[toc]A Boston-based startup is connecting esports players who want to be more successful with the human capital they need to improve their skills.
Gamer Sensei, which matches up gamers with master “senseis” who offer personalized instruction and tools for improvement, announced on the back of its official launch last week that it acquired $2.3 million in venture funding from lead investors Boston Seed Capital and Accomplice.
And if early reports are any indication, the five-person company isn’t having trouble scaling.
Thousands of gamers, hundreds of Senseis
The company’s co-founders told ESBR that thousands of gamers have signed up in recent weeks to be paired with an instructor.
Once competitive players sign up to seek the wisdom of a master player, a proprietary algorithm will partner the player with the sensei best suited to them. The senseis will offer personalized, one-on-one lessons for players across a wide range of titles, including Hearthstone, the founders’ favorite game.
Lessons are conducted remotely, with the sensei and the player using whatever communication method (e.g. Skype) best suits them. Lessons can start at as little as $10-$15 an hour, co-founder William Collis said. He likened the relationship between player and sensei to a mentorship.
“It’s not some threatening coach yelling at you,” Collis said. “It’s really more like a friend that stands by you and helps you grow.”
“Many hundreds” of expert players have applied for and received sensei certification during the past two months in which the company was in private alpha, Collis said. Since becoming a sensei is a distinction created by the company, and largely new to the small but growing esports training industry, certification is entirely at the discretion of Gamer Sensei.
The certification process, similar to the lessons themselves, takes place online. Certification sometimes takes several days or even a week, and involves a formal application as well as multiple interviews and mock lessons where aspiring senseis demonstrate how they would coach a player.
Applicants are graded on a combination of hard skills (such as technical in-game acumen) and soft skills (like approachability and personality).
Collis’ business partner Rohan Gopaldas stressed that some of the world’s best players are not the best at communicating to other players how they can improve, and therefore don’t make the best senseis. Conversely, some players who aren’t among the best in the world have a knack for instruction.
Not just Hearthstone
Within Hearthstone tutorials, senseis have helped players get more comfortable with everything from gaining an edge in a skill-intensive mirror match, to formatting an optimal lineup for a tournament. Collis and Gopaldas say their site has received the most demand for Hearthstone lessons, compared to lessons for other titles, but that could be attributable to their own personal interest in the game.
Sensei instruction supports titles beyond Hearthstone, though, including League of Legends, Defense of the Ancients 2, Overwatch, StarCraft II and Heroes of the Storm. The co-founders plan on expanding to more titles, including the possibility of Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, in the coming months.
The company also has a curriculum development partnership with NRG eSports, a North American outfit which fields teams in both LoL and CS:GO, and has backing from the owners of the Sacramento Kings, Alex Rodriguez, Shaquille O’Neal and Jimmy Rollins.
While the details of the NRG partnership aren’t entirely clear, Collis said that some of NRG’s players might be made available to gamers looking to learn. The real opportunity with NRG, he said, was in working with the team to devise a way to teach the games most effectively.
Potential head-to-head betting application
To be clear, Gamer Sensei’s co-founders told ESBR that the fun and internal reward of improving one’s skill at a competitive game, and not esports wagering, inspired them to create their business. But one incidental avenue where lessons could prove effective is in the world of head-to-head esports wagering.
Head-to-head betting takes place when esports players wager on themselves either to win a one-on-one match or an esports tournament. While this form of wagering is not expressly regulated yet in any state, it is believed to be skill-based because it consists of players wagering on their own abilities.
A representative from the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement told ESBR this week that, at least in New Jersey, head-to-head wagering is believed to be legal, as opposed to traditional sports book style wagering or skins wagering, which fall into legal grey areas.
Nevada is currently in the process of regulating esports betting, and is expected to affirmatively legalize some form of esports wagering by mid-fall.
With the field of gamers rising into the hundreds of millions, the subset of those gamers willing and able to bet on themselves will only grow. A fun, approachable and affordable option for gamers looking to improve their level of play could also provide a way for gamers to make money off their skills.
A new report from Eilers & Krejcik Gaming and Narus Advisors estimates that just under five percent, or roughly $28 million, of all esports wagering in 2016 will be of the head-to-head variety.
Cracking the glass ceiling of elite gaming
Gamer Sensei was born out of Collis, Gopaldas and third co-founder Jiapeng Ji feeling frustrated with what they felt was a lack of options to improve at their favorite game, Hearthstone.
Night after night of repeated defeats produced feelings that extended beyond normal frustration. Gopaldas equated the sensation with a feeling of lost utility, or an even graver notion: that gaming was somehow becoming a waste of time.
The Harvard Business School grads wanted advice from the best, and an avenue to improve their skills beyond just watching others play and reading about game strategy. If this sounds like a more modernized, customized version of what went on during the online poker tutorial boom roughly a decade ago — estimated at one time to be a hundred-million dollar industry — that’s because it is.
But unlike many of those websites, which charged monthly fees, relied largely on tutorial videos and training exercises, and didn’t necessarily find the teacher who was the best fit for a student, Gamer Sensei is all about customization and interactivity.
“It’s interactive,” Collis said. “You can ask questions and get answers, and really develop a deep understanding of the material by having a dialogue with someone. It’s not just watch-and-learn, it’s a back and forth. And it’s customized.”
Once they realized the success of their model, they wanted to bring a personalized learning experience to the gaming community, a population estimated to be in the hundreds of millions.
“Our whole goal is to open the global market of talent of incredibly skilled gamers throughout the globe, and bring them to your doorstep,” Collis said. “That’s the beauty of the cloud-based model.”