An Exercise in Innovation

Trying to make professional gaming a reality.

Rare is the game that is released nowadays without some sort of online mode of play. More and more producers are providing means to play over the Internet, even to the point where some games are released without any standalone component at all.

The day may indeed come when online is the only way to play.

And with this new way of gaming, in came the venues and matching services trying to get players together. This was a very good idea, providing a social atmosphere where people could play friendly games. This was a great idea, but it sort of left the diehard gamer out in the cold.

But they will be cold no longer.

Enter Online Athletes, a company that allows players to gather in clans on dedicated servers and hold tournaments in games like Tribes, Half-life, Quake, and Unreal. OLA also sponsors tournaments of its own, paying out cash prizes to top-ranking contenders. From the traffic they have gotten on their site, it’s apparent that they have found quite a large niche.

GiN spoke with Ben Gray, Co-CEO and one of the founders of Online Athletes, and got him to answer questions about his company and its origins, and why the online gaming community is so hot, and where this all is headed.

Online Athletes –

GiN: How did Online Athletes get started?

Gray: We (Bill Eccleston and myself) started playing Tribes in the beginning of 1999 and realized there was this huge, largely untapped and captive audience. As a trial, we each ran 2 Tribes servers each out of our homes. They quickly filled to capacity and when we checked our logs realized that each server was clocking approximately 300,000 minutes of playtime per week! The next step was to monetize this traffic and hence OLA was born.

GiN: How large is the online professional gamer community at Online Athletes?

Gray: We have roughly 600,000 players run through our servers each month.

GiN: Do you have your own servers or are you more of a match-up type of setup?

Gray: We own the servers and run them at Qwest and DTI Cybercenters as well as a few betas in our office.

GiN: How difficult is it to maintain a service like the one at Online Athletes?

Gray: Once the technology is in place, it tends to stay that way. The difficulty lies in the fact that we are trailblazers and every step is a new one.

GiN: What are some of the problems you run into?

Gray: Funding. It has taken us a year so far to build out our infrastructure and it is starting to work beautifully, but we need the venture community to continue to back us to keep us going until we can properly monetize our model.

GiN: Do most of your gamers have high-bandwidth connections? Do you think organizations like Online Athletes will grow as higher bandwidth connections become more popular?

Gray: A lot of our gamers have cable or DSL at home but other are still unhappily stuck on dial-up. It is to our advantage for players to have the broadest bandwidth possible so that they may easily download our custom maps, reach distant servers with competitive pings and enjoy playing the games we host.

GiN: What would entice an online gamer to play at your site? Why do most of your users end up sticking around?

Gray: Powerful computers, fat pipes, great map rotations, neutral and fair servers, a great community and, most importantly, OLA is there for them when they need us and they know it.

GiN: What is the main demographic of a typical Online Athlete member?

Gray: Mid-twenties, 75% male, tech savvy, nice income levels.

GiN: A lot of online game sites are starting to pander more to the casual gamer, yet you seem to be focused on the hardcore types. Is this a strategy that works for you?

Gray: Hardcore gamers build better communities. They participate more actively, have a lot more to say and spend more time online.

GiN: Have developers and publishers in the game industry been supportive of your efforts? What kind of support have you gotten?

Gray: That was one of our biggest concerns at first. Some love what we are doing as it further popularizes their games by making them more accessible to their gaming audience while other have been passive and seem to be taking a wait and see stance. But no one has done anything to thwart our progress and we try to be very open in what we plan to do with the games.

GiN: Many folks say this is the future of the entire industry. What do you see on the horizon for both online game play and Online Athletes?

Gray: All the research we see shows online gaming growing at an exponential rate in both North America and Western Europe. As bandwidth gets faster and cheaper, and home computers become more powerful and widespread, more and more people are seeing online gaming as a great way to be part of a community, enjoy some competition and have lots of fun.

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