Esports, also known as competitive video gaming, is – in the words of GAMURS co-founder and CEO Riad Chikhani – a “ridiculously big industry… still in its infancy”. Worldwide, there are 191 million esports enthusiasts plus another 194 million occasional viewers… and it’s forecast that by 2020, this combined audience will have risen 53% .
Still, when Chikhani and his four co-founders first sought capital for their Sydney-based esports multi-media startup, many investors simply couldn’t wrap their heads around the size of the industry, let alone the prize money being made by professional gamers. With education, however, investors ‘caught on’ and now, 18 months on from launch, GAMURS is a global leader in its industry.
In conversation with Dynamic Business, Chikhani revealed how GAMURS pivoted its way to success, the debt he and his co-founders owe to a trio of Slingshot mentors, the company’s next moves and what keeps him up at night.
DB: Can you provide an overview of GAMURS?
Chikhani: GAMURS is an esports media company and network that launched in February 2016. We’re growing an esports community, where competitive gamers and fans alike receive updates on their favourite videogames and otherwise enjoy an enhanced experience.
For example, we operate the world’s largest esports publisher Dot Esports, which delivers content ranging from breaking industry news and exclusive interviews through to tournament coverage as well as pre- and post-match analysis. Currently, we cover 12 esports titles, including League of Legends, Overwatch, Counter Strike, Call of Duty and Dota 2.
Outside of Dot Esports, we have ten services, including our Esports Professionals Network, with a few more coming up – for example, we’re looking at a new B2B offering… think LinkedIn for esports.
DB: How did GAMURS come into existence?
Chikhani: While in high school, my friends Phillip Luu, Malik Akl and I co-founded Rune Gear, which was a forum dedicated to the fantasy MMORPG RuneScape. Looking back on it now, it was a very basic site… still, it was the first business any of us had run, and we were all under the age of 15. We ran the forum up until we graduation, at which point we sold it. We then decided to reteam on a similar offering… but catering for the wider gaming community – this business eventually became GAMURS, which we co-founded with our friends Carl Oehme and Halim Yoo in December 2014.
DB: What distinguishes GAMURs from competitors?
Chikhani: Although esports is a ridiculously big industry, with hundreds of millions of viewers worldwide, it’s still in its infancy. Pre-GAMURS, many of the popular esports content providers were operated by students out of college dorm rooms, which isn’t very sustainable in the business sense. With GAMURS, we’ve created a company that can and will continue providing esports content into the long-term. We employ 30 employees across offices in Sydney and Austin, Texas. Our team focuses on corporate, product and tech while our US team looks after content marketing and social.
DB: How does the startup generate its revenue?
Chikhani: Being a media company, we generate revenue through advertising but we’re heading towards deriving our main income from other products and services. For instance, we’re building a virtual gaming university where amateurs through to semi-professional players can learn about their favourite games and develop their skills – we’ll charge a monthly subscription for that. We’re also working on a joint venture with Brisbane startup Puntaa to launch an esports fantasy platform. Their betting expertise and legal know-how, when combined with our esports expertise, will ensure we provide a long-term solution that is legal and regulated.
DB: Can you give a sense of GAMURS’s growth?
Chikhani: We’re currently enjoying 3.2 million unique site visits, per month, across all our sites and we’re looking to increase that to around 4 million by the end of 2017. Further, we have a returning user rate of around 60%. On top of this, we have a massive social media following, with 60 million unique users and more than 200 million impressions per month. These are hugely positive results for us given that when we launched, we only had about 40,000 monthly active users.
DB: What has been a key factor in this success?
Chikhani: GAMURS has pivoted a handful of time. In the beginning, it was a simply a gaming social network. Then it evolved into a website where people, predominantly fans of Counter Strike and League of Legends, could find compatible teams and players, based on their gaming stats, language, etc. Today, we’re an esports media company and network. I’d probably attribute 95% of our success to our decision to pivot into esports.
DB: How have prospective investors reacted to GAMURS?
Chikhani: We’ve had meetings with investors who’ve since backed us but were initially sceptical. I’ve given my pitch, explained we’re an esports media company, and they’ve responded, ‘that’s not a real thing’. In the beginning, investors just couldn’t understand that people would sit for hours on end watching other play videogames competitively or buy tickets to watch people compete in stadium-sized tournaments.
Once we’d tell them esports players were competing for prize pools in excess of $20 million, getting paid salaries and living in team houses… well, it became harder to get our message across. Fair enough, it’s not something most of them grew up with. With education, however, they’ve caught on. For instance, we’ve shown them YouTube video and Twitch footage of esports events. It helps that esports isn’t as niche as it was three or four years ago, when we were getting started. To date, we’ve attracted $4.5 million in funding from Australian investors.
DB: What is the rationale for focusing on 12 games?
Chikhani: We’re always on the lookout for new videogame titles to cover and we do cover additional titles on as-needed basis (e.g. major tournaments, breaking news); however, we’re hesitant about focusing on further titles unless we can foresee a real return (e.g. new users) because it might become unwieldy.
In terms of our process for selecting esports titles, we have a hybrid model – we make data-driven decisions about what to cover but we also rely on our intuition. For example, when one of our team members gets wind of a promising, in-development game, we’ll request to test it, maybe do a bit of analysis, and speak to the publisher about whether they’re going to push it into esports.
DB: What value did you get out of NRMA Jumpstart?
Chikhani: When we entered the NRMA Slingshot Jumpstart Program in December 2014, we were all around 19 years of age and none of us had actually worked a real day job. We thought it’d be invaluable to have a mentor… someone who would join us on our journey and tells us what we should be doing, where we should be heading and point out when we’re f***ing up.
I knew GAMURS had legs but I didn’t think I’d be here TODAY with 30 employees and 3.2m monthly active users…this success is a tribute to the Slingshot program, especially our mentors and advisors Trent Bagnall, Craig Lambert and Andrew Campbell. The most valuable piece of advice we received was to focus on solving a problem that a large market has, and do that correctly. Everything else in business is secondary. If you don’t solve a problem, you’ll get nowhere.
DB: How will you capitalise on GAMURS’s success?
Chikhani: We expanded into the US in November, last year, because that’s where our audience directly sits. Next, we want to expand into Europe where the gamers are very similar to those in Australia and the US. They consume content in the same way and are interested in the same games. As such, it’s easier to replicate what we’re doing in Europe than, say, Asia where videogame appetites are very different. Entering Asia would require a more calculated approach, including greater investment and patience.
DB: What excites you about leading the startup?
Chikhani: Even though we’re one of the largest (if not the largest) esports networks globally, we’re only 5% of the way there. There’s so much more we can achieve, especially when the space we’re in is still evolving due to improvements in AI and VR. The things we’re capable of right now in esports will be outdated in three to five years and that keeps me up at night… but it also excites me. We have to remain diligent to continue providing our users and community the best service we can.
DB: I have to ask, what’s your favourite game?
Chikhani: I’ll probably get grilled by my team for this…but my favourite game at the moment is Overwatch due to its dynamic gameplay and the constant updates from developer Blizzard.
See also: For the love of the game: Young entrepreneur targets gaming networks and How to tell when your startup is a scaleup.