2019 was a banner year for all of us at Skillz. We have much to celebrate heading into the holidays, so we’re taking a breath, honoring our commitment to Balance, and recapping some of our proudest accomplishments as we head out for winter break.
Microsoft announced Xbox Series X, its next-generation console. It will arrive in late 2020. (TechCrunch)
Tencent and Nintendo have announced that the Nintendo Switch is launching in China. The gaming device includes cloud infrastructure for online gaming, along with the ability to buy games through WeChat Pay. (The Verge)
Former CFO of Airbnb and Blackstone to Advise Skillz, a Leading Platform for Competitive Mobile Games with Backers including Major Sports Leagues and Franchises
Author: Shawn Hillyer, Software Engineer
This is a story of how we identified and fixed an issue of a key component of our business – improving its efficiency by over 70%.
Software engineers have the vital responsibility of ensuring the stability of the systems they design and maintain. This is especially important at Skillz, a massive marketplace platform that services over 4 million mobile game tournaments every day. We tailor the user experience with a data-driven approach that creates a record for each player in each game played.
We want to cache important information about every player, so we use Amazon S3 to stage that information and then index it in ElasticSearch for quick retrieval.
However, in August, we noticed this data was taking so long to load that we were unable to finish loading records before the next scheduled load began. To preserve the positive player experience, we had to quickly identify and act on solutions.
Skillz Weekly News Recap – Microsoft’s latest mixed reality headset, HoloLens 2, was released internationally at a starting price of $3,500. With enhanced ergonomics compared to the original HoloLens, the new headset features an increased viewing angle and improved gesture tracking.
Author: Elliott Kaplan, General Manager of Customer Advocacy
We talk a lot at Skillz about how our monetization model exponentially uplevels the experience for mobile gamers. Many popular games drive players to pay by disrupting the user experience with ads or gated content. Conversely, Skillz players opt into our monetization loop when they want the thrill of live competition. That’s a better approach for the consumer, which we see directly translate to a Net Promoter Score that’s consistently above 40 for our pro players.
One topic we don’t often cover but will dive into here is how esports have fundamentally shifted the way industry professionals approach customer service. As the world’s leading mobile esports company, Skillz is pioneering that change. To understand where we’re headed, we first have to look at the industry itself. The video game industry can largely be broken into three waves: boxed games, live services, and esports. Each of these revenue models is living and continuing to evolve today, but each can only exist because of the advances made by its predecessor:
- Boxed – Originally, the only way to access your favorite game was to physically obtain a disc or cartridge. Stemming from self-contained entertainment like film, the game shipped complete and had an “end.” Developers hoped they had found any bugs in the title and taken feedback into account, because in a pre-internet era, developers didn’t have the chance to patch in any improvements once the product shipped. Revenue came from boxed sales, largely driven by marketing and PR.
- Live Service – The move from boxed titles to live service gaming followed a similar trend to cloud computing. With the advent of performant online distribution, developers realized they could continue to engage with (and monetize) their users by delivering digital content piecemeal for as long as players would continue to pay for it. Games no longer had to end and could instead continue to iterate and evolve, with microtransactions (including pay-to-win mechanics) and ads emerging as the key to funding those updates.
- Esport – With live service games on the rise, it quickly became apparent that some had more longevity than others. Echoing the history of offline games, players began to organize on both the player and viewer sides, with the developers moving away from short-term pay-to-win monetization strategies in favor of emphasizing a healthy sport with decades-long retention. Microtransactions continue to exist in this model, but only as part of it. The broad appeal of a sport lies with its accessibility for everyone and an easy-to-understand sense of fairness, giving developers an entirely new path to sustained revenue.
Customer service for boxed titles was extremely straightforward and worked like any other physical consumer good — you set quality expectations for the product, policies around returns, and then retailers largely handled it from there. The challenge for customer service professionals centered around enforcing policies that would drive consumer loyalty without hurting the bottom line, along with the logistics that come with shipping and storing physical items. There was no expectation or need for developers to maintain large customer service teams in the boxed game era.
This shifted with the move to live service gaming, as consumers need an escalation path in case they encounter an error with a virtual purchase. Physical retailers may still sell your base title, but neither the retailer nor the player would expect to return to a brick-and-mortar store for assistance with the add-on they purchased online. Developers maintaining live service games suddenly needed robust customer service teams tasked with a variety of new responsibilities, including answering extremely in-depth questions around how a purchase would impact the game mechanics, deciding if a bug had truly cost someone money, and maintaining extensive policies to prevent digital fraud.
Customer service in the live service age was certainly more interesting than when titles were shipped fully self-contained, but it was still considered a cost center that handled reactive inbound requests. The expectation was that gamers would eventually churn out of a title and customer service was there to delay that as long as possible, at the lowest cost possible.
Then esports arrived. I first realized the paradigm had shifted while working for a live service developer. I was at a customer experience conference chatting with the head of support for a well-known pioneer in the esports space, asking about how they budget a per-ticket cost. The response: “I don’t have a budget. If I can improve customer satisfaction or retention, it’s approved.” Gaming customer service had made the transition from cost center to a true value-add.
In this new wave of gaming, players are expected to stick around for years and when they’re not playing, they’re watching pros play. Developers are free to focus on the long-term — they don’t have to constantly maximize revenue in the next 30 to 90 days, so their customer service is no longer a balancing act of operating as cheaply as possible.
Instead, we are the de facto experts on player behavior and act as the voice of the players throughout the end-to-end development process. The stakes are too high to act otherwise; if you’ve invented the next baseball, you’re not thinking about how to maximize quarterly profits before you release a sequel. You’re thinking through how to create a cultural phenomenon and ensuring the next generation will continue to be just as passionate about the game as this one is.
With the rise of esports, the relationship between developers and consumers has never been closer — and customer service is the glue for that bond. The industry is on track for 3.8 billion smartphone users worldwide by 2021 and the esports market is expected generate $1.8 billion in 2022, making it more important than ever for customer service to ensure the voices of players are being heard.
Skillz is the platform building communities of people who find daily entertainment in social competition. With over four million tournaments hosted daily and a total addressable market of 2.6 billion smartphone users, we’re working to add every kind of game to the platform so every kind of player can find something they love to play.
We’re building a truly groundbreaking company that’s pioneering an entirely new industry, and we’re searching for top-notch people to join us in that mission. If you’re up for the challenge, check out our careers page and apply.
Skillz is honored to claim its spot on the prestigious, fifth-annual Entrepreneur360 list by Entrepreneur, proving itself as the best privately held gaming and esports company in the nation based on impact, innovation, growth, leadership, and value. This is the second consecutive year Skillz has been named to the Entrepreneur360 list as the No. 1 gaming company featured, and is in the top three of companies headquartered in San Francisco.
“Skillz is dedicated to empowering game makers to build sustainable businesses doing what they love, helping them monetize their content and connect with the world’s 2.6 billion mobile gamers through fair competition,” said Andrew Paradise, Skillz CEO and co-founder. “We are proud to be included on the prestigious Entrepreneur360 list two years in a row as the top marketplace company working to make gaming better with fair competition for everyone.”
Each company considered for the Entrepreneur 360 list is evaluated based on four metrics: impact, innovation, growth, and leadership. The selection committee judges companies based on not only quantitative data, like revenue, headcount, and income, but also on qualitative metrics.
“Every entrepreneur knows that a healthy business isn’t just about growth. It’s about being well-rounded—growing your culture and your systems as strongly as you grow your revenue,” says Jason Feifer, editor in chief of Entrepreneur magazine. “That’s why we’re excited to celebrate these companies with our fifth annual Entrepreneur 360. The companies that make the ranking have pushed boundaries with their innovative ideas, fostered strong company cultures, impacted their communities for the better, strengthened their brand, and grown impressively as a result.”
Mobile gaming represents 45 percent ($68 billion) of the $150 billion gaming market, outpacing last year’s record-breaking worldwide box office revenue by $22 billion. Mobile gaming is projected to double by 2025, driven by the billions of people currently playing mobile games around the world, including 67 percent of American adults who play video games.
In the past year, Skillz nearly doubled its player base. The platform now hosts over 4 million esports tournament entries daily and distributes $60 million in prizes each month. To learn more about how Skillz is accelerating the convergence of esports, entertainment and media, head to skillz.com.
Author: Matt Grunwald, Principal Designer at Skillz
Picture this — you recently graduated college and joined the hottest startup company in the Bay Area. It has an amazing product concept with the potential to redefine an entire industry. As one of the few designers on a small, passionate team, you’re ready to help lead the product vision from whiteboard to reality.
You kick off into the discovery phase of the design process and interview your biggest stakeholder to understand the business goals. A few minutes into the discussion, they say, “We need a minimum viable product (MVP) by the end of this month.”
In the high-growth technology landscape, entrepreneurs and professionals often pursue ambitious goals to set their organizations apart. Determining what priorities will provide the best return on investment (ROI) within those specifications is an exciting challenge. A few key considerations will help you get started in designing a viable product and rallying a small team to achieve outsized success. Below is a collection of common design challenges and suggestions for how to uncover solutions that have a tangible impact on your business.
What’s the most important success metric for the company’s future?
A primary objective in modern design is to, above all else, deeply understand the thoughts, problems and desires of your end-user. Asking yourself questions like, “Why is there a need for this product?” and “How can it help quality of life?” will aid you in understanding the product’s main goal, as well as the best solution for your users.
However, when designing at a startup that’s pioneering an entirely new industry with a novel product concept and undefined user base, first consider imperative business needs, such as driving revenue, installs, and retention. In this case, think of your team as your end-users and build the foundation of the MVP together. Then, you can begin establishing an internal exploratory user base through research, iterations, and testing, with the goal of a unified mission.
Here are a few tips for determining how to approach a product solution with limited funding runway:
- Communicate with your team, department leads, and most importantly, the founder/s directly.
- Understand the goals for each stakeholder and align against the company vision.
- Use a mission statement as a foundation for unified direction and define the key success metric together. Whether it’s retention for an aging product or user acquisition for an MVP with only a handful of beta testers, set a target and make it your North Star, so everyone’s aim is on it.
Success Metric Examples: A 20 percent increase in an active session time; 10,000 installs under a customer acquisition cost (CAC) of $5; a realistic fiction prototype ready with (n) days that convinces a first round of investment
Save the Cadillac for later; what does the tricycle look like?
As a designer, you’ve probably heard of the phrases “fail fast” and “take more shots on goal.” These concepts are especially applicable in a startup environment. Instead of spending cycles thinking about the ultimate product solution, focus on getting something out the door for testing. The more times you iterate, the more data you’ll obtain to improve the long-term viability of the product.
Start by identifying the “must-haves” that will define the MVP, or in our analogy, your tricycle. One way to do this is through the MoSCoW method, which includes four prioritization categories: Must have, Should have, Could have, and Won’t have. If you have 100 tasks to complete to create a beautiful product, determine the top 10 must-haves for the tricycle to start pedaling forward.
Always brainstorm on a writable surface, so team members have a visual way to collaborate and discuss ideas. Stack-rank your potential solutions into the four MoSCoW categories. While determining how to categorize solutions, remind all stakeholders of the key success metric you’ve committed to together. Decide which features whole-heartedly support it and which ones are fancy features for the future Cadillac.
Collect early qualitative and quantitative data through primary and secondary research that validates and establishes the product’s market fit. If you have the bandwidth, incorporate other steps of the design process, like in-depth surveys, mind-mapping, and a SWOT analysis. Approach these steps with clear action items, keeping velocity and shots on goal in mind.
When it’s time to design, don’t stray too far from the whiteboard. Begin with simple drawings that portray the user journey and overall product flow. Consider the appropriate number of steps it will take for users to reach the primary goal and hit your key success metrics. Eventually you’ll have enough ramblings and scribbles to build wireframes, which then support prototyping and the starting foundation to your design.
You might say, “We only have the weeks left before our MVP goes to market. Shouldn’t we start designing the final product?” That approach works if your first shot on goal hits the back of the net. However, consider what might happen if you miss. A key stakeholder wants the features in “Screen C” to be moved to “Screen A,” and the message in your first time user experience (FTUE) tells the wrong story. Do you have the bandwidth, resources, and time to update your hi-fidelity designs by the hard deadline? Instead, iterate, review, and refine quickly until you have built confidence in the product’s direction.
Always be aware of your constraints and weigh the effort against the return. Just because your first product release is a tricycle doesn’t mean it should be a rusty forgotten experience from a yard sale. Put some racing stripes and streamers on it, as you only get one chance to make a first impression on the world!
Does my product look the part?
The established fundamentals of design have existed for over a century: balance, hierarchy, contrast, direction. We use these universal principles daily to create engaging stories, products and experiences. However, a relatively new concept in both design and business is the process of “design thinking.” This important method aims to fully understand a user, challenge assumptions, and continually redefine opportunities for growth spanning a small to global scale.
Design thinking is a useful process that helps you discover the strongest product solution. However, even when you follow a recipe, your cake doesn’t always look like the one you saw on Pinterest. No matter how ideal your solution is for an end-user, don’t forget about first-read impact and impressions. We’re all curious creatures searching for stimulation, and that typically starts visually. Your product needs to “look the part” to be successful. It must inspire and influence a user within a matter of seconds.
I’ve met a lot of brilliant designers along my journey and have relished learning from them each day. That journey has led to many realizations, one of which is that design thinking alone won’t help a product cross the finish line. My advice is to pick up a pencil, take a drawing or painting class, study typography, learn the theories of color, hierarchy and balance. The experience will help designers lay out components on the screen, determine the correct font variations, and accurately place a primary call to action.
There are elements of design that can’t be taught, and skills that are only instinctual. The fundamental principles of design are the written word of this understanding. A strong product designer is someone that never stops learning powerful processes, tools, and techniques to improve their skills. Ultimately, a successful product designer is continuously discovering their vision and storytelling as an artist.
With these principles in mind, you’ll have more agency and confidence to discover solutions that can capture the ambitious dreams of your team and company.