Our Growing Pains Building Enterprise Software for Video Game Arenas, LAN Centers and Virtual Reality (VR) or eSports Venues.

Interestingly enough, after being a terrible blogger over the years, somehow my blog here still sees nearly 1000 unique visits each month.  I am sure there are not many other resources for researching starting a gaming center and good old Google probably pushes a lot of keyword seekers my way.

For those that follow regularly you know that I started my first store 12+ years ago in 2004 which has always concentrated on events and eSports.  Before eSports was cool, we held tournaments monthly and in some years even weekly or more.

In late 2013 we released the first version of our software for tracking in-game stats and rewarding and ranking players in centers called ggCircuit.  We quickly grew to support hundreds of centers around the world but the software we all used to run our stores was archaic and no longer served our needs.

Here is an example of how we built our software originally to work with third party management software running in the local centers:

how-ggcircuit-was-built

So in late 2015 and early 2016 we began building our own solution from the ground up which we call ggLeap.  Instead of following the traditional model of local servers doing all of the heavy lifting, we wanted a cloud-based solution to remove the need of highly trained technicians setting up stores.  Not to mention the hours of work it takes to make everything work in a center environment.

By summer of 2016 we had a pretty good working prototype and I sacrificed my two eBash centers in July to move from our old software to the new ggLeap solution.  By sacrificing I can show you the slump in sales year-over-year that we have experience both because my focus is on the software primarily but also because our customers have suffered through all of the errors running beta software.

We also installed it and ran our set-up of 200+ stations for Gen Con in August.  By using our live installations as the sacrificial lambs we gained months of testing in weeks and sometimes days and turned our development team up to turbo speeds fixing issues for our real world environment.

Here is how ggLeap now works:
how-ggleap-changes-things

The great thing about accelerating our development cycle for eBash was that we were ready when we received a phone call from UCI eSports who had heard about the development of our solution and was 3 weeks from launching their arena.  They had tried all other available solutions and they had all failed network security requirements on campus.  Again, at the expense of our dev team’s time and our increased cost we pushed hard, flew out to their grand opening week, helped set-up our software as well as just helped with general set-up and they launched right on time.

At this point we were really drained financially, mentally and physically.  So we put out the call to our network of centers to join us on the trip and become pioneers in the process.  By contributing funds that would be stored as future credit on license fees they could start using the software early before our full release.  Throughout October we brought on just under 100 new centers.

Since we now had a great test bed, we ended the pioneer program and just allowed centers to sign up for early access if they wanted to run the software before release.  Since November we have brought on another nice size group of centers.

Then in December we were approached by Alienware to bid on a contract to run our software on their new showcases being built at 50 Best Buy locations in the US.  This was exactly what we needed.  The chance to ramp up our development cycle building features that were both applicable to their project but also important to get us closer to full release for game centers.

Over the holidays our team work furiously, we were awarded the contract with only 3 weeks before the first test launch.  In the middle of this we also had a few of us traveling to CES 2017 in a partnership with EBlue to show off our software alongside their awesome eSports hardware solutions.

ggcircuit-and-eblue-at-ces-2017

ggCircuit and Eblue team showing off our eSports arena set-up at CES 2017

January was a blur, I was flying everywhere and so were many members of our team.  Not only at CES for a week, but check this travel schedule out:

1/2 – Jmac flies to MN for BB
1/2 – Zack/Dustin fly to LV for CES
1/3 – Zack/Dustin set-up CES, Jmac testing at BB
1/4 – Jmac and Mark fly to LV to join us at CES
1/5 through 1/9 – CES and travel back home
1/11 – Zack and Dustin fly to MN for BB
1/12 – 1/14 – Zack and Dustin set-up first BB install in Mall of America
1/17 – 1/19 – Dustin back in MN for work on installer
1/22 – 1/25 – Dustin/Zack and Mark in TX for second install at BB

Keep in mind that this entire time the development team is working 12-16 hour days and most weeks 7 days per week.

ggcircuit-and-ggleap-with-alienware-at-best-buy

ggLeap and ggCircuit at the Alienware installation for Best Buy Mall of America

Our very first hiccup came the week of 1/22, where we had issues with our messaging service.  This is not messaging like chat, this is a service that takes all of our data between clients and servers in the massive network.  The third party we were using was starting to falter and we had just used them to save time thinking we would go back and setup our own later.  Well, later became that week as we began our transition to solve the 4 hour outage we had with that company’s services.

This is such a crucial part of our system because this messaging service provides about 20 links between processes that run on our servers with EVERY single location we run.  So…. imagine for easy math we have 100 locations we support, that is 20 x 100 = 2000 simultaneous links with processors.

Which brings us to last night, February 3rd.  This week we have added more centers as well as added the remaining BB installation locations and it all came to a stop as the system was overwhelmed with connections (still running on the third party messaging platform, as our devs were planning the move to our solution this coming Tuesday and the last two weeks of updates were laying the foundation to make the move next week).

So for about 3 hours last night again the servers were extremely spotty and down for long periods of time again.  I am not sure that it is clear, but trust me that the pressure on us for supporting a network of centers is like a reverse pyramid marketing program.  Think about it this way:

– Every center running our software has tons of customers that are upset when things don’t work and they take it out on employees, lets say 100 points of pressure for easy math or “100 PP”
– Employees don’t like it when customers are mad, so they then put the pressure on managers/owners, let’s say 3 employees per store x 100 PP = 300 PP
– Managers and owners then put that pressure on the ggLeap support staff, here is where it gets scary, 200 owners x 300 PP = 60,000 PP
– ggLeap support staff are then passing that along to the dev team, 4 support staff x 60,000 PP = 240,000 PP
– ggLeap devs and support are putting the pressure on ggLeap management and owners, 4 devs x 240,000 PP = 960,000 PP

Trust me… we feel it more than anyone can imagine.

All of us at ggCircuit are not software people first, we are game center people first.  So I know firsthand the pressure on staff and customers at a store.  My stores are down at the same time everyone else is down.

So I have two crushing problems at this point on me personally that might seem to be in contrast, but actually push us toward the same place in the end:

As a store owner I demand 100% up time
As the CEO of a software company I want to provide 100% up time

So as my software CEO self, I would say to my owner self: “Hey, we are doing the best we can building a cutting edge solution and we are in early access!”

Then as my owner self, I would say to my software CEO self: “This is the lifeblood of my business, every second offline costs me money!”

Here is the bright side of the entire process.  We are as laser focused as ever on our path to unify centers and gamers through software from all over the world.  We still have never doubted our choice to build a cloud-based system.  We will take the responsibility when necessary for our growing pains and always promise to work around the clock to limit any downtime.

We will be in full release in less than 2 months.  Those running the software with us now truly are PIONEERS in this journey.  That is why we are allowing their contributions as pioneers to apply for future license fees and letting them use it basically free of charge during this early access.

Just know that we will look back on this post in a year when we have tens of thousands of locations and millions of players and the pain won’t seem as bad as it is today.  That is when companies are paying us to reach our customers and all of our stores have extra +$$k in revenue that would not have had on our own.

 

My eBash Pitch on Shark Tank Season 2

640x180-q100_82fae8c8b831dcee02b63fc3ded709da

Many of you know that I filmed for Shark Tank Season 2 all the WAY back in 2010.  They told me there were over 10,000 applications for season 2, narrowed down to just 45 of us that were flown to LA to film and pitch the sharks. Of the 45 that filmed I believe they ended up using 32 on the episodes that season.

They filmed two days with Jeff Foxworthy and two days with Mark Cuban. I was filmed with Jeff Foxworthy who was the first person that spoke after I finished my pitch and said “I think video games are terrible for kids, I am out”. Even so after long negotiations with mostly O’Leary who loved the idea I didn’t get a deal, I didn’t cry, and obviously Cuban got the long term contract and Foxworthy sucked on the show so my pitch never made it to air.

I guarantee you that if Cuban had met me that weekend instead of Foxworthy, we would have made a deal.
Long story short, while digging through old files today I found my pitch that the producers went back and forth with me to finalize in the weeks leading up to filming the show and thought it would be fun to share it:
**************************
Hi my name is Zack Johnson and I am the founder and owner of eBash Video Game Centers. I am here seeking $200k in funding and in exchange I am willing to give up 20% equity in our companies.
A few years ago while leading the youth program at our church my wife and I were brainstorming activities for the group. We invited the middle and high school students to bring their favorite video game systems for an all night lock-in at the church building. They loved it! We couldn’t hold enough of these events and each time more-and-more kids would show up. I knew we were onto something.
So I started eBash. eBash is a modern day arcade, ON STEROIDS. Each eBash location is equipped with state-of-the-art gaming stations where gamers can play the top games on the latest systems and try out high end equipment before they make big purchases. Players pay by the hour to use the facility.
But the best part is the income goes beyond just gamers PAYING to use our equipment in our store. We are selling energy drinks, soft drinks, candy and snacks while they are there. We stock the store with thousands of current generation games and accessories AND all of them are available for gamers to buy and take home! Gamers cannot try out high end equipment anywhere else and most big box retail stores do not carry any of these products. I now have game companies calling me to put their products in our stores to reach this lucrative demographic.
We have 2 successful eBash locations and I want to have thousands more all over the US. With the Shark’s help I am ready to have eBash take its piece of the $24 billion dollar video game industry!

Dear Smartlaunch, Stop Hurting Video Game LAN eSports Centers and Arenas

So… I got this cool email from Smartlaunch today (pasted at the bottom). For those of you late to the game, in June of this year I sent Smartlaunch an email letting them know ggCircuit (my software company) will be discontinuing support of Smartlaunch on July 1.  I sent the email on June 27 and then 3 days later on June 30, Smartlaunch announced their “eSports 5.0” product.  It is posted on their “blog” which was the last post made on there the same day they announced eSports Leagues which never have started.  I did a quick screen grab of their site this morning:
smartlaunch-screen-grab

Smartlaunch Screen Grab from October 31, 2016

 
As you all know, there wasn’t anything close to being a product yet, who knows if there was actually one at that point. After months of people trying to get it, some people actually got something installed (which has to be done directly working with one guy) and it was obviously not anywhere near finished.
 
So today, on the last day of our ggLeap pioneer program, they sent the email below to let all of us know that it “has been released”.  Sounds great?  But is it is an official product that we can all run our centers with and feel good about?  
 
During this time Smartlaunch keeps signing centers up with “BIG” discounts for 1, 2 and 3 year contracts. Then nothing works right, they disappear and stop helping centers and move on to try and sell the next long contract.  I know this because the list is LONG of centers coming to us just happy that we answer the phone, reply to emails, answer FB messages, give our Skype account to them, etc.
I absolutely don’t care about competition with our own software, if I give them the courtesy of allowing them to be anywhere near our product to call them a competitor.  For those that know me, I thrive on competition.  I welcome it.  I am driven on the thought of someone out working me to the finish line.

For the 12 years I have ran my centers I firmly believe that Smartlaunch has caused our industry to be stagnant and been solely responsible for many centers closing their doors.

While that may seem like a strong statement, here are the facts to support it:
  • In 2004 when I opened eBash, Smartlaunch software license could be purchased for a one-time fee.  We paid $1,500 for our copy and not only was it promoted as no other fees in the future, we could also actively sell our license to other stores.  This was a REAL program they supported, you contacted them and said “I sold my license for 27 stations to this email address” and they would transfer them.  Crazy, they actually made the licenses a commodity and gave them value almost like a bar with a liquor license.
  • Smartlaunch then went into financial ruin.  I know more than most about what happened.  But I will keep this extremely fact based.  They went out of business.
  • All of a sudden, they are back in business again and guess what?  Now you have to pay a monthly fee for the licenses for the EXACT SAME THING YOU ALREADY BOUGHT for a one time fee.  It seems like a joke, but it wasn’t.  Because the licenses we bought outright still authenticated on boot up they were able to just shut everyone off without a monthly subscription.  How does a monthly subscription even make sense when the software runs on game center servers at the game centers?  There is no SaaS model here, and there were no new updates to justify charging monthly.
  • Up until I guess today (if we believe this is a NEW product released today) the software has been on the exact same version since I started in 2004.  Yep, 12 years of the exact same version of software being provided and still charging monthly with nothing new and worthwhile developed.
  • The software is dated and therefore it still takes tech geniuses to be able to run it.  You have to set-up a local server, understand databases, be able to write batch files and search the internet for extra solutions.  Business people cannot run LAN centers using Smartlaunch, they have to be technically savvy and spend hours with work-around solutions to get things to work correctly.
  • Here is the big one:  For all of the  years that I have been in business as a LAN center owner, Smartlaunch has NEVER been concerned with making sure their own customers are successful.  It has always been about the money.  For them centers come-and-go and is all water under the bridge.

This is why today’s email makes me so upset.  Smartlaunch doesn’t care about the centers, they just care about the fact that someone else like us (www.ggleap.com) has finally started a product that actually helps centers.  They are willing to lie to people, take their money and then literally put them out of business and move on to the next center.

To continue to break down where we are at today, let’s take a look at the main differences between our product, ggLeap, and Smartlaunch’s new product they are calling eSports 5.0 from feedback with centers that have ran it so far:

ggLeap

Smartlaunch
Cloud-based servers Yes No
Web-based admin usable anywhere Yes No
Game license management between multiple centers Yes No
Free game licenses like Battlefield 1 Yes No
Multiple center support channels Yes No
Player stat tracking in-game with leaderboards Yes (3 years) No Proof
Unique prize and redemption system Yes (3 years) No Proof
Integrated touranment bracket software Yes (3 years) No Proof
Prize support from major gaming companies Yes No
Built by LAN center owners Yes No

Currently we are moving centers over to ggLeap that have “upgraded” to Smartlaunch’s new eSports 5.0 product.  They can’t get rid of it.  It is either so genius in programming as an intentional take over of control of the machine or so completely poorly written that they forgot to make a way to uninstall it. Centers are now just formatting their PCs to get rid of the Smartlaunch product and start over from scratch!

Thanks for the Monday morning motivation Smartlaunch.  If that was not your intention, then sorry about your luck.  Just stop over-promising and under-delivering and I will leave you alone.  In the meantime you are putting my friends and good centers out of business so it is very personal for me.

I will leave everyone with the copy of the email I received today from Smartlaunch which is a desperate ploy to try and keep customers from jumping ship.

************* Email from Smartlaunch sent today, October 31 ***************

Hello

Smartlaunch eSports 5.0 has been released! eSports is experiencing explosive growth, which has made it a necessity for game centers to deliver advanced services to an increasingly sophisticated customer base.

Smartlaunch eSports 5.0 is a state-of-the-art software platform designed to deliver a complete eSports solution to Game Centers and eSports Arenas. Smartlaunch eSports 5.0 introduces a wide range of tools for day to day management of an eSports centers as well as administration tools for organization of local eSports events and participation in international competitions.

Smartlaunch eSports 5.0 comes with long awaited features such as automated game loading and patching in addition to a suite of eSports features including popular game statistics, player rankings and individual profiles for players and teams.

You can upgrade to Smartlaunch eSports 5.0 under the supervision of Smartlaunch Support. For more information and to book your installation contact me at vj@smartlaunch.com or support@smartlaunch.com.

Vinay Java
Smartlaunch
vj@smartlaunch.com

eSports Arena in Universities, Commercial Use Permits, University of California at Irvine UCI grand opening, ggLeap Software updates

Today we cover quite a bit about our software powering the launch of the University of California Irvine eSports Arena along with the big jump in colleges and universities getting into the eSports game.

So proud of our software and our team.  We are truly in the right place at the right time with something special.

 

ggLeap software powering University of California at Irvine (UCI) new eSports Arena

Still in early access, our software (www.ggLeap.com) is going to be powering UCI when they launch their eSports Arena next week as well as Robert Morris University, the first university to give eSports scholarships. The media is starting to pick up on the UCI launch story. I can’t wait to head out there next week and be a part of the future of eSports.

https://www.engadget.com/2016/09/14/esports-arena-college-uc-irvine-leage-of-legends/

uci

VR in LAN Centers / eSports Arenas

Tonight we started off talking about VR in LAN centers and what eBash will be doing in the space.  We then touched on game nights and casual eSports tournaments followed by ggLeap updates including:

  • Increased client security
  • Offers coming soon, as well as reporting on offers/sales
  • New releases next week
  • Building up to the http://www.esports.uci.edu/ launch next week!