Ben Feferman is the CEO of Amuka Esports, a Toronto-based multi-vertical esports organization. Amuka Esports focused on esports content, online leagues, venues and a competitive team. Ben got into the industry after his investment bank that shares the same name, started seeing the insurmountable investor appetite for esports. NGame Esports has connected with Ben Feferman to learn more about his company’s varied projects, leveraging national pride towards esports, and the future of esports investing.
NGame: What is Amuka Esports and Amuka Capital?
Ben Feferman: Amuka Capital started in 2017 as an investment bank to really change how companies were raising private capital. It just seemed really inefficient. [I] Didn’t like how companies were doing it, people charging such high fees. So my business partner and I wanted to do things differently. So we got our registration, and were officially allowed to raise capital for different companies. Then, over the past couple of years, we raised money for some real estate companies, some technology companies, and eventually esports companies. This “Aha!” moment was raising some money for this company, but we weren’t really making any progress or any traction, and, kind of, it was because of the CEO. He didn’t show well as a CEO, didn’t present well with the company and everything. We kept saying,” It’d be so much easier to raise money if I was the CEO…” Then we thought, “You know what, maybe we should!” We kind of put the investment bank on hold in 2019 and started Amuka Esports.
The goal of Amuka Esports was to roll up synergistic esports assets that were connected at a local level. It didn’t make sense to have a seperate venue, tournament team, media and so forth. It was just a hugely inefficient model. We raised a bit of cash, pulled the trigger on four acquisitions and built out our team.
NGame: How long have you been involved in esports?
I got involved in esports probably back in 2015, as an investor. Friends of mine were building a new esports company and I wanted to get on board and see this thing take off. I just love video games and seeing the growth of the industry. It was from the financial perspective that I started to really look at companies. It’s kind of a funny story; I remember another kind of “Aha!” moment was at an esports panel. This is just when Super League went public, so it’s all the big bankers and everyone in the room. I asked them in the Q&A, “What do you think of Super League?” and no one on the panel had heard of them. I remember thinking it was kind of bizarre that the first publicly traded esports company on the NASDAQ goes public, and these guys have never heard of it.
I started this year-long immersion in the industry. I watched every single esports video out there, and theScore esports was my education. I watched every single piece of content on their site. I woke up listening to esports podcasts. I went to sleep listening to podcasts like The Business of Esports and The Center Ring. I really threw myself in to catch up to speed on 10, 15 years of the industry that I really missed. I wasn’t paying attention before 2015. That really prepared me to take the next challenge that was to run my own esports org.
NGame: How do you think Amuka Esports is bringing value to the esports in Canada but also the esports industry?
Ben Feferman: COVID really helps you as a business evaluate what frames of business are worthwhile and create value and what doesn’t. When COVID started, we were all about online tournaments. It was the buzz thing to do, the trend. Now I hate them. I think the economics of them are terrible. They’re so saturated. There’s so much Warzone tournament fatigue out there that I have no interest anymore in really doing tournaments outside of the purpose of community building. We weren’t creating enough value with online tournaments.
So now I think moving to 2021, where we see the real gap is more with media and teams. We’re starting to create our first episodic esports docuseries. We’re really doubling down on all of our shows and podcasts. Price per minute is going up, more people want to buy it, and more people want to see it—the same thing on the team side. I’ll give you an example. If a team isn’t in my local city, I don’t care. I think with a lot of esports teams, it’s hard to build an organic fanbase. If I’m watching Rocket League and I live in Toronto, what the hell do I care who wins? How am I choosing which teams to follow? CS:GO is a great example where most of the teams that compete have a national identity. If you’re ENCE, you’re deep into Finnish culture. If you’re North, it’s Denmark. The teams have their national identities, and I think they’ve created a way better fanbases in CS:GO. We want to do that sort of thing. We want to be the real Canadian esports team outside of the franchised league that really espouses and builds that national and community identity.
I’m not a big Overwatch fan; I don’t find the game to be particularly easy to follow. But at the end of the day, if Toronto (who has a terrible team) is in the finals, I want them to win. I’m going to cheer for Toronto anything, even if I don’t really like the game or follow it because I have city pride, and that’s what we want to build on.
NGame: Amuka Esports has a focus for 2021 on three categories: media, teams, and academies. Can you tell me why those categories and their importance?
Ben Feferman: I’ll start with academies. Especially online, it’s hard to find the right places where you can play against people at your level, get feedback, get coaching, and get better. When you sign up for softball or basketball, you’re matched up with people your age and in your ability. You have time to practice, and you have a coach. You have all that infrastructure in a traditional sports league for amateurs, but that doesn’t really exist in esports. There are a few people doing a little bit here and there, but post-COVID, the academy will be online right now. We want a place where people can come, they compete in leagues together, they play with their friends and people the same and age and skill level, and we have coaching and mentorship, and people want to get better at whatever you’re playing. That’s a real big part of the academy; to take that passion of gamers who love to game. They’re not going to go pro, but everyone wants to get better, and we really want to build that.
For teams, it’s kind of a personal thing. I’m so competitive; I want to win. I really respect the esports orgs out there that are esports and are doing it because they want to win. TSM? I love that culture. Pardon the slogan, but it’s not a “hoodie-selling org.” There’s nothing wrong with those orgs; they’re great and amazing brands. What FaZe and 100 Thieves have built, I have so much respect for them. But, I’m drawn to that culture of winning. I want to create something to win. I want to be a winner, and I want our teams to compete and win. That’s the ethos of our team. We want Canada to be proud of us; we want our city to back us. We’re going into the leagues that make economic sense and have good fundamentals. We just signed a top 20 Rocket League team in North America, so that’s our first team that’s really in the pro leagues. We’re going to continue to do that, to build more rosters and compete and entertain our fans everywhere.
There are lots of great esports shows that cover the tournaments, the teams, the leagues, the players, things like that. But what I don’t see a lot of is crossover. Some people who are not in the industry don’t consider esports athletes to be athletes. They’re like, “Oh, you sit at a chair all day.” There’s no appreciation for that. I want to change the conversation and take professional players outside of gaming and really learn about them in real life. One of the projects that we have in development is a cooking show where we take a professional gamer in a big league, a big name that most people know, and we’re showcasing his cooking skills. We want to see what the stories are of these guys that have made it so far outside of it. I think that kind of crossover programming is really lacking. It’s for sure going to be a focus in 2021.
Ben Feferman is the Managing Partner of Amuka Capital and the CEO of Amuka Esports. His holdings include two esports venues and competitive teams across several titles.
Written by Kenneth Williams