally since college.

Zhang is still looking to iron out the kinks on Lowkey.gg and find a sustainable business model.

For its part, Lowkey.gg has been quick to adopt player feedback, such as improving the website's code to make it more usable. Staff members are available during off-hours and weekends to field users' questions.

Last March, Zhang launched the company Camelot as a way for Twitch and YouTube fans to pay bounties to request content from their favorite stars. But the business had to quickly pivot to Lowkey.gg, as Zhang discovered there wasn't enough money to be made.

Another company called the Corporate Esports Association has been organizing esports tournaments and giving adults a chance to compete since 2019. From 2012 to 2018, the CEA's cofounders operated the After Hours Gaming League, which followed the same concept. Unlike Lowkey.gg, Corporate Esports donates most of its earnings to charity and is run by volunteers.

"The best stories we hear in CEA are people saying, 'I've worked three cubicles away from this guy for four years. We've never met, but now we're best friends because we play in the CEA together,'" said Brad Tenenholtz, CEO of the Corporate Esports Association. "Lowkey's business philosophy is that they're going to do that with software. And I assure you, if I could've done this with software, I would have done it five years ago."

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