The In Conversation series is an opportunity for us to talk to the people who make up the Victory Square Technologies subsidiary family, giving you an inside look at who they are and what they do.
Our latest sit-down is with Ted Mui, President of Piik Games. A longtime veteran of the eSports scene and the mobile gaming industry, Ted sat down with VST’s James Graham to learn more about PiiK’s roots, their passion for gaming and how eSports can blow up in North America.
James: Let’s start with the big picture. What is Piik?
Ted: We’re an eSports technology company. I’ve spent the last few years exploring opportunities within the eSports arena. One of the things I found is that eSports hasn’t quite caught up to the usage of new technologies to help it go to the next level. We’re at a point where we have a good understanding of the ecosystem. We’ve spotted opportunities within the space and we’re intent on incubating and building new technologies to facilitate the growth of eSports.
James: What was the “Aha!” moment where you recognized that there a gap that needed to be filled in the eSports market?
Ted: I think it’s been an ongoing learning experience, there wasn’t really one specific “Aha!” moment. My background was in mobile gaming initially. I spent seven years in China and we were always on the lookout for new growth opportunities. When I started to hear a lot about eSports, coming from that background I was able to look at it with a fresh pair of eyes. I was trying to understand why people are engaging with content. Why people are spending hours watching streams rather than traditional TV. The more time I spent with the audience and the more time I started playing these games, the more I felt like I had a better understanding of what’s lacking in this ecosystem.
So I explored eSports content production and I ran a couple of large eSports events. I explored producing online content, online streaming, and even went back into working with a team and working with eSports products. So I had a good understanding of the entire spectrum.
James: You seem to literally have covered all the angles.
Ted: I think I was just trying to get my hands on a better understanding of it and there was a lot of trial and error. It was a lot of really thinking that one thing was going to explode in mobile eSports, but it didn’t quite get the traction. I’ve seen the industry revolutionized by technology. For example, look at how Twitch grew and how that ecosystem grew to facilitate chatbots. Look at how Discord grew from just a simple chat platform to being massive.
Ted: The more I became familiarized with the players in the ecosystem, I was able to identify some of the opportunities within the space. We feel like we’ve got some good ideas on the drawing board and we’re looking to introduce them to the public.
James: Can talk about anything that you guys are up to right now or is that embargoed til further notice?
Ted: One of the opportunities is that we identified is actually working with physical venues. As an event organizer myself, I noticed that there are a lot of up and coming, dedicated eSports venues or specific spots that get people to host eSports events. People always talk about online gaming and talk about competing online. But at the end of the day, people enjoy that face to face human interaction. I’ve experienced this firsthand organizing events in partnership with Clash Royale in Toronto at the Fan Expo and at the Bell Centre in Montreal.
I think one of the things that surprised me was that people pack the house when they come to these events. But what happens the day after? eSports events are one-offs and a lot of times you go to eSports bars or eSports venues and most of the time it’s dead and there’s nothing happening because there’s nothing going on event-wise. We believe there’s an opportunity to help these spaces sustain that audience so that you’re not just relying on the one-off events to bring people in.
What can you do to better promote the activities that you have? On the other hand, what can you do to better make use of the space that you have? So those are the two parts of the problem that we’re trying to address with Fill, the new platform we’re working on. We believe we have a solution to help these spaces create, develop and maintain a sustainable business model.
James: You’ve got a fairly diverse background. You worked with Zynga internationally and you worked locally with Roadhouse. What did you take away from working with organizations like that that you can now apply to PiiK?
Ted: I think the interesting thing about the mobile gaming space is that things move very quickly. Looking back, compared to the time when I was in mobile gaming, the space obviously has matured. Technology is being revolutionized. Imagine when the first version of Angry Birds came out and you’re playing on your iPhone 4, that was already a sufficient game experience. Now you have these online PVP games that you can play and have a similar, if not the same Fortnite experience on your phone as compared to your PC or console.
Being part of the space, and seeing the quality of games that were being introduced on mobile, it’s just an amazing experience. It reminded me that you always have to keep up with what’s happening in the market. Technologies are always going to disrupt the industries that you work in, especially if what you’re working on relies on technology.
It’s the same approach that we take when we’re looking into building out our platforms and technologies. We want to keep up with the latest. We don’t want to just look for an existing solution and paste it into eSports. We’re looking at some of the new ways within the eSports ecosystem and even outside the ecosystem that technology is disrupting the way people interact with and make use of things in their daily routine.
For instance, spending a lot of time in China, you look at the way that WeChat has grown from a chat app into this massive ecosystem. It’s a one-stop shop for everything from payments and entertainment and a gaming platform. There’s a lot of things to be learned from this.
James: Do you think the growth of something like that was regionally specific? Could we see something happen similarly in North America?
Ted: I’m sure there are experts that have talked about this in more depth, but for me, I feel like there are two things. First is the amount of money that’s pouring into the growth of some of these products from China. They have the luxury of knowing that once something has traction, you have the luxury of having hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions, that could be poured into the marketing of these products. For instance, WeChat payment. I was back in China just last week and it was amazing to see that you could go to a fish market or a stand where they sell vegetables and these guys don’t carry cash anymore. It’s strictly digital experience in the traditional environment.
These people adapt to this technology though incentivization and eventually the pros outweigh the cons. People just have to adapt to that. Whereas I think that companies here don’t have the wads of cash to throw around and incentivize everyone to change the process from one to the other. So adoption has been slower from that side and then, on the other hand, there is also the consumer experience. Because China and other developing countries have gone through so much growth in this past year, they’re accustomed to always adapting to new technologies because the infrastructure is always changing.
In more developed and established environments, people are used to the way things work. It’s a little bit difficult to suddenly come up with something that they’re not accustomed to like making payments through your phone. There is a push back from the consumers themselves. This makes them adopting new technology a little more difficult in this environment.
James: What do you think it’s going to take for North American eSports to hit the size and the popularity of its Asian counterparts? While we are beginning to see sort of greater mainstream acceptance with ABC showing eSports tournaments, it’s still not as big in terms of perhaps mainstream acceptance here in North America as it is elsewhere.
Ted: I really think the driver has to come from a macro level. Right now in North America, eSports is a kind of niche entertainment. Say you’re into EDM music. It’s not mainstream, you don’t hear on the radio, you don’t see it on TV. But there is that audience and you know, it’s popular because the young kids like it.
This is different in Asia, where recently the Chinese government officially announced that they recognized two official occupations within the eSports field. Esports players and eSports management. Having that recognition from their established institutions and the recognition from the baby boomers and Gen X and Gen Y is big because they are accustomed to a different form of entertainment.
They can’t believe people will spend time watching other people playing video games. This coming from the same people that will just sit there and watch hours of people playing poker on TV. That generation of people is a little bit out of touch with what’s happening with the youth.
James: So we need a certain celebrity crossover to appeal to the older generations.
Ted: They’re trying. As an example, Rick Fox owns Echo Fox. He’s one of the best eSports owners out there right now and very much engaged with it. There are a lot of other celebrities that have minority stakes in eSports teams, but basically, the name is there and that’s it.
James: It’s a branding exercise as opposed to an actual commitment.
Ted: Exactly. I think it’s starting and slowly, but surely, there are people that are converting. But back to the earlier question, because of that, the adoption rate is a lot slower than in developing markets. Even if you tell them the 100 things that make sense about this: It’s the next up and coming thing. In China and Korea, this is mainstream already. eSports celebrities are making more than their Sports counterparts and are getting endorsement deals. It’s hard for people in this part of the world to understand that.
James: What’s the elevator pitch then? If you’re trying to tell people that eSports is a good investment, how do you explain that?
Ted: Even though the adoption rate is lower, I think it’s almost inevitable. You look at the numbers of the viewership on Twitch. You look at the participation rate and the numbers of people that are playing games. More and more, these numbers have become transparent. You look at influencers and why guys like Ninja are getting paid a million dollars to play a game. There’s a reason that it’s worthwhile for developers and the brands to pay this money, that’s how big the market is becoming. It’s almost inevitable that year by year with the younger demographic, there’s going to be more and more new people in this market. They’re going to grow up playing Fortnite and playing League Of Legends.
The one statistic that everyone talks about is where the average age of the audience in the Big Four sports versus the average age of people into eSports falls. The average age of football and Major League Baseball fans is in their 50s. So the elevator pitch is that the audience is going to grow based on the fact that the young people that grew up in this environment will demand more of this as the numbers go up. It’s inevitable that eSports will become bigger and bigger. The traditional mainstream media will have to adapt to this new taste and entertainment.
James: Is Vancouver an eSports hub already? Should we expect it to become one with the eSports stadium being built in Richmond and the Vancouver team winning the first half of the Overwatch League season?
Ted: I think it’s becoming one and it’s growing in a very good way, one in which the growth is organic. In Vegas, they saw a new way to engage young people. Money poured in to try and build eSports in that space. In Vancouver, people consume gaming in a very similar habit as they do in Asia. They spend a lot of time in internet cafes playing a lot of PC games. There’s a greater acceptance of eSports overall, that’s why there has been a good number of eSports tournaments that were excited to be here. The Riot guys obviously know where their audiences are, that’s why they had a major tournament here in Vancouver. Same with Dota.
From a business side, there’s a good number of eSports companies based here that are making an impact regionally and internationally. It definitely helps to have the first professional eSports team here through the Vancouver Titans. It’s very promising to see that there are more and more companies established here that are specifically in the eSports market, ourselves included. I think more interest in the sector and more money being poured in it will definitely help garner the interest of eSports within the city.
James: What don’t we know about PiiK that perhaps we should?
Ted: I think one thing that’s noteworthy about PiiK is that we entered eSports based on the passion that we have for eSports rather than it just being a good business opportunity. We took years of trial and error to really get to the point where we feel like we’ve identified a space that we want to tackle. But at the same time, we are gamers first. We play and enjoy the same games that the audience do. We’ve spent way too many hours consuming eSports content ourselves because this is our passion. Our team is made up of gamers and eSports fans and I think that really puts us in a position to give some of the other companies out there pause.
James: What’s next for PiiK?
Ted: Building a product. I gave a talk at Pocket Gamer Seattle on identifying growth opportunities within eSports and the footage should be online soon. We’re building out Fill, we are constantly on the lookout for the opportunities within the space and now that we’re part of the VST family, we’re basically working on our next big strategy to become a major player within the space.
James: If that’s now, where do you see PiiK five years from now?
Ted: We definitely hope that our products will allow PiiK to expand internationally. We want to be a Vancouver-based international company. Having come back from spending time in Asia I realized there aren’t a lot of well known international companies here in Vancouver. If you asked my friends in Asia if they can name companies based out of Vancouver, Lululemon is probably the only one. From a technology perspective, I really hope that we can build something that will make an impact on the fans, the people that are in the eSports space and the livelihoods of the people that have committed their time and effort into this space and the growth of the ecosystem.
You can learn more about PiiK Games at www.piik.gg
Ted Mui is the CEO of PiiK Games. He’s pretty good at Apex Legends.
James Graham still wants you to know about all the cool things happening at Victory Square Technologies. He’s getting better at running half marathons.