Based out of London is fan-driven, grassroots esports organisation LDN UTD that provides pathways to help young gamers to become professionals.
Driving the make-up of the gamers LDN UTD begins with prospective gamers uploading their content and fans voting for their favourite gamers to compete for the chance to represent the organisation and in turn having a chance to further their career as a professional gamer.
It comes with a major added element that gives the organisation a slightly unique proposition in one of the world’s fastest growing industries and that is their big focus on community and driving social awareness.
In this conversation we spoke to LDN UTD’s co-founder and CEO Oliver Weingarten.
Considering your professional past, what brought you into the esports industry?
Oliver Weingarten: “I came from a traditional sports background. I was General Counsel at the English Premier League for a number of years, then I worked in Formula 1. I started to get involved in the sportstech space and initially my eyes were opened to esports directly through Formula E. I was involved in its first season and saw them lead on a variety of esports offerings including the Road to Vegas.
“I worked for the Formula E teams in the series’ first season and thereafter started to work with a technology company called Virtually Live. It was predominantly a high-end tethered VR company and it transcended into becoming a mobile gaming company thereafter. I got involved in esports whilst I was there and came out of there thinking ‘what am I going to do next?’ When you’ve had interesting jobs like I’ve had, taking on Bernie Ecclestone for three years in F1, the Premier League, you want to continue to be motivated to do interesting roles.
“I decided to look around and I met my co-founder (Adam Whyte) who had more of an esports background than what I had. He’s also a former sports lawyer, but was an esports agent, a bit of a gamer who played thousands of hours of Hearthstone and set up a tech company called EDGE which is a platform for smart contracts for gamers. We spoke about the challenge of gamers who might want to play a bit more professionally and not having that route that exists in traditional sports like football where you have an academy. In gaming there isn’t really that and Adam had been contacted by a few people and we said, ‘why don’t we try and set up something,’ and funnily enough he said he had registered the trademark and company LDN UTD.
“We thrashed around the idea of a community driven grassroots organisation that provides and helps gamers take that path to pro, with the fans being involved, and then we added a little twist to it where we aligned ourselves with societal benefits. What I mean by that is looking at what we did in the Premier League and didn’t do in the F1 is legacy, corporate social responsibility, good causes and I decided to position ourselves that anyone that comes through the doors of LDN UTD is educated on nutrition, good health and the importance of looking after yourself and other societal benefits, so if it doesn’t work out for you we can’t just drop you on the scrap heap. We just worked with a charity for our last event, which is Street League, where they use sport as a means of employability. We’ve got relationships with marketing agencies, law firms, accountancies so we can always see if we can get internships.”
The path to professionalism is not particularly linear, is that a problem you’re solving?
OW: “Certainly in this country, and whilst talking to investors it’s a lot more nascent than in the US and Asia. I think it’s possibly perceived as the wild west when you see players aren’t getting paid, there’s no overarching integrity system and what defines a professional? At the top end you’ve got professionals on six figure salaries earning seven figures through all of their deals and at the bottom end you’ve got what we’re trying to do is give all of those gamers a chance to be a pro. What defines a pro for me is the gamer playing more competitively than they were before they came through the doors of LDN UTD.”
You’ve associated with some grime artists to help with the messaging of social issues. Tell me about that?
OW: “We’ve got a relationship with P-Money, who is now our Brand Ambassador, he’s well-established, he’s been around the scene for a while and he’s a family man. When we put on our Apex Legends event in June we decided to tackle a social issue as best as we could, as a gaming organisation, which was knife crime. P-Money is from London and we have a relationship with Landsec who own a lot of property. They have a shopping centre in Lewisham which is an economically challenged area with a high rate of knife crime, so with P-Money who lives close to there we wanted to raise some awareness. In my investor deck and pitch deck I have a slide about putting community first and who we’re engaging with and we have a strap line which is ‘get off the streets, get gaming and be educated,’ which goes to the values which we mentioned earlier.
“The concept is to get people engaged, get them off the streets for a few hours, let them play and if they’re good enough we can sign them up. That was the concept, we broadcast it on Twitch to over 25,000 people and 1,200 concurrent streamers.
“Even for our recent FIFA event, it was clear that grime and gaming go in tandem. We had over 80 people attend the Red Bull Gaming Sphere for our FIFA try-outs, and a lot had heard of the event from P-Money on social media.”
I’ll delve into your “for fans by fans” model. You’re trying to build grassroots support from the off, what’s the power you hope to harness by bringing your fans as a central part of the team?
OW: “There’s a couple of things there. I’m trying not to refer to it constantly as a team but an esports organisation that helps grassroots gamers take the path to pro. The reason I feel we’re an organisation is that we’re trying to transcend charity, music, fashion, sport and gaming, elements that are maybe not as unique to what you’d perceive to be an esports team. The merchandise that we’re creating is what you’d wear in the streets, it’s not hardcore gaming merchandise for instance. What we’re trying to do is create an organisation which enhances and endorses the community aspects. We want the fans to be involved as much as possible in shaping the organisation, creating content, coming to our events, and even shaping the brand and design of our merch!
“Let’s take it back to basics, we had a competition for our FIFA event from the end of October, if gamers think they’re good enough they go on our platform and share their content and fans voted for what they like. As we keep growing that leaderboard will shape the gamers that are invited to attend to compete for places with LDN UTD. In the meantime all of that content is shareable and just being integrated through Twitch and YouTube so we can start sharing it, building out their profile and as they come to our event they will then compete for a place in our team and if they are successful they get offered a contract. They will have streaming obligations and other obligations around nutrition and fitness but we will work with them, not just on the educational aspect, but also try and put them into tournaments to stage stress test them. Ultimately, in two-years time a Fanatic, or Dignitas or any big team could come along and say, ‘I’m looking for a FIFA player, League of Legends player or a Fortnite player, could we have a look at one of your gamers?’ They will know the players that we have are educated, talented, have been stage stress tested. In the period between that we’ll work the gamers on streaming, creating a profile and working with brands to create content.”
I want to get a bit more insight into the team – the demographics of your fan base, who is following the team, uploading content.
OW: “If you said what’s your traditional demographic, I’d say for the Fortnite, Apex Legends, FIFA titles it’s 13-25, DOTA and Counter Strike – which we haven’t done yet – is a bit older.
“We’re targeting the 13-25 age bracket. From the events we’ve held and the registrations for our FIFA event, and our membership enquiries as well, I would say it’s predominantly that age bracket.
“When I’m signing gamers I’m dealing with parents which is absolutely fine, I’m used to that. I’m used to that from my Premier League days around safeguarding. It creates challenges in themselves particularly around brands themselves, gambling brands is an obvious one. There’s so much money in that sector but does it sit right with what you’re trying to do is an open-ended question.”
Can you see LDN UTD quickly growing into mainland Europe?
OW: “I would like to think so. In that respect we’ve had discussions in respect of cities not just in Europe.
“We’re very early, we’re just closing a seed round and we had planned a crowdfunding campaign to accentuate our community aspect, but that is being put on hold for reasons I won’t bore you with. We’re starting to hire people as well so we have to prove the London model and I believe it can be replicated by us in other cities or franchised, I believe it’s a scalable proposition. The interesting question actually is when you go to some countries where the LDN UTD brand is essentially stronger than an original city brand in that country.”
Is this your first time building a company, your own startup?
OW: “Yes it is.”
What’s your weirdest, craziest challenge you’ve faced?
OW: “The challenge has been finding money. I’m happy to put my neck on the block and open up to you that I don’t consider myself naïve, I’ve had a great career, I’ve taken a real risk, I have kids and a mortgage. I’m taking a real risk and I felt that I was going into a real hot industry but underestimated just how nascent it was in the UK from an investment perspective. I have no doubt if I’d gone to the US I would have found a lot more money in a quicker space of time but we’ve been patient, we’ve done a proof of concept, we’ve concluded brand deals with the likes of Chipotle and have brought in endemics and non-endemics. We’re closing a seed round with a really good fund and we’ve sat and been patient with the crowdfund because a) it was much better to have seed funding concluded and b) anyone who has done crowdfunding knows it throws up a plethora of its own issues.
“As you would’ve heard from lots of entrepreneurs it’s been a challenge and for me having earned so well in the past having gone to the other extreme has been a challenge, there’s been days where I can’t lie, it’s been trying, for me and in particular my wife, but I believe in what I’m doing and if the concept hadn’t resonated so well with people we’ve spoken to and just because some investors haven’t jumped at the first stage with us doesn’t mean they won’t come in at a later stage. A lot of investors don’t like going in early, they like to see who you bring in in your early round, the traction you get and whether you generate revenue, so we’ve had quite a lot of interest. They’ll come back to us once we’ve got a bit more traction or revenue or as we close our first round. If people had been telling me the concept is crap and it’s never going to go anywhere I would have probably taken another job much earlier than persisting.”
What does growth mean to LDN UTD?
OW: “In five-years I want to have a worldwide presence, that shows our growth with a very scalable model. In the short-term growth for us is acquiring members and generating revenue. We’re looking at an innovative membership scheme, we’ve got merchandise and we’ve got a variety of revenue streams. Generating revenue and scaling out with a regional approach to esports is where I see LDN UTD going. In five-years I hope to have a global presence, be in acquisition talks with a media conglomerate and be looking back at the start up days with pride and fondness; and relief!”