For much of the past six years, Andrew Paradise felt like an outsider in esports—a new revenue source in the video game industry, built around enormous multiplayer competitions. Skillz, his mobile esports platform, was small in comparison and deemed fringe by his peers. They were focused on PC games with dazzling, hardware-hungry visuals. Not phones.
But things are different now. At the annual Game Developers Conference held each March in San Francisco, on the day dedicated to esports, one of the first panels focused on mobile game competitions. More than 200 developers visited the Skillz Inc. booth. “Mobile esports was the hottest thing at GDC,” Paradise says. “The industry is shifting very quickly.”
Esports contests have gone from peripheral affairs to massive spectacles, with investment from billion-dollar game publishers, broadcast TV networks, and venture capitalists pouring into teams adept at PC games. Mobile games such as Angry Birds and Candy Crush attract more players—2.2 billion worldwide, according to researcher Newzoo—but generally not the kind who’ll train for tournaments. Now that phone hardware is good enough to run more complex games, even hard-core players are shifting their attention to phones. Six-year-old Skillz, the mobile esports leader, says it hosts more than 1 million tournaments a day and has doubled its monthly revenue, to $16 million, in the last nine months, putting it on pace to blow past $200 million in the next year.
Skillz is a central hub that can turn any game into a contest among friends or strangers, either by pitting players against one another or by ranking their scores. The company works with more than 8,000 developers to tweak their games for its 15 million players, who enter tournaments of as few as two people or as many as 10,000 and win prizes based on their results. (Average entry fee: about $2.) Skillz says it matches players based on ability. Cash prizes are paid via check or PayPal, and occasionally a new car or paid vacation is up for grabs. There are also free contests without cash-value prizes.
The number of (mostly casual) mobile gamers around the world tops 2.2 billion
Newzoo predicts mobile games will account for a majority of game industry revenue, roughly $65 billion, by 2020. Paradise says he expects the $900 million esports business to do the same. “Software follows hardware,” he says, “and mobile is the dominant hardware.” The average Skillz gamer spends about an hour a day on the platform.