If you ask most young children what they’d like to be when they grow up, a disproportionate number of them are probably going to mention a career that could be boiled down to “playing video games for a living.” And why wouldn’t they? It’s arguably never been easier for players to translate their gaming skills (and/or passions) into a sustainable form of income.
In 2015 we saw The International build an $18 million prize pool, almost entirely via player contributions. Valve launched its $12 million Dota 2 Major series. It was another year of growth for League of Legends’ World Championship Series and 2015 even played host to two million dollar tournament for Smite. As if that weren’t enough, a variety of recent releases, from H1Z1 to Hearthstone, offered smaller opportunities for highly-skilled gamers to earn a living from competitive gaming.
Now, Evolve Labs is hoping to bring that spirit of competition to the bedroom with BlackFlag; a new matchmaking service created for the League of Legends community. The company is best-known for its Evolve platform; a “productivity software for gamers” that Evolve Labs CEO Adam Sellke says is designed to simplify the process of playing games with friends and like-minded individuals around the globe. With Evolve, players can see whether or not their friends are currently online, take advantage of text/voice chat features, use matchmaking services to build groups quickly and even export screenshots or video to sites like YouTube Gaming and Twitter.
“We really wanted to address a lot of the fragmentation in the marketplace,” Sellke told iDigitalTimes. “Games have to juggle all kinds of different tools and utilities to facilitate their gameplay…. We [decided] we’re going to come up with an integrated product, that works across several different utility domains, and create a consistent UI.
“It just took a lot longer than we thought it would," he said.
With its flagship product off the ground, to the tune of almost 2 million registered users, Evolve Labs is turning its attention to a portion of the original Evolve vision that’s since been spun out into its own platform. BlackFlag is a new matchmaking service aimed at those who’d like to wager real money on their next League of Legends match. If we think of The International or the World Championship Series like the World Series of Poker, Sellke says BlackFlag matches are the League-equivalent of a cash game.
“To begin with, we’re going to be doing player fees of a dollar per player,” Sellke said. “But, within that, we also have incentives for players that will subsidize some of that play. So it’s a dollar or less, really. And then the prize is the accumulation of those fees, less a small percentage to BlackFlag.”
Participation is relatively simple. Five members of a League of Legends log into BlackFlag and raise their digital flag, signaling the team’s interest in finding a cash game. BlackFlag will automatically search for similarly-ranked opponents, simultaneously providing the team with a list of potential rivals for their next match. Once paired, and entry fees are paired, the two squads are dropped into a League match. When the match is over, the winners collect their cash and everybody goes about the rest of their day.
The site won’t be crowning any new millionaires, at least not for the time being. In fact, BlackFlag will only offer low-stakes games, with a one dollar buy-in, until Evolve Labs is certain its latest service is ready to drop that beta label. Even then, Sellke says it could be some time before BlackFlag lets its users play for more than a couple of dollars each. For Evolve Labs, creating BlackFlag is about giving players an environment where they have more incentive to take the game seriously. Potentially winning a couple of dollars at the end is just supposed to be the icing on the cake.
The company is also taking its role as middle-man for these competitions very seriously. The company will have its own ranking system for each team, in addition to the individual player rankings assigned by the League of Legends servers, and Sellke says Evolve Labs will also monitor server conditions of each cash game to ensure both teams have a fair shot at winning. And the CEO says it will intervene, and restart the contest, if network conditions jeopardize the credibility of the match outcome.
“We have individual and team MMR that we’ll be utilizing together. We’re going to default to a team MMR, and we’ll be utilizing data from League of Legends in order to provision that,” Sellke told iDigi. “We’ll initially suggest another team, based on the same range of ranking. But you’ll be able to scroll up and scroll down to issue a challenge to other teams. And then, along those lines, we’re also providing visibility to individual team member MMR as well. So you can kind of see the genetic make-up of that team….There may be some super-skilled and not-so-skilled players within that same team.”
Wagers could eventually increase. But first Evolve Labs needs to test its matchmaking and monitoring systems in a public environment. As we mentioned before, Evolve Labs also doesn’t want the potential for financial gain to become BlackFlag’s only appeal. And it’s important for the company to be able to prove BlackFlag matches won’t run afoul of local gaming laws. Five states (Iowa, Louisiana, Maryland, Montana, Tennessee) have laws that forbid residents from participating in fee-based tournaments but Evolve Labs is confident the contests are covered by “game of skill” laws in the other 45.
The company also isn’t opposed to opening BlackFlag up to other games down the road. Evolve already supports more than 4,500 titles, including MOBAs like Dota 2 and Smite, and Evolve Labs is well aware similarly-competitive communities exist for a variety of other games. The primary reason BlackFlag is focused on League of Legends, for now, is that it simply has a significantly larger community than any other competitive title currently on the market. But that doesn’t mean BlackFlag won’t eventually be able to organize fee-based contests for other video games.
“Any competitive game that we are able to reliably and accurately get data out of, to verify fair and honest outcomes, we’re interested in,” Sellke said. “We’ll be looking at more games in the future. We just decided we were going to start with the granddaddy of them all.”
Those interested in trying out BlackFlag are encouraged to apply for the service’s ongoing beta. Evolve Labs says those who aren’t accepted to the beta can also expect a full launch in the first half of 2016.
Be sure to check back with iDigitalTimes.com and follow Scott on Twitter for more coverage of BlackFlag throughout the platform’s remaining time in development and for however long Evolve Labs continues to support BlackFlag in the years following launch.
The article has been edited to reflect the fact Evolve currently supports more than 4,500 different games, instead of the 500 originally listed.