Entrepreneur

This Local eSports Startup Is Making Playing Video Games For A Living Possible

After I made the list of top 10 eSports earners in Singapore, Sparkjumpers quickly sent me an email to correct me.

“Hello, I’m Alvin – Marketing Manager at Sparkjumpers. We work on a mobile eSports title called EndGods, and we recently held a SGD$100k prize pool tournament in SG where one of our players walked away with SGD$25,000.”

This was a first in Singaporean eSports — a $100k prize pool fully sponsored by the developer of the game. Such prize pools are unheard of for Singaporean companies, but is already a norm overseas. For example, Valve, developers of Dota 2, sponsors a 3-million prize pool every 3 months for their game.

But who are the people behind it?

You have Ivan Lee, the serial entrepreneur responsible for the brands Thai Express, Xing Wang Cafe and Shokudo. There is also Randy Prabowo, a game developer with nearly 10 years of experience and John Brackens, Chief Player Officer who worked at Activision Blizzard and many other companies.

The Sparkjumpers team calls themselves an eSports company, and with good reason.

When I was speaking to the 3 co-founders, they all echoed the sentiment that eSports could be a viable career choice – and that they would be there to provide it.

Blazing A New Path For Singaporean Gamers

“What is eSports? It’s just sports going digital, right? If you think about it — eSports is just sports going on the internet!” Ivan talks about eSports with a tinge of familiarity — himself mentioning that he has been gaming since he was young.

endgods audience
The audience celebrating the winners of the second End Gods tournament. Image Credit: Sparkjumpers

How exactly does EndGods translate into eSports? Ivan and Randy were passionately talking about their game being fair to everyone, and about wanting the most skilled player to win. To this effect, they have online tournaments where everyone has the same level of access.

I did some digging and found out that everyday, from 10pm – 12am, you can play EndGods with all the characters absolutely free and rank up on the leaderboards for a tournament participation slot. All you need is a smartphone or a PC that is connected to the internet!

Why an eSports title? Why not just the next Candy Crush? I asked.

Ivan assured me that more than just creating a popular game, they were going to challenge the status quo:

“I’m very much into sports. I play a lot of sports, I watch a lot of sports and I think it’s a competitive streak that ties it all together.” Beyond that competitive streak is also a desire to create, and he’s trying to change what “gamer” means in Singapore.

Creating A New Way of Life

The top 5 earners for eSports in the world is currently shared by 5 people who play Dota 2. On average, they each sit on US$2 million in prize earnings.

If you ask me, that’s pretty insane considering eSports is still at its nascent stage as only a few large companies are currently playing ball.

Image Credit: Sparkjumpers
A team playing at the recent League of Gods tournament. Image Credit: Sparkjumpers

From what I have gathered from the 3 co-founders, Sparkjumpers is aiming for Dota 2’s throne and more.

“We want to be a premier eSports company. Not just in Asia, but in the world,” says Ivan, his voice booming in the new Sparkjumpers conference room. “We are doing a lot to support eSports in Singapore, and it’s all sizes of tournaments. It just keeps getting bigger, and we hope to find supporters.”

“This is beyond just the game, we’re pushing forward our vision. We’re trying to change how people view eSports. We’re trying to promote eSports as a different way of life, as a legitimate career choice.”

As a major investor of the company, Ivan is, as he says it, “in a rare position to realise what he can dream of.” After selling a majority stake in Thai Express for S$80 million back in 2008, Ivan was already looking for the current Spark Jumpers team back in 2010.

“The first time I met Ivan was when I was working under another company developing games for the PS3 in Block 71.” says Randy.

When he got his hands on his first smartphone in 2012, “that was when I realized that mobile gaming was both extremely accessible both in terms of playing and developing games for.”

Entrepreneurship: Always A Rocky Road

When I was asking them about mistakes in entrepreneurship, the team responded candidly and quickly. The memory of their errors is fresh to them, and seems to keep them on their toes.

“Mistakes, man, I’ll let Randy and John speak about them. They have so many stories. For me, my skill is about keeping the team together.” said Ivan.

The entire team laughed.

Image Credit: Sparkjumpers
A community outreach event organized by End Gods. Image Credit: Sparkjumpers

“One thing I learned, definitely, is never to waste money on “paid engagements”. We’ve paid a dear price for that!” Randy tells me jokingly as I asked the three men to recount their mistakes as a company. “Definitely. Numbers might look good, but in the end, we want to serve our audience, our community more than anything,” adds John.

Randy, John and Ivan definitely did not let their errors come into the way of their relationships. The 3 men occasionally made jokes with each other during the interview, keeping the atmosphere casual and friendly throughout.

How Far Have Sparkjumpers come?

When I asked Ivan about what was Sparkjumper’s role in eSports, his excitement was evident as he tried to properly capture his imagination for the company.

Image Credit: Sparkjumpers
The winners of End Gods at Campus Game Fest, an event organized in ITE College Central. Image Credit: Sparkjumpers

“We are a eSports company — You know? As we evolve down the road, we’re here to develop and flourish Esports, not necessarily just one game or one title.”

It’s clear that Sparkjumpers is aiming to cultivate an ecosystem for eSports to flourish in Singapore. Their vision of making eSports a norm in Singapore should not be confused for a passion for video games, Ivan explains. His passion for making a change in the industry is what fuels him, not just his love for gaming.

“Your passion has to go beyond just thinking about the activity itself. If you like driving fast cars, and you decide to open a car factory, the debt, managing the operations of the car factory will simply take all the fun out of driving fast cars.”

“Thai Express was about changing how the F&B scene was like, not about my passion for food. Likewise with EndGods, I’m trying to change how gaming is like. Has there ever been an all-platform PVP eSports game?”

All 3 men share the same confidence that they will manage to change the how playing video games will be like in Singapore.

I asked them how exactly were they going to make people start looking at eSports.

Going All-In on eSports

“We have a tournament coming soon with a 250k prize pool. We’re going for 500k next, and it’s only going to get bigger and bigger!” Ivan revealed with an excitement uncommon for a 40 year-old. Other than money, what do large prize pools mean for players? Ivan had an anecdote handy for me:

“I’ve heard many people say: Uber is great, I can earn 30 dollars more a day just by driving. But what are they adding to their lives? They are just exchanging their time for money.”

NutZ, the winner of the first EndGods Tournament. Image Credit: Sparkjumpers
NutZ, the winner of the first EndGods Tournament. Image Credit: Sparkjumpers

But for us, we’re adding value to your life. If you, as a journalist, would become an eSports athlete now in our arena [EndGods], you’ll walk away, every year, with 50k – 100k  a year in prizemoney. That’s for now, but in the future you’re going to be making a living out of it.

“If your annual earnings are 200 thousand dollars a year from our tournaments, it’s safe to say that the money you’ll be making is not far from what you would make as a journalist yourself. But that’s just one thing. Think about the leadership, teamwork, and other skills you would have picked up. The glamour you would have gained as a eSports athlete, rather than a Uber driver.”

I find Sparkjumper’s efforts exceptionally commendable as they have been quietly making eSports possible in Singapore. Large prize pools allow players to sustain themselves in the pursuit of eSports, thus legitimising it as a way of life.

Their first two tournaments were small community affairs in spite of their large prize pools (50k, then 100k). John explained it as a way for them to “give back and recognise to the community which supports and sustains them”.

This is of course not without risk. Players taking the leap of faith into eSports through End Gods have to recognize that they are ultimately at the mercy of the game’s survival. The player, like an investor, has to decide if the company is worth their time and stability.

Of course, it’s not to say that there is any reason to doubt the track record of Sparkjumper’s founders. In an ideal world, this partnership between community and company would be mutually beneficial, but Sparkjumpers still has to wait in order to reap their rewards: eSports is still a huge question mark in Singapore.

The 2016 champion in action. Image Credit: Sparkjumpers
The 2016 Endgods champion, Lincon Poh, in action. Image Credit: Sparkjumpers

With such huge prize pools in the horizon, I asked Ivan when was the tipping point for them where they turned EndGods into eSports.

“To be honest and humble, we have not yet turned around. We are at our best point we’ve ever been, but we are still learning and we have only been active in South East Asia, and in Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam. Humbly speaking, we have definitely not “turned around” yet.”

Earlier in June, Grace Fu, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth had acknowledged eSports: “I am well aware that eSports, or competitive gaming, resonates with many youths and enables you to connect with one another.”

With such a humble approach to both community and vision, I believe that Sparkjumper’s dream can soon become reality. -Vulcan Post

 

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