09 Mar Kickback, The Future of Gaming
[This is the first in a series of profiles on Canadian co-founders making waves in the States]
“Do you play Call of Duty?”
This was the question that started it all. True to their Canadian roots, two twelve year old boys met stuck on a chairlift one hour north of Toronto. Strapped into snowboards, they fought over which of the two knew more about video games. Little did they know that eight years later the pair would move to the States to be among the youngest chosen to join Y-Combinator, Silicon Valley’s prestigious tech accelerator. The rest, as they say, is history.
After meeting on the slopes, Mark Prokoudine and Vlad Nov exchanged ICQ numbers (these were the days before 12 year olds had smartphones) and stayed friends by playing games online. Unknown to one another, both were applying to The Country Day School: a close knit and academically rigorous private school in King City, Ontario. I got to know the pair well during my four years at CDS.
Mark and Vlad were on opposite ends of the student spectrum; while Mark passed his classes with flying colors, Vlad became a regular in the headmasters office. However, when it came to Mr. Moorlag’s grade 10 computer science class, you could find both sitting in the front row, diligently writing down algorithms.
During high school, Mark learned to code by reverse engineering games. He built Volt-Host; a server hosting company with 15,000 paid monthly users. At the same time, Vlad was busy trying out everything from telemarketing to selling apparel to celebrities online. “We often helped each other, but didn’t really work on any serious projects” says Vlad, who now runs operations at the company. While he pursued his interest in business at Queen’s Commerce, Mark dove into machine learning, math and computer science at McGill. The pair reconnected in San Francisco last summer while working for separate startups.
This was when they decided to create Kickback: a service that links with any video game and lets casual players bet against each other to win real money. Think of it like betting in poker in combination with the gameplay of video games. The gaming culture evolved from geeks in their basements to one of the largest growing markets today. Top players are frequently granted visas into the US as professional athletes to train with local teams. However, if you’re not a celebrity streamer or professional gamer, there is almost nowhere to compete or win money. Enter Kickback, a way for 230 million monthly gamers to feel like the pros.
The service works by letting players wager real money in matches. Using machine learning for state of the art matchmaking and anti-cheat technology, you can ‘put your money where your mouth is’ and prove yourself against people within your skill level. Users can play for cash or bragging rights; the latter a key part of the eSports culture.Despite many hurdles, the young company is gaining recognition from big names in the gaming industry.
For now, the Kickback team is sticking to the idea that “the right startup idea violently rips you away from what you do today” and are continuing to grow Kickback as fast as possible. In true Silicon Valley spirit, this means moving the team into a house so they can build out the early-culture to put the company on the right trajectory for the next few years. True to their roots, most of their team out in the valley is from Canada, and they have no plans on changing that anytime soon.
To check out Kickback, click here. Look out for part two of this series next week, where we sit down with Vanhawks, creators of the bike of the future.