Turn Your Gaming Hobby Into Your Small Business

Everyone knows that making video games is big business these days--and if you're good enough, you can even get paid to play them professionally. But what if you're not cut out for game development and you don't have the controller chops to make it to the big leagues?

We found three competitive game players who managed to take their love of the game and funnel it into their own unique businesses: Sean "Day[9]" Plott has started a Web-video production company devoted to the competitive StarCraft II community, Street Fighter player and commentator David "UltraDavid" Graham has started his own law practice focusing on gaming and entertainment law, and Steven "Destiny" Bonnell is a competitive StarCraft II player who has turned his live-streaming antics into a full-time job.

(For more pro-gaming coverage, don't forget to check out "2011: The Year of eSports" and "Professional Gamers: A Day in the Life."

Jink.tv: Be a Better Gamer

Sean "Day[9]" Plott

First up are Sean "Day[9]" Plott, Cara LaForge, and Eric Burkhart of Jink.tv. Their Web-video startup is currently built around the Day[9] Daily, a regular live-streamed tutorial show devoted to dissecting the nuances of StarCraft II play that reaches between 5000 and 15000 live viewers.

What does your business do?

Sean Plott: We're largely focused around the motto of "Be a better gamer." We want to create content for people who embrace the gamer identity, particularly the competitive gamer. The big emphasis is on Web-video production, which I think is the most interesting media, because you can envision people wanting to watch more content about a niche interest like bocce ball, but you can't pitch a bocce ball tournament to CBS.

Cara LaForge: It's a niche market, what we do; but with the advent of Internet live streaming, we can build that niche in an extraordinary way.

StarCraft II
Plott: I was looking for a media format that would allow me to discuss strategy. There are the forums, which are great for discussion, but it's hard for an expert to join in and not get drowned out by others. I tried an audio podcast, which worked, but it's hard to describe something like micromanaging your Roaches without a visual. And then I thought, well, let's do it live, so I can interact with the audience while it's going.

Also, I loved watching pro matches in StarCraft I, and so I said to myself, "I don't have enough time to play or watch pro games because I'm in graduate school, so why don't I just do a live analysis show, watch the matches I wanted to watch anyway, and get the chance to dissect them myself?"

LaForge: And I think you were startled by the response.

When did you realize you wanted to do this as a business?

Plott: The viewership just kept growing. There was a moment where I just thought, "Wow, this is kind of popular."

LaForge: The numbers just kept going up. Live-stream users, email, views on the archive, all just kept going up--and at this point, Eric and Sean and I just kind of casually asked, "What are you doing?" He's clearly acting as a flashpoint for a hungry community. At the same time, since his brother [Nick "Tasteless" Plott] is in Korea working for GomTV, there's clearly a viable business model for eSports there, which was kind of an intriguing role model for our work here.

Tell me a bit about the team behind the Day[9] Daily.

Plott: We all kind of share the common trait of being able to do a lot of actual hard work, and Eric and Cara are brilliant with ideas. So at first, I was just asking for help with things like video encoding, the day-to-day work that I didn't have hours in the day to work on. But eventually it was just nice to have a different perspective. I'm deeply embedded in the StarCraft community, Eric casually enjoys it, Cara has raised two people who are into StarCraft, so we all bring a different perspective to our project.

LaForge: We all kind of dovetail beautifully. When Sean told me he was going to take a partner, I told him not to do it--then I met Eric, and I said to Sean, "This guy is fantastic! I can't believe you were lucky enough to find this guy."

How has the StarCraft II community treated you?

LaForge: The great thing about the StarCraft community is that it is a smart, educated community with a lot of wonderful people offering their time and energy. We're really lucky that we can tap into that community--graphic designers, publicists, computer programmers--the list goes on and on.

Plott: The most tragic thing we've had happen is that we hear of an event that sounds really cool, but we just don't have the time to help out.

LaForge: It sounds goofy, but it's totally true. We just love our community. They're so supportive.

How did you build those connections to the community?

Plott: It helps that a lot of the people we end up interacting with businesswise are the same people I played against in StarCraft back in the day. I just met with Duran "FnaticXeris" Parsi, and I've been in clans that he has run in the past.

Do you have any advice for people thinking about starting their own gaming-based business?

LaForge: It helps that we've always treated the business seriously. From the very beginning, we decided we were all-in, and we spent the money on lawyers to incorporate, hired an accountant to help with the financial structure, looked into the IP issues--we really wanted to build something on this. If you have readers who will try to make a living from their hobbies, they'll need to take it seriously and make those kinds of investments up front.

Sean "Day[9]" Plott in one of his Day[9] Daily videos.
Sean "Day[9]" Plott in one of his Day[9] Daily videos.
Plott: It's easy to have the perception that working a difficult-sounding 9-to-5 is hard, but that working around StarCraft is easy. So many people think that I dilly-dally all day, mosey onto the show, talk about what I want, and sign off. In reality, it's hours of prep work, studying matchups, and saying, "Sorry guys, I can't go out tonight." No matter how clever your workflow is, you'll always have to put in hard work.

LaForge:There was a huge learning curve in regard to Eric's and my understanding that we only have so much Sean to go around. We were happily booking him for everything we could think of, and darn near burning him out. Honestly, it was hard for Eric and me to learn to say no to people. Last year, there was a period where he was doing the Daily every night, going to school every day, and jumping on a plane every Thursday to shoutcast an event. He did that for four or five months, and then he hit a wall. But aren't we lucky that people want us to send him places? That we have so many opportunities?

Have any apps or Web tracking tools been particularly useful for Jink.tv?

Plott: A shoutout to Blip.tv--among all the partners we looked at, Blip.tv alone had sophisticated ways for us to measure data in real time, and it could act as a hypersyndication service for us. Once we stream on Justin.tv, it's syndicated on Blip and dozens of distribution points, and data from all those points feeds back to a single dashboard. We really admire Blip.tv and Justin.tv, and we regard them as business partners and mentors.

Eric Burkhart: Google has a nice service that lets you keep tabs on things [We're assuming he's talking about Google Alerts. --Editors], so I can see what the community is saying about Sean in public places--and where they're saying it. There's usually a story behind the numbers that you should know. Also, for video today, a lot of tools out there will let you aggregate the data. Most of these services (Blip, YouTube, etc.) all have the data there--what regions people watch from, what they watch, when they drop off, and so on.

Plott: A very important part of our process is weighing the quantitative data we get from our analytic software against the qualitative data we get from our viewer feedback. A lot of people like to talk about a really vocal minority; but if you're not careful, you'll never be able to measure that. For example, we noticed that whenever we started the Q&A, the viewer count dropped, so we thought it wasn't that valuable--but we got incredibly negative feedback when we cut it, because it turns out that the most passionate, vocal people stuck around for the Q&A. We always want to be in a conversation with the viewership, not to put up a black box that they deposit feedback into and never see what happens.

This question is for Cara: Aren't you terrified that both your sons are working in a business about professional games, and not doing something more stable?

LaForge: I'd be terrified if I thought my children would just be company men, locked in a cubicle for the rest of their lives. Life is too short. I was a single mom, and when the kids were quite small, I was terrified myself about how I'd raise these kids. I had a guy who gave me an opportunity to start a small business, and mentored me. The first business I ran for him was a software-localization company, and I went out to California and tried to market our services. I was electrified by the atmosphere in California, how people were just having fun doing what they wanted to do.

Right now I'm running an international process-serving business--we hunt people down and serve them their due-process notices, and it has been a hoot! And the kids have always been along for the ride with me: We'd sit around the table talking about what they were working on in StarCraft, and I'd talk about the business, and I realized that there were parallels between what they were doing and what I was doing. I think it's fascinating, I think it's the future, I think it's cutting-edge, and I think it's exciting for them to be where all the action is.

What are your future goals for Jink.tv?

LaForge: We want to grow eSports. We think there is a market for eSports in the West, and we're fascinated by the fact that there's a whole gaming subculture that has responded to the things Sean has done and said by saying, "Dude, that was my childhood. That's my life. I've never had anyone talk about those experiences before. I feel legitimized."

Next page: David "UltraDavid" Graham and Steven "Destiny" Bonnell

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