Sports

Sapphire Ventures bets big on esports and entertainment with new $115M fund

Posted by | Adidas, Entertainment, fitbit, Gaming, major league baseball, new york jets, Paytm, San Jose Sharks, Sapphire Ventures, Sinclair Broadcast Group, Sports, Startups, TC, tom brady, Venture Capital | No Comments

Sapphire Ventures, formerly the corporate venture capital arm of SAP, has lassoed $115 million from new limited partners (LPs) to invest at the intersection of tech, sports, media and entertainment.

A majority of the LPs for the new fund, called Sapphire Sport, have ties to the sports industry, from City Football Group, which owns English Premier League team Manchester City, to Adidas, the owners of the Indiana Pacers, New York Jets, San Jose Sharks and Tampa Bay Lightning, among others.

The firm plans to do five to six investments per year, sized between $3 million and $7 million. So far, they’ve deployed capital to five startups: at-home fitness system Tonal, live soccer streaming platform mycujoo, digital sports network Overtime, ticketing and events platform Fevo and gaming studio Phoenix Labs. Sapphire began backing tech startups in 2008; in 2016, the firm closed on $1 billion for its third flagship venture fund.

Sapphire managing director and co-founder Doug Higgins is leading the effort alongside newly tapped partner Michael Spirito, who joined from 21st Century Fox, where he focused on business development and digital media for the Fox Sports-owned Yankees Entertainment and Sports (YES) Network, in September.

Higgins was an investment manager at Intel Capital for four years prior to co-launching Sapphire. Throughout his career, he’s managed the firm’s investments in LinkedIn, DocuSign, Square and more.

“We invest in anything that tech is disrupting,” Higgins told TechCrunch. “We were early investors in Fitbit, so we saw the beginning of digital fitness and how tech can impact the lives of anyone, not just high-performance athletes … We are also investors in Square, TicketFly and Paytm and what we’ve been seeing — the dream as a VC — is these massive markets in the sports, media and digital health world that are getting disrupted by tech.”

Sapphire is betting its traditional and well-established venture platform, coupled with the expertise of leading sports entities on board as LPs, will give it a competitive edge as it targets some of the best emerging sports tech companies.

“We see a lot of FOMO happening in this world, where everyone wants to have a play, but to make the best investment you need to have the widest perspective,” Higgins said. “So if you’re a team owner of a particular football team you are going to make better decisions if you are able to share perspectives with owners of other teams.”

“The best entrepreneurs, the ones we all want to invest in, there’s not a draft, they have to select you,” he added.

Investment in esports and gaming has skyrocketed, surpassing a total of $2.5 billion in VC funding in 2018. According to PitchBook, a handful of startups have already raised a total of $65 million in VC backing this year, including a $10.8 million financing for ReKTGlobal, a provider of esports infrastructure services.

“You can’t ignore the numbers on esports,” Higgins added. “They just continue to grow massively and people who have teenage kids, like myself, [those kids] want to grow up to be the next ninja, not the next Tom Brady .”

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With investors knocking, PlayVS opens the door to a $30M Series B

Posted by | delane parnell, esports, funding, Gaming, playvs, Sports, Startups, TC | No Comments

PlayVS, the company bringing esports infrastructure to high schools across the country, has today announced the close of a $30.5 million Series B financing. The round was led by Elysian Park Ventures, the investment arm of the L.A. Dodgers, with participation from five existing investors, including New Enterprise Associates, Science Inc., Crosscut Ventures, Coatue Management and WndrCo.

New investors also joined in on the round, including Adidas (the company’s first esports investment), Samsung NEXT, Plexo Capital, as well as angel investors such as Sean “Diddy” Combs, David Drummond, DST Global partner Rahul Mehta, Michael Dubin and others.

It’s certainly worth noting that PlayVS raised a $15 million Series A just six short months ago. Founder and CEO Delane Parnell explained that this Series B was an opportunistic raise, as the company received a lot of inbound from investors to get a slice of the next round.

“This gives us much more stability and runway so that we can hire more senior employees and leadership,” said Parnell. “It also gives us a bit of a war chest to let the team go out and work their strategies.”

Alongside the raise, PlayVS also announced new game partnerships, bringing Rocket League and SMITE into the company’s portfolio. Rocket League and SMITE join League of Legends, which was added to the platform two months ago.

PlayVS launched early this year with a relatively novel approach to the esports world. Instead of focusing on the current esports space, PlayVS realized there was a huge opportunity to bring infrastructure to the esports landscape in high school. As more and more esports careers are created through investment by colleges (via scholarships) and esports orgs, PlayVS gives students a place to show off their skills and get in front of recruiters.

The first step in the process was establishing a partnership between PlayVS and the NHFS, which is essentially the NCAA of high school sports. Through that partnership, PlayVS handles team schedules, district league schedules, coaching clinics and referees, and sets up an in-person live spectator event for the State Championship at the end of the year.

Right now, the company is in the midst of its Season Zero, testing out the platform with a small number of states — Connecticut, Georgia, Kentucky, Massachusetts and Rhode Island — in preparation for the official Inaugural Season, which will begin in 2019. Today, PlayVS is adding Alabama (AHSAA), Mississippi (MISSHSAA) and parts of Texas (TCSAAL).

But the growth of the company is largely dependent on states and school districts, which is why PlayVS is announcing the launch of Club Leagues. Club Leagues is identical to the PlayVS sports league product, except there is no State Championship at the end. Still, students who do not yet have access to the official PlayVS sports league can create teams, join up and play matches.

Eventually, Parnell says, the company will phase out Club Leagues as soon as official sports leagues are available to those players.

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How to watch the first major Black Ops 4: Blackout tournament

Posted by | Activision Blizzard, black ops 4, blackout, call of duty, esports, Gaming, Ninja, Sports, TC, Twitch | No Comments

Gamers, worldwide! A new seasons is upon us. New games like Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 and Red Dead Redemption 2 have either arrived or are on the way, which means we’re wading into a holiday season of fresh gaming.

But with new games also come new esports to watch.

The competitive season for Black Ops 4 Multiplayer (the CWL) doesn’t start until December. But TwitchCon still has some Black Ops 4 goodness coming our way on October 27. Four teams, made up of pro players/streamers, will compete in the first high-stakes Blackout tournament. Blackout is the new Battle Royale mode for Black Ops 4.

Officially, the Doritos Blackout Bowl starts on October 27 at 3:30pm ET, and interested viewers can check out the stream here.

Here’s how it will work:

Four teams of four pro players/streamers will drop into the Blackout map alongside public players. As with any Battle Royale game, they’ll loot up and start picking players off. The tournament will be scored based on kills and match placements.

Kills are worth one point, and various placements will earn the team a multiplier. A top ten placement yields a 0.5x multiplier, a top five placement yields a 0.75X multiplier, and a top 3 placement wins the team a 1.25x multiplier.

So who’s playing?

Team Ninja will be led by none other than Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, who will be joined by his teammates JoshOG, Gold Glove, and Fearitself. Team Shroud will include Shroud as team camptain, alongside Just9n, Chocotaco, and Chad. Jack “Courage” Dunlop, who transitioned from CoD pro caster to professional content creator for Optic Gaming last year, will lead a team comprised of Karma, TeePee and Hysteria. And finally, Dr. Lupo will lead the fourth team, with teammates including Annemunition, Mad Ruski, and Ninja with no L.

What’s interesting about the Doritos Blackout Bowl is that the organizers have opted to make this tournament a public affair. Not only will it be livestreamed, but the players themselves will actually load into a public Blackout lobby, meaning the pros will be battling it out with real-life Black Ops 4 players.

The prize pool for the tournament is $250,000.

Disclosure: The author’s father works for Pepsico, which owns Doritos. The author does not own any Pepsi stock. She’s just a gamer who loves CoD.

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SoftBank leads $35M investment in sports engagement startup Heed

Posted by | Apps, Endeavor, Entertainment, Heed, Media, Mobile, Sports, Startups | No Comments

Heed, a startup looking to create new ways for sports leagues and clubs to engage with fans, is announcing that it has raised $35 million led by SoftBank Group International.

As laid out for me by CEO Danna Rabin, the company sits at the intersection of sports and IoT — which makes sense, since it was founded by Internet of Things company AGT International and talent agency Endeavor .

“Our primary mission is to connect the young audience with sports leagues and clubs,” Rabin said. “[Those] audiences are consuming less broadcast TV, consuming less of anything linearly. Sports clubs and brands are having more and more issues connecting with and reengaging those younger audiences.”

To create that connection, Heed places sensors around the match or game venue, even potentially on players’ clothing and equipment.

For example, the team let me make a couple punches using gloves with sensors inside, which were created for the mixed martial arts league UFC. Afterwards, I could see the measured force of each of my swings. (I didn’t really have any points of comparison, but I think it’s safe to say that my numbers weren’t too impressive.)

Heed

Rabin emphasized that Heed’s real focus isn’t on building fancy hardware, but rather on the artificial intelligence it uses to take that data (which can also be drawn from video and audio footage of the match) and transform it into a general narrative that can be viewed on the Heed smartphone app.

Pointing to the UFC glove, Rabin said, “We extract, only from this sensor, 70 different data points. What’s happening is, the fusion of these data points is what creates the stories.”

Put another way, the goal is to replace the generic commentary that you often get in sports coverage and live games with unique details about how the game or match is unfolding. Those aren’t just numbers like how hard someone is punching, but also inferences about a player’s emotional state based on the data.

“One of our core promises is that it’s not editorial driven,” Rabin added. “The AI is selecting what’s interesting in a match. Of course, we have a creative team that designs the formats, the visuals, how the packaging should look like, but that’s incorporated into the technology, which is automatically selecting the moments and creating the experiences with no human interpretation.”

So does Heed aim to be a technology provider or a sports media company of its own? Well, Rabin said it didn’t make sense to simply provide the tech to individual leagues or teams.

“A specific club does not have the breadth of technologies to keep evolving,” she said. Plus, she argued that the audience isn’t looking for just a one-off site with stories about one team, but an all-around destination where they can “get a bit of everything.”

In addition to the UFC, Heed is also working with EuroLeague (the European basketball league), various soccer clubs and Professional Bull Riding. In the latter case, it’s not just creating content, but actually working with the organization to create a more automated and objective form of judging.

“By leveraging AI and IoT, HEED has developed a unique platform that is changing the way fans watch and interact with sports,” said Softbank President and CFO Alok Sama. “HEED is taking a traditionally static experience and providing fans with deeper insights into the physical and emotional aspects of the sporting event by gathering and analyzing large, complex data in real time.”

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Live streams of karate and niche sports are terrifying major sports leagues

Posted by | Endeavor, Entertainment, espn, esports, Facebook Live, Gaming, Hulu, Media, mlb, NBA, Netflix, nfl, Sports, streaming TV, Twitch, ufc, Video, YouTube Live | No Comments

Of the 100 most-watched live telecasts in the US in 2005, 14 were sporting events; in 2015, sporting events comprised 93 of the top 100 telecasts. That shift occurred because TV shows are shifting to online or on-demand viewing, and live broadcasts of the biggest sports are the main thing TV networks have left to draw in live audiences. But the need to keep those sports on TV and off streaming services is only accelerating the rate at which young people are tuning into other sports leagues instead.

The rapid adoption of subscription video streaming services like Netflix and Hulu and of social live streams on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitch is enabling massive growth by sports leagues that you won’t normally see on TV. In the streaming era, more sports – and new types of sports like esports – keep thriving while interest in traditional pro leagues like the NFL and MLB declines.

OTT is where the growth is

The central narrative in the global film/TV industry right now is the response of incumbent companies to the growing dominance of Netflix, Amazon, and other streaming (aka “OTT” or over-the-top) services. The incumbents are merging to consolidate ownership of must-have shows onto a smaller number of new OTT services that will each be stronger.

The majority of American households have a Netflix subscription (i.e. access to one of Netflix’s 56M US accounts), another 20M have a Hulu subscription, the number of OTT-only households has tripled in 5 years, and 50% of US internet users use a subscription OTT service at least weekly. Almost one-third (29%) of Americans say they watch more streaming TV than linear TV, and among those age 18-29 it’s 54% (with 29% having cut the cord on linear TV entirely). People, especially young people, want to watch shows on their own time and on any device, and they get more value from a few $8-40 per month subscription platforms than a $100+ per month cable bill.

Meanwhile, social live-streaming platforms that got their start enabling people to either vlog or watch video gaming are expanding to all sorts of live broadcasting: Twitch averaged 1 million viewers at any given point of day in January, and there were 3.5 billion broadcasts over Facebook Live in the first two years after it launched (with 2 billion users viewing at least one).

We’ve hit the pivot point where media is streaming-first. Netflix is now the leading studio in Hollywood, spending $13 billion this year on content. Linear TV viewing is declining: every major cable network (except NBC Sports) has declining viewership and aging viewers. Between 2007 and 2017, the median age of primetime viewers on ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox went up 8-11 years and are all in the 50s or 60s.

Major pro sporting events are the last bastion of TV networks because the dominant brands are, for the most part, only available live on TV. Beyond those, the only content getting large audiences to tune in simultaneously are a couple Hollywood awards shows and premieres or finales of a couple hit shows (Big Bang Theory and NCIS).

The exclusive broadcast rights to those live sports events – particularly the NFL, NBA, MLB, and top NCAA basketball and football games – are the last defense for major broadcast networks. They are the reason for younger Americans to not cut the cord. ESPN makes $7.6 billion per year in carriage fees from cable companies paying for the right to carry the main ESPN channel (the other ESPN channels add another $1 billion); that number is increasing even as ESPN’s viewership is declining.

Disney (ESPN’s owner) and other leading broadcasters don’t want to let people watch major sporting events online instead (at least not easily or cheaply) because doing so would pull the rug out from under their traditional revenue stream and OTT revenue (subscription + ads) won’t make up for it quickly enough. This problem is only exacerbated by the fact that TV networks are paying record sums for exclusive broadcast rights to top sports leagues out of fear that losing them to a rival could be a nail in their coffin.

This strategy is delaying, not stopping the shift in consumption habits. More and more young people are tuning out (or never tuning in) to the major pro sports on TV, and the median age of their audiences shows that: 64 for the PGA Tour, 58 for NASCAR, 57 for MLB, 52 for NCAA football and men’s basketball, and 50 for the NFL…and all are getting older. (Cable news networks, the other holdouts who are still doing well on live TV face the same situation: the average age of Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN viewers is now 65, 65, and 61 respectively.)

The major pro sports staying on linear TV has expanded the market opening for new sports to fill the open space with young people who mainly consume content online. In fact, a growing marketplace of different sports leagues (including esports) developing their own fanbases is an inevitability of the shift to OTT video as it lowers the barrier to entry to near-zero and let’s geographically dispersed fans unify in one place.

1. Lower barrier to entry for distribution

Lawn bowling is no longer your grandfather’s sports league. Mint Images/Getty Images

Niche sports leagues – or frankly, even big sports leagues that just aren’t at the scale of professional football, baseball, basketball, and hockey – have always had a hard time getting coverage on television. But you can produce and distribute video for an online audience more cheaply than for a television audience.

In fact with Facebook Live and Twitch, you can stream live video for free, and you can share clips across every social channel to attract interest. To launch your own OTT service or partner with an existing one, you don’t need to start with a massive audience from the beginning and you don’t need millions of dollars from sponsors just to break even.

Having signed over 150 new deals this year alone for its 20+ sports verticals (which will stream 2,500 live events in 2018), Austin-based FloSports has established itself as the go-to OTT partner for sports leagues with an established, passionate following that aren’t massive enough to garner regular ESPN-level coverage.

From rugby, track & field, and wrestling to bowling, competitive marching band, and ballroom dance, millions of Americans have participated in these activities in their youth and through clubs as adults but rarely see them on television. In fact, the rare instances when such sports are on TV – like their national championships – the league is usually paying large sums (potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars) for that airtime rather than getting paid by the broadcasters.

FloSports gives a home to the superfans of its partner leagues, with full coverage of the sport and commentary meant for real fans. It produces events in the manner best fit to highlight the action and turns superfans – who generally pay a subscription – into evangelists who recruit friends. There are numerous sports that have millions of participants yet no active, high-quality event coverage; those are underserved markets.

By tapping into this, FloSports properties (like FloWrestling, FloTrack, etc.) have gained hundreds of thousands of subscribers and created a surge of interest in teams like Oklahoma State’s wrestling team, which saw an 144% increase in live stream viewing and 68% growth in event attendance after joining FloWrestling (leading to them to set an all-time attendance record in the university’s basketball arena of 14,059 people). In the first half of 2018, FloSports’ various Instagram accounts collectively received 307M video views, more than the collective accounts of Fox Sports or of all NFL teams (and NFL Network).

2. Going global right away.

Johanne Defay of France at a World Surf League event. Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

The top pro sports leagues have geographically concentrated fan-bases that fit the geographic restrictions of TV broadcasters, which end at a country’s border. Online streaming empowers sports that have large fan bases who aren’t geographically concentrated to aggregate in the digital sphere with enough eyeballs (and paying subscriptions) to drive engagement with the sport’s content through the roof.

Since being acquired in 2015 and renamed World Surf League, the governing body of professional surfing has developed a large global following – with 6.5M Facebook fans and 2.9M Instagram followers – through the launch of live streams and on-demand video on its website and mobile app, plus partnering with third-parties like Bleacher Report’s OTT service B/R Live. Only 20-25% of WSL’s viewers are in the US but since its competitions are streamed direct-to-consumer online, they were able to reach surfers around the world right away. After seeing WSL’s Facebook Live streams garner over 14M viewers in 2017, Facebook paid up to become the exclusive live-stream provider for WSL competitions for two years, beginning this past March.

3. Immediate data on audience engagement.

As with all offline-to-online shifts, OTT video streaming captures dramatically more data on audience demographics and engagement than television does, and it does it in real-time. This makes it easier for emerging sports leagues to partner with advertisers and show immediate ROI on their sponsorships, plus it informs their understanding of how to produce their particular type of sporting event for maximum audience engagement.

Karate Combat is a year-old league that builds off the existing base of karate participants and fans around the world (numbering in the tens of millions) with a new competition format specifically intended for OTT. The league allows full-contact fighting and sets the match in a pit (rather than a traditional fighting ring) for better camera angles. It also replaces the traditional focus on having a big in-person audience (which is expensive) and instead sets the fights in exotic locations (like the fight this coming Thursday night on top of the World Trade Center).

Like many emerging sports leagues, Karate Combat is vertically integrated: the league organizing the competitions is also the one producing and streaming the event coverage over its website, mobile apps, and social channels. This not only means it captures the content-related revenue from subscribers, advertisers, and numerous OTT distribution partners, but it sees every data point about fans’ viewing behavior and their interaction with various dashboards (like biometrics on each fighter) so they can optimize both online and offline aspects of the production.

4. Online means interactive

Jujitsu fighting is now an OTT service. South_agency/Getty Images

Online viewing creates the opportunity for functionality you can’t achieve with linear TV: interactive displays overlayed on or next to live video. Viewers can pull up and click through real-time stats, change camera views, or switch overlays (think the the yellow first-down line in NFL broadcasts or coloring around a hockey puck to help you track it on the ice). Ultimately, a more interactive experience means a more social and more entertaining experience (and the sort of deep engagement advertisers value too).

FloSports’ ju-jitsu live streams (FloGrappling) give subscribers multiple live cameras each covering simultaneous matches on different mats so they can click between them. This is a more personalized experience than passively watching one broadcast on TV and it gets that subscriber actively engaged, with their behavior providing valuable data points for FloSports and their deeper interaction likely more compelling to event sponsors.

The display might also highlight live comments from friends or friends-of-friends in order to draw viewers into a more social experience. Discussion of a specific live stream with others watching it has been a central feature for Twitch and Facebook Live and enables the league or team streaming the event to directly engage with fans around the world.

An exception to the OTT-first strategy may be in sports that are entirely new and have zero existing base of participants or fans. Karate, surfing, and video-gaming all have millions of passionate participants around the world, going back decades. A new league like the 3-year-old Drone Racing League (DRL), which has raised $21M in venture capital to develop the sport of competitive drone racing, has to artificially stimulate the development of a fanbase if it doesn’t want to wait years for grassroots competitions to create a critical mass of fans even for a niche OTT service. It’s unsurprising then that DRL has focused on striking TV deals with ESPN, Sky Sports, ProSiebenSat.1, and others to thrust it in front of large audiences from the start, like a new game show hoping its format will entice enough people to take interest.

Power is in the hands of the league owners

Ari Emanuel, chief executive officer of William Morris Endeavor Entertainment. Jonathan Alcorn/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The best position to be in right now is the owner of a sports league that’s rapidly growing in popularity. The competition for audience by both traditional media companies and tech platforms leaves a long list of distribution partners eager for must-have, exclusive content – especially content like sports events that fans want to want live together – and willing to pay up.

Moreover, vertical integration to control your fans’ content viewing experience and own your relationship with them has never been easier. There are direct subscriptions, advertisers, event sponsors, event tickets, a portfolio of possible OTT distribution deals, and merchandising. The potential revenue streams a league can develop are only more numerous when you add in launching a fantasy sports league – like World Surf League has done – and the recent nationwide legalization of sports betting in the US.

Endeavor, the parent company of Hollywood’s powerful WME-IMG talent agency, seems to have recognized this and is an early mover in the space. It bought two sports leagues that have relied on TV deals and event attendance revenue – UFC for $4B and the smaller but rapidly growing Professional Bull Riders for $100M – and, since they each own their content, launched direct-to-consumer subscription platforms (UFC Fight Pass and PBR Ridepass) for super-fans and cord-cutters. (Endeavor also paid $250M to acquire Neulion, the technology company whose infrastructure powers the OTT services of the UFC, PBR, World Surf League, and dozens of others.)

There’s opportunity for new streaming platforms focused on being the media partner for these emerging sports leagues. Inevitably, the opportunity for bundling will consolidate many of the niche subscriptions onto a small number of leading sports OTT platforms, and that’s a powerful market position for those platforms.

What is unclear is if they can defend themselves as the incumbent media and tech companies come around to this phenomenon and commit billions toward capturing the market. The leading sports broadcasting companies all have OTT offerings and want to make them as compelling to potential subscribers as possible even if they exclude content from the biggest pro sports. A larger company that can afford to spend huge sums on exclusive sports streaming rights (like Disney with ESPN/ABC, Comcast with NBC/Sky Sports, CBS with CBS Sports Network, or Discovery with Eurosport) might opt to buy a company like FloSports as part of their deep dive into the space or they might just aim to outbid them when a league’s contract comes up for renewal.

The hope for an independent OTT platform devoted to emerging sports leagues is they get big enough, fast enough that they can afford to keep winning the rights to emerging leagues as those leagues grow and offers from competitors bid prices up. These dedicated OTT services will likely have to secure long-term – think ten years – streaming rights deals or acquire control of some popular new sports leagues outright to hold their own.

Like online distribution triggered an explosion of digital publishing brands and social influencers for every imaginable niche, the rise of high-quality live streaming and subscription OTT services will allow a lot more sports leagues to build an audience and revenue base substantial enough to thrive. There’s more variety for consumers and resources than ever for those with a rapidly growing league to attract fans worldwide.

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Google Fit gets a redesign, adds Heart Points and coaching

Posted by | activity trackers, Android, Apps, Endomondo, Google, Google Fit, Mobile, mobile software, myfitnesspal, RunKeeper, smartwatches, Software, Sports, Strava, TC | No Comments

Google Fit is getting a major update today. The company’s activity tracking app has been around for a few years now but until today, it pretty much worked and looked that same as on the day it launched. Today’s redesign is quite a departure from that old look and feel, though, and it also introduces quite a few new features that help take the service in a new direction.

The most obvious new feature in the new version is that instead of only focusing on active minutes (or ‘Move Minutes’ as they are called now), Google has now introduced the concept of Heart Points. With this, you don’t just score points for moving, the app will also reward you for activities that actually get your heart beating a bit faster. Google Fit will give you one point for every minute of moderate activity and double points for more intense activities (think running or kickboxing). You won’t be able to buy anything with those points, but you’re more likely to live longer, so there’s that.

Like before, Google Fit will automatically track your activities thanks to the sensors in your phone or Wear OS watch. You can always manually add activities, too, or use apps like Strava, Runkeeper, Endomondo and MyFitnessPal to get credit for the workouts you track with them.

What’s also new in this update is actionable coaching, something that was sorely missing from the old version. It remains to be seen how useful this new feature is in day-to-day use, but the idea here is to give you feedback on how active you’ve been throughout the week and help you stay motivated.

What I’m actually the most excited about, though, is the new look and feel. Based on the screenshots Google has shared so far, the app now provides you with far more details at a glance, without having to dig into timelines (which weren’t all that usable in the old version to begin with).

The new version is now rolling out to Android and Wear OS users.

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EA apologizes for ‘unfortunate mistake’ of cutting Colin Kaepernick reference from ‘Madden’

Posted by | ea, Gaming, nfl, Sports | No Comments

EA became the subject of online scrutiny this week when it was discovered that the gaming giant deleted a reference to Colin Kaepernick on the soundtrack for Madden 19. The former 49ers quarterback was name-checked by rapper Big Sean on a verse of the YG song “Big Bank,” only to have the mention deleted. The track includes the line, “You boys all cap, I’m more Colin Kaepernick.”

The move was noted on Twitter this week and amplified by radio host (and Kaepernick’s girlfriend) Nessa Diab, along with Big Sean himself. The latter said the reference was deleted “like it was a curse word,” adding, “he’s not a curse, he’s a gift! Nobody from my team approved any of this.”

Oh!!!!! @EAMaddenNFL who told you to edit Colin’s name out???? @nfl ? @NFLPA Curious minds want to know 👁 Thanks Jean for the info!!! If you guys see more shady stuff send it over. https://t.co/EIBQbaQ5SA

— NESSA (@nessnitty) August 2, 2018

Kaepernick became a leading figure in the Black Lives Matter movement after sitting and later kneeling during the National Anthem as a form of protest against black deaths at the hands of police officers. A number of NFL players have since followed suit, leading Donald Trump to call for the firing of players over on-field protests. 

Hey Sean, no doubt we messed up here. We look forward to making it right. pic.twitter.com/taFXQ7UwBA

— EA SPORTS Madden NFL (@EAMaddenNFL) August 3, 2018

In a statement to TechCrunch, EA called the deletion “an unfortunate mistake,” chalking up the move to confusion of relating to player rights:

We made an unfortunate mistake with our Madden NFL soundtrack. Members of our team misunderstood the fact that while we don’t have rights to include Colin Kaepernick in the game, this doesn’t affect soundtracks. We messed up, and the edit should never have happened. We will make it right, with an update to Madden NFL 19 on August 6 that will include the reference again. We meant no disrespect, and we apologize to Colin, to YG and Big Sean, to the NFL, to all of their fans and our players for this mistake.

NBC Sports notes, however, that this is apparently not the first time Kaepernick’s name has been removed from a Madden soundtrack. While the player’s likeness appeared in last year’s version of the game, his name was apparently also removed from the Mike WiLL Made-It track, “Bars of Soap.” 

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What should competitive Fortnite look like?

Posted by | epic games, esports, fortnite, fortnite battle royale, Gaming, Sports, Startups, TC | No Comments

Last weekend, Epic Games put forth its first true effort at official competitive Fortnite Battle Royale. It was a disaster.

The private hosts used for the tournament were about as laggy as could be, with pro players getting eliminated simply because they couldn’t move. This tournament was for a total prize of $250K. That’s big money, and big frustration for pro players who were essentially eliminated by the whims of the server gods. But on top of the lag, the whole thing was, well, boring. A cardinal sin in any sport.

The fact is that when you put 100 pro players in a lobby together and tell them that the last man standing wins, most of them will simply sit in a fort and stay safe as long as possible. This does not generate a whole lot of action.

And when there is action on the map, there was no way for a spectator to know about it. There are, after all, a hundred people to watch out for, and jumping from one engagement to another is not only difficult but lacks a certain narrative quality, making the whole thing feel scattered.

It seems clear that a guided mode or hotspot indicator would go a long way to improving the viewing experience. Being told where the fighting was or could be happening or having a guide that flagged these opportunities could work. There could also be a documentary-style concept that followed a few top players on their entire run, with the hope that they’ll find action and maybe even be pushed into conflict to impress viewers.

Epic recently published a post-mortem on the event, outlining ways that the publisher can improve on the tournament. They’ve also set forth the rules for this weekend’s event, proposing a score-based tournament where both eliminations and Victory Royales count toward players’ overall score. Whether or not this will incentivize more action will be determined following the event.

It’s also worth noting that Epic scheduled today’s event during the Fortnite Friday tournament. Fortnite Friday, hosted by popular YouTuber Keemstar and facilitated by UMG, was a $20,000 elimination-based tournament with top players. In this week of the Summer Skirmish Series, which is worth a total of $8 million, Epic is choosing to host a two-day tournament, effectively rendering Fortnite Friday playerless.

It doesn’t have to be this way, Epic. I know that the concept of 100 of the best players in the world dropping into one map sounds incredible. It does. It sounds great, in theory. But in practice, it’s just a disorderly live stream of a bunch of highly talented players sitting around in bases, or, worse, lagging to the point of being frozen.

And, an invitational tournament (that goes terribly wrong) doesn’t scream “inclusive,” which is what Epic repeatedly says competitive Fortnite should be.

There is another way, and it’s the same way that Fortnite players have been competing for months now. A kill race.

But let’s back up a bit.

What should competitive Fortnite be?

Right now, Fortnite is played by 100 people in a single lobby, and “winning” the game is defined by being the last survivor(s). This can be played in solo mode, with 100 individuals facing off against the storm and each other, or in 50 teams of two (Duos), or 25 teams of four (Squads).

Video games often get tweaks for the competitive scene, whether it’s limiting the resources/gear that players can use or reducing the number of maps that can be played. When skill level is that high, most games must make changes to allow for true competition.

Given it’s still early days, Fortnite Battle Royale featuring purely pro players simply hasn’t worked.

But as it stands now, there are roughly two schools of thought.

Whoever gets the most eliminations wins.

Pros:

  • Super fun to watch
  • Requires skill
  • Inclusive to non-pro players

Cons:

  • A lot of RNG
  • More time-consuming

Gamebattle sites like CMG and UMG have been running minor tournaments for quite a while now using this format. Fortnite Friday, arguably one of the biggest weekly tournaments, also follows this format.

Here’s how it works: Individual players load up in a Duo match on the same team, or teams of two load up into a Squad match, also on the same team, and race for who can get the most kills in a public match.

This means that these opposing players can’t kill each other, but can keep track of each other’s kills and placement on the map. When you’re racing for kills, understanding where the other duo is fighting and how many kills they have is important information.

Given only four players are competing at a time, that means the rest of the 92 people on the map are regular Fortnite players.

This is where RNG comes into play. RNG is a term used in gaming that means Random Number Generator. It is the gaming equivalent of Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic.” It essentially means there is some level of random luck involved in the game. For example, you might land in a place where there is usually a weapon or chest, but that weapon or chest isn’t there, leaving you vulnerable to other players who land around you.

Great players can work around or overcome a certain level of RNG, but if the opposing team comes up on a squad of noobs and your team rolls up on a squad of great players, the tide of the match will inevitably shift against you, and may even result in a loss.

This is the cost of the 2v2 format that has become popularized with the vast majority of Fortnite competitive players.

While it takes more time to have 100 players compete four at a time, this format allows the viewer to watch no more than four players as they traverse the map and seek eliminations. At most, the audience has to follow along with four separate stories on the map. In most cases, duos play together, which brings that number down to two. In either case, it’s much easier than following along with the stories of 50 separate teams.

Traditional Battle Royale

Pros:

  • Less RNG
  • Amazing build fights
  • Fair, in the sense that players are fighting players of equal skill level

Cons:

  • It’s boring
  • Not inclusive
  • Confusing and scattered for viewers

This format was used during the Ninja Live tournament, the Fortnite ProAm tournament and, most recently, during the $8 million Summer Skirmish series, hosted by Epic Games.

Here’s how it works: 100 pro players/streamers pair off into teams of two and all load into the same lobby, with the goal of lasting the longest.

As I said, Fortnite Battle Royale is built around the idea that there would be a sole survivor, but doesn’t predicate that survival on a certain level of skill. In other words, it’s relatively easy to hide, avoid fights and survive to the near end of a game, or potentially even win. It doesn’t take much skill to squat in a bush or set traps in a house and sit in the bathroom.

Obviously, with pro players, there will be gunfights, and those gunfights should be pretty interesting. But they are few and far between, and are difficult to predict and capture for the live stream.

This also excludes regular players from being a part of the action. Yes, it’s a risk to construct a competitive scene on the backs of public gameplay. But it’s also never been done before in the pro gaming world. And it is the best way to include public players into the competitive scene. A regular player is far more likely to get interested in the competitive scene knowing that, on Friday or Saturday, they have the chance to play against the world’s greatest competitors.

The best way to build on the momentum of Fortnite’s popularity, as well as support the community as a whole, is to build out tournaments focused on eliminations within public lobbies.

It makes sense for Epic to want to control that experience, and it certainly makes sense for Epic to want the competitive scene to fit within the game they built, which is a Battle Royale. But thus far, competitive Battle Royale featuring purely pro players simply hasn’t worked. And it feels slightly underhanded for Epic to barrel over Fortnite Friday, given that the more competitive tournaments around Fortnite, the better for the game.

The community is here, telling you what it wants, Epic. And in true Fortnite fashion, if you build it, they will come.

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Overwatch League strikes a milestone deal with Disney and ESPN

Posted by | abc, Activision Blizzard, disney xd, Entertainment, espn, esports, Gaming, Sports, TC | No Comments

If you’re sick of hearing about esports, you need to get over it. The space continues to grow, inching its way into the traditional media landscape. Today, in fact, Activision Blizzard announced that the Overwatch League playoffs will be aired on ESPN and Disney XD.

The Overwatch League in itself is a huge step for esports, as it’s the first true city-based league for a competitive video game. While most esports leagues consist of privately owned teams with little or nothing to do with geography, Overwatch League is a pro league made up of city-based teams such as the Dallas Fuel or the San Francisco Shock. Many of these teams are owned by big names in the traditional sports world, such as Robert Kraft (CEO and owner of New England Patriots, who owns the Boston Uprising) and Jeff Wilpon (COO of the New York Mets, who owns the New York Excelsior).

The agreement, which also includes a recap/highlights package from 2018 Grand Finals coverage on ABC on July 29, marks the first time that live competitive gaming has aired on ESPN in prime time, and will be the first broadcast of an esports championship on ABC. Activision Blizzard said in the announcement that this is just the start of a multi-year agreement.

That said, EA’s Madden NFL 18 did broadcast an esports tournament on ESPN2 and Disney XD earlier this year.

Overwatch League playoffs begin tonight at 8pm ET, and will culminate in the Grand Finals, taking place in the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, on July 27 and July 28.

Here’s what Justin Connolly, EVP of Affiliate Sales and Marketing at Disney and ESPN, had to say in a prepared statement:

The Overwatch League Grand Finals is by far our most comprehensive television distribution for an esports event over a single weekend: 10 total hours over four networks and three days. This overall collaboration with Disney/ABC, ESPN and Blizzard represents our continued commitment to esports, and we look forward to providing marquee Overwatch League coverage across our television platforms for fans.

The rise of Twitch stars, like Ninja, and the growth of the competitive gaming scene have paved the way not only for a new type of sports media, but for a growing new economy. While challenges remain around monetizing the content, the pieces of the puzzle are slowing coming together to create an audience large enough to incentivize advertisers to spend big money.

In fact, sponsorship revenue and ad spending revenue are expected to hit $655 million and $224 million, respectively, by 2020, according to Newzoo. That doesn’t sound like much when you think about the NFL, which raked in $1.3 billion in revenue in 2017 alone. But, like this deal proves, the esports space is growing and working its way into the mainstream, hoping to get the attention of young men between 18 and 34 who have become increasingly difficult to reach via traditional advertising.

Alongside the live TV broadcast of the Overwatch League playoffs on ESPN and Disney XD, the playoffs will also be live-streamed via Twitch, MLG.com and on the ESPN app and DisneyNOW.

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PlayVS CEO Delane Parnell to talk high school esports at Disrupt SF

Posted by | delane parnell, Disrupt, disrupt sf 2018, Education, Gaming, playvs, Sports, Startups, TC | No Comments

The gaming world is evolving at a rapid clip. No longer is the idea of the lonely gamer a reality. Twitch and Discord have brought gamers together and given everyone the opportunity to see just how talented some of these young players are. Meanwhile, publishers and esports organizations have built out an infrastructure.

But there is plenty left to do, and PlayVS founder and CEO Delane Parnell is well aware of this.

We’re amped to announce that Parnell is joining us at TC Disrupt SF in September to talk about how high school esports could pave the way for even more growth in this industry.

PlayVS is a startup that has partnered with the NFHS to bring esports to the high school level, providing infrastructure around scheduling, refs, rules and state tournaments. Not only does this allow high school students to get extracurricular experience doing what they love (playing video games), but it offers a new way for esports orgs and colleges to look at the bright young talent coming up through the ranks.

PlayVS launched in April after securing its partnership with the NFHS. Through this partnership, the company will be able to bring organized esports to more than 18 states and approximately 5 million students across 5,000 high schools.

The company has since raised $15 million in Series A, and the inaugural season begins in October of this year.

We’re absolutely thrilled to get the chance to sit down with Parnell to discuss the launch of the platform and hear about how high school esports could set the tone for the industry as a whole.

Passes to Disrupt SF are available here at the Early Bird rate until July 25.

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