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

'UltraDavid' at Law: Courtroom Heavyweight

David "UltraDavid" Graham, commentating at the Evolution National Championships.
David "UltraDavid" Graham, commentating at the Evolution National Championships.
Next in line is David "UltraDavid" Graham, a prominent player and commentator in the competitive Street Fighter IV circuit who has taken his gaming knowledge and applied it to his DPG at Law firm, which specializes in gaming and entertainment law.

Tell me a bit about yourself.

My name is David Philip Graham, aka "UltraDavid." I'm pretty proud of my gaming history, because I'm one of the rare people my age who are second-generation gamers. My dad and uncle used to play in the arcades in the late 1970s. My first console, a Commodore 64, was actually my dad's, and for years we played video games together the way other fathers and sons might toss a ball. I played a ton of different genres but was always very interested in fighting games. I didn't actively realize when I was young that they were such deep and interesting strategy games, but I knew there was something I liked about outsmarting my friends that kept me coming back.

When did you start playing fighting games seriously?

I went to college at UC Berkeley in 2001. The Berkeley campus had an arcade, the Bearcade, that was located really close to both the student center and my political science classes, so I began to pop in there in between classes to play. It turned out that Northern California was one of the big centers of American fighting game culture, and one of the region's main meetups was the Bearcade, so I quickly went from thinking that I was pretty good to losing almost every match. And that didn't turn me off. For the first time I began to realize that there was a lot of strategy, lots of fun tricks, and lots of variety in games like Street Fighter, and it bugged me that I was bad at it.

But it wasn't until after I finished law school that I really became well known. The fighting-game scene had begun to atrophy a little when Street Fighter IV was finally released in 2008 just two weeks after I took the bar exam. Since I couldn't work for the few months it took to find out whether I'd passed, I had a lot of free time to explore the new game. And I got really good, at one point winning or placing in the top three in eight consecutive tournaments.

When did you start commentating Street Fighter tournaments?

UltraDavid in action
Unfortunately, I had to stop playing at a high level due to a nerve problem I developed soon after. It's fairly minor, and I don't really notice it in my day-to-day life, but a compressed nerve in my spine makes my brain's commands to my hands a little less dependable than they used to be. That makes playing video games at a high level--which can be very manually intensive--effectively impossible. I still play for fun, of course, but I can't compete as well as I used to.

Luckily, around the same time I began commentating at tournaments. As I said, I'd developed a reputation as a man of details, knowledge, and analysis, and with that in mind I was asked to begin offering my insight on tournament matches being streamed over the Internet. The viewers liked me and wanted more, so I obliged. I'll be one of the main commentators at the biggest open tournament in the world, Evolution 2011, in late July.

Did your legal studies affect your interest in gaming?

It sounds weird to most people, but I credit law school with turning me into a good video game player and commentator. In my experience the biggest lessons in law school were not factual or legal, but mental. I learned to think well at Georgetown. That's not to say I was bad at it before, but law school is when I really became a good, fast critical thinker with a strong memory who could quickly identify and analyze issues, spot good and bad situations, and come up with creative plans and solutions.

And as important as that is in the legal profession, it's just as important in competitive video gaming. Like the practice of law, they're full of issue spotting, good and bad situations in need of analysis and creative responses, and an extremely large set of facts and rules to remember. And like the legal profession, commentating on those games requires a quick wit, the ability to quickly and accurately recall facts and previous situations, and the ability to clearly and succinctly articulate ideas. I think there's a direct relationship between my developing those tools in law school and my ability to think and speak well about games.

What about the other way around? Has your interest in gaming affected your legal studies?

I also credit video games with my interest in law. Although I'd decided on law a decade before going to law school, my decision to practice intellectual property, entertainment, and Internet law is a direct consequence of my interest in video games. After so many years of playing games, I grew interested in legal issues such as copyright, trademarks, and contracts that surround game development. And after so many years of friendships and activity in the video game community, I wanted to help the community grow and prosper.

So for me, video games and the law have been very closely linked for a long time now. That I'm now working as a lawyer in the video game community and doing video game commentary both for fun and as advertising for my legal practice is about as intuitive and awesome as it gets for me.

Who does your law firm serve?

Among my clients, the sole commonality is that they're almost entirely members of the competitive video gaming community. My clients have included app and video game developers; app and video game publishers; professional video gamers looking for sponsorship; merchandisers creating game-related products; video game tournament organizers; video game media and stream broadcasters; apparel companies creating game-related clothing and bags; someone who received a complaint for file sharing; a musical artist; and a screenwriter. It's great! I get to help people in my community in ways that, in many cases, lead to great goods and services for the community at large. And at the same time, I'm constantly running into new legal and business issues, so there's no chance of getting bored.

How do your clients find you? I can't imagine they just type "Street Fighter Lawyer" into Google.

Street Fighter IV
Clients have found me in a few different ways. One is by previous acquaintance. Some of my clients knew me before I opened my practice, and knew that I had a reputation for being intelligent and knowledgeable both in games and in other things, so they asked me to help them as soon as I started. Another way is through my commentary. I routinely get tens of thousands of live viewers and literally millions on recorded videos, which is a lot of exposure. Sometimes during downtime on a stream, I'll talk a bit about myself and my work, and all I really need to put food on the table is for 1 out of 10,000 or 20,000 viewers to contact me about it. The last way is through the articles on video game law that I write for Shoryuken.com. Shoryuken is the central fighting-game website, one of the top 5000 sites in the country, so it gets a ton of views.

That said, I'm not very well plugged in to video game communities outside of fighting games yet. There's definitely some crossover between players and fans of competitive video games of different genres. For example, I watch StarCraft a lot, and I know that some StarCraft fans watch Street Fighter. But in the near future I'm going to try to branch out into other communities as both a fan and a lawyer.

What I absolutely do not want is to come in as some outsider trying to take advantage of someone else's community. It's very important to me that I be a part of whatever I'm working with, for a couple reasons. The first is that I just like it. I love being in the video game community, making new friends, playing new games, and so on. The other is that gamers demand it. We're an insular, screw-authority, screw-outsiders sort of people, and I'm no different.

I'm always suspicious when I see non-fighting gamers try to come in and work with us. Like, what's your angle? What are you trying to pull? I have credibility in the games and the scene, and people feel more comfortable coming to me with their issues because I know the industry and community so well. I'm sure other attorneys outside the player community know the letter of the law as well as I do, but they don't have that personal and community expertise that counts for so much to people like us.

Steven 'Destiny' Bonnell: Playing for the Crowd

Steven "Destiny" Bonnell II (Photo by EdwardStarcraft)
Steven "Destiny" Bonnell II (Photo by EdwardStarcraft)
Rounding out our group of gaming professionals is Steven "Destiny" Bonnell II, who has used his live-streaming StarCraft II channel on Justin.tv to build a decent pro-gaming career, a StarCraft II coaching business, and a devoted fan base. Check out his stream (warning: language is often NSFW).

What does a normal day in the life of Destiny look like?

I generally wake up, play games, take breaks to eat, and play more games. It's pretty much all I do.

What did you do before becoming a pro gamer?

I was a professional carpet cleaner.

How much do you charge for lessons?

Right now, I do $50 for one hour and $90 for two hours!

What does a typical lesson look like?

It really depends, based on the player's skill level. If they're in a lower league, we may spend the entire lesson drilling basic mechanics or techniques to improve them. For midlevel players, it's general coaching on economy and production, and for high-level players, it's usually nit-picking and getting into specific strategic problems.

Who is a good candidate for pro lessons?

Anyone who feels overwhelmed with stuff to work on, and isn't quite sure where to focus their efforts.

Any remarkable success stories for players you've coached?

I've coached a few players who have gone from Bronze to Diamond or from Silver/Gold to Master's league. No GSL winners yet, however.

StarCraft II
Tell me a bit about your stream--it kind of catapulted you into the limelight. How do you make money from it?

Justin.tv splits the ad revenue with you from video ads 50-50, so every time I finish a game I run a commercial to make some money!

Any tips for aspiring streamers hoping to make it big as you did?

Always remember that the one thing you can offer viewers that no one else can offer is your personality. There will always be a better player, or someone with higher APM/better music/better stream quality/etc. Your one selling point is your personality.

Patrick Miller covers HDTVs, how-tos, and the occasional game for PCWorld. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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