Think like a kid for a second: What could be better than making a living playing video games?
Maybe a robot that does your homework? Becoming an ice cream taste tester? Having superpowers?
For kids who still would take the pro gamer option, Pittsburgh-based startup Metafy is building a platform to help make that possible.
Everybody knows that there are some gamers who make big money by getting millions of viewers on Twitch and YouTube to watch their every punch, jump, blast or trick. Then, there are the others who play competitively — including some of the best in the world — and barely see any financial reward.
Metafy is hoping to build a middle class in the gaming ecosystem, and a viable career path for thousands to do the thing they love. It’s offering coaching from 450 (so far) of the world’s best players in dozens of games, from Chess to Mortal Kombat 11, Supers Smash Brothers Melee, and Magic: The Gathering Arena. All gamers have to do is go to the website, pick a game, pick a coach and pick a time for private one-on-one coaching.
Metafy has just expanded its seed round to $8.65 million, with support from existing investor Forerunner Ventures, which was joined by Alexis Ohanian’s Seven Seven Six and venture capital firm DCM.
Gaming is a massive market. One estimate is that gaming is a $180 billion industry, bigger than the movie business and North American sports combined. There may be 227 million gamers in the U.S. alone.
Metafy Co-founder and CEO Josh Fabian spent years working as a lead designer at Groupon in Chicago, before testing the waters as a professional gamer playing Clash Royale. As a teenager, Fabian was a nationally ranked player of Yu-Gi-Oh!
“It was like magic,” says Fabian. “I was playing on the train and in bathrooms — all the places you can play mobile games. I was pretty good. So when I left my job at Groupon, it was primarily to pursue playing that game professionally: eight hours a day, every day. And I would take notes. Every time I lost the game, I’d write down the name of the person I lost to; I’d write down what I could have done differently. And then I would review those things in the evening to plan for what I would do differently the next day. And that was like, insane. But it paid off — I was (in the) top 20 in the world for about a year.
“The problem with that is that I wasn’t making money. I was one of the number one streamers for the game. But it wasn’t enough.”
Fabian gave up trying to make money gaming and went back to working in tech. But his kids (ages 6, 7 and 8) had caught the gaming bug at that point — specifically, the Pokemon trading card game.
“And they were bad! Like really bad,” recalls Fabian.
They were obsessed with a couple of players on YouTube and Twitch.
“So I reached out to one of their favorite players, and asked him — considered the best player in the world — to teach them,” says Fabian, 31. “And he said he’d do it for $20 an hour.”
Fabian could hardly believe it was so cheap. And then — it worked.
“Over the course of about a year they went from being barely able to read, to playing at the highest level in the world,” he says. “Two of my kids are in in the top 100 (Pokemon players) in the world.”
It was a revelation to Fabian.
“I kept coming back to this idea that there must be a better way,” he says. “Not just for us to get coaching that’s valuable and productive. But also for these guys are trying to make a living doing what they love.”
Metafy’s coaches include people with names like Mew2King, InsayneHayne and NinjaLink. However, each alias is attached to a real person. For example, Mew2King (Floridian Jason Zimmerman) was profiled in Forbes’ “30 under 30” list and is considered to be one of the “five gods” of competitive Super Smash Bros.
“Playing with a world-class player — of course, they know a lot more — but they’re just normal people,” says Fabian. “You’ll still be able to joke around and connect with them. It’s like playing with a friend — but that friend has thousands upon thousands of hours of experience. So he’s able to tell you, ‘Hey, here are the things you really need to be focusing on, and these things are time traps, don’t even bother with that right now.’”
A Metafy coach/pro player puts serious hours into mastering a game.
“It’s basically your job,” says Fabian. “That’s just the case for everyone who’s playing at the highest level.”
Coaches set their own rates, which can range from $15 to $200 an hour, and their own hours. They keep 100% of their earnings; Metafy makes money from a 5% fee for students for each transaction. There are some teachers on Metafy who are already making six figures a year.
“It’s incredibly important that coaches on our platform have a way to make a living,” says Fabian. “Even if that just looks like $20,000 to $30,000 a year. For them, it’s not really about the money. It’s a chance to do what they love.”
For kids today, video games aren’t just a way to have fun and pass the time; games play a huge role in how they communicate with each other.
“Kids really don’t just hop on the phone and talk for hours anymore,” says Fabian. “They’re doing it through asynchronous communication, like TicTok and Snapchat. Or they’re doing it through games [with] things like enhanced communication, where they’re solving problems, and they’re being creative all at the same time.”
Metafy is based in Pittsburgh, but the company is fully remote. One co-founder is in Australia and a designer is based in India. There are about 19 employees and the company is hoping to double its headcount this year.
For Fabian’s kids, it’s nice to know that they actually understand what their dad is doing for a living.
“It’s easier to explain why am I spending 15 hours a day, weekends included, when they can turn on Twitch, they can see a tournament and players in the tournament are (teachers) on Metafy,” says Fabian. “That, for them, is very exciting.”