Meeting in the middle: esports and fantasy sports

March 20, 2023
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Gaming America speaks to World Champion Fantasy CEO Mike Vela about his proposed hybrid evolution of esports and fantasy sports leagues.

The landscape for esports betting in the US has been firmly set, but in no way fulfilled when looking at the industry’s potential. Millions in viewership and, more importantly, billions in betting handle are projected. Yet, despite its discernible popularity, esports wagering is only completely legal in four states to date: Nevada, New Jersey, Tennessee and West Virginia.

The burning potential for US esports betting

So what’s the hold-up? Many esports experts believe US legislators simply do not understand esports as they do traditional betting and, therefore, are less inclined to allow it. With esports, the problem may be an abundance of demand and legal limitations affecting its supply. Speaking to Gaming America, World Champion Fantasy (WCF) believes it has a product that may herald an end to the US esports betting sector's woes. Indeed, WCF believes blending esports with fantasy sports in a family-friendly package may unlock its potential and allow it to flourish Stateside. Let's unpack why...

Fantasy sports: A disconnect between fans and the action?

WCF CEO Mike Vela feels he has identified a problem with fantasy sports, which he describes as ‘very boring,’ in relation to customer engagement. He tells us: “It’s a spreadsheet experience. There’s no engagement. There’s no real-life connection between what happens in fantasy sports and real life; the number changes and your score changes and that’s it.”

In an era where the importance of live betting and in-game action is emphasized by most sportsbook and iGaming operators, Vela may well have a point. Being a fantasy sports player of 20 years, he pondered the mundanity of the fantasy sports scoring experience when he attended Purdue University, Indiana. After leaving the University to work at tech companies, he would often ask himself: "Why does this corporation have a better tech solution than some of the fantasy sports solutions that are out there?” This burning question became the foundation for what would later become WCF. Vela set out to build a “next-generation fantasy sports platform that incorporates live video feeds; a real video game technology to make it feel like you’re actually playing and your team is actually playing for you.” 

Esports fans feel a connection between themselves and the video gamers they follow in a way that fantasy sports fans simply don’t (or didn’t) during games, according to Vela. There is no ‘celebration experience’ for fantasy league players – as Vela says: “There’s no instant replay that’s given to the user. We’re going to be supplying a more immersive experience that really connects the performance of the athletes to the fantasy solution, something that’s been missed, something that’s been dropped.”

Esports fans feel a connection between themselves and the video gamers they follow in a way that fantasy sports fans simply don’t (or didn’t) during games.

Connecting users with PlayerX

So how does WCF see itself connecting fantasy sports fans with the action? After all, while esports betting is an up-and-coming vertical, the likes of FanDuel and DraftKings enjoyed huge historic success in the fantasy sports category. Vela hopes the answer is ‘PlayerX.' At the moment, the CEO describes the esports community as ‘disconnected and fragmented,’ and says the new PlayerX portal aims to “bring them all together by having the most games you can enjoy, play, stream and watch as you’re playing fantasy sports. Our company goal is to onboard 20 unique esports game titles in the next five years.” Player tracking will be an important aspect of PlayerX, with users able to engage with others easily. A simple tap of their profile will take you directly to the game they are in. Customization elements mean you can design your own avatar, have your own skin and even select a theme song for when you score points.

Vela's dream was to: “See fantasy sports playing like an Xbox game” and to “build relationships between real-life play, real-life performance and real-life professional athletes playing in a video game format where other people can play alongside them.” Emblematic of this is the relationship between WCF and Juju Smith-Schuster, a Kansas City Chiefs Player who has agreed to be a spokesperson for the company. Smith-Schuster is the owner of Team Diverge, an organization that shares plenty of common ground with WCF, as it looks to blend sports, gaming culture and popular streamers all in one.   

The name PlayerX is meant to personalize fantasy sports and remove the anonymous aspect that had left the sector feeling a bit cold, according to Vela. The CEO adds: “PlayerX is a kind of tip to the hat to math and science. X can mean anything you want. It can mean any team you want; any game you want. You can be your own PlayerX.” The idea that Vela propagates here is inclusion for every type of person. However, like any company, WCF has certain demographics in mind who will be most receptive to the platform’s next-gen properties.

Although technological progress has been made on traditional gambling sites, fantasy sports leagues have not been treated to the same level of advancement, in Vela's opinion: “What’s been left in the wake of this is a younger audience. The problem that these younger kids have, the Gen Z’s, even the Alphas, is that they don’t have any place to play.” With PlayerX, he envisions a single gaming space in which these younger gamers can follow their favorite pro players, favorite pro streamers or favorite pro esports athletes. To do this, WCF will need to have unparalleled communication capabilities; thankfully it has found a partner for this challenge with Verizon.

With PlayerX, Vela envisions a single gaming space in which these younger gamers can follow their favorite pro players, favorite pro streamers or favorite pro esports athletes.

New Verizons

In fairness, it is rare for a fantasy sports company to team up with a telecommunications giant such as Verizon. Verizon was intrigued at the prospect of a family-friendly, non-gambling esports company which made it happy to ‘throw it all in a bucket’ with WCF. Verizon will provide the WCF with technology from BlueJeans, a cloud-based video conferencing company. This will give WCF high-performance streaming capabilities, enabling it to offer all kinds of fun perks to its customers who will be able to partake in virtual conferences with their league mates and get to have ‘watch parties’ – all within the PlayerX app.

This brings the fantasy sports demographic together in an unprecedented way. As Vela says, before it was all impersonal – “You kind of sent an email or a text message here and there. You really don’t get that feeling of communication and community where you can all share together and that’s a big deal in this day and age.”

Verizon is helping WCF to build an AI-driven automatic highlight feed for any player on a customer’s team. That means if a fan misses the action of their favorite player, they can come back to their phone, click on their player and see all the highlights from that game and catch up within 5 to 7 minutes of watching videos on PlayerX. Verizon is not the only company to have partnered with WCF ahead of the release of PlayerX. WCF signed its first-ever strategic esports data and streaming deal with Edgio, a software solutions company, last November. This allows it to use Edgio’s Uplynk platform to scale its operations with a fraction of the resources the company had previously needed.

Getting the ball rolling

Vela knows WCF is still a relatively new company (founded in 2020) and, despite grand ambitions and great partnerships, it does not have the instant brand recognition of the biggest players in the game. With this in mind, he says WCF will be showcasing its brand domestically, beginning with the states it has already rolled out in the US. 

This was apparently an easy process, as Vela explains: “The good news is that having it as a non-gambling, family-friendly version of fantasy sports meant we were able to roll it out to all the states in the US without very much regulation.” So where can esports betting go from here? WCF will hope that answer is interwoven with its plans to progress both esports and fantasy.

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