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Gaming the Pitch

Originally published in iGaming Business, issue 96.

The word “pitch” is one of those in the English language that has so many different varied meanings and uses, it can easily fill a page in a dictionary. The interesting thing for me is how the entomology of its different uses are as varied across time as they are in meaning.

Let’s focus on one of the transitive verb forms used to mean “an attempt to promote or sell,” and scatter some of its other meanings around the article just for fun.

Tossing the first pitch

It wasn’t an easy task to figure out when the first pitch contest happened, searching for “first pitch competition” on Google didn’t yield much probative, though I did surprisingly find one close to my heart; more about that later.

From the popular media perspective, the first pitch competition on television goes to a series from Japan titled Money Tigers, which ran from 2001 to 2004. Like other Japanese serials, it wasn’t known by many, but it did start a global trend of similar programs. Like Fuji Television’s Iron Chef, Sony Pictures Television’s Money Tigers led to the BBC’s Dragons’ Den, and according to Wikipedia, localized versions of the format in almost 30 countries, including Shark Tank in the US. On its 13th season in the UK and its 7th in the US, it’s clear that there is an appetite for the pitch contest.

The premise is simple: get a bunch of people together to pitch their ideas to a group of investors. It’s a concept likely as old as business itself, but to centralize the effort, place it on a stage, it now serves more than just an opportunity for ideas to meet investors, but also provide inspiration, education, research, marketing, and entertainment, all at one event!

Silicon Valley, perhaps the center of the world when it comes to anything-goes venture capital investment, has TechCrunch Disrupt. Its global Startup Battlefield contest has presented 543 companies and raised US$5.7 billion in funding with 96 exits since 2007.

The gaming industry joined the trend when Clarion Events and GamCrowd, a company specializing in crowdfunding and crowdsourcing in the gaming industry, joined forces to create Start-up Zone and LaunchPad at EiG in 2014. Subsequently, a whole slew of gaming start-up oriented events and pitch contests were held throughout 2015, beginning with Pitch ICE and closing with Innovators’ Circle, a pitch contest focused on the horse racing industry that I co-produced with gaming industry media veteran, Vin Narayanan, and the Race Track Industry Program (RTIP) at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

Pitching the tent

Call it the ultimate in research, but doing is a great way of learning and gaining experience. When the opportunity came up to try and stimulate new ideas for the racing industry, I got curious about the dynamics and effectiveness of pitch competitions, and figured, why not run one and get into the thick of it.

At the time, it made sense to go it alone; this was early 2014 and there was really not much rumbling about pitch competitions in the gaming industry. In hindsight, I’m still glad we did it the way we did. It was a great way to learn from other events, adapt it for our audience, and get a firsthand perspective on everything.

As we were going to be a show-within-a- show, one that is non-profit to boot, we had limitations on what we could do operating the contest.

A pitch competition without a decent prize or some form of win for the winner wasn’t going to be an interesting competition. We needed to raise money from sponsors, and we couldn’t cannibalize the sponsors that were already involved with our host’s event — we had to pitch the pitch competition — that was the most challenging task.

As with many venture capital pitches I’ve done or managed, we got plenty of interest, but when it came to cutting checks, the enthusiasm wasn’t there to be the first one in. We knew the first sponsor would be the hardest, the inertia-breaker, and that came when Doug Reed, Director of the RTIP, convinced the U.S. Trotting Association (USTA) to become our first sponsor.

Shortly after that, Keeneland joined as a Bronze Sponsor, then BAM Software and Services, and Daily Racing Form signed up to accompany the USTA as Silver Sponsors.

Now we had our work cut out for us. We were down to under three months before the event, and we had to craft the rules of the competition, build a website, create a way to accept entries, and get the word out to the world that there was a pitch contest for horse racing.

We modeled our competition after a variety of others, picking the features which we felt would work for the racing industry and fit within our constraints. We were careful not to set the bar too high, but still allow us to create a contest with relevance and integrity that will be able to continue to serve the industry.

To our surprise, despite a slow initial submission rate, we received almost 90 submissions from five continents in the 45 days that we were open for entries. From those, 49 were complete and were qualified to be judged. We invited five honourable mentions and five finalists to the show at the 42nd Global Symposium on Racing and Gaming.

The honourable mentions were given a day on the exhibition floor to present their entries to attendees, while the finalists were able to exhibit for the entire duration of the symposium.

The climax of the event was the on-stage pitch-off for the finalists, where I had the opportunity to host and try to entertain the crowd, complete with my black turtleneck and blue jeans.

Pitch perfect

I would be the last one to judge the success of my own event, but it did give me the unique perspective from both the hot-seat and the front-row seat to pitch competitions.

I certainly got newfound respect for all the show organizers I’ve worked with, like the organizers of iGaming North America, which includes the publisher of iGaming Business North America — it is a lot of work just for a few days under the lights.

One thing is clear, there is an appetite for innovation.

Similar to other pitch competitions that feature exhibition spaces, our little “start-up alley” on the exhibition floor was highly trafficked. Perhaps it was the audience’s curiosity or the fact that they were fresh meat on the show floor — the contestants received plenty of exposure.

All pitch competitions are subjective. Every industry has its politics that will show its hand even in competitions like this. Judges are human and will skew towards their expertise, preference, and focus. But what is key is the opportunity to shed the light of an industry on new ideas.

From the contestants’ perspective, pitch competitions provide a platform to promote, expose, and get their ideas out there to see how they stack up.

If you look a the list of alum from TechCrunch Disrupt’s Startup Battlefield, there are a few companies that have become household names, many have been acquired, most got funding, and some are no more. What everyone got, both contestants and investors, was an opportunity that would otherwise be a much more complicated endeavour without pitch competitions.

This perhaps is even more true for the gaming industry because of its regulated nature and relatively closed ecosystem, but will pitch competitions work for our industry as they have for the tech world and Hollywood?

Pitching in

One challenge is our industry’s dearth of openness to new ideas, outsiders, and change. Unlike Silicon Valley, we’re not exactly known for our garage start-ups and college dropouts turned billionaires, but we definitely have room for innovation and fresh ideas.

While we did get entries from industry insiders, we also got many entries from fans- turned-entrepreneurs, customers that felt they have what it takes to bring something new to a business they already spend money in and love.

What this presents is a rare opportunity for the industry to get a unique form of customer feedback — there’s more to the pitch than the pitch itself — there is much we can learn from pitch competitions, ranging from possible trends to outside-the- box approaches, that can only come from the outside.

These competitions can also be a great way to draw attention, both new talent and new customers, to the industry — as the video game industry has recently discovered with eSports, spending money on tournament prizes can get far more mileage than advertising — it not only raises awareness, it brings engagement.

As I finish this article, Pitch ICE is scheduled for ICE 2016 and Innovators’ Circle has been renewed for 2016, and if all goes well for the participants from 2015, we should start seeing quotable results beginning this year, be they hires, acquisitions, or in the form of start-ups turned growth stage companies.

Pitch competitions can be a great way to promote the gaming industry while keeping it fresh and relevant. Time will tell if they’ll work for the gaming industry like they have for the tech industry, and if they’ll become a feature of our annual event calendar.

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