Jace Hall wants to talk about how to celebrate gamers and their big achievements

Jace Hall wants to talk about how to celebrate  gamers and their big achievements

Jace Hall, the CEO of Twin Galaxies, has a big idea to bring attention to gamers and their achievements. I wrote a small story about it but Hall didn’t feel like it captured the essence of that big idea.

So he talked to me and took me down the rabbit hole of this idea. At Twin Galaxies, in partnership with a startup called Thece, he will help non-gaming brands build games that celebrate and reward ordinary gamers who excel at something that is almost like a hobby.

It’s more than just creating a new kind of esports or turning gamers into celebrity streamers, Hall said. We chatted and he convinced me to let him come speak about it at our GamesBeat Summit 2024 event, which takes place Monday and Tuesday at the Marina del Rey Marriott in Los Angeles. (You can use this code for a 25% discount: gbs24dean25). You can hear him out.

“I will argue, is a revolutionary, quiet industry disrupter. And I only say that just because of the feedback we’re getting from the potential client base,” Hall said in an interview with me. “This is significant.”

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And that’s where ScottsMiracle-Gro, the fertilizer and soil company in Columbus, Ohio, and Thece come into the picture. They’re trying to demonstrate the power of this idea with a simple contest where participants can win free Miracle-Gro Organic Raised Bed & Garden Soil and bring virtual farms to life. Twin Galaxies, which has referee technology like anti-cheat, will adjudicate the results and figure out who the winners are in this gardening game.

Miracle-Gro has issued its gaming challenge.

For Hall, this is a humble restart. But he’s been here before at the start of companies like Monolith, which went on to be acquired by Warner Bros. and produce games like Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. He also cofounded HiDef, which was an attempt to do a new kind of music game. That one didn’t emerge.

Still, he hopes this humble virtual farming game will prove out the model, showing that a new kind of game and tournament competition can be built around just about any kind of brand or subject, using related games that set up a challenge among the superfans..

Thece brings its expertise in creating authentic and engaging gaming experiences to the challenge. To guarantee the competition’s integrity, ThecePlay is powered by Twin Galaxies, the most respected video game player achievement organization, which has over 40 years of experience adjudicating and verifying gaming accomplishments. This combination of Thece’s platform and Twin Galaxies’ credibility elevates winners’ achievements and provides a fair and exciting experience for all participants.

Twin Galaxies

Donkey Kong and Mario Bros.

Hall’s tech at Twin Galaxies is the platform that facilitates the fair competition in games, while Thece handles the front-end side where the gamers come into the platform and play in their tournaments.

Walter Day founded Twin Galaxies in 1981 after he visited more than 100 video game arcades in four months. He recorded the high scores he found. He opened his own arcade in Ottmwa, Iowa, and named it Twin Galaxies. Then he released his national scoreboard.

He published world records for video game play and Day was featured in the 2007 documentary, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, which depicted the rivalry between Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe in being the best at Donkey Kong. Day left the company in 2010 to pursue a career in music and Hall acquired it in 2014.

“This goes back to my initial interest in acquiring Twin Galaxies and it relates to my realization that the entire game industry operates from the perspective that the game product is the primary point of interest,” he said. “That drives all of the economics within the entire culture and space.”

Gamers aren’t the stars

Steve Wiebe
Steve Wiebe starred in The King of Kong.

Hall contended that the game industry often tries not to identify individuals involved. It keeps you focused on either a company brand or a product brand. People might play games on the Nintendo or play Mario, but they aren’t paying as much the creators, even if it is someone like Shigeru Miyamoto. As a result, all of the revenues go to the publisher or to a lesser extent the developer.

“The actual people who are using these products and accomplishing things — they’re just consumers, things to be exploited,” he said. “I’ve been around since the beginning of Twin Galaxies. I’ve always been aware that Twin Galaxies focuses on the achievement of a human being utilizing a video game.”

For companies like Miracle-Gro, it means that they can honor and reward players who are authentically playing games that they already like and then showing off their achievements. Such brands probably couldn’t do an advertising media buy and get those same kind of results.

He added, “A video game is secondary to the human beings achievement, which, by the way, is how sports functions. We all we all know Wilson makes the football, but nobody really cares. They care about who’s throwing it. And the entire economics of the industry is around celebrating and acknowledging achievement in throwing the ball. Then you have the teams and more. I thought there is a huge opportunity lying on the floor for this part of the video game space. And it’s certainly not the publisher’s responsibility, or even the developer’s responsibility or job to develop that ecosystem.”

That’s not how the game companies make money. They don’t have to celebrate individual gamers to get paid. By contrast, Twin Galaxies has a tradition of honoring people. It started with celebrating people playing pinball or arcade machines at arcades. But Hall decided to create a digital platform to adjudicate tournaments and make something that could scale.

A fair referee at scale

Jace Hall is CEO of Twin Galaxies.
Jace Hall is chairman of Twin Galaxies and Vision Entertainment.

That process took about 10 years, but Twin Galaxies made a platform, dealing with matters such as cheating and authentication.

“We can develop a way of adjudicating and for recognizing achievement and break some of the scaling limitations that previously existed,” he said. “We developed a platform that could look at video game performance. As long as your measurement rules are objective, not subjective, this can identify achievement, scree out cheating and then log the authenticated data in the database.”

Then the achiever can be recognized, with proof that they accomplished something.

“The game is secondary. You start to build an IMDB database of video game player achievements,” he said. “That allows people to bank the time that they’ve spent in gaming in some place, in some location.”

It can work with any type of video game achievement ruleset from any type of game, he said. And he noted Twin Galaxies doesn’t run ads on its site and doesn’t charge money. It’s a labor of love and a commitment by Hall for the sake of game culture.

Livestreaming a tournament.

A year ago, the company decided to commercialize some of Twin Galaxies’ functions.

“We quickly realized that our ability to resolve objectively could be applied in such a way that it enables sponsors and advertisers to leverage video game audiences without being entangled with a particular video game,” he said. “For particular audience groups, target demographics. We could reach them and direct the activity toward whatever message they’re trying to bring without being an interloper.”

He said that if an advertiser could become the center point, then you could convert the time into value. The tournament organizer can see that someone is investing their time with the brand and that they can be recognized. The organizer/brand becomes a “hero maker.”

“It’s the equivalent of the Olympics, which makes the games and people want to participate in the Olympics. It doesn’t matter what the games are. The Olympics makes the heroes, and so the Olympics is more important than the game,” he said. “You can have a sponsor, become a hero maker, andhave your own audience challenge online event. The company can reward the player. There are very few ways right now for video game players to capitalize on the time that they spend in the activity.”

There are things like Twitch, but this is not the same as streaming or esports, Hall said.

“The current iteration of esports, as we traditionally understand it, is marketing expressions of video game publishers or developers. And so what happens is they own the arena that this is taking place, it’s like they own the WWE. That means the economic viability of the business is completely underneath the control of the owner of that particular ecosystem.”

This particular structure explains why esports fails the players and the teams, Hall said. The publishers and developers just want to sell games.

“The passion is what we’re trying to sell,” Hall said. “We’re talking about competitive gaming, which is inclusive of what is also called social single player gaming. Recognizing achievement, outside of the game, is what’s very important because people who play video games like to be recognized outside of what they’re doing.”

Like Twitch?

Can you be the best in the world?

This is where what Hall has in mind is similar to Twitch, which creates a platform to allow players to monetize the time the players put into a game. But Twitch can be more about entertaining audiences rather than just playing a game well.

Hall said that with Thece Play, the partners have been able to create a broader, more accessible mechanism that can monetize the time and help a player generate value for themselves through the games that they are already playing.

“There are sponsors who are willing to come in to offer that value,” Hall said. “And in that value offering, they are able to deliver their message to the demographics that they’re trying to reach, without coming across as being exploitative to the player.”

This is what the audience challenge product can accomplish, Hall said. In this case, the brand/advertiser doesn’t worry so much about the particular game. They worry more about the audience they are trying to reach.

“We can pick an array of games that touch those types of people,” he said. “And we can include all of those games in your challenge simultaneously. And it’s your challenge.”

With the Miracle-Gro project, Twin Galaxies and Thece worked with games like Mortal Kombat, and it “generated a tremendous amount of engagement for even the smallest effort,” he said.

This generates engagement for people want to show off their performance. The output of that content comes from participating in the play, and that feeds back to the sponsor, which can advertise. The players get recognized.

In the realm of pro sports, as opposed to esports, the leagues matter more and they can put the emphasis on players and teams. And the brands/advertisers can funnel money to the players and teams — celebrating them rather than the game maker or publisher.

Esports developed from the need to see more video games, which is where the funding comes from, Hall said.

“When you have a company that owns the game, and they’re trying to sell more of the game product, their power over that is absolute,” Hall said. “When you shift the paradigm a little bit to the player performances being the point of interest, as opposed to the game being the point of interest, it changes the dynamic of where ownership lies, what is acceptable, what isn’t acceptable. It leans more towards traditional sports. That’s as opposed to the WWE, which is basically a video game company, and they own everything, and they have other characters in it.”

Twin Galaxies, by contrast, is game agnostic and it can put players first.

Hall said people are leaving money on the table by ignoring the people who play the games and all the ways to celebrate those people. And that ultimately leads to selling more copies of a game.

ThecePlay

The Miracle-Gro Challenge.

Thece CEO Zack Rozga said his company’s name is shorthand for the consumer engagement company.

“The reason we founded the company is that we all come from a mixture of different components of the advertising and marketing world, from digital and broadcast, cinema, experiential. And one of the things that we collectively agreed on is that the digital and digital marketing has gotten to an apex point where it’s so easy to create ads,” he said. “Now it’s so easy to place ads that you’ve just gotten to a point where (you wonder if) those ads even being seen. Are those ads making any impact? Are those ads actually creating a positive sentiment with the end consumer?”

For the most part, the answer to these questions is ‘no,’ he said.

“Our reason for being is to help brands create better sentimentality and resonance with consumers,” he said.

During COVID, a lot of brands poured money into esports. Rozga dove into it and was shocked that no one was making money on media rights. They were selling sponsorships. By contrast, traditional sports makes a lot of money on media rights, as people love to watch their sports heroes. Rozga started talking to hundreds of brands to see how they could target this space. The audience was interesting, but the games weren’t brand safe. The gameplay made the brands nervous.

“There’s an audience here. There’s a desire for this audience, but there’s a content problem,” Rozga said.

So Rozga met Hall, who said, “‘What if I was able to help you put together challenges that the brand could own against any game title?’ That was something that was very intriguing.”

Rozga said, “We started unpacking it, and then putting our hat on as a media buyer. There is the need for the brand to be additive, instead of interruptive. And how could we create this experience so that the brand is the hero?”

With Miracle-Gro, the partners created the Miracle-Gro Challenge using games like Stardew Valley, which is a virtual farming game. And the brand can offer the challenge with its own brand on the tournament and Twin Galaxies can figure out who the best players are. Then the brand can rward those best players.

“We want to reward you in the real world. Not just with digital currency, but real world goods and services, for just doing what you already do, which play the game you play all the time,” he said.

The recognition of achievement is what could turn these routine game-playing experiences into a “singular experience,” Rozga said. “We’re able to help the brands create authenticity within the space, but we’re also able to give recognition to the players. It’s just validation.”

The Miracle-Gro Challenge is turning out well, given the positivity of the chatter around what’s happening among the gamers.

“This is a perfect alignment,” Rozga said.

No catch

The possibilities of challenge play.

Hall said, “They’re looking for the catch. And there isn’t one. Everyone’s so cynical now. That’s how everything has always historically been. But here, there isn’t one. You play. Our system basically allows the creation of frequent flyer miles to be created from anyone’s video game activity.”

Once it verifies what you’ve done, the sponsors can give the player rewards. Players can create videos of their accomplishments and give the rights to the sponsor, which can then show it off to the world. Players can get real world rewards like a bag of fertilizer. The retailer involved will be happy to let a player go pick up that bag because the person will probably spend money on the way out. That brings the retailer into the audience challenge.

“And this is 100% good for the games,” Hall said. “People will hear about the games. Miracle Gro comes out as the hero maker.”

Back to what’s revolutionary. Miracle Gro is the brand. They can pick any brand-safe game. Miracle Gro issues a challenge in that game. People play it and a hero emerges. The brand praises and elevates the player, who gives out codes for the game and makes it more popular. Social content gets created around this. The leaderboard takes shape.

Twin Galaxies can also turn to other kinds of games and be the referee for those games, like shooting basketballs in real life. Sometime takes an unedited video of their free throws and then a winner emerges. That could be a challenge. Games can drive traffic to something else.

In another case, a publisher can work with a brand and create challenges that are externally measured and require no extra coding from the brand. Players compete and create achievements and create social media around those achievements around a game like Mortal Kombat. The challenge could be setting the game for the hardest possible mode and make it as difficult as possible. Twin Galaxies can measure who does this mode the fastest. Participants send in their content and it gets shared, Hall said.

Can you win a challenge in Mortal Kombat?

The nature of the challenge determines how much it can generate excitement among players (who get excited about rewards) as well as social media awareness for the brands. Players show that they did something.

“Show us the game on your phone and jump up and down. Then you get the reward. We can objectively measure what happened. What we have built feels like a normal advertising product. But the truth is we are entirely disruptive. Why would you ever just buy an ad on something when you could spend less money, do a Thece Play and get content and a greater result in way more engagement and be a hero maker?”

He added, “It has taken Twin Galaxies over 10 years to engineer a platform that has an entire ecosystem capable of processing and doing this. This is not something that someone’s going to look at and go, ‘Oh, I’ll do the same.’ It’s not going to happen. I think it’s going to change things.”

The fact that this works with any game means that a brand doesn’t have to hire a game studio to make a game that can be created in six months for Roblox. They can take an existing popular game, even a single-player game that doesn’t have a multiplayer mode.

Hall said there is a lot of traction for the player activity around the Miracle-Gro game. And there’s no reason to limit a campaign to a single game. A brand can create similar challenges across many different games.

“I’m very excited about what it is we’re offering because it’s additive to our industry. And I do not feel that it’s exploitive. I think for the first time, we’re going to be able to take the valuable time that video game players put into their games, and be able to recognize it and convert it to some kind of value,” Hall said.

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