A Chat With Mainline.gg CEO Chris Buckner, Who Says His Company Is On Track For 50+ College Clients By Q2 2020
Mainline.gg is an esports tournament software company based in Houston, Texas. Mainline helps usher companies, brands, and game titles within the rapidly growing esports industry, primarily through managing, marketing, and monetizing their esports programs and events.
On October 31, 2019, Mainline announced that it had completed a $6.8 million Series A funding round. Mainline has assisted major universities such as LSU, Texas A&M, and University of Texas with their esports initiatives and programs.
I recently sat down with Mainline Co-Founder/CEO, Chris Buckner, to discuss Mainline’s role in the ever-growing collegiate esports scene, as well as the company’s goals and plans for 2020:
Alan Wilmot: For those unfamiliar with Mainline, how does the company’s core offering of products/services help leverage the brands of its clients and relationships with sponsors?
Chris Buckner: From a product level, we are finding a lot of success in the collegiate space, for example, as universities and their most protected asset, their brand, are wanting to “dip their toe” into the space. Our tournament platform is white-labeled to their [each college’s] brand standards, which they can then turn around and offer to the students. This gives the university their first real chance to support their esports programs via a digital asset. You know who loves that? Value added resellers for the university like Learfield IMG College, Outfront Media, Fox, CSMG [Collegiate Sports Management Group], etc. So, the schools are leveraging their brand to secure sponsors who they have already worked with from an athletic level to get in front of their dream audience – the super-educated, affluent, young, and enthusiastic esports community.
From a services side, our live event production and produced content that we provided for ESPN’s Collegiate Esports Championship was a clear win for the sponsors and advertisers, endemic and non-endemic, to get involved with collegiate esports, because ESPN was able to leverage their brand and network to really pump out their inaugural season. It was wild to see how many major brands wanted to be a part of their very first season.
That’s awesome. Mainline’s white-labeled platform to allow branded tournaments appears to provide a major boost to those looking to get involved in esports. Other than sponsorships, what have you seen regarding major benefits from providing continuous branded tournaments?
Well, one of my favorite benefits is the ongoing touch points. Take brand “A” that wants to run tournaments over the course of a few months. Well, a lot of time, these would normally be run onsite on the day of the single event. However, now they are able to not only reach those potential clients for a longer period of time, they are also able to “own” the asset which is very attractive for things like call to actions, subscriptions, and different plugins that we provide. Right now we are working with one of the largest brands in the world to launch their own open series. Since they offer a good to the market currently, they now can guide the users of the application to have a more exciting affiliation with their brand and another channel to provide their product to an exciting market. We all know the world has esports FOMO right now – we are aiming to be a cost effective way to quench that thirst but also provide an immediate ROI with traceable/trackable conversions.
That ties in perfectly to the thought process that owning an esports brand is more than just operating a team, but also providing content via streaming, selling merchandise, licensing, and other revenue making opportunities. Mark Cuban (despite being an investor himself) recently stated that he believed investing in esports is “awful business.” What did you make of those comments and is this a stigma you encountered during your raise?
I loved it to be honest.
The truth is, there are some tough parts to the business. While there is certainly NOT a bubble in the growth of esports, there is a bubble in the valuation of some of these companies. I get his point. Right now, almost 60% of the true esports industry is led by sponsorships and advertising. Which is OK, because pro traditional sports have a large amount of their revenue coming from the same area. However, sponsorship and advertising is not recurring revenue. It’s an ongoing process. [Intellectual property] rights are king in the space right now. A publisher is the best [investment], guaranteed (outside of Mainline, obviously. Haha). They OWN the rights to the games that EVERYONE wants to make money off of. When these leagues launch, like OWL [Overwatch League] and LCS [League of Legends Championship Series], there is an ungodly value to owning a franchise. I wish I did. But two things that make things difficult – (1) games are constantly changing with new patches and (2) no one yet knows if the localization of esports teams is going to be the right move. Obviously I am biased and think that there are a lot of amazing opportunities in the space but I think we all need to come back to earth on valuations. That is also one of the main reasons we operate our business the way we do – recurring revenue is king to investors, PEs, VCs, and to me, the business owner. The long-term value of a licensed client is amazing and that is why one of our company mottos is “100% retention.” It’s not about the immediate; it’s about the future.
Ownership of intellectual property and game integrity are two major points of emphasis when it comes to esports. As a white-label entity, have you encountered any major issues or concerns with companies looking to license your software to offer tournaments?
Oh yeah. It’s one of my favorite parts of the business. We currently offer a product that does not infringe on IP rights by staying under the Publisher’s Community Guidelines; no use of brands, no broadcasting, no entry fees (in colleges), those types of things. However, we are having amazing conversations with the biggest publishers right now, because they see us a compliment to what they are working on in a lot of instances. They are essentially giving us the green light to grow our offering through certain licensing agreements. But, to answer your question directly, we have not had any issues because we stay under the guidelines but we are most certainly aware that in order for us to continue to grow our product offering, that will have to change.
Direct relationships with the publisher is definitely huge in terms of growth and I imagine that takes a lot of stress off regarding ensuring integrity of games offered through your platform. Is protecting integrity of tournaments something left to the operator/tournament host, or does Mainline play an active role there as well?
Well, we certainly had a direct role in that with the ESPN CEC TV show and live event. We had to work with the publisher on the integrity of their brand down to the smallest details. While sometimes it was stressful, it was also amazing to see and learn how things need to be done moving forward. Our goal is to become a trusted rights holder for the universities so that they don’t have to do any negotiations with a publisher. On top of that, we want to be the most trusted “vendor” of a publisher’s brand so that they too don’t have to manage the collegiate market themselves. Obviously, we have big goals. First, own the collegiate market by having every university on the tech and [second] have the publishers trust us with their brand/assets. In the meantime, we are partnering with numerous national and global brands to provide esports solutions from youth to pro.
What is Mainline’s position on esports betting? Is this something you are looking to implement through the platform or get involved with in the future?
We do not currently, but we can’t wait to. I remember when we were running pro tournaments for PUBG super early on. One night, someone in the office came in and asked if I was a betting man because one of our matches was on Bovada. That was both a really awesome and terrifying moment. I also immediately sent out a company memo saying that there is absolutely no betting allowed in our company on our tournaments. While we have no part of who wins or loses, I still didn’t want any ounce of drama there.
I agree with the betting community that there is a chance that esports betting could rival sports betting because of the immediacy of APIs. In sports, there is human error that leads to delays. Until pro sports OCR becomes more advanced, it will continue to be a human input business out of necessity. In esports, the “stats” are immediate and they are exact. Imagine the possibilities?!
Yes! Especially when operated through a blockchain system that makes all data public, fixed, and incapable of deletion. This really assists verification. Is this a model you’ve looked into yourself, or is this more so a technology you would attempt to outsource from a third party?
We have certainly looked at companies for potential acquisition and partnerships. We have an absolute rock star of a development team here (all are onsite in our Houston offices) so nothing is out of the realm of possibility there. I will say we are taking it very seriously.
What about partnering with casinos looking to bring esports into the fold?
I have been tweeting [Houston Rockets/casino owner] Tilman Fertitta like it was my job. No response. Haha.
Ha hopefully he sees this and responds. If not, there are a number of other casinos currently building esports lounges and arenas that could definitely use Mainline’s services. With the recent raise, what can we expect from Mainline.gg in 2020 and beyond?
We have already begun expanding our development team in an effort to increase our product offering to include new features, increase our sales team, and beef up our production. We have some heavy hitters lined up for 2020 from a production standpoint and we are on track for 50+ major universities by Q2 of next year. That would make our team pretty happy.
Amazing. Care to break some major news?
Hahaha. I’d kill to. Our PR firm wanted to murder me because I wasn’t able to announce some of the big names due to restrictions given the fact that our product is a white-labeled product and our we are vendors on the production side. Here in about 4 weeks, we will be able to drop some monster bombs, though
Ha well I look forward to hearing it about then!
Thanks for your time!
Awesome! Thank you so much for having me.