Our new Disruption by Blockchain series aims to highlight companies that are leveraging the incredible potential of blockchain technology to disrupt and revolutionize their industry. Through one on one interviews, we'll speak directly with industry leaders to cut beyond the hype and get directly to the heart of practical use cases and examples of how it will change the world, one industry at a time.
The following is an interview we recently had with Rahul Sood, CEO of Unikrn.
1. What’s the history of Unikrn? How and where did you begin?
RS: I left Microsoft Ventures to start Unikrn with my co-founder, Karl Flores, in 2014. Karl’s previous project was a Steam-Powered game community platform that created breakthrough technology allowing for new vertical within online advertising. It was a featured company in Microsoft Ventures, which I founded after Microsoft consolidated their global startup activities under my leadership.
When I left Microsoft to start Unikrn, we acquired Pinion and Karl became our CMO and co-founder, and since we’ve added our CTO, Daniel Rudolph, whose work I know well since we started another company together years ago (which Unikrn also acquired).
We built a pretty amazing team and recently hired Andrew Vouris as our COO. Andrew was the #2 at Tabcorp, and he was instrumental in making Tabcorp into the largest wagering company in Australia with nearly 13 billion in turnover.
By 2015, we had raised $10M in venture finance from a variety of investors, including Mark Cuban, Elisabeth Murdoch, Guy O’Seary, Shari Redstone, Binary, Tabcorp, Ashton Kutcher and others. As we continued to build out our esports book and features, we created the original Unikoin (which has since been retired) as a platform token to allow our users to bet for free worldwide and win gaming prizes for doing so.
We used the Unikoin to test new features as we built out our platform, creating, honing and reinventing the way esports and wagering collide. In 2017, we launched the current iteration of our content teams (one in Las Vegas, one in Berlin, and one globally based) to improve upon the way crypto, esports and gaming topics are covered, and to bring the important ideas and stories of the day to our users in over 200 nations.
We also acquired Leet, a group in Las Vegas assembled by Kingsley Edwards, who is now our VP of Business Development and one of UKG’s directors. Through Leet, we’ve become the voice of esports in Las Vegas, running regular gaming tournaments in the LEVELUP Lounge in one of the most trafficked tourist destinations in the world: the Las Vegas strip, specifically, the MGM Grand Las Vegas.
Throughout this growth, we were using our growing user pool and the increasingly popular Unikoin (which turned over more than a quarter billion tokens) to build out use cases for UnikoinGold, the decentralized token of esports and gaming.
UnikoinGold was an immediate success, exceeding our early crowdsale goals. It has begun to mold the way industry leaders such as MAINGEAR and Gunnar Optiks interact with and accept payment from the global gaming community.
Right now, you can use Unikrn to bet. You can use Unikrn to earn by playing the world’s most popular games. You can use Unikrn to win gaming prizes. You can cheer for Unikrn’s CS:GO Team, BIG, or the teams we have ownership stakes in (the world-class Rogue squads). You can watch live broadcasts talking about esports, casting games with professional analysts, read news and breakdowns, or listen to our analysis on crypto, startups and gaming topics.
We’re on Dash Radio, Apple News, iTunes, Twitch, YouTube and every major social media network. Basically, if you’re into esports or gaming, you’ve seen us, you’ve heard of us, you’ve likely read our content or used our site. And if you aren’t, you will be soon.
2. Who are the founders and key team members?
Prior to Unikrn, Rahul Sood created the first incubation fund for startups at Microsoft. Microsoft later consolidated their global startup activities under Sood’s leadership. In June 2013, he launched Microsoft Ventures.
A serial entrepreneur, Sood spent 18 years in multiple startups prior to joining Microsoft. He founded luxury and gaming computer manufacturer Voodoo, which was acquired by Hewlett-Packard. Voodoo brought the ENVY and OMEN product lines to HP, contributing advanced technologies such as commercial liquid cooling and an increased focus on design.
With a deep background in video gaming and entertainment, Sood sits on the board of advisors for Razer, one of the largest gaming companies in the world. He is also an early investor and active advisor in Vrvana, a leading Mixed Reality hardware company based in Montreal, and also an active investor in New Jersey based Maingear PC (in which Unikrn has a large stake).
Karl Flores is a serial entrepreneur and co-founder of Unikrn. Karl serves as CMO and is instrumental to product development and innovation.
Previously Karl was the CEO and Co-Founder of Pinion, a Steam Powered game community platform with unprecedented access to the much sought-after gamer demographic of males aged 18-35. Pinion’s breakthrough technology created a new vertical within online advertising, and was a featured company in the Microsoft Ventures accelerator prior to being acquired by Unikrn in 2014. The Pinion network reaches over 4 million unique gamers monthly.
Daniel has been working with Rahul since 2008, creating the first-ever skill betting platform for video games, PlayAll. Daniel has been joined at the hip with computers for over 25 years, landing his first job at 16 to design and develop backend systems for banks and insurance companies. His excursion at PlayAll let him break onto the esports scene again. Daniel also helped a Fintech company to build a Bitcoin Exchange together with a small German bank. Daniel is always focused on enabling products and ideas, but is also the last line of defense to make stuff work in a reliable and scalable way, and connecting a distributed team.
Daniel is a prodigiously skilled contributor. He and the team assembled under him would become invaluable in the creation of UnikoinGold two years after he joined Unikrn.
Kingsley Edwards created Leet, an online skill-based platform, in 2013 with the vision of integrating cryptocurrencies with popular video games. Since then, Leet has participated in BoostVC, a blockchain startup accelerator, and is currently working with casinos directly to provide esports events and technology. Kingsley has been an outspoken advocate of cryptocurrencies for over four years. He started the Las Vegas Bitcoin Meetup in 2014 to help promote the adoption of cryptocurrencies locally among vendors and individuals. Kingsley joined the leadership team of Unikrn after its acquisition of Leet.
Prior to joining Unikrn, Andrew Vouris’s contributions were fundamental to growing Tabcorb into a multi-billion dollar betting industry leader in Australia. As he climbed from Luxbet General Manager to Deputy COO of Wagering and Media throughout eight years of leadership positions, he became engaged with Unikrn and led Tabcorp into an investment in the company early in its development.
For the last few years, Vouris has managed digital (web and mobile), retail for over 2,700 outlets, and thousands of staff, and his hand has helped Tabcorp reach turnover exceeding $12.9 billion with revenue in excess of $2.3 billion, and he recently left Tabcorp to join Unikrn as COO.
3. What problem are you solving? Who are you solving it for?
RS: The betting space has run into a litany of issues in the last ten years, and we’re solving all of them to revive the space for esports fans and gamers.
Firstly, traditional gambling and destination resorts, such as those in Las Vegas, are struggling to bring in younger customers because kids these days aren’t interested in slots and are hardly interested in cards, dice or games of chance. They have League of Legends. They have Dota 2. They have CS:GO.
The Internet has been killing the old ways, and it’s damaging both old-fashioned bookmakers and antiquated tourism models for areas like Las Vegas. Unikrn is bringing new vibrance into these industries by creating unique experiences today’s 18–40 year olds care about, and offering odds on games they watch. Every day a golf fan dies, and a Major League Baseball fan has a heart attack, while three Overwatch League fans fall in love with the game.
Gamers and esports fans want a company to step up and shift old entertainment to meet their new needs. Unikrn is offering a unique experience that combines efficiency, technology, partnerships and endemic esports authenticity that engages gamers.
The creation of regulated, engaging, and safe esports betting services will also help cut back the swarm of dubious skin-betting outlets online that damage esports communities. Unregulated skin betting generated an estimated $2.3 billion of betting activity in 2015 and $7.4 billion in turnover in 2015.
By creating a legal and safe outlet for legal bettors, we are able to reduce the mass of users turning to skin-betting and other similar franchises, which undermines the business model for companies that are damaging communities by, among other things, encouraging minors to bet.
We offer a better product for legitimate bettors and we undermine the markets that create illicit bettors, solving two problems at once.
But it’s more than that. We’re trying to utilize cryptocurrency to take the middleman out of betting, allowing us to offer safe, regulated betting experiences that don’t require the conversion of currencies, transference of fiat currency or translation of languages between banks. This will revolutionize the industry for all bettors and bookmakers.
We’re finding ways to fuse gaming and betting, and we’re creating avenues to bring more interest to esports to help it grow, and we’re connecting users with merchants, and each other, with an authentic gaming ERC20 token that will enrich their communities and simplify their transactions.
In short, we’re solving the problems that happen to all entertainment when technology disrupts it; we’re sculpting a new world on behalf of the new consumers.
5. Why is your industry ripe for disruption?
RS: We are the new generation for an old idea. The fact is, the betting industry across the board is run in old ways with high waste and low engagement for today’s gaming-interested young adults. While the betting industry searched for a new mecca Unikrn was born, and now we’re approached by every major betting operator in the world because of our brand and our technology.
We already discussed why regulated and engaging esports betting products are needed to help combat the multi-billion dollar skin betting industry.
Esports is the fastest-growing entertainment sector, and Newzoo has projected the global audience will grow from 323 million to 589 million by 2020, and esports betting is expected to hit nearly $24 billion in turnover by that same time.
The fact is betting engages fans, gives them ways to support their team, think about their games of interest and create an amplified viewing experience. Betting drives the esports sector to growth and attracts non-endemic fans. Similarly, traditional betting and entertainment outlets need to attract a new demographic with new ideas, new culture.
That’s why disruption needs to happen across the board to fuse esports, entertainment, broadcasting, betting and gaming.
Gaming, betting and esports are in desperate need of the blockchain, which can reduce overhead and increase ease-of-transaction, create wholly new experiences and allow users to make the most out of their play, whether they’re hobbyists or professionals.
Forbes reported that blockchain innovations will be central to the future of esports and gaming, helping to bring more efficient tools but also helping allow communities to innovate solutions to toxicity, reach, funding and engagement.
We are solving these issues by standing at the crossroads and building the bridges.
6. What’s the future of your industry?
Prediction #1: The future of entertainment will involve some real physical activity combined with digital technology. Imagine a day where you can walk into a warehouse, put on a vest with sensors and haptic feedback, a headband with sensors, carry a toy weapon with articulating feedback — and wear a set of augmented reality glasses and immerse yourself in a real-life video game. You are now running around a map playing real-life Call of Duty with your friends. Now imagine Unikrn heightening that experience even more by adding a betting component. This is the future I live for, and Unikrn will be at the center of it.
Prediction #2: More traditional bookmakers and destination resorts will begin to shift their focus from horse racing, slots, and traditional sports to video games, tournament play, and other digital enterprises.
Prediction #3: Blockchain technology will begin to see use in gaming and gambling across the West and we’ll see a shift toward normalized digital transactions in all peer-to-peer enterprises, be it gaming, exchanging, betting or buying/selling. This should worry banks, and it should worry any established company not working to understand and implement blockchain technology created for specific purposes (such as UnikoinGold was created for gaming and esports enhancement).