Finding Your Sensei

Video games were around well before the wide adoption of the personal computer. What first started as a technical oddity at a 1950s science fair, gained national attention and wide-spread popularity by the early 1970s. Played predominantly on TV-connected consoles, and free-standing video arcade machines, games such as Spacewar! and Atari’s Pong, began captivating a growing population of video gamers across the nation and the globe by the early 1970s. Flash forward 40 years and the video game industry looks starkly different.

Today’s vast video game marketplace spans themes from professional sports, like professional soccer and NFL football; to military combat; to the fantasy world. In 2015 the sprawling video game industry reached an annual global sales level of over $100 billion. The major determinant of this explosive growth has been the ability for any “Gamer” with a game console and a high-speed internet connection to compete with other “Gamers” across the globe 24 hours a day.

Games like Hearthstone, Heroes of the Storm, DOTA, League of Legends, Starcraft II, and Overwatch, collectively boast hundreds of million users per month, and account for a large percentage of the growing $47 B “e-Sports” industry. Meanwhile, prize money for gaming competitions has been steadily rising and some top prizes have reached $10M, prompting avid gamers to quit their 9 to 5 jobs in search of these alluring bounties.

The problem? There has not been a good strategy (besides maybe online blogs and video tutorials) for improvement. In more traditional sports like football and baseball there are full time coaches to help players improve. Gamer Sensei, a startup out of Cambridge, MA is solving this problem by building a marketplace for gamers of all skill levels by providing tutorials and lessons through qualified and experienced coaches (senseis).

As William Collis, CEO at Gamer Sensei, puts it, “my first instinct with piano when I’m not good at it, is not to just sit by myself and bang the keys…but to get mentorship. But this type of one-on-one instruction does not exist in gaming today. And gaming is just as skill intensive as piano, or any other skill or sport like soccer, guitar etc. - all of which have thriving coaching industries.” Gamer Sensei is promptly bringing this mentorship to the gaming world.

Given that what they are doing is such a new concept, Gamer Sensei is in a unique position. They are executing what is known as a “blue ocean” strategy by having entered into uncontested market space. As such, they have no competition, and as the lone player, have the ability to unlock new demand and construct barriers to fend off future competition. However, while this is certainly a coveted market position there are a few challenges associated with building a business in such an unexplored space.

For a company like Gamer Sensei that is pioneering this concept of matching gamers to coaches, it was important to draw on other marketplace models for inspiration. Despite having a novel idea as an entrepreneur, it is often a challenge to determine where to best start; a logical path for where to take your company may not always be clear if a “template” does not exist. In these scenarios, drawing parallels to companies that may fit your business model is imperative. As with Gamer Sensei, they drew on other companies with successful marketplace business models and used that platform as a launching point for their idea.

William Collis and Rohan Gopaldas, the company’s co-founders both spoke to the challenges of the marketplace platform. Having two groups (the gamers and the senseis) to attract, manage, and appease is often challenging, and while attracting prospective coaches is the easy part for Gamer Sensei, qualifying and vetting them in another story. For all those operating a two sided marketplace, maintaining control over quality is key.

For Gamer Sensei, the screening process is currently very high touch; one on one, online interviews are conducted with each hopeful sensei. To increase the scalability of this process, the team is developing a protocol to effectively evaluate coaches online rather than in person. After all, the company is creating “mini experiences” that have to be positive for the gamer. Making sure that they vet and credential their senseis is a proactive form of customer service that will undoubtedly yield a better gamer experience. To scale effectively, Gamer Sensei can start by drawing from companies like Uber that quickly find safe and responsible drivers to providing the best experience possible for the users.

While attracting coaches may be the easy part, demonstrating to gamers the need for a lesson with a coach is more challenging. CEO Rohan Gopaldas explains how today to improve, many gamers visit online blogs or watch other gamers play on platforms like YouTube and Twitch. For Gamer Sensei, much of their effort to onboard gamers is centered around education; explaining to gamers that the right way to improve is not to simply play more and bang away at the keys, but to get a Sensei and learn through a lesson and tutorial based approach. It is creating this behavior through education that is a challenge in such a new market, but one that the team at Gamer Sensei is certainly up to. 

Beyond the difficulty of building a company in a marketplace setting and staying committed to customer satisfaction, getting investors to see and understand your vision is challenging, especially in an industry that the investors may not identify with. This makes the already arduous fundraising process even more difficult. It is thus imperative to draw parallels to other industries help the investors understand and foresee the value your company is providing. In Gamer Senseis’ case, and as alluded to earlier, they reference both sports and musical instruments to show their value. Like a soccer player joining a team with a coach or a piano player seeking mentorship from an instructor, Gamer Sensei operates in the same way by catering to the gaming world.

Through this novel idea, the team at Gamer Sensei has quickly established themselves as the predominant player in the space. Their understanding of the challenges associated with a marketplace, commitment to proactive customer service, and ability to sell their vision to investors through the trying fundraising process has allowed them to grow alongside the fast paced and increasingly lucrative gaming industry.

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