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CUNY Students Create Startup to Solve Issues in eSports

Zishan Ahmed (left) and Joseph Huaynate (right) present Hype to an audience on Demo Day. PHOTO/ NYC Media Lab

By Sandy Mui

Published: October 3rd, 2018

Last spring, Joseph Huaynate received an email from NYC Media Lab that caught his attention. It was a call for applications for NYC Media Lab’s Sports/Media/Tech Summer Startup Bootcamp, an eight-week program held from the beginning of June to early August in partnership with Verizon and Yahoo Sports.

At the time, Huaynate — who’s in his last semester at Queens College and majoring in computer science and math — was more interested in the idea of pursuing a startup and didn’t yet have an idea of what his startup should focus on. That changed when he attended an information session about the program, where one idea kept springing up.

“Every 10, 15 minutes, they’d just give us a subliminal message like, ‘eSports, eSports,’” Huaynate said. “And then I was like, ‘Yeah, you know what? I could probably do something with that.’”

Huaynate, teaming up with another CUNY student, went on to be one of four startup teams selected for the boot camp. Their idea evolved into Hype, a platform focused on building a community of streamers and helping streamers grow an audience. But, the team and concept behind Hype would constantly transform during the boot camp.

eSports are a form of competition using video games. Though online video games have existed since the 1990s, eSports became more mainstream in the 21st century, facilitated by the participation of professional gamers in eSports tournaments that were live streamed. The most common example that illustrates the growth of eSports is Richard Tyler Blevins, more commonly known by his online alias “Ninja,” who started streaming on Twitch (a site that primarily focuses on video game live streaming) in his sophomore year in college in 2011 and was recently featured on the cover of ESPN the Magazine.

Because of successful personalities like Ninja, more gamers — who in the past would play video games without an audience — are becoming streamers, people who broadcast themselves playing video games to an audience of viewers.

“Nowadays, it seems like gamers are also streamers and vice versa,” said Huaynate. “You don’t see the typical gamer anymore.”

eSports, the area Hype focused on, was one of many topic areas a startup team could pick for NYC Media Lab’s Sports/Media Tech Summer Startup Bootcamp. “The eSports market was truly, I think, great timing for us and for them as an early stage startup team,” Amy Chen, NYC Media Lab’s director of entrepreneurship programs, said about Hype.

Huaynate initially applied for the program with his friend Luis Medina, a senior at Queens College majoring in computer science. Unfortunately, a bit before the program began, Medina accepted an internship with J.P. Morgan and was not allowed to balance both the boot camp and internship during the summer.

Huaynate scrambled to find a new partner to take Medina’s place. At the time, he was attending Art Hackathon, a program in which teams created projects related to art and technology. There, Huaynate bumped into Zishan Ahmed — who’s finishing up his degree in multimedia computing at Brooklyn College — whom he had already known from CUNY Tech Prep, a year-long boot camp that provides CUNY students interested in computer science with industry exposure to software development and a connection to tech jobs after they graduate.

Huaynate told Ahmed about Hype, and Ahmed — an avid video game player growing up — was more than happy to be Huaynate’s new teammate in the boot camp.

“It just made sense to do it because he said his project was focused on eSports and then it was also an entrepreneurial thing, which I had a very big interest in,” said Ahmed.

With their team in place, Huaynate and Ahmed were able to split the work of the program. Each week, the startup teams were expected to conduct at least 10 interviews in a process called “customer discovery” to learn more about the habits of their potential customers. As a recurring activity in the program, customer discovery played a vital role in determining whether a startup could be successful.

“You’re kind of almost like a detective or a sculptor or a painter and you’re trying to form an image,” Ahmed said about his experience with customer discovery, “and you want to get that resolution as sharp as possible.”

Customer discovery proved to be important for Hype — so important that it ended up shifting the entire focus of the startup.

The original idea Huaynate and Medina had for Hype was to design it as a platform that would eliminate the need for third-party applications. To explain this, Huaynate used the example of tournament viewers being directed to a new webpage when they wanted to find out what tournaments are coming up, which more than anything, was “a hassle.”

“It’s kind of just like having one, two, three pages all at once and you don’t want to keep on changing that,” Huaynate said. Thus, in its original concept, Hype would have been an add-on to Twitch that allows a person to simultaneously stream and follow an important tournament, without needing to have a third-party page open.

Then, about three to four weeks into the program, Huaynate was conducting customer discovery interviews during a meetup for Twitch streamers at Waypoint Cafe, an eSports and gaming cafe in Manhattan. While asking his “regular” questions to the streamers, he realized something he was overlooking with Hype at the time — the fact that many streamers fail to generate views even if they have been streaming for years.

“That’s when the idea morphed to just having streamers of low tier come together in a platform and then just kind of do what they enjoy,” said Huaynate, “and while at the same time, if it’s possible where we can get higher-tier streamers on the site to just sort of teach them… tips or tricks that they themselves know in order for any new or low-tier streamers to sort of just rise from this limbo that they’ve been in for a while.”

Inevitably, Hype has evolved significantly throughout the eight weeks of the boot camp and that has impressed Chen.

“From the beginning to demo day, I really saw them tighten around how they’re considering their value proposition,” said Chen. “They know there are many big established players or bigger companies that can just almost ‘flip a switch’ and turn on a particular feature that might be a competitor to Hype, but they still through their customer interviews are realizing they have a shot at this too. They have the skills to build a startup based on a future business model even though it might not be something implementable in the next six months.”

Moving forward, the future of Hype appears to be similar to the future of eSports — uncertain, but exciting. Ahmed is leaving the team to pursue his own ventures related to incorporating modern technologies like 3D printing and scanning to make clothing, and Medina is returning to Hype.

Since Huaynate is graduating after this semester while Medina has one more semester to go, Huaynate will be taking the reins on the project. The next steps for Hype, according to Huaynate, involve having a mock-up page about Hype ready by December and having a beta version of the platform ready by March. He was also recently accepted into the CUNY I-Corps Innovation Challenge, a program that teaches students about customer discovery and helps students create products and services that benefit society. 

Nevertheless, he’s open to anything that could happen to Hype in the future.

“Honestly, I wouldn’t mind if the idea kept on changing,” he said. “I mean I’m currently happy with its current form, but one of the things I realized is I feel like when I talk to more people, I will probably get some more insight to some other particular problem, which could probably be solved through Hype.”

One thing’s for sure: this is a problem that needs to be addressed and solved.

“I just hope that if not us, then someone solves the problem of ‘how do you get a small streamer to continually gain audiences’ or maybe give them the chance to grow,” said Medina. “A lot of the times, the people that become big either get lucky or spend hours a day playing games just to be good. But a lot of the big streamers and YouTubers… say that the way they got big was just luck. So maybe we can somehow break that [and] instead of just giving the streamer tools, to just stream themselves [and] giving them tools to make a community.”

Note: The web version of this article. after it appeared in print, has been updated to reflect Hype’s most recent status with the CUNY I-Corps Innovation Challenge.

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