Gaming’s next generation is more influential than ever, and everyone—from consumers to investors to politicians—is taking notice.
Locked down at home thanks to the pandemic, people are turning to games more than ever. An all-time high 82% of consumers around the world are playing video games or watching gaming content, according to research from Nielsen, providing the perfect platform to shine for the 2021 Forbes 30 Under 30 in Games.
With a unique ecosystem, the games industry allows a wide variety of creatives to thrive, from the esports athletes and streamers who play the games to the founders and indie designers who make them. That includes Yang Liu, cofounder and CEO of End Game Interactive, which develops simple but addictive multiplayer games including ZombsRoyale.io, which is slated to bring in $4 million in revenue this year with the help of its 65 million players who game on iOS, Android, PC or the web.
“We saw how lovable something like Zombs was,” Liu says. “There are people with over 8,000 hours played and it’s a memorable part of their experience growing up while they’re in middle school, high school, college.”
A Chinese immigrant who grew up on free internet browser games from Neopets to Runescape, Liu’s experience shares similarities with Argentina-born Mariano Cavallero, founder of HopFrog, another game developer finding success following his passion. After struggling to bootstrap his idea for an open world video game—going as far as to use his mother’s savings as a last gasp effort—Cavallero got his big break after earning a free pass to the Casual Connect gaming conference in Seattle, a prize for winning the game of the year award at a conference in his home country. There, he connected with an employee from Humble Bundle, which led to an offer from the company to publish his game. Inspired by Zelda and Stardew Valley, Forager was released last year and became an instant hit, grossing $10 million in its first year and selling 900,000 units to date.
Both Liu and Cavallero started out by self-funding their projects, but a new wave of investor interest in the gaming world is providing new opportunities for growth. In February, shortly before the pandemic swept the United States, Liu’s company announced $3 million in venture funding from big name investors including Unity Technologies cofounder David Helgason, Twitch cofounder Kevin Lin and talent manager Scooter Braun. “In 2017, the [venture capital] environment, compared to today, was ultra weak for games,” he says. “You didn’t see a seed announcement every two to three weeks, as you do today.”
Liu isn’t the only 30 Under 30 honorees taking advantage of this newfound venture interest. ProGuides cofounder Sam Wang is building a platform that offers courses and on-demand coaching for esports players, while eFuse founder Matthew Benson is creating a LinkedIn for esports, that connects players to scholarships, internships and competitive tournaments.
Others are thinking even further outside the box, like Ateyo cofounders Rachel Feinberg and Breanne Harrison-Pollock, whose company makes gaming clothing and gear. With New York Fashion Week pedigree, the pair have already signed collaborations with the likes of YouTube Gaming, hardware maker NZXT and esports organization Evil Geniuses.
As the gaming industry continues to hit the mainstream, other intersections are becoming more commonplace as well, notably this year in politics. Ahead of Election Day, President-elect Joe Biden’s team created an island and in-game yard signs on the hit Nintendo game Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Meanwhile, U.S. House Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) used the popularity of the breakout indie darling Among Us for a “get out to vote” campaign.
Ocasio-Cortez’s Twitch stream with fellow House Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) became one of the top ten most viewed broadcasts on the platform, and featured some of the most popular streamers todays, including new 30 Under 30 listees Jeremy Wang and Imane Anys. Wang, better known by his online alias “Disguised Toast,” crossed three million subscribers on YouTube earlier this month thanks to his Among Us videos, which consistently top two million views. Late last year, he signed a lucrative exclusivity deal to broadcast his streams on Facebook Gaming.
With 6 million followers, Anys, known as “Pokimane,” is the top woman streamer on Twitch, with which she signed a new, multi-year exclusivity deal earlier this year. A founding member of the creators collective OfflineTV, which now also houses Wang, Anys’ eventful 2020 included an agreement to become creative director for gaming clothes brand Cloak and a $50,000 endowment to the University of California, Irvine to establish a scholarship in the school’s esports program.
While video games dominate this year’s list, Carolina Acosta claims a spot with the success of her party and drinking game Tragos. The bootstrapped game celebrates and pokes fun at Latino cultural norms and traditions, and has brought in more than $1 million since its 2018 release.
In 2017, the [venture capital] environment, compared to today, was ultra weak for games. You didn’t see a seed announcement every two to three weeks, as you do today.Yang Liu
The 2021 Forbes 30 Under 30 in Games was selected by a panel of four judges with standout roles in the industry. Siobhan Reddy is the studio director of British game developer Media Molecule, the company behind the LittleBigPlanet series that has sold millions of units over the years. Earlier this year, Reddy’s studio released the PlayStation-exclusive Dreams to rave reviews. Kellee Santiago is the head of developer relations at Pokémon Go maker Niantic, which she joined last year after stints at Google and Ouya. Before that, she cofounded Thatgamecompany, where she oversaw the release of Journey—the fastest-selling PlayStation Network game at the time.
Team Liquid co-CEO Steve Arhancet has helped his esports company become the third-most valuable in the industry, at a Forbes estimated valuation of $320 million. Revenue in 2019 was estimated to be around $24 million for the organization, which has won championships in League of Legends, Dota 2 and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. The judges are rounded out by UTA agent Hanako Tjia, a 30 Under 30 honoree last year who represents a star-studded lineup of women streamers including “Valkyrae” and “LilyPichu.”
Additional reporting by Matt Perez.
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