Chinese mobile games are gaining ground in the US

Over the past year, the coronavirus crisis has spurred app usage in the United States as people stay indoors to limit contact with others. Mobile games particularly have enjoyed a boom, and among them, games from Chinese studios are gaining popularity.

Games released on the U.S. App Store and Google Play Store raked in a total of $5.8 billion in revenue during the fourth quarter, jumping 34.3% from a year before and accounting for over a quarter of the world’s mobile gaming revenues, according to a new report from market research firm Sensor Tower.

In the quarter, Chinese titles contributed as much as 20% of the mobile gaming revenues in the U.S. That effectively made China the largest importer of mobile games in the U.S., thanks to a few blockbuster titles. Chinese publishers claimed 21 spots among the 100 top-grossing games in the period and collectively generated $780 million in revenues in the U.S., the world’s largest mobile gaming market, more than triple the amount from two years before.

Occupying the top rank are familiar Chinese titles such as the first-person shooter game Call of Duty, a collaboration between Tencent and Activision, as well Tencent’s PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. But smaller Chinese studios are also quickly infiltrating the U.S. market.

Mihoyo, a little-known studio outside China, has been turning heads in the domestic gaming industry with its hit game Genshin Impact, a role-playing action game featuring anime-style characters. It was the sixth-most highest-grossing mobile game in the U.S. during Q4, racking up over $100 million in revenues in the period.

Most notable is that Mihoyo has been an independent studio since its inception in 2011. Unlike many gaming startups that covet fundings from industry titans like Tencent, Mihoyo has so far raised only a modest amount from its early days. It also stirred up controversy for skipping major distributors like Tencent and phone vendors Huawei and Xiaomi, releasing Genshin Impact on Bilibili, a popular video site amongst Chinese youngsters, and games downloading platform Taptap.

Magic Tavern, the developer behind the puzzle game Project Makeover, one of the most installed mobile games in the U.S. since late last year, is another lesser-known studio. Founded by a team of Tsinghua graduates with offices around the world, Magic Tavern is celebrated as one of the first studios with roots in China to have gained ground in the American casual gaming market. KKR-backed gaming company AppLovin is a strategic investor in Magic Tavern.

Other popular games in the U.S. also have links to China, if not directly owned by a Chinese company. Shortcut Run and Roof Nails are works from the French casual game maker Voodoo, which received a minority investment from Tencent last year. Tencent is also a strategic investor in Roblox, the gaming platform oriented to young gamers and slated for an IPO in the coming weeks.

Area 120 is beginning to use Google’s massive reach to scale HTML5 GameSnacks platform

Hundreds of millions of users, especially in developing markets, don’t own high-end smartphones and can’t afford fast data plans to enjoy much of anything on the web.

Google has been exploring multiple ways to better serve this segment of the user base. It has tried partnerships to make the internet more affordable to tens of millions of users. It has worked with smartphone makers to bring reliable Android experience to cheap smartphones. In fact, it’s currently working on a project with telecom operator Jio Platforms in India to further lower the price point for decent Android experience.

For mobile games, however, Google has a slightly different idea to reach users. Area 120, Google’s in-house incubator for experimental projects, last year launched GameSnacks. It’s an HTML5 gaming platform, where titles are bite-sized and they load much faster and consume far less resources because of the way they have been designed.

And that idea appears to be working.

Google said on Tuesday that over the past year it has made inroads with GameSnacks, and is now ready to scale the platform and test monetization models to make it worthwhile for game developers.

In an exclusive interview with TechCrunch, Ani Mohan, General Manager of GameSnacks, said the platform has amassed over 100 titles and millions of users.

“HTML5 gaming has been growing, especially outside of the United States. HTML5 is a great way to get games to users who have just come online and probably haven’t played games online before. These games are cross-device, work on low-bandwidth connection, and are instantly playable as they don’t require users to install any files,” he said.

These single-player games, that work on any device with as low RAM as 1GB and 2G to 3G data connection, are available to users through GameSnacks website. They can be played on desktop as well as Chrome on an iPhone or iPad (if you wanted to give it a whirl.)

Now the company is using its scale to expand the reach and discoverability of GameSnacks. Mohan said in recent weeks GameSnacks games have been made available from the New Tab page in Chrome for users in India, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Kenya.

In India, Google’s biggest market by users, GameSnacks games are also arriving to Google Pay. The company is also experimenting with bringing GameSnacks games to Discover feed.

Mohan said the company is starting these integrations is select countries because that’s where many users face the challenges the platform is trying to address. “We view this as an early stage of experimentation. If it goes well, we will love to expand it,” he said.

Additionally, Mohan said the company is experimenting with bringing GameSnacks games to the Google Assistant.

“Now that few of these integrations are live, one of things we are hoping to do is talk to developers, and tell them that there is an easy way to get on Google,” he said.

Developers on GameSnacks currently monetize their games via a licensing or a contracting model where they sell some or all of their game rights to the company. Mohan said the team, which comprises six people (though more people from Google contribute to it), is working on helping these developers monetize their games using next-generation AdSense for Games ad formats.

“We want to help them build viable businesses over time so we’re going to start experimenting with advertising on the platform,” he said. However, this will be for a select number of GameSnacks games for now.

Emerging markets such as Africa and Asia are not new to the world of HTML games. In India, for instance, a gaming platform called Gamezop raised $4.2 million last year to expand its HTML5 games to reach more developers and embed them into over 1,000 apps.

In 2018, South African telco, MTN Group, launched the Bonus Bucks HTML5 game portal for its subscribers in the Southern African country. Facebook operated HTML5 Instant Games on Messenger for years until taking it off the messaging service. A quick search on our own archive returns scores of firms that work on HTML5 games in the past, though we have seen fewer examples in recent years.

Mohan remains bullish that there is a big opportunity for HTML games and this extends beyond Africa and Asia. “We don’t see these markets as our only option. These are just the markets we’re starting with because the need for HTML5 games… is especially compelling. We think the market size for this is much broader because HTML has users all around the world,” he said.

Artie raises $10M for app-less mobile games

Artie, a startup looking to rethink the distribution of mobile games, announced today that it has raised $10 million in funding.

There are some big names backing the company — its latest investors include Zynga founder Mark Pincus, Kevin Durant and Rich Kleiman’s Thirty Five Ventures, Scooter Braun’s Raised In Space, Shutterstock founder Jon Oringer, Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, Susquehanna International Group, Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment + The Sixers Lab, Googler Manuel Bronstein and YouTube co-founder Chad Hurley.

This actually represents a pivot from Artie’s original vision of creating augmented reality avatars. CEO Ryan Horrigan said that he and his co-founder/CTO Armando Kirwin ended up building distribution technology that they felt solved “a much bigger problem.”

The problem, in part, is game developers “looking for ways outside of Apple’s App Stores rules and restrictions.” (That’s certainly something Fortnite-maker Epic Games seems to be fighting for.) So Artie’s platform allows users to play mobile games without installing an app, from the browser or wherever links can be shared online.

Artie Beer Pong

Image Credits: Artie

Artie isn’t the only startup focused on the idea of app-less mobile gaming, but Horrigan said that while other companies are limited by JavaScript and HTML5, Artie supports Unity, meaning it can build casual (rather than hyper-casual) games, and eventually games that might even go deeper.

“Similar to cloud games, we’re running Unity games on our cloud, but rather than rendering their graphics on the cloud and pushing the video to players, we’re not running graphics on the cloud,” he said. “We’re streaming assets and animations that are highly-optimized and rendered in real-time through the embedded web browser.”

In other words, the goal is to get frictionless distribution outside of app stores, while avoiding some of the issues facing cloud gaming, namely significant infrastructure costs and lag time.

The startup is developing and releasing games of its own, with an Alice in Wonderland game, a beer pong game and more on the schedule for later this year, then a massively multiplayer online game planned for 2022. But the company also plans to release an SDK allowing other developers to distribute through its platform as well.

Horrigan said Artie’s initial games will be free-to-play, monetized through in-game purchases. They’ll use cookies to remember where players were in the game, but players will also be able to create logins.

Artie is also developing games with a major music star and a superhero IP-owner, and he argued that by combining no-code/low-code authoring tools with Artie’s distribution platform, this could become a bigger trend.

“We want to be working with the next generation of influencers to make games using these low-code or no-code solutions, then publish to their audiences directly on YouTube,” he said. “Imagine what a branded game would look like from your favorite hip hop star. We think that’s coming, and we think Artie is the platform to make that happen.”

 

Zynga CEO says he’s on the lookout for more acquisitions

If you’re wondering why Zynga issued $875 million in convertible notes at the end of 2020, CEO Frank Gibeau said the company was fundraising to build up a “war chest” for more acquisitions.

“As you know, we’ve been a consolidator inside of this business for a while, and we’re going to continue to be on offense [looking for] great companies, great cultures, great teams that we can bring into Zynga,” Gibeau told me.

In the last year alone, Zynga acquired two game studios based in Istanbul — Peak Games for $1.8 billion and Rollic for $180 million (in the latter case, it only acquired 80% of the company initially).

“There are now four or five examples of us having done this successfully,” Gibeau said. “When we started, nobody was picking up our phone calls. Now when we call, we are a bit of a destination of choice for a lot of developers out there.”

Gibeau and I were speaking about Zynga’s fourth quarter earnings, in which the company reported all-time high revenue of $616 million and a net loss of $53 million (though another measure of profitability, adjusted EBITDA, was actually positive at $90 million). Daily active users were up 77% year over year, to 36 million, while monthly active users were up 103%, to 134 million.

Looking ahead, Zynga is forecasting revenue of $2.6 billion (a 32% year-over-year increase) and adjusted EBITDA of $450 million for 2021. And while another acquisition could significantly grow the business, Gibeau noted that the company’s forecasts have “no acquisitions assumed,” adding, “We’re in a great position, because we would prefer to do acquisitions in 2021, but we don’t have to do any deals.”

There are new games lined up for 2021, including Puzzle Combat, Farmville 3 and a Star Wars title. The company also plans to continue developing hypercasual games, to develop more cross-platform games, to expand internationally and to continue building out its ad network — in fact, he suggested that Apple’s upcoming privacy changes could be good for Zynga.

“A lot of traditional marketing services are not going to be able to survive very well,” he said. “Because we’re a first-party data company — all the data we generate is coming to our services from our games — and because we’re at scale … IDFA is an opportunity for our company.”

Epic shows off Unreal’s nearly-real ‘MetaHuman’ 3D character creator

One of the most difficult tasks in the increasingly high-fidelity world of gaming is making realistic-looking people — especially faces. Epic today showed off a new character creation tool in Unreal Engine that lets you make a near-infinite variety of near-photorealistic digital people with far less effort than it might have taken before.

MetaHuman Creator is an application for designing characters that lets people mix and match presets then dive into the tiniest details. It’s a cloud-hosted service, since the amount of computing power and storage needed to render these characters at this resolution and level of lighting and so on is more than most people will have on hand.

Anyone who’s used a high-quality character creator will recognize the pieces — a few dozen hairstyles, ear types, beards, and lip shapes, which can be added, subtracted, and adjusted like a digital Mr Potato Head. Bet you didn’t see that reference coming!

Close-up of CG faces showing details of skin reflectivity and wrinkles.

Image Credits: Epic

The difference between MetaHuman and, say, a state of the art consumer level creator like Cyberpunk 2077’s is fidelity and flexibility. As you can see in the videos, the quality of the hair, skin, eyes, teeth, and so on is extremely high — the older fellow on the left has has quite realistic wrinkles that shadow and deform properly when he moves his face, and the way the light interacts with the center lady’s light skin is very different from that of the dark-skinned man on the right.

The “center lady” also started as a middle-aged man, and was sculpted piece by piece to her current look rather than just switching to a “feminine” preset, demonstrating that the faces don’t “break” if you manipulate them too much — a risk in other creators for sure. You can see the process in fast forward in the video below:

Naturally it also integrates with the usual creator tools, allowing for animation by various means, fiddling with meshes, and exporting for use in other tools.

This level of detail isn’t exactly unprecedented, but the amount of work that goes into rendering a main character good enough for extreme close-ups and microexpressions is huge. Epic’s approach is not just to increase the potential quality of the assets and lighting and so on but to make it easy and efficient to implement. If only AAA studios can muster the resources to make characters like this, it’s not healthy for gaming as a whole.

Epic was humble enough to give credit right off the bat to companies like 3Lateral and Cubic Motion, both specialists in the field it has acquired. The Unreal Engine is presented as a sort of monolithic advance in computer graphics and design, but really it’s a very cleverly assembled amalgamation of dozens of improvements and advances made by individual (now acquired) companies and divisions over the years — more like an operating system with a bunch of integrated applications at this point.

MetaHuman Creator isn’t quite ready for use by just anyone, but Epic is running an early access program you can sign up for, and they’ve provided a pair of models for you to play with in your existing Unreal Engine environment in the meantime (check the “Learn” tab).

Hyper casual game publisher Homa Games raises $15 million

French startup Homa Games has raised a $15 million seed round led by e.ventures and Idinvest Partners. The company has built several in-house technologies that can take a game from a prototype to an App Store success. It partners with third-party game studios and has a few in-house game studios as well.

OneRagtime, Jean-Marie Messier, Vladimir Lasocki, John Cheng and Alexis Bonillo are also participating in today’s funding round. This is quite a big funding round, but Homa Games already has some impressive metrics.

For instance, the startup’s games have been downloaded 250 million times overall since the creation of the company in 2018. It has signed an IP partnership with Hasbro to launch a Nerf-themed game that has been working quite well. Other games include Sky Roller, Idle World and Tower Color.

Home Games has developed three products in particular to optimize mobile game creation. Homa Lab helps you learn more about the competitive landscape with market intelligence and testing tools. Homa Belly is an SDK that helps you iterate and manage your game. And Homa Data optimizes monetization using data for both in-app purchases and ads.

Third-party developers can submit their games and choose Homa Games as their publisher. Both companies agree on a revenue-sharing model.

In addition to third-party games, Homa Games has also acquired IRL Team in Toulouse and has in-house game development teams in Skopje, Lisbon and Paris. Overall, there are 80 people working for Homa Games.

Benoist Grossmann from Idinvest Partners and Jonathan Userovici from e.ventures are both joining the board of the company.

Daily Crunch: Google shutters internal game studios

Google rethinks its gaming strategy, Microsoft rolls out its quantum computing platform and UiPath is now valued at $35 billion. This is your Daily Crunch for February 1, 2021.

The big story: Google shutters internal game studios

When Google announced its Stadia cloud platform, it also said it was forming Stadia Games and Entertainment, an internal studio that would create titles for the platform. Now it seems the company is abandoning this approach.

It’s a surprising move, not just because Google has yet to release a single game from the studio, but also because the company opened studios in Montreal and Los Angeles, as well as acquiring Typhoon Studios — so it seems like a real investment.

“Given our focus on building on the proven technology of Stadia as well as deepening our business partnerships, we’ve decided that we will not be investing further in bringing exclusive content from our internal development team SG&E, beyond any near-term planned games,” Google exec Phil Harrison said in a blog post.

The tech giants

Microsoft’s Azure Quantum platform is now in public preview — Azure Quantum is Microsoft’s cloud-based platform for using quantum hardware and software tools from partners like Honeywell Quantum Solutions, IonQ, 1QBit and others.

Xiaomi sues the US government over blacklisting — The filing, which was submitted on Friday, calls the decision “unlawful and unconstitutional.”

Google now gives you more information about the sites in your search results — Clicking the new hamburger-style menu icon will pop up a new info panel with additional information about the site.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Robotic process automation platform UiPath raises $750M at $35B valuation — The company’s automation platform aims to “transform the way humans work” by giving companies a way to build out and run automations across departments.

Databricks raises $1B at $28B valuation as it reaches $425M ARR — Databricks is a data-and-AI focused company that interacts with corporate information stored in the public cloud.

Weights & Biases raises $45M for its machine learning tools — Weights & Biases says it now has more than 70,000 users across more than 200 enterprises.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

Robinhood’s Q4 2020 revenue shows a return to growth — Robinhood has been the world’s most discussed startup over the last week.

Best practices as a service is a key investment theme to watch in 2021 — It’s one thing to give people and businesses tools, and something else to train them to use those tools effectively.

Lightspeed’s Gaurav Gupta and Grafana Labs’ Raj Dutt will tell us why they financially tied the knot (twice!) — The new and improved Extra Crunch Live pairs founders and the investors who led their earlier rounds.

(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

Amazon says government demands for user data spiked by 800% in 2020 — Amazon said it processed 27,664 government demands for user data in the last six months of 2020.

What investors need to know about research and inspiration in the COVID-19 era — Remote research will remain the rule even as the worst of the pandemic mercifully ends.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

Google shuts down its internal Stadia game studios

When Google originally announced Stadia, its cloud gaming service, the company also announced a first-party game studio. Stadia Games and Entertainment was supposed to release exclusive titles for the new platform. And yet, Google has changed its mind and is now shutting down its internal game studios.

“Given our focus on building on the proven technology of Stadia as well as deepening our business partnerships, we’ve decided that we will not be investing further in bringing exclusive content from our internal development team SG&E, beyond any near-term planned games,” Google Stadia VP and GM Phil Harrison wrote in a blog post.

That’s right, the company has yet to release a single game under the Stadia brand but it’s already over. This is an odd move as Google has made some significant investments in the space. It originally created a studio in Montreal Canada and acquired Typhoon Studios. It then opened another studio in Los Angeles.

Jade Raymond was leading Google’s first-party studios. She has been working in the video game industry for more than 15 years. In particular, she was a producer for Ubisoft in Montreal working on the first Assassin’s Creed games. She also worked for Electronic Arts on an unreleased single-player Star Wars video game.

Today’s news also means that Raymond is leaving Google. Other Google employees working for Stadia Games and Entertainment will move on to new roles.

Going forward, Stadia will focus on third-party games. The company says that Cyberpunk 2077 has been quite popular on the cloud gaming platform for instance. It lets you launch the game on a server in a data center near you and stream the video feed to your device.

Many readers will likely think that Google might shut down Stadia soon as the company has shut down many, many services in the past. The company tries to be reassuring.

“We’re committed to the future of cloud gaming, and will continue to do our part to drive this industry forward. Our goal remains focused on creating the best possible platform for gamers and technology for our partners, bringing these experiences to life for people everywhere,” Harrison writes.

But do you believe him?

Gwoop Academy wants to help you get better at video games

Every sport has its practice drills and exercises to help players hone skills between games. Why would esports be any different?

Gwoop, a startup out of Minnesota, wants to be the place where gamers go to train between matches. They’re building up a collection of free browser-based training tools meant to help you measure and improve vital stats like reaction time, mouse control, and aim, and see how your stats compare to the best.

Some of the training games currently up and running:

  • Reaction Training: Wait for it … click! As soon as the screen changes from grey to orange, you click the mouse button. The lower your reaction time (measured in milliseconds), the better. Harder levels throw in more colors to fake you out and give you a bit of pause.
  • Visual Speed: Target boxes spawn one-at-a-time all around a 2D plane. Click one and another appears. The more boxes you click before time runs out, the higher your score.
  • Keyboard speed: Straightforward keyboard key-finding practice, because any time spent looking at your keyboard is time not spent dodging shots.

Image Credits: Gwoop

  • Mouse control: If you can’t get your mouse to go where you want it, you can’t aim. Gwoop’s mouse control exercise has you drag a ball through a curved track; the more tracks you complete, the higher your score.
  • FPS Training Arena: Strafe around a 3D arena (pictured up top), scanning for randomly generated targets and clicking them as they appear. Bonus points for hitting the dead center of a target.

All of the tools are linked back to an analytics dashboard, allowing you to gauge your performance metrics over time. Each skill gets its own leaderboard so you can see, for example, how your average reaction time compares to others worldwide and amongst your friends.

Even in its 3D exercises, Gwoop’s graphics are pretty simple — and that’s intentional. They want it to work for as many players as possible. They’ve got no reason to try to look like a AAA title; the more graphically intense a game is, the more powerful your computer would have to be to run it smoothly. Co-founder Gavin Lee tells me that their goal is to keep it so that “all you need is a computer and the internet. It doesn’t matter if your device is 10 years old.” Even its 2D exercises have switches you can flip to further simplify the graphics and improve performance.

It’s the same reason they’ve built everything to work in the browser: not requiring any downloads means more people can train, with the added benefit for the Gwoop team of not having to worry about maintaining separate Mac/PC clients.

While the existing exercises might seem focused around improving first-person shooter skills, Lee tells me that they’re aiming to be “genre-agnostic” and are planning expansions tailored to other kinds of games. He mentions a “MOBA Arena” in the works meant to help polish skills required for games like League of Legends or DOTA, and another exercise in progress that’s “very Rocket League-centric.” Their training tools seem mostly focused on keyboard/mouse users right now, but they’re working on more functionality for players who prefer controllers.

Image Credits: Gwoop

Gwoop is entirely free to players — so how will they make money? Lee tells me they’ve got two different strategies there: They’ll sell additional advanced analytics tools to teams, and, once they’ve got enough players clicking around, hopefully be able to serve as a platform for esports recruiters. Lee says players should be able to opt-in to having their data shared with potential sponsors and esports teams, with Gwoop getting paid to connect the dots. “All these division one schools have these platforms where you can upload football films and get recruited,” says Lee “we want to become that platform [for esports].”

Why the name “Gwoop”? Is it a bit of super cool gaming lingo, or some sort of acronym? Nope! It was just a quick, memorable domain Lee had been holding onto for decades. “I wish I had a better story for you,” he says, “but I bought the domain in 2002 just because I wanted a five-letter domain that you could pronounce and was available.” It’s okay, Gavin: Most people don’t care why Google is called Google, after all.

The team’s timing is pretty good here. With most people being stuck at home, more people are getting into gaming than ever before. Battle Royale games like Fortnite, PUBG and Apex Legends are blowing up … but it’s hard to get better in a game where you spend the first 10 minutes looting only to get shredded in 10 seconds when a skilled team rotates through. While many titles have dedicated training areas or firing ranges to practice in, they’re usually meant more for quick pre-game warmups and don’t do things like help you track metrics and improvements over time.

Image Credits: Gwoop

The Minneapolis-based team is currently comprised of its three co-founders. It’s self-funded to date, but I’m told a seed round is underway.

Gwoop is currently in semi-closed beta and generally requires an invite to signup, but Lee tells me that the code #TC2021# should let our readers past the signup gate.

 

Gwoop Academy wants to help you get better at video games

Every sport has its practice drills and exercises to help players hone skills between games. Why would esports be any different?

Gwoop, a startup out of Minnesota, wants to be the place where gamers go to train between matches. They’re building up a collection of free browser-based training tools meant to help you measure and improve vital stats like reaction time, mouse control, and aim, and see how your stats compare to the best.

Some of the training games currently up and running:

  • Reaction Training: Wait for it … click! As soon as the screen changes from grey to orange, you click the mouse button. The lower your reaction time (measured in milliseconds), the better. Harder levels throw in more colors to fake you out and give you a bit of pause.
  • Visual Speed: Target boxes spawn one-at-a-time all around a 2D plane. Click one and another appears. The more boxes you click before time runs out, the higher your score.
  • Keyboard speed: Straightforward keyboard key-finding practice, because any time spent looking at your keyboard is time not spent dodging shots.

Image Credits: Gwoop

  • Mouse control: If you can’t get your mouse to go where you want it, you can’t aim. Gwoop’s mouse control exercise has you drag a ball through a curved track; the more tracks you complete, the higher your score.
  • FPS Training Arena: Strafe around a 3D arena (pictured up top), scanning for randomly generated targets and clicking them as they appear. Bonus points for hitting the dead center of a target.

All of the tools are linked back to an analytics dashboard, allowing you to gauge your performance metrics over time. Each skill gets its own leaderboard so you can see, for example, how your average reaction time compares to others worldwide and amongst your friends.

Even in its 3D exercises, Gwoop’s graphics are pretty simple — and that’s intentional. They want it to work for as many players as possible. They’ve got no reason to try to look like a AAA title; the more graphically intense a game is, the more powerful your computer would have to be to run it smoothly. Co-founder Gavin Lee tells me that their goal is to keep it so that “all you need is a computer and the internet. It doesn’t matter if your device is 10 years old.” Even its 2D exercises have switches you can flip to further simplify the graphics and improve performance.

It’s the same reason they’ve built everything to work in the browser: not requiring any downloads means more people can train, with the added benefit for the Gwoop team of not having to worry about maintaining separate Mac/PC clients.

While the existing exercises might seem focused around improving first-person shooter skills, Lee tells me that they’re aiming to be “genre-agnostic” and are planning expansions tailored to other kinds of games. He mentions a “MOBA Arena” in the works meant to help polish skills required for games like League of Legends or DOTA, and another exercise in progress that’s “very Rocket League-centric.” Their training tools seem mostly focused on keyboard/mouse users right now, but they’re working on more functionality for players who prefer controllers.

Image Credits: Gwoop

Gwoop is entirely free to players — so how will they make money? Lee tells me they’ve got two different strategies there: They’ll sell additional advanced analytics tools to teams, and, once they’ve got enough players clicking around, hopefully be able to serve as a platform for esports recruiters. Lee says players should be able to opt-in to having their data shared with potential sponsors and esports teams, with Gwoop getting paid to connect the dots. “All these division one schools have these platforms where you can upload football films and get recruited,” says Lee “we want to become that platform [for esports].”

Why the name “Gwoop”? Is it a bit of super cool gaming lingo, or some sort of acronym? Nope! It was just a quick, memorable domain Lee had been holding onto for decades. “I wish I had a better story for you,” he says, “but I bought the domain in 2002 just because I wanted a five-letter domain that you could pronounce and was available.” It’s okay, Gavin: Most people don’t care why Google is called Google, after all.

The team’s timing is pretty good here. With most people being stuck at home, more people are getting into gaming than ever before. Battle Royale games like Fortnite, PUBG and Apex Legends are blowing up … but it’s hard to get better in a game where you spend the first 10 minutes looting only to get shredded in 10 seconds when a skilled team rotates through. While many titles have dedicated training areas or firing ranges to practice in, they’re usually meant more for quick pre-game warmups and don’t do things like help you track metrics and improvements over time.

Image Credits: Gwoop

The Minneapolis-based team is currently comprised of its three co-founders. It’s self-funded to date, but I’m told a seed round is underway.

Gwoop is currently in semi-closed beta and generally requires an invite to signup, but Lee tells me that the code #TC2021# should let our readers past the signup gate.