Amine Issa graduated from high school at 15 and received a PhD in biomedical engineering at 26. But when he really wanted a challenge, he says, he powered up his Super Nintendo for a round of Donkey Kong or Final Fantasy.
"To be honest," Issa says, "I feel like I've learned most of the stuff in my life through playing video games competitively."
Issa's passion for e-sports--the rapidly growing industry that's developed around competition-based, multiplayer video games--led him to found Mobalytics, along with fellow gamers Nikolay Lobanov and Bogdan Suchyk, in 2016. The startup's analytics software studies a person's gameplay and, with an assist from artificial intelligence, advises them to be more aggressive, for example, or offers tips to improve their fighting skills.
Mobalytics is targeting anyone "semi-serious about gaming" who's seeking an edge in competition, Issa says. It's a huge market to tap: Gaming industry researcher Newzoo estimates there are 165 million e-sports enthusiasts worldwide. The firm calculates that e-sports was a $696 million global industry in 2017, and it expects that number to double by 2020.
Mobalytics' open beta, which launched in September, is focused on one game: the wildly popular League of Legends. More than 600,000 people have signed up so far. In June, the startup will move to a subscription model, charging customers $5 to $10 per month. Issa says the company will soon move into other popular games like Counter-Strike, Dota 2, and Overwatch, and "plans to cover all major titles in the next two years."
Matt Zimmerman, assistant professor of sports media at Mississippi State University, who has been studying the growth of the gaming industry in recent years, sees the potential in a company meant to help e-sports devotees improve. "Even if you have no illusions about going professional, it's still more fun to win than it is to not win," he says. "When an industry gets to a certain point, you can no longer dismiss it. I would never use the word addiction, but it's a strong hobby. And unlike traditional sports, you can still play it when you're 65."
All gaming, all the time
Issa's road to entrepreneurship was a somewhat circuitous one. "I have traditional Arabic parents," he says. "They were bullish on education and studying. As long as I got A's, I could play all the video games I wanted."
Issa finished high school two years early, and then went to his parents' home country of Lebanon for college. Following that he enrolled at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. While there, he says, he played World of Warcraft for 14 hours a day. "I would work at the lab at night after class and hand in my results," he says, "and then go to sleep and basically play the whole day."
Issa received his PhD in 2010, and then enrolled in a postdoctoral physiology program at the Mayo Clinic. All the while, he continued gaming in his free time, much to the chagrin of his parents. Eventually, he became good enough to earn a sponsorship from U.K.-based e-sports organization Fnatic, but the family tension came to a head and he decided to refocus on his studies. As part of his postdoc program, he examined Air Force pilots, Navy SEALs, and deep-sea divers, analyzing how they make decisions under pressure.
"What I realized was an Air Force pilot is not that much different from a video game player playing at a high level," Issa says. "You've got a cockpit, you're looking at incoming inputs, there's heads-up display that you need to watch." He started reaching out to professional e-sports teams, asking if he could study them while they played to look for differences between good players and great ones. He traveled during weekends on his own dime, sleeping on couches and dragging the lab's equipment along with him.
In 2015, Issa met Suchyk at a conference for gamers. The pair, along with Lobanov, started talking about what a company focused on the intersection of analytics and gaming might look like. They soon wrote up a business plan, entered TechCrunch's Disrupt SF competition, and finished in first place. Within two weeks, the newly formed Mobalytics had closed a $2.6 million funding round.
An A.I.-powered gaming coach
To create its analyses, Mobalytics generally starts with raw data on gamers' fighting, awareness, and other skills, which anyone can access by creating an account on the game maker's website. But, Issa says, "imagine your doctor did a bunch of tests and said your heart rate is X, your blood pressure is Y, your sugar is Z--and you have to interpret that on your own. That's the way the industry currently is. What we do is diagnose, and then recommend a plan." The company applies its A.I. to a user's gameplay data, and then, in an app, provides actionable advice in easy-to-understand language. Users can log in before a matchup to receive coaching, and they can track their progress over time.
Mobalytics is one of several gaming analytics startups to spring up in recent years, though none have yet taken a significant market share. Berlin-based Dojo Madness, founded in late 2014, has raised a reported $12.8 million in funding. Others, like Gosu.AI, have launched in the past year. To be successful, Mobalytics will have to establish itself in an increasingly crowded field--and hope that game makers themselves don't start offering comparable services.
For Issa, finally being able to make a living in the field he loves is a lifelong dream fulfilled. And he doesn't see it as being all that different from being a doctor, even if his parents--or much of the world--don't agree.
"At the end of the day, we're providing a service," he says. "We're really passionate about this ecosystem."