From Starcraft to League of Legends, the e-sports market has gone through a massive expansion over the last decade in a half. Millions of dollars are now at stake over video games played in front of audiences of thousands, both at live events and in matches broadcast online.
Y Combinator-backed Kickback is looking to expand the scope of that market by building competitive ecosystems around pre-existing games. Its initial release is built upon Minecraft, the adventure toolbox now owned by Microsoft.
Kickback’s approach treats the entire experience as one product. While the games take place within the Minecraft app, the startup runs servers hosting the matches, arranges games, designs the “maps” games take place in, codifies the rules of each map type and keeps track of player wins and losses.
The server architecture is based on the work done for Triangle, a free server hosting service Kickback created for the Minecraft community last summer. More than 200,000 servers have been hosted on Triangle since its launch, bringing in a healthy number of players for the team to test its primary platform.
Minecraft is rather easy to modify with new weapons, rules, and maps, so Kickback has a fine level of control over the the kind of matches it can implement. Matches can range from two to tens of players, with different rules for deathmatch-style play and team-based combat. Volunteers from the community contribute maps for different player counts and match types, letting the startup add new venues to play in at a faster rate than most studios can crank out downloadable content.
As with Triangle, Kickback’s matchmaking system is offered free to those who just want to play for bragging rights. The startup plans to make money from players willing to bet actual money they’re better than other players. For $1 per match, confident Minecraft players can pitch in to a pot for a chance to win money in ten to twenty minutes.
These paid matches offer just as much variety as the free options, though the number of competitors obviously affects the potential payout. Kickback co-founder Vlad Nov says that paid dynamic has helped the startup in two ways.
First, there’s the unique experience that comes with having some money on the line during a competitive game, making each match feel a bit more exciting. There’s also the fact that the game’s biggest winners have also tended to be the most vocal activists, recruiting more friends to play on the platform than the free players who might just see Kickback as a convenient way to get their Minecraft fix but could otherwise find servers elsewhere.
On the topic of bringing in the community, Kickback’s other co-founder, Mark Prokoudine, says the startup is looking at the aspects of the Minecraft community that make it unique. They’ve made a promotional video in partnership with one of the community’s most popular animators (which you can see a preview of in the GIF below) which they plan to release in concert with a popular Twitch streamer in the weeks to come.
To take advantage of the massive amount of attention Twitch can bring to a game or event, the startup is also working to let users jump into Twitch streams for current matches from within the web app, making it a destination both for playing and watching others play each other.
Going forward, the 10-person startup’s two biggest focuses are adding more maps and match types for Minecraft and bringing other games to the platform. It won’t have some of the advantages that came with Minecraft when it starts working with new games, but Prokoudine says that the hardest work — making the scalable backend and matchmaking systems — was designed to carry over without much of a hassle.