Today, some of the biggest competitive gaming tournaments are watched by more people than the World Series; esports prize pools can be larger than those of golf’s Masters competition. Top players are treated as celebrities, and even ESPN is throwing its weight behind televised events such as the recent Heroes of the Dorm.
It was much different nearly 20 years ago, when Angel Munoz founded the Cyberathlete Professional League, but he had a vision. Far ahead of their time, he and his company laid the foundation for today’s esports success stories. Now, at 55, he’s got a new idea: specialized social networks, the first of which he’s aimed at, you guessed it, PC gamers. He’s hoping to once more prove himself ahead of the curve.
How did you get involved in the digital and tech space to begin with?
For me it was a bit later in life because I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s, and in the ’60s the most advanced piece of tech I had was the Etch A Sketch. That was my tablet at the time.
At the age of 24, I became a stockbroker, and later I transitioned into being an investment banker. I realized I had a talent for analysis and understanding new technologies, so I got involved in financing companies and launched my own firm in Dallas, completely focused on new technology. A firm in the United Kingdom purchased us when I was just 34 or 35.
I didn’t really have a plan from there, so I started playing video games, and immediately I just knew it was the next big thing. As soon as I sat down and played them, I knew.
How did you go about breaking into the gaming industry?
I launched a gaming publication called Adrenaline Vault. Through that I was able to interact with gamers all over the world, and I realized there was this desire for people to compete at a high level. There were efforts to create professional events before that time, but they were focused more on arcade games. There was nothing on the PC at that level.
So I launched the Cyberathlete Professional League, or CPL, and would run that for about 10 years until a company in Singapore bought us.
Launching the CPL at that time was quite an undertaking. What allowed you to succeed where others had either failed or hesitated to try?
The critical component was finding the right people to help. Id Software, the developers behind Quake, had just launched their own event, Quakecon, and professed that it was just a fun gaming party. And Quakecon was really launched by the community anyway.
“The twist was that we looked for corporate sponsorship while also creating a real competition for the players. It just seemed logical.”
I met with my group of people and told them I had this concept of elevating PC gaming to the level of a professional sport. Others had talked about it, but no one had really done it. Id Software’s John Carmack had given away a Ferrari at an event, but I didn’t want to just do a promotional event like that. I wanted a real sporting event.
And what was the first step to making that happen?
After we put together the right initial team, the first thing we did was start making phone calls to companies and pitching them on it. I called the service line for Logitech, the same line I would have called for product support. I said that I have this idea to put together a competitive gaming event and we were looking for sponsors. And the guy on the line thought it sounded great, so he contacted management and convinced them it was the right thing to do, and that’s how Logitech became the first sponsor for esports.
The twist was that we looked for corporate sponsorship while also creating a real competition for the players. It just seemed logical. People liked watching the games almost as much as participating in them, so it seemed natural to me.
When you were able to launch, did people understand what it was all about? This new competitive organization promoting the playing of video games as sport?
What’s interesting is that athletes really got it first. They would see it and instantly understand. The general public was much harder to convince. But with athletes, they saw the hand-eye coordination, the quick reaction time, and they got it.
Many of the players in those early days actually came from a competitive background in physical sports.
Yeah, that’s right. But the general public initially had some issues getting it.
So when you took the idea to the mainstream media, how was it received?
Reporters would talk to us and would be laughing about it; it was often presented as very tongue-in-cheek. In radio, for example, we always got the oddball spots with the same guys who would talk about alien abductions and things like that.
And remember that we had the shootings at Columbine High School around that time. We had this incredible backlash against gaming and especially more violent gaming, and we had to get through all of that.
It’s been such a fascinating process. I almost miss working against the negativity.
Once you were able to gain some traction, your events quickly grew to a point that they resembled the big gaming industry expos like E3. How did you arrive at that point?
We were actually forced to run big events. When you go to a major esports event these days, it’s a major event that is centered around esports. But at that time we had to run a hybrid event in order to attract companies to work with us. We used the known to introduce the unknown. They knew expos, that was the known quantity, so that’s what we used.
It was really a transitional period for esports.
Some of those companies you worked with have gone on to be major players both in the gaming industry and in esports in particular.
I found that to be the most interesting part of my time in esports. I remember meeting with [Razer cofounder] Robert Krakoff, and he said he was starting a new company and that he saw some similarities between us and what he was doing. He wanted to introduce a professional quality mouse and call it “Boomslang,” and that was the beginning of Razer. The first Razer promotional booth was built for one of our events in 1999.
“It’s been such a fascinating process. I almost miss working against the negativity.”
I had the first Steelseries mouse pad ever made, and it was made of actual steel. I just posted it on our forum we had at the time and then thousands of people contacted the maker wanting to buy one of their own.
Razer, Steelseries, Red Bull, Bawls, Newegg. Working with so many entrepreneurs was so rewarding.
Do you think there was something that brought you all together like that?
There’s a certain mentality that is attracted to a pioneering environment like the one we had. There were so many pioneers and great ideas. I remember the first time I saw virtual reality was at an early CPL event, and now it’s taking off. It’s so cool to have been 15 years ahead of some of these major trends.
After growing your events larger, you then launched the World Tour, which lived up to its name and brought the CPL all across the globe. What are your memories of that?
With the World Tour, the prize money and the cost of operations was starting to exceed the revenue generated by the company. When we were able to complete the tour in full and pay out all of the prizes to the players, that was good. We had started seeing a decrease in participation, but I still loved the World Tour.
Our final event on the tour was televised on MTV, and I had the feeling that this was as far as I would be able to take it.
There was controversy at the time over the game you chose to use on the World Tour, Painkiller. For example, technical limitations made it difficult for spectators to watch the games for some time.
The developer (People Can Fly) of Painkiller actually approached us to ask if we could support their game through competitions. There were some promises made by them that were broken. The frame of mind we had at the time was that we wanted games developed from the ground up with competitive play in mind. We wanted team games such as Counter-Strike and individual games.
We were talking to them a year before we launched the World Tour, and our Painkiller exhibition matches were getting bad feedback. People said the game sucked. Some people in Sweden modified the game to make it work better, and we actually connected them to the game’s developers who then integrated those changes into a later edition, Painkiller Black.
Do you think it was a mistake to partner with them?
In retrospect we shouldn’t have done that. I’m not blaming them because we should have known better.
There was also talk at one point of the CPL being directly involved in the development of a game that would be used in its competition. Anything to say about that?
Developing our own game is an idea that hasn’t died. It’s called Severity, developed by Escalation Studios.
It wouldn’t be for esports now, just for fun competitions. I would still love to be a part of that.
How did you realize that things were beginning to wind down?
The numbers were clear. There was a softening economy. I was an investment banker, so I knew what was going on, that it would take a few years to come back. I actually felt relieved later on when the economic collapse hit that I didn’t have to carry CPL through it.
“There were so many pioneers and great ideas. I remember the first time I saw virtual reality was at an early CPL event, and now it’s taking off. It’s so cool to have been 15 years ahead of some of these major trends.”
After CPL, what was the nature of your involvement with DirecTV’s esports project, the Championship Gaming Series (CGS)?
They had me on payroll as a consultant, but they never really asked me anything. I think they did it because they didn’t want me to compete with them. They asked me a couple of questions over a period of two years. I never felt my opinions had any kind of weight. They had their own concepts, and they wanted to do it their way.
Why do you think CGS failed?
It’s so easy to look back and point fingers. It takes bricks to build a structure, one at a time. These things don’t just appear in a vacuum. To put yourself out there when you’re pioneering something, it’s different than when you’re building on top of an established structure. There were no blueprints, and people don’t understand that. You couldn’t turn to someone and ask, “How do you do this?”
Now that the industry has stabilized and shown such rapid growth, how do you feel about the current state of esports?
The growth of esports is surreal. To be at the forefront of that kind of paradigm shift … there were hundreds of interviews I did promoting the idea that gaming could be treated as a professional sport, and now the number of people who doubt it has so diminished. You have these massive events, and to know how it started with those small CPL events in Dallas, Texas, it’s completely surreal. I’m really pleased that so many people have stuck with it and taken it to the next level. I feel nothing but absolute joy seeing where the industry is. And there’s also something about being proven right!
I’m personally very glad that the concept has perpetuated and matured and is growing at such a level. And now, tech companies know they have to be in esports.
After walking away from the world of esports, what was the next step for you?
Something interesting about esports was peripheral marketing. Companies were bringing to people their product’s experience, and that model works. We asked what could we do to bring gamers into a social environment with the same ideas as those behind peripheral marketing, and do events online that are fun for people to enter and participate in. In my mind, it was all about having a lot of reach.
The question was, what can we do to bring the same values that we had in esports without making people compete. AMD was the our first global sponsor who helped launch Mass Luminosity, and that led to Gaming Tribe, which is the first social media network exclusively dedicated to PC gamers.
And that’s what sets Gaming Tribe apart?
Yes. What’s going on here is we’re the only social network we know of that’s completely focused on one thing, so everyone there is just a friend you haven’t met yet.
Do you think this sort of specialized service is going to become more popular in the future?
I hope we see more specialized social networks. That’s certainly where we think this is heading.
What are your goals for the company’s future?
Mass Luminosity owns Gaming Tribe and the “G Tribe Engine.” The engine powers the Gaming Tribe social media experience. We separated Gaming Tribe from the engine component because we feel there will be companies or perhaps entire industries that will want to deploy social media experiences specific to their industry. So we’re looking at different opportunities there, and we’re working to do one now actually in the education field.
“We feel there will be companies or perhaps entire industries that will want to deploy social media experiences specific to their industry.”
You have everything you expect from the social media experience: Likes, shares, messaging, video chat, even commerce. It provides a value, and I believe we’re going to see more diversification in the social media space. And that’s a good thing. We hope we can be one of the players, and even allow people to maintain consistency across those different spaces.
You talked about peripheral marketing. How exactly do you fit that into a social platform such as Gaming Tribe?
There’s zero advertising; it’s all supported through sponsorships. I have a personal aversion to traditional digital advertising, and tools such as Adblock make it easy to avoid those ads, which is causing issues for some companies. So we’re coming up with a model where they can sustain themselves without interrupting the user’s experience as traditional advertising so often does. And this target audience can navigate through those disruptions very quickly.
How does your service compare to Facebook?
Facebook makes it easy for us because they engage in what I call “double dipping.” If you want to advertise on Facebook, you’ll have to pay. They charge you to build likes, and over the years they change their algorithms to reduce your reach. Your organic reach falls, and they say you can increase your reach again if you pay them for a boost.
When we talk to companies and say that we don’t do that, that we actually want to increase their reach, the reception to that tends to be really good. In fact, just today we signed the first ever multiyear sponsorship agreement for Gaming Tribe with Logitech.
Has the reaction people have to your work changed compared to when you ran CPL?
Now that I’m in charge of a social network, everyone thinks it’s great, rather than asking me what the hell I’m doing.
You’ve had quite the varied career to this point. What’s left for you after all this?
I’m reminded of a Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda. “I confess that I have lived.”
I’ve had so many opportunities to do different things and have so many different experiences. I really do enjoy starting things anew. That’s where I shine and when I’m at my best. I think I’ll remain involved with Gaming Tribe, but we’re talking to different people and they have different ideas and we’re just really enjoying it.
I’m always looking for what’s going to be next. I mean, what’s beyond the Internet? If I can find ways to evolve what I’m doing, I’ll always be motivated to do that, but I’m really happy with where I’m at right now.
Photo via Angel Munoz/Mass Luminosity | Remix by Jason Reed