What brings the world's richest daredevil back into video games? Balloon-riding, building-jumping billionaire Richard Branson believes you want to get paid for beating gamers online.
The Branson-branded VirginGaming.com launched last week amid the blizzard of video game news emanating from Los Angeles' E3. It's live now and legal in 36 states for you to sign up and challenge other gamers for money.
The maximum entry fee is $US1000, but the people behind Virgin Gaming expect you'll be more likely to play $10 games.
Virgin Gaming isn't about turning all video game playing into a for-profit activity. But, Branson said, it's about legitimising the act of putting some money on the line when playing against someone in a video game. "It's wanting to be sure that if people do play for money - which a lot of people do - that they get paid, that there's no ill feeling getting between them and that it's clear up front what the rules of the games are," Branson told Kotaku in an interview last week.
The site is the brainchild of two young entrepreneurs, Billy Levy and Zack Zeldin, who decided three years ago that gamers would appreciate winning money when they are playing a Halo or Madden or other such game online. They saw the appeal of pro gaming and tournaments, but realised not everyone can drive to one or make much money in them. They should know.
"We wanted to make a place where everyone could come and play," Zeldin said. "We were the guys who would drive three hours to a tournament, pay $US50 to $US100 and would be out in the first round." They had loved the fun of live tournaments, even if they weren't good enough to rake in a lot of dollars. The added aroma of potential profit made gaming more invigorating.
So the two friends gathered some funding and put together a website called WorldGaming.com, launched it as a beta a year ago and then hooked up with a Canadian marketing man, Rob Segal, to take the next step. That next step involved Branson and so WorldGaming became VirginGaming.
The founders say that there have been about 80,000 cash tournaments played in the year their site has been in beta, with about $US1,000,000 paid in winnings. Most of the games are played for about an $US11 entry fee. Virgin takes a 12% fee.
The Virgin site is free to join and is designed to be something of a social network for gamers, earning them Virgin Points for active behaviour, giving them access to chatrooms and, most importantly, letting them challenge each other. You can play a game in a ready-made tournament or match of your own making for money, or even just for those Virgin Points or mere pride. A Virgin Points store is set to launch later this year and will let players cash in their points for discounts on things such as Virgin Air flights.
Sony has already teamed with VirginGaming for a ModNation Racers tournament that was offered to Canadian gamers when that PS3 game was launched. The Virgin plan is for more games to have for-pay online tournaments tied to their launch. (Virgin Gaming currently works console versions of Halo 3, Fight Night Round 4, ModNation Racers, NCAA Football 10, Madden NFL 10, FIFA 10, MLB 10: The Show and NHL 10, with more games set to be added in the coming months, including, it seems, Guitar Hero or Rock Band in September.)
One of the wrinkles to the Virgin Gaming plan is that the games involved are console-based, while Virgin's service is web-based. The company works with game publishers to access data for games played over Xbox Live and PlayStation Network, but Virgin's system only reads the after-action gaming data, information that customer service representatives can check to verify if a match was legit. Because the service isn't available directly on, say, an Xbox 360, players have to agree to their match via the site, establishing whatever parameters that want to play in (10 minutes of Halo 3 team slayer, for example) and then trust that the other player cooperates with those settings. Disputes can be settled by Virgin customer service, the founders said.
Anyone can play games via Virgin Gaming for free. Paid matches are permitted in 36 states. States where paid matches can't be plaid, according to the Virgin site, are: Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Maryland, Montana, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee and Vermont.
Is something like Virgin Gaming meant to propel a cultural shift that makes winning games more synonymous with winning money?
"It makes things more exciting when you're playing in the living room, order some pizza and put a few dollars down," Levy said. "This just makes the living room that much larger."