I've seen plenty of big bets placed on the future of video game wagering and the promises of sponsored tournaments, with most of that long-shot money getting ripped to shreds without ever making a dent in the market.
But those startup sites didn't have anywhere near the resources of Virgin Gaming. And by resources, I'm talking a private island, spacecraft, and a fleet of airliners that can be used to entice gamers to go big or go home ... literally.
What I'm talking about is a proposed gaming tournament where two Virgin America jets take off and are headed somewhere like Richard Branson's private Caribbean Island. On each plane are a number of gamers who are playing as a team against a group of gamers on the other plane. The winning team gets to land on the island and enjoy the fun and sun that go along with it. The losers? Their plane turns around and takes them back to where they started. Ouch.
"The prizes we are going to offer are world class," explains co-founder Billy Levy. "Plane versus plane in the sky will be our Mile-High tournament, and that's definitely going to happen. You don't want to be on that losing plane."
The world of gaming has never seen anything quite like what Virgin is promising, with the wins taking gamers to the highest of highs while the losses are sent packing without ever even getting to open their luggage.
But that is just the beginning, as Virgin hopes to take tournament gaming mainstream, locking up a deal with EA Sports and flying in some of the top "Madden NFL 11" gamers to compete for prizes at this weekend's Maxim Super Bowl party in Dallas. You think you had pressure making field goals in front of your friends, try booting a 50-yarder as some model bumps into you and knocks her drink on your lap.
I caught up Levy and his co-founder, Zach Zeldin, to get the latest on Virgin's exciting new venture.
Jon Robinson: Other people have tried to bring tournament and video game competition mainstream and failed. Why do you see Virgin Gaming as being different?
Billy Levy: The concept behind Virgin Gaming is competitive gameplay that enables console gamers to compete online and challenge other gamers head-to-head with the opportunity to win cash or prizes for their game. So that's everything from tournaments like the one we just did with "NBA 2K11" where it was free to play but offered a $50,000 cash prize to pay-to-enter tournaments where gamers put up an entry fee and play for cash. We allow gamers from all over the world to play online from the comforts of their own home, and play for more than fun.
We're seeing success where others haven't because there are a few differences between Virgin Gaming and anyone else who has ever tried this before. The platform that Zach and I built, we tried to build for everybody so that everyone who wants a chance can compete. Other organizations such as Major League Gaming and the Professional Gaming League cater towards the upper elite and the pros, which Zach and I clearly aren't aiming at. So we have different pieces built into the platform like a skill rating system where we rank your skill, then hold tournaments for people of similar skill to ensure you're playing against someone like you and not one of those top rated guys who is just going to blow your brains out. Virgin Gaming is truly a platform for everybody.
The other big difference is that Virgin Gaming is fully automated. We are integrated directly in the games and nobody has ever done this before. Everyone else relied on self reporting where you and I had to go back to the service and tell them who won or lost the game. We already know who won or lost because we're getting that data directly from the game itself in real time. If you pop in a copy of "Madden" right now, you'll find the Virgin Gaming Red Zone, which is our own custom lobby in the game. We're also in "NBA 2K11," and since this has never been done before, it has led to a lot of success.
Jon Robinson: So if I'm going to play against you, is there a maximum amount of money we can wager?
Billy Levy: In the play head-to-head scenario, it's $1,000. We have had people play for more, but they have to contact support. We did host a game between Snoop Dogg and Jermaine Dupri where they played for $5,000.
Jon Robinson: Who won?
Billy Levy: Snoop beat him in "NBA 2K11."
Jon Robinson: What other EA Sports games can we expect to see tournaments for in the near future?
Billy Levy: We're going to be the global online tournament partnerfor EA Sports. "Fight Night: Champion" is the next game coming out where you'll see this type of integration with us being right there in the game. We're also going to be announcing a big "Fight Night" tournament in the coming weeks. Then, throughout the calendar year, we'll be working closely with EA Sports on other titles.
Jon Robinson: How many people are playing in the "Madden" tournament that's concluding at the Maxim party this weekend?
Billy Levy: The leaderboard portion just concluded, then it goes into a 256 person bracket with the final two getting flown to Dallas to play at the party. Then we also have a wild card where two people, even if they didn't finish in the top 256 in the tournament, will have a chance to go to Dallas to play.
Jon Robinson: Do you know any trends of who gamers are playing as in the "Madden" tournament?
Billy Levy: Over the weekend, there were a lot of people playing as the Packers. I don't know if it's because they're going to the Super Bowl or if people are excited to play as Aaron Rodgers, but I saw a lot of Packers.
Zach Zeldin: A lot of players like to play as Oakland. They're really popular because of all the speed they have on that team.
Jon Robinson: Do you guys have any tournaments planned outside of sports games?
Zach Zeldin: We're actually holding a big "Halo" tournament in association with Microsoft. We also announced earlier in the year a partnership with Ubisoft, so we'll be launching with "Ghost Recon" when that comes out. We also have an "Assassin's Creed" tournament on both the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 that is absolutely free to play, but the prize is $25,000. That tournament starts in February.
Jon Robinson: Beyond these major tournaments that are free to enter but pretty tough to win, what other types of competitions do you guys hold?
Billy Levy: We have a variety of different competitive structures. Tournaments like the $25,000 "Assassin's Creed" tournament is free to enter, but then we also do a lot of smaller tournaments -- 16 players, 32 players, or 64 players -- which are only $5 or $10 to enter. Yesterday we did over 100 tournaments on the site.
Zach Zeldin: The big thing is that we have multiple tournaments going on daily. There are these really big sponsored tournaments, but then we also have all of these smaller tournaments so any day you can go on and compete for cash, points, and prizes.
Jon Robinson: Is there an age requirement to play?
Billy Levy: The site is 18-plus. Part of the reason we wanted to build this is Zach and I wanted somewhere for people to play competitively where it isn't all about playing for money. One of the cool things we've found is people meeting each other through playing these tournaments and making new friends that they like playing against.
Zach Zeldin: It's like an extension of playing with your friends. We used to have tournaments with our friends from school three-to-four times per week, but we never had a way to track the results. And now that we're out of college, we're still playing these same guys, but now we play them online, and the best part is, there's no arguing over who won. Now we have our records, we can track each other, we know who won or lost, we argue over who has the higher skill ranking, and we can setup our own tournaments remotely no matter where in the world we all ended up after college. It's really just a great way to play.