Last week, Virgin Gaming announced a new initiative to give away €3 million in prize money next year, marking the introduction of their brand new Series Tournaments - competitions that you can join at any time, offering the chance to buy in at any level. With plans to roll out across Europe and push further east in Q1 of next year, the boys at VG have their sights set on global domination...of sorts.
Announced at E3 last year alongside Richard Branson, Billy Levy and Zack Zeldin's service Virgin Gaming has already attreacted well over half a million subscribers, eager to put their money where their thumbs are and leap online to compete. But a far cry from pro-only tournaments that admit only the world's most elite gamers, Virgin Gaming was founded on tenets of accessibility, echoing the notion that just because you're not in the top 1% global percentile, doesn't mean you don't enjoy a bit of competition. Not that they don't do big elite live events too...that €3 million pledge is deadly serious.
We caught up with them for a brief chat at Gamescom to see how the last year has gone...
Matt Gardner (Dealspwn): What did you set out to do with Virgin Gaming?
Billy Levy: Virgin Gaming is an online platform, at VirginGaming.com, where players come and sign up, register an account, and they can compete in online tournaments against other players for cash and prizes. So they could sign up and play in a multiplayer tournament with the chance to win thousands or even millions of dollars, or challenge fellow gamers head-to-head for free, or for assorted cash and other prizes too.
Matt Gardner: Each player has individual skill ratings, how does that affect the way Virgin Gaming operates?
Billy Levy: On the site people have their own user profiles, and they can track their own wins and losses, and their unique skill rating. We have a skill rating algorithm in the platform, which rates a player's skill by the individual games that they play. Just because you're great at Assassin's Creed, doesn't mean you'll be great at FIFA. A player's skill can vary highly from game to game, and what we do with those ratings is incorporate them into matchmaking to ensure that you're playing against others of the same skill level.
Zack Zeldin: And that goes the same for official tournaments too - we gate tournaments by skill, so you might have a FIFA competition for players will a skill bracket from 0-3 or 4-7, so when you enter into a tournament you always feel a kind of ease. You can rest assured that when you enter into a competition you'll be playing against players of a similar level to your own, so you won't fire up a match on Virgin Gaming and instantly complain that you get beaten by some pro player and leave and never come back.
Matt Gardner: That's quite a universal approach...
Zack Zeldin: Exactly! The whole reason behind that is that, really, Billy and I are not the best gamers. We love playing games but whenever we jumped online we'd always get our asses handed to us. But we said, we do this with all of our friends, and they're not pro gamers either, why don't we create a sort of environment underneath that top level. So we have this platform that's safe and secure, gamers know they can leap on there and have their matches instantly verified (part of our patent pending technology), and play with other gamers from all over the world.
Matt Gardner: We've seen a number of large competitive pro gamer events, most recently the global Street Fighter championships, why did you guys decided to make Virgin Gaming relatively online-centric?
Billy Levy: We started as an online platform because we used to plan those big, live events, but we ended up looking to make it an online experience because we really didn't like the travelling and the expenditure of those events, and we thought to ourselves that frankly it might be a much more comfortable experience if you could compete in the same way, sat on a couch, eating pizza.
We do have live finals for some of our events, we held the NBA2K12 finals in Vegas, for example. But by taking it online, it allows us to reach a much larger global audience , letting players all over the world compete. We then filter out until we have an elite top tier for those finals and then larger events will take place.
Zack Zeldin: One example of that would be The Battle For Gridiron that we're rolling out in the States for Madden 12. When you pre-order the game at GameStop you get a code, you enter that code on Virgin Gaming and if you win seven games in a row you win a portion of a $1000 prize as well as a ticket for you and a friend to go to LA to go to the $1 million championships where we will be awarding a gamer a big fat cheque for $1 million...for playing Madden.
Billy Levy: We'll be rolling similar things out in the UK with FIFA 12 and some other titles too that we're yet to announce.
Matt Gardner: You recently announced a partnership with EA, since announcing Virgin Gaming at E3 last year, how extensive are your relationships with publishers now?
Billy Levy: So we're currently partnered with Ubisoft, we have Assassin's Creed on there and there'll be more titles including Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, with Codemasters we have DiRT 3...
Zack Zeldin: 2K...
Billy Levy: We have NBA2K12 and some of their other upcoming non-sports titles that we haven't announced just yet. We announced Virgin Gaming last year with Richard Branson at E3, and it was just us, our technology and our platform. Since then we signed up 500,000 users who are interested in playing competitively and engaging in this type of service and, this year, Madden 12 is the first title to have our technology fully integrated into the game. There'll be seven or eight big titles like that by the end of the year...which roughly equates to about 35 million game copies.
Matt Gardner: I was going to ask, how open and helpful have developers and publishers been to the idea of you integrating your technology directly into titles themselves?
Billy Levy: It's been a three year process. Zach and I started this company four years ago. Originally people were like 'prove you can do what you say you're going to do', and we just got treated like punk kids. But we were able to raise some money and hire some adults into the company who had some industry experience so it wasn't just us two bozos...
Zack Zeldin: You can quote us on the 'bozos' part!...
Billy Levy: Yeah they really helped a lot. As games are developed a year in advance so we started striking partnerships with titles last year, but we couldn't get the technology into the games until the next iteration. There's no-one really that we're not looking to move forward with, but we are very selective about the games we approach. We have a strict criteria: Is it competitive by nature? Are there clearly defined winners and losers? Is there an existing culture of competition, like FIFA or Street Fighter? We're no longer really those two bozos running around and begging people, now often they come to us and we assess whether it makes sense for us.
Matt Gardner: So, finally, tell us about localisation adn the big fat cheque. What have you got planned for the future?
Billy Levy: Well we already have gamers logging onto our service from over 130 different countries, with cash players from over 60 countries, the integration in the games is going to be a big thing. So when you stick FIFA 12 into your console, you'll see the EA Sports arena powered by Virgin Gaming. Players will be able to sign up and participate in tournaments and competitions through the console, and that'll be in every version of the game. For us as geeks...it's really freakin' cool!
Zack Zeldin: Yeah, expansion and localisation is definitely on our roadmap and we'll be rolling out localised version of the site across Germany, Spain, France and a whole bunch of others in Q1 next year.
Billy Levy: And we've committed to dishing out €3 million in prize money over the next year. Anyone can join, anyone can get involved, and we're literally going to be making millionaires out of gamers which, to us, is a really big deal.
Zack Zeldin: There'll be big presentation and awards events for the finals too, Richard Branson will be there, it'll be awesome!
Matt Gardner: Probably parachuting in...
Zack Zeldin: Oh you better believe he'll skydive in...from space.
A big thank you to Billy and Zach for taking the time to talk to us. Check out VirginGaming.com for more info.