TECHCITYINSIDER100: Picklive is an online real-time fantasy football game where players place their bets and pick a team to score the most points. Tim Morgan, its chief executive, talks to Michael Pickard about the online phenomenon and about creating “light games” for the masses.
As Euro 2012 draws to a close, the start of the domestic football season is only just a few weeks away.
This means that there won’t be much of an off-season for the staff of Picklive, a social gaming company based in Clerkenwell in the heart of London’s Tech City, that is behind an online fantasy football game that allows players to bet on matches while they are in progress.
The main game involves picking a team of five footballers from two opposing teams and paying between £1 and £10 to enter. At the end of a set time period, ranging from five minutes to a full 90 minutes, the player with the most points wins the cash prize.
Players score points when the footballers they have selected are involved in an action during the game, such as a pass, tackle, shot, goal or even a booking using data compiled by and licensed from stats provider Opta Sports.
There is also a weekly game in which players pick 11 footballers from across the Premier League, while the final option, named Twist, sees players dealt their team (with an option to stick or twist) before assigning each one individual attributes that will ensure they win points, such as scoring a goal or receiving a booking.
For Euro 2012, the games have been adapted for the tournament, where along with the original game mode and Twist, players can also join a tournament-wide competition.
And before the regular football season kicks off, Picklive will also be playing along with the Olympic football tournament, which begins next month (July).
Picklive has its origins in Mint Digital, a software product development company founded in 2004 that, to begin with, produced second screen apps to complement TV programmes such as Skins and Big Brother.
However, while developing software as an online companion to a television quiz show, Mint Digital created some push technology that meant it could distribute data very quickly, enabling people to play along in real time. That game was never produced, but they quickly pivoted and turned to the idea of playing fantasy football instead.
Mint Digital launched a free version of the game in August 2009 before deciding to split the company and create Picklive in February 2010.
It was subsequently granted a betting licence in May that year, just days before the start of that summer’s World Cup, giving it the means to create its sole revenue stream by taking a 10% share of bets placed in each game.
And after beginning with a couple of thousand players, Picklive now has more than 15,000 registered users in the UK and Ireland.
The company is made up of seven people, while it is backed by venture capitalist Passion Capital and several more angels.
“One of the problems with fantasy football is it takes so long to get a result,” says Tim Morgan, Mint Digital and Picklive’s cofounder and CEO. “The exciting parts are the picking [teams] and the winning. What we wanted to do was create a quick-fire version of fantasy football.
“We don’t have an expensive entry point; we’re not offering fixed odds or taking any position on the outcome of the games. Arguably the house can’t lose but neither can the customers. There’s a winner every time.”
Despite the gambling element within Picklive, Morgan says the site aims to be more “fun” than a regular betting website, retaining that element of second screen companionship to the football match players might be watching on the television at the same time.
“Our game is seen as, and from our deliberate intentions, to be fun, something on the side, rather than going onto a betting site,” he says. “The purpose is not to make yourself rich. For most gamblers, the main motivation is to win money, whereas for us, hopefully the game is the main pull.”
In the short term, publicising Picklive and its current work is the company’s primary goal, as its low-spend model relies on large volumes of customer traffic.
“I want to create light games, not games that people spend a lot of money on,” Morgan says. “The gambling industry is full of heavy spending games and we deliberately didn’t want to be that. The flip side is that we need high volumes so customer acquisition is critical to what we do.
“It needs to have mass participation for it to work. The fact most football fans have never heard of it is a problem and we need to fix it without spending much money in a market that’s very competitive. That’s the challenge – raising awareness and acquiring customers.”
Picklive also has plans to create a Facebook game, despite opting against the idea early in its development as it pursued its ambitions to become a gambling platform.
For a Facebook game to materialise, however, the company must find new revenue streams as gambling is currently not permitted on the platform.
“We are going to explore whether we can make money outside of gambling and I think Facebook is a big opportunity missed for us so I’d like to make a free-to-play game,” Morgan says.
However, he adds that in the future, Facebook will be “revolutionised’ by gambling.”It’s the natural place to play gambling games,” he claims. “When its policy changes, it will be a land grab and I would bet it would be easier for a social gaming company to operating gambling games than for an old fashioned gambling company to become popular on Facebook. Social gaming companies could be the winners and it could make their revenues explode.”
Gambling also poses problems when trying to export Picklive outside the UK and Ireland as meeting local laws could prove challenging. But the creation of a free-to-play version of the game, such as on Facebook, would also bring with it the chance to expand internationally.
“Once you step outside gambling, you’re open to operating in the US, which is the biggest fantasy gaming market in the world,” says Morgan. “Our type of gaming is really ready made for other sports. I’d like us to have a game for every territory. If we can change the rules of our game so it’s free to play, we can move into other territories and use that to move into other sports.”
Morgan insists that the company’s expansion won’t be limited by the ongoing recession, as the company was forged and continues to grow during the tough economic climate. However, it is this growth that could well be Picklive’s biggest challenge moving forward as the nature of its software means it could be applied to any sport or event where specific data can be captured, providing endless possibilities to build its business.
“We don’t see ourselves as a fantasy football tech start-up. We see ourselves as a real-time live gaming start-up,” says Morgan. “We think we can apply what we do to any form of live data.
“The big challenge for us is prioritisation. It’s about having the discipline to stick to a single thing, do it well and then move on. There are lots of things to distract you if you want to pursue everything at once. The nature of the challenge is big and that means taking the steps to get there is harder. Any live event on any device in any territory – it’s a big challenge for us.”
The emerging opportunities in social gaming, coupled with the number of venture capitalist groups and funding sources means that, according to Morgan, there has never been a better time to create a tech start-up.
“Technology has become interesting,” he says. “It’s come into the mainstream. It’s gone from being this weird thing a few people did to becoming something much more cool. The biggest hurdle is deciding to do it [set up a company]. If you have an idea, you should do it. You have to commit to yourself and people around you that this is something you’re going to do.”
Co-founder, Mint Digital
Senior executive, Ernst & Young