David Sturgeon and Constantine Tsang love gaming. Back when they were next door neighbors in Boulder, CO they were fierce rivals at classics like Call of Duty and FIFA soccer. Well, not exactly fierce rivals.
“Constantine beats me at every game we play, hands down,” said Sturgeon.
With some training, Sturgeon could eventually beat his long-time rival. But for years, that training didn’t exist. Why it didn’t remained a mystery. A basketball player can analyze her shot with video. A baseball player can compare his swing to the professionals.
But Sturgeon and other esports players didn’t have a training solution that used analytics and artificial intelligence to make them better at video games. It just didn’t exist. So Sturgeon and Tsang built it.
Their startup, called Pivan Interactive, uses computer vision and deep learning to provide gamers with actionable training recommendations to help them improve. Their first product is called Uncanny.gg.
“We are building the digital gym equipment for esports athletes,” said Sturgeon.
Unlike traditional sports, you don’t need to be tall, fast or strong to play esports. But you do need to refine your skills. In the wildly popular open-world survival game Fortnite, for example, Pivan’s technology will analyze your “weapon bloom” — aka the size of your weapon’s crosshairs as they expand and contract. The smaller the crosshair, the more likely you’ll hit your target. Pivan compares your gameplay to thousands of games from professionals and suggests ways to improve so you can play more like the pros.
Advanced analytics and training is the logical next step for esports as it continues exploding in popularity. In 2018, esports captured 400 million viewers worldwide and total revenues reached $869 million. By 2022, revenues are estimated to triple to $2.69 billion. The boom is hardly a surprise. Most people 40 or under grew up playing video games, and many fantasized about being the best player in their neighborhood, city, or country. Now they can compete and find out if they are.
“There are hundreds of millions of dollars in prize money at stake and celebrity-level careers available. Amateur and competitive gamers are constantly looking for new ways to improve their play so they can compete at the very highest levels,” said Sturgeon.
From NASA to Esports
Tsang certainly took an atypical path to entrepreneurship. He earned a PhD in astrophysics from the University of Oxford in England. Then he spent a decade implementing missions for NASA, the European Space Agency, and The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. After long days working on the complexities of space travel, Tsang would unwind by playing video games — and he just couldn’t stop thinking about how to make himself (and others) better.
“Ultimately, it’s about solving core problems. In the space program, we always solved problems — whether we’re looking at the universe or how to build a spaceship,” said Tsang. “When I came across the problem of training gamers, I thought: ‘This will be a great and difficult problem I can help solve.’ ”
Sturgeon’s story is much more typical. His grandfather was an entrepreneur and venture capitalist. In the early 2000s he fiddled around with a variety of internet-driven businesses and eventually landed at eSwarm, a precursor to Groupon. From then on, entrepreneurship was an inevitable path for him and solving a core problem in the gaming industry was the perfect opportunity.
As he leads Pivan, Sturgeon keeps a simple philosophy top of mind: “Build something that matters, something you care about, and most importantly something that provides value.”
From Boulder to Philly
To build their business, Sturgeon and Tsang traveled from Boulder to Philadelphia to take part in the Comcast NBCUniversal LIFT Labs Accelerator, powered by Techstars. During the program, they’re refining their business model and making connections in a city rich with esports players and experts. In fact, Comcast is building a $50 million esports arena in the heart of the Philadelphia sports complex. Meanwhile, the city’s Overwatch team, The Philadelphia Fusion, which is owned by Comcast NBCUniversal and led by Tucker Roberts, earned second place in the Overwatch League Finals in 2018.
“We’ve been able to meet 90 to 100 mentors in the space of only a few weeks, and that’s a credit to both Techstars and LIFT Labs,” said Tsang. “For us, it’s an eye-opener to learn about all the challenges people perceive for our company but also the great encouragement for what we’re trying to achieve, and how we can solve those problems.”
Sturgeon said he enjoys the family-like atmosphere at LIFT Labs.
“Oftentimes in entrepreneurship, you’re very alone,” he said. “Then you come to a place like this and everyone around you is trying to figure out solutions to difficult problems. There are no words for it. It’s amazing.”
The future is bright for Pivan and the growing number of esports athletes that rely on their Uncanny.gg platform to improve.
“We’ve built some incredible technology that has the ability to help people. It literally watches people play and absorbs data. Whether that has more value for professionals or amateurs is something yet to be determined. ,” said Sturgeon. “It would be amazing to help train the Michael Jordan of esports. And, I think we can.”