Entrepreneur, Investor, Bestselling Author & founder of Play Labs @ MIT
I often get requests from early-stage video game-related startups asking for intros to investors who invest in games. There were only a few gaming-focused VC funds in the past, but this number has grown significantly in recent years. In February of his year (2021), GamesOne released a list of the top VC funds dedicated to gaming, ranked by fund size, with assets under management of $1.577 billion. In a sign of the times, new gaming funds have been announced since the release of the list.
Since there are loads of new gaming startups these days, let me first say, using a dated (and sexist) analogy, you most likely will have to kiss a few frogs before finding your prince (or princess). Still, if you want to go after gaming VCs, you can increase your chances of getting funded by finding the right fit for your startup.
In this article, I wanted to not just give a list, but to give some context on each fund (subjective though that context might be), so you can decide if they are a good fit for you. Some of the context is from conversations I’ve had with the partners, and others are from their publicly available information.
This is a unique time for the gaming industry, where new gaming VC funds are flush with cash, and some have already invested their first funds and are raising their second (or third funds). How did we get there?
Traditionally, Silicon Valley venture capitalists (and by this, I don’t just mean the SF Bay area, but VCs in the various tech hubs, including LA, Boston, New York, Seattle, Austin, and Europe) didn’t like to invest in “content” companies. This is because entertainment was a hit-driven business that was better left to the professionals in LA in the movie/entertainment studios or to the big gaming publishers who don’t mind giving a small game developer millions of dollars to build their next game.
This changed for a few years during the social gaming boom of the late 2000s, with companies like Zynga, Playdom, and Playfish reaping big returns for their initial investors. It went even further with the mobile gaming boom of the early twenty-teens, and suddenly every VC wanted in on the “new big thing”. I remember that time, which we’ll call Gaming Bonanza 1.0, well — every VC wanted to talk to you, whether they had ever invested in the video game space or not. That changed again in 2012 when Zynga stock crashed — most non-gaming investors bowed out of the space for a few years.
However, surprisingly, there were few funds formed during Gaming Bonanza 1.0 dedicated to gaming. Rather, traditional VCs saw how much money was being made and wanted to “place a bet” in this space. Storied venture capital firms like Kleiner Perkins and Sequoia, and many other Sand Hill Road VCs placed bets on both gaming infrastructure and game studios during that time (examples include ngmoco, Zynga, Admob, Pocketgems). Similarly, European VCs got in the game with the success of Supercell and Rovio (makers of Angry Birds) and other gaming startups.
Towards the end of the twenty-teens, several gaming dedicated funds were formed, particularly with the success of eSports and games like Pokémon Go and Roblox and Fortnite, not to mention the success of game-related companies like Unity and Discord, both of which are valued in the billions. Not only has the video game industry grown to be one of the biggest industries in the world (with yearly revenue exceeding $150 Billion), but I like to say paraphrasing Marc Andreessen’s statement about software: video games are eating all other entertainment.
By 2020, when the pandemic hit, we found ourselves in Gaming Bonanza 2.0, and it’s still going on. This time there are many more dedicated gaming funds by 2020 and tons of new gaming startups. Gaming is once again one of the hottest segments in tech.
Since video games have become such a big industry, it’s important to know which sub-sector within gaming your startup is before approaching VCs — they all have their preferences. Some gaming investors like to invest in content — i.e., actual game studios — while others prefer to stay away from game studios and invest primarily in technology or platforms. Still, others prefer to invest in publishers. Even within game studios, there are casual, mid-core, and hardcore games, mobile, PC and console, not to mention VR and AR, though increasingly game studios are developing ‘content’ developing across these different sectors.
Although eSports and video games are often lumped together with gaming, they are more like adjacent spaces — where eSports is often about tournaments, leagues and has a business model more like traditional sports, where game companies are building software. Bridging the gap between these two worlds is streaming, ala Twitch and others, as well as streaming and monetization infrastructure.
Gaming infrastructure includes companies like Unity but also data analytics, cloud and 3d rendering tools. Many startups are building gaming communities and communications tools to find other players of similar skill to compete against, find coaches/training, or find partners. There is a subcategory of monetization tools for gaming, including customized ads wthin games and real-money gaming.
And if you are reading this in 2021, no doubt you’ve started to see NFTs (or non-fungible tokens), which live at the intersection of gaming and blockchain, two very big areas of investment across the board. Oddly, most gaming VCs have few blockchain investments to date, with many of them telling me last year (before the recent crypto boom) that they didn’t understand blockchain and didn’t want to risk investing in blockchain gaming companies. That is now changing, given how hot NFT’s are and their obvious relevance for digital assets in gaming and the Metaverse. Most of these VC funds have at least a venture individual (usually a principal or venture partner) who is more steeped in blockchain than traditional triple AAA gaming.
The first instinct for video game industry entrepreneurs is to go after the gaming-specific funds listed here. But as I like to remind founders, you might be just as likely to get your gaming-related company funded from a VC that has never invested in gaming.
Why? Because the space has become so hot because of the pandemic that everyone wants in. If you are building gaming infrastructure (as opposed to games), this is even more true since most tech VCs understand platforms and technology and SaaS models more than actual gaming.
I hope that this list, along with the context, will help you to save some time by figuring out if a particular partner or fund is a good fit or not for their startups, saving time for both founders and investors. Now I’ve noticed that every entrepreneur thinks (and some actually say out loud):
“Of course, Mr. or Ms. VC, you will want to invest in us! When we are the next <<Roblox/Discord/Fortnite/Unity >>, just think of how much money you’ll make!”
The reality is much more complicated, and getting founder/ investor fit is just as important for your startup as finding product/market fit. This includes check size and stage, as well as industry sub-sector. While a non-gaming VC might only place one bet in gaming, a gaming VC fund might put only one bet on each “subsector” of gaming. For example, real-money gaming, or eSports matchmaking, game advertising, casual mobile games, or blockchain games/NFT marketplaces.
This is particularly true in eSports. At one point, I had three different investments in eSports startups that had all started off doing different things (and were non-competitive). When Twitch came out with Twitch Extensions, all three startups built extensions that could be deemed competitive because they were very close in functionality. This annoyed each of the three startups because I had become an investor in their pseudo-competitor (unwittingly, I might add, since all three startups started off non-competitive). Oddly enough, all three startups have since pivoted and are each doing well in different non-competitive spaces.
Moreover, for VC funds, it really matters which partner you are talking to. For example, when I worked with IDG Ventures for many years, Phil Sanderson was their “gaming partner”. Phil has now started Griffin Gaming Partners (where I’m a venture partner), which is completely dedicated to gaming, so it’s no longer a question of which partner is interested in gaming (they all are) but rather who’s the best fit for a particular startup.
When I interviewed Brad Feld for my book Startup Myths & Models, a well-known VC at Foundry Ventures and author of many books on startups, he pointed out that the personalities of individual partners at a fund are like a Dungeons and Dragons party. One might be the barbarian (who likes to win by brute force), one is like a wizard (who likes to have that special magic or secret sauce), while another is like a thief, who relies on stealthy means to penetrate a market. So, I guess the lesson is that it’s just not the fund that needs to match your startup’s culture; it’s the partner at the fund that you will be working with (and if they led the round, who will most likely be on your board of directors).
Rather than starting with the biggest funds, I’m going to start with the smaller ones because if you are a very early stage game or gaming infrastructure company just starting out, you might be more likely to get traction with them. (NOTE: fund sizes are from the Games One list though I’ve tried to verify the sizes with the funds themselves).
The Games Fund: We start with the newest fund, just announced in April 2021. In a sign of the internationalization of game investors, and like many of the VC funds listed here, its headquarters are split with one office in Los Angeles, an obvious hub for interactive entertainment. What’s unique is that the other office is in Moscow. The partners of the Games Fund include Maria Kochmola, Ilya Eremeev, both of whom were involved with MGVC, the investment arm of mail.ru, and they are joined by Sergey Titov, who was at Riot and several VC funds, andand GEM Capital. The fund targets both US and European gaming companies, putting in between a few hundred thousand up to $2 million in Seed and Series A rounds. Kochmola told Venture Beat: “We are the first fund focused on Eastern Europe”, and added that there was a lot of low-cost talent in Eastern Europe that they have access to. Kochmola told me that the fund is currently at $30 million, with a target size of $50 million. She also said they want to invest in “video games developers and publishers across different platforms (mobile, PC, console) as well as gaming tech companies,” but that they want to stay away from “gambling, adult games, games for kids, and hypercasual developers.” Their portfolio already includes Purple Games with several more to be announced soon.
Transcend Fund: Another relatively new fund established in 2020 started by Shanti Bergel and Andrew Sheppard as a $50 million seed-stage fund. I met Shanti back when he was VP of Corp Dev at GREE and was doing investing and acquisition of other game companies (like Funzio). I spoke with Shanti when he was closing this fund — the timing was good because the fund started investing around the time of the lockdown. Shanti was in San Francisco at the time, but has since moved to London, and they are pursuing investments internationally. Their fund seems to be interested in game studios, and gameplay is pretty important for them. Except for Bunch (which is a game chat app), all of their other investments are in-game studios (Nifty Games, Big Run Studios, etc.).
Konvoy Ventures: This Denver-based fund describes itself as “a thesis-driven venture capital firm focused on the video gaming industry. Their first fund was $11m, and the second fund was $50m, which puts total assets under management at $60M. They typically invest in pre-seed, seed and Series A, and their check sizes range from $500k-$3M, which is typical for early-stage gaming VCs. According to Josh Chapman, who co-founded the fund after being in the financial industry (along with IBM alums Jason Chapman, Jackson Vaughn), Konvoy is interested more in “video gaming tech, platforms, infrastructure, and marketplaces”, and not interested in “single content studios”. Some of their existing announced investments include the game monetization startup Game of Whales, mobile reward sharing platform Lootcakes, cloud gaming engine Origami, as well as Game Fam, which builds multiple games on top of Roblox.
1up ventures: This boutique gaming VC fund was founded by Ed Fries, a veteran of Microsoft, where he was a vice president of game publishing for the Xbox console. The fund is approximately $30 million. Unlike some other small funds, Ed told me he liked to focus on game studios (not gaming infrastructure) and invests in seed rounds or series A, with an average check size of $500k. 1up often likes to co-invest with other VCs, including some of the other VCs in this list. Some of 1up’s portfolio companies include Double Loop games, Tiny Rebel Games, Funomena.
Lumikai — Although I don’t have an exact fund size for this one, Lumikai is India’s first dedicated gaming and interactive media VC. It was launched in 2020 in the midst of the pandemic in a market where gaming is booming (as recognized by most of the other VCs in this list), and boasts the first female partner in a gaming VC fund in India. Their focus is on India-related gaming ventures — investing in angel, pre-seed, and seed stage, with average ticket sizes of $500k-$1.5M. The two founders/GPs are Justin Shriram Keeling (who was with UTV Entertainment, Disney, Fox, Comcast and BBC) and Salone Sehgal who previously an investor with London Venture Partners, and a gaming entrepreneur). They invest in the Indian interactive entertainment ecosystem across 4 main pillars — content, platform, tools/tech and infrastructure, and as of June, 2021 had made 5 investments including Bombay Play. Lumikai continues a new trend of geographically focused gaming funds, which I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of.
Play Ventures: The founders of Play Ventures, Henric Suuronen (based in Singapore) and Harri Manninen(based in Helsinki), are both former operators (Henric sold a game company to King, and Harri sold Rocket Pack to Disney). Both did extensive angel investing in game companies before starting the Play Ventures. Their first fund was $40m, which made them one of the smaller gaming funds, but they made big news recently by announcing their second fund of $135m, which brings total assets under management to $175m, making them one of the bigger funds.
Though I don’t know their specific check sizes, you can extrapolate that it must be in the $1-$2m per company range (with 24 investments in their first fund), and assume that they will write bigger checks from the second fund. While all gaming VCs say they are interested in various international markets, the international nature of the fund is reflected in their portfolio: this includes Cypress based Colossi Game, an India based game company (All-Star Games), and India’s Mobile Premier League (MPL), the latter of which was a late-stage round of $95 million round. From the looks of it, though, this late-stage investment is unusual, and most of their portfolio came from early-stage (Seed or seed-2) investments. In a sign of how quickly this industry is moving, since I started writing this article, Play Ventures announced they were acquiring a stake in blockchain fund LuneX.
London Venture Partners: started in 2010, this is probably one of the (if not the) oldest of the dedicated gaming VC funds in this list, and with $138 million under management, it’s one of the larger ones. The general partners, including David Gardner and David Lau-Kee and Are Mack Gowen, are all veterans of the gaming industry, with executive roles at Atari, Electronic Arts, Play Fish, Gumi, and many others. Their motto seems to be “KPI’s are good, but KPI’s + intuition is better”. They were among the investors in many highly successful gaming European companies, ranging from Playfish (sold to EA), Supercell, Unity and Natural Motion (sold to Zynga). According to public statements by David Gardner, they invest really early — including angel, pre-seed and seed. That’s saying something, since many VC’s say they invest early, but they really mean “late seed” by today’s standards and rarely invest in two guys (or gals) and a prototype.
Hiro Capital: At first glance, this $150 million VC might look like a Japanese gaming fund because of the name, but Hiro Capital is actually a London-based fund created by Ian Livingstone, who created two billion-dollar gaming companies, those responsible for Warhammer and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, and Luke Alvarez, who was previously CEO of a public game company and Cherry Freeman, founder of LoveCrafts. Look a little deeper, and you’ll realize that the fund was named after the hero of Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson’s landmark cyberpunk sci fi novel that defined the term “metaverse”; the main character was called Hiro Protagonist. Hiro’s portfolio includes Lightbox, Double Loop games as well as VR/AR gaming and fitness platforms. They invest primarily in Series A ($1m-$4m check size) and Series B ($5m-$10m check size). They invest in games studios, games technology, eSports and streaming technology, and Digital sports. They won’t invest in gambling and will be careful around opportunities like esports teams. According to Spike Laurie, Venture Director at Hiro, their differentiation is that all three partners have built businesses that have exited or IPO’ed.
BitKraft: The founders of Bitkraft are well-known names in the esports space. It was started by Jens Hilgers, who was the co-founder and former CEO of ESL, one of the biggest esports leagues. The other general partners are Malte Barthand Scott Rupp, both of whom were involved in the world of esports at ESL and Dreamhack before joining BitKraft. BitKraft launched with a $18m pre-seed fund in 2017, but then in 2018, they started to raise a $165 million fund, which as of summer of 2020, they had invested ~$70 million. BitKraft says they are “a global investment platform for gaming, esports, and interactive media” and say that their vision is Synthetic realities — a blending of the digital and physical world. BitKraft’s portfolio includes over 50 companies, everything from Epic games to BoomTV to FanAI. One challenge I have seen with gaming entrepreneurs approaching BitKraft is that they are likely to have already invested in companies that are competitive to your gaming startup- be sure to do your homework before approaching them.
Makers Fund: In 2018, when Hong-Kong based Makers Fund announced a new $200 million fund dedicated to “interactive entertainment”, it was a big surprise, and it was the largest dedicated fund for gaming to date. Created by Jay Chi and Michael Cheung, both of whom were advisors to some of the biggest gaming companies in the world in China and Japan, the fund is represented by Ryann Lai in the SF Bay area. They are great supporters of gaming infrastructure and helped me with Play Labs @ MIT. Like the other bigger funds, they tend to focus more on late seed or Series A rounds of $5-$10 million. Some of their portfolio companies include esports/tournament company FaceIt, streaming middleware company GenVid, Netherlands-based matchmaking tech company Gameye, Australia-based modding platform mod.io, and many others. Makers are deep into the gaming industry and a great fund to have aboard. The only issue might be that they have invested in many companies already, so there’s a good chance that one of those companies might be competitive with your startup- do your homework.
Griffin Gaming Partners: The second-biggest fund on our list is Griffin Gaming Partners, where I also serve as a venture partner, with $235 million in their first fund. I have worked with Phil Sanderson, one of the founding partners, for years — we were investors in a number of companies together, including Funzio (sold to GREE for $200million), Discord, Telltale games and others. When he told me that he was starting a new fund with Peter Levin, who was formerly in charge of interactive at Lion’s Gate, I definitely wanted to be a part of it. Peter, who had previously founded Nerdist industries, was extremely startup-friendly when he was at Lion’s Gate, and is big in the esports world, as chairman of Immortals Gaming Club. They were joined by Nick Tuosto as general partner, who as managing director of Liontree, an investment bank which has advised a who’s who in the gaming industry (Tencent, Scopely, etc.). Griffin’s strategy includes early-stage (late seed or Series A), and perhaps uniquely, also includes investing in later-stage companies — the current portfolio includes Skillz, AppLovin, N3twork, Discord as well as Wave, Overwolf and game studios Frost Giant, Theorycraft, and others.
Galaxy Interactive: Galaxy Interactive is the gaming fund that is related to Galaxy Digital, which is blockchain-focused and is (at the moment at least) the largest fund dedicated to gaming with a fund size of $300 million. The partners include fund founder Sam Engelbart, who previously founded Galaxy Digital and Galaxy EOS, and Richard Kim, who was previously with Goldman Sachs. Given the previous Galaxy funds focus on financial services and blockchains, they include finance as one of their subsectors, but he focus on this fund is primarily in interactive, which they divide nicely into four categories: Content, Social, Tech and Finance. Thier portfolio contains startups in each o these, including firms like N3TWORK and GenVid and GameFam, RTFKT. They do all stages, ranging from pre-seed up to Series B, and their typical check size is $3-$4 million. They also don’t shy away from any aspect of gaming — they are interested in all aspects of “interactive entertainment”.
While the previous list included the biggest gaming dedicated funds, there are, as I’ve said, many more investors — VC’s and corporates — who are interested in investing in gaming and gaming infrastructure. Here are some noteworthy ones:
March Gaming: Though March Capital is an LA-based VC firm that goes beyond gaming, they have a dedicated group, called March Gaming ,run by Gregory Milken. According to gamesone, they have $60 million to invest, though it’s not clear if that’s the fund size just for gaming, or part of a larger fund. Assuming those funds are dedicated for gaming, this would make them a medium-sized player in the gaming market. Some of their investments include Bayes esports, Genvid, Immortals, and Nifty Games. I don’t know these guys well, so I can’t comment much in terms of check size, etc.
Greycroft Tracker Fund: Another LA-based VC firm that is much more broad-based but has an interest in gaming is Greycroft. In terms of gaming, they have a small sidecar fund, called the GC Tracker fund that is run by Jon Goldman, who has a long history in the game industry and was chairman of Foundation 9. More recently, in addition to his investing role, Jon holds a dual appointment as head of video games at Skybound, the holders of the Walking Dead IP. The GC Tracker used to do smaller investments ($250k or less) but provides great value to have in your round.
GFR Fund and Colopl Next: These are spinoff funds from two Japanese gaming companies, GREE and Colopl, who are focused on interactive entertainment. I’ve only grouped them together because they are similar in their check sizes (under $500k) , even though each has different focal points.
UTA and CAA and WME: Another place to look for entertainment people interested in gaming and eSports is the Hollywood talent agencies. For example, United Talent Agency, one of the top Hollywood talent agencies. UTA Ventures is run by Sam Wick (who was part of Maker Studios, which was sold to Disney, and he is joined by Clinton Foy, who has a long history of gaming-related investments at Crosscut capital and chairman of the Immortal eSports team. William Morris Endeavor, another top talent agency, created WME Ventures to help invest in entertainment startups and to match them with talent. Creative Arts Agency (CAA) also has an active investor in gaming-related companies. All of these agencies tend to invest small amounts ($250k or less) compared to the dedicated VC funds, but they offer a lot of help by matching startups with talent, which in the end can be more valuable than the money they invest.
Other Corporate Gaming investors: It turns out that many gaming companies either have a history of investing in startups or are on the hunt and eager to do so. Do all gaming companies make early-stage investments? No — some only do publishing deals (where they will fund your development); others are only interested in acquisitions of startups that have successful games. But some that have made investments include Riot Games (makers of League of Legends), NCSOFT, Ubisoft, Tencent, and many others. Of course, there are companies like Sony and Samsung that have small funds that invest in gaming and other technology as well. The difference between a corporate investing directly vs. from a fund is that the corporate will use cash that’s on its balance sheet. In contrast, a VC fund is a separate entity managed by a general partner. The subject of corporate investors is probably a subject for a whole other article.
Other VC Funds: As I’ve mentioned several times, some of the best-known technology VC funds have partners interested in gaming and interactive entertainment. Sequoia is an example with partner Stephanie Zahn, who has a particular interest in virtual characters, or Gigi-Levy Weiss, who was part of Playtika and is now at NFX. Andreesen Horowitz also looks like it’s going all-in on both blockchain and gaming. Again, do your research not just on the fund but on the right partner within the fund. Given how hot the video game market is, most large funds will have at least one partner or one principal who is into gaming or blockchain.
And there you have it — some of the most prominent gaming-related investment funds that are out there today. Of course, this space is rapidly evolving, with new funds for gaming cropping up all the time. Even more common is new partners at existing VC funds that are on the lookout for interactive or gaming-related deals.
Will one of these funds write a check for your startup? If you do the research and find the firm and the partner that has the best startup/investor fit, they just might!
Rizwan Virk is a bestselling author, entrepreneur, venture capitalist and video game industry pioneer. He is the founder of Play Labs @ MIT, a venture partner at Griffin Gaming Partners, a mentor at 500 startups, and the author of Startup Myths & Models: What You Won't Learn in Business School, and The Simulation Hypothesis. Follow him on Twitter @rizstanford and on his personal website at www.zenentrepreneur.com.
This article originally appeared at: https://entrepreneurshandbook.co/a-guide-to-venture-capital-funding-video-game-startups-e7021496ebb7
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