As most of you who read my articles know, I'm a big fan of online gaming. More specifically, I'm an Xbox Live addict. Microsoft's underdog clearly displayed how relevant to the evolution of console play it really is as the Live model has become a huge success, as well as a big step forward for the industry. Xbox Live affords the ability to instantly play with other gamers from all over the world, and with that comes a natural evolution - the need for top quality competition. I'm talking about players who are serious enough about their games to spend hours with clanmates working over map positioning, all manner of new strategies, and the myriad of other aspects that add up to quality teamwork. Now, these gamers need a place to battle it out for rank, and they've got one ? Team Compete
. From the largest Rainbow Six 3 ladder site, to the new home for Halo 2 players, TC has something for every one of you hardcore maniacs, and today we're talking with The Veeg?founder and chief architect of TC. With over 165,000 members and the recent launch of the innovative and first professional gaming league specifically for Xbox console gamers, I wanted to share their success story, their challenges, their view of the console gaming space and introduce the site to those not already familiar with Teamcompete and the people who make it happen.
Gaming Target: It's hard to believe it's been almost 3 ? years since Xbox debuted, and 2 ? since the introduction of Live. I'm sure that things have been moving quite fast for you at Teamcompete. When did you get into the business and most importantly - why did you get started?
Actually it seems like the Xbox came out 10 years ago. Gaming years are like dog years?5-10 times the activity and 20 times the drama found in other businesses. The velocity of the business and the close personal contact with the users is what sets it apart I believe. New launches and the run-up to the launch keep the adrenaline levels high. Intense competitions ALL THE TIME, and the ?in your face? forum communications that help tie the community together. Together they make for an intense and 24/7 business that makes it SEEM LIKE we have been doing it forever. We actually just passed our second anniversary the end of January 2005.
We actually got started right after the Xbox launched and I was regularly playing Ghost Recon with several dedicated gamers and teams on Xbox Live. It was apparent to me that there were some missing pieces in the Xbox Live environment?namely the team, league and challenge components normally found in any professional or amateur sports program. Ideas (both solicited and unsolicited---we got a LOT of help from the user community early on) from other gamers and my own designs led to a prototype in Q1 of 2003. We put up the concept, created the prototype, and 15,000 people showed up. We knew then that this was something more than a good idea, and something that needed regular care and feeding in a business like manner---not to be treated as a hobby or evening activity. WHY it came about is pretty simple: the community as a whole recognized a need and helped me to specify that need. Teamcompete the business came about to capitalize on that need and deliver our corporate vision to build the BEST and most COMPREHENSIVE site for Xbox Console gamers. My background with computer software and solutions was a good fit for what was needed to build the necessary systems and tools and combined with my gamer instincts, and the support of the gamer community, it just took hold.
GT: Why Teamcompete? Why not just use some other site out there at the time? That seems like a lot of work to build a solution and a company to meet the needs of a bunch of gamers, though the hardcore players out there obviously appreciate it.
Good point. Don't think that we haven't asked ourselves that same question more than once in the past! I mentioned that I had a background in building systems solutions for similar types of corporate challenges. That allowed me to KNOW that we could do a better job than anyone else attempting to solve these same problems (and that is assuming that someone else had even identified the problems at that time -- that is). I also looked at what was being done to address the competition side of the equation and saw that for the most part people were all using FREEWARE for ladderboards, forums, etc? making the only difference between sites their color scheme and layout of the same features and functions. I didn't want to be another color of a ?me-too? site. And the level of effort required to bolt in the additional missing but required functions to some of the freeware sites was not significantly different from the level of effort required to build our own system. So with the goal of having a system that we could MODIFY and EXPAND much easier (and cheaper) over time as the complexity and number of supported games grew---we set out to build our own solutions which are today the Teamcompete service offerings.
Teamcompete has been free since inception. However, you just said you've been writing code and building solutions for two years. I would venture a guess and say that there are a few servers that need hosting as well. These things all cost money. How do you do both? And more curiously - why do you continue to give it away?
First business point here is that we COULDN'T charge anyone for anything when we first started. We were constantly in beta or testing and refinement mode. You can't expect people to pay for something that is not finished in today's Internet world. In return for their USE of the system and FEEDBACK on required features, we have been able to provide the services to the community at large at no charge. We also made the commitment early on to the community that we would keep Teamcompete free as we envisioned advertising and sponsorships supporting the bulk of all fixed costs. Secondly, we felt that building a huge community of users who WANTED to be there was far more important than profits early on.
As to how we do it, I'm not going to go into corporate finances but one thing that helped us out tremendously early on was our ?Founding Members?. We offered a lifetime of use for no charge ever to people who could donate $100 or more early on in 2003. We brought in some money to help offset the hosting costs and it helped us buy some more time to gain additional funding and development. We continue to develop ( a LOT of development actually) on a monthly basis and we have been subsidizing and feeding the operation since inception to build the business base and community that we have currently. If we had to hire all the talent (we have over 20 key, dedicated Admins working in every facet of the admin, competition, cheating, new products, tournaments and marketing aspects of the site) needed to support this business it would have closed long ago. The volunteer support and level of talent and professionalism in our community is incredible. We have been blessed with good people making significant personal commitments to help us see the vision through to fruition. The servers you mentioned are a definite fact of life that we need to pay for monthly. And there are a LOT of dedicated servers and firewalls in place to support this series of web properties. But we have our resources and we're just beginning to turn the focus from development to advertising and sponsorship to help offset the costs and perhaps even turn a profit (PROFIT! What the hell is that?).
Finally?why we continue to give it away? Because we committed to our community that we would maintain a free service. We have always lived by the fact that we do what we say and we say what we do. We know that loyalty is a two way street. And as long as we can find a way to keep the service offering free, we will do so. It will only be a last ditch save that would require us to charge for what has been free since day one?and that certainly is not in the cards anywhere currently.
GT: Teamcompete is larger than any other Xbox Live competition site out there. Why do you think that is and what do you do to keep it that way?
The size issue is directly related to the community of First Person Shooters and their close knit relationships. They came to Teamcompete early, they liked what they saw and they told LOTS OF OTHER people about it. We have been able to see the same results as each new game came out (except for Purple Haze, XIII, Mech Assult2 and a handful of others that the community just did not support or like?or both?for whatever reason). We're large because we're giving the community what they want and what they cannot get at other sites. It is a simple business formula when you look into it that way. But to support that, you also need to exhibit a lot of integrity in all your actions with the gamers and do what you say you will do at all times. We have made many mistakes, and owned up to them all along the way. If the gamer community knows you are looking out for the best interests of creating a level playing field for their competitions, they will support the efforts and tell their friends about it as well.
As far as keeping the community growing, we do whatever we can to deliver on everything we promise and communicate as much as possible so that expectations and reality are in synch. Visibility through articles such as this one never hurts us either and we try to find good partners to help spread the word into their community for us.
GT: Teamcompete recently launched a Pro League -- The Teamcompete Pro League (TCPL). Tell us about it and how it compares or contrasts to the original Teamcompete --- The Teamcompete Open League (TCOL).
First off a little about the TCOL to be able to contrast the new to the old. Relating more to its roots and the evolution of gaming competition sites and practices on the Internet, the TCOL is structured around each game - meaning that there are about 9 leagues running at any one time supporting 9 games. New games are added and old games are dropped as play begins or slows down accordingly. The first innovation that we created was to run a league for 10-13 weeks and then shut it off and conduct a playoff to determine a champion??a true champion no different than in the SuperBowl where division leaders are seeded into a playoff system and the top seed doesn't necessarily always make it to the finals. By contrast, most other sites continue to run ladders where the top team may be 127-21 and as a new member there is NO WAY IN HELL you will ever get to that level as they have a 2 year running start on you. Our community thought that being able to come in and COMPETE on an even footing (new starts for records every 3 months more or less) was a huge feature advantage?.so we continued to build on that concept. The second innovation we developed was our challenge system where every selectable feature of a game (as built by the publisher) was subject to the rules of play for the match you negotiate with your opponent. What does that mean to the teams? Quite simply, the freeware sites use standard, always the same rules for every match. If you play 70 matches in a season (other sites now copy the season metaphor we implemented BTW) you play all 70 matches exactly the same. It is EASY to have the software only look at who played whom and track the results. It took a lot of development to allow players to custom craft the match parameters as they mutually agree between teams---adding a degree of customization and variety not found elsewhere.
With the Pro League, we actually started from scratch and rewrote the software to upgrade and enhance what we had learned in the first year of hardcore gaming on Teamcompete. It was in design and development for almost 18 months before we could launch it late in 2004. The TCPL takes a totally different approach to gaming than what you find in the Open League. The TCPL is classic league competition. For example a league of 16 teams playing Black Arrow Wed, Sat and Sun for 10 weeks. Fixed rules set for every match. Fixed schedule of opponents for the 30 matches played. At the end of the season we stack rank the 16 teams and the top 25% enter a playoff round to determine their final places in the top 4 (you could end up the season with the best record but falter in the playoffs and end up #4 as an example).
The big difference between the two approaches comes down to a public community vs a private community. Some people are OK With playing in a huge public arena and others prefer a more intimate private league setting where you get to know the opponents much better. The standards are obviously easier to enforce in a smaller community and there is no place to hide for a cheater where you are KNOWN and VISIBLE.
GT: Why did you even go to the effort to build the Pro League? Is it just a way to make money on subscriber fees, or something more mutually beneficial?
Money seems to be a bad word to some gamers. Why do you think that is? The same people by the way who pay $50 monthly for bandwidth, $50 annually for Live subscriptions, $50 each for 5-6 games annually, and on and on and on. Whenever you want to charge for something there will always be people who do not want to pay for it. And a fee based system is obviously NOT for them. And we can agree to part friends and go our separate ways. But there is a LARGE community of gamers who are willing and able to pay to play in private gaming communities where the environment is more controlled and the integrity of both the players and the league itself is held to a higher standard than anywhere else?..and to create such an environment costs money. And when you spend money to build a service, you charge money to use the service as a way to pay back the costs and then earn a profit (there is that profit word again). We saw the need. We created a solution and we're charging to use the solution. A lot like Microsoft charges you to use their operating system solution XP by the way.
But way beyond creating a private community of gamers?Teamcompete is creating truly Professional Console Gaming. That is the real driver behind the TCPL. Professional gaming is not an arena in Chicago where you fly to and carry your console to attend a LAN event and calling it professional gaming simply because you fly to play or a sponsor puts up $5,000. But we're creating an environment where people can actually be Professional Gamers in their family rooms on their Xbox. THAT IS WHAT WE BUILT THE TCPL FOR. You may recall that Skate Boarders were considered radical and on the fringe until one of the most radical of them called Tony Hawk figured out how to package and market PROFESSIONAL level skateboarding. Gamers today all secretly strive and desire to be the Tony Hawk of Xbox Console Gaming??and they all can't fly to 2-3 LAN events a year in their quest to to prove it. The skill level, the commitment and the desire to participate in a professional level of console gaming is all out there currently. We built the TCPL to be the place that they can all come together in COMPETITIVE LEAGUES where the best surface and the sponsor community takes notice of them and helps us to both promote and grow the reach and importance of the sport. Did you want to watch Texas Holde-em Poker in 2002? Likely not. But Broadcasting of the events helped change that. We know that people WILL want to watch competitive video game matches in 2006---and we're going to have our TCPL members in the front of the pack when it happens.
People come into the TCOL for free, and develop their skills and relationships. They step into the TCPL for the highest level of competition and quality play. We have built our systems and support offerings to help make all of this happen.