Startup out to make student gaming worthwhile

Ariane Lim, Kevin Hoang and Justin Banusig —CONTRIBUTED PHOTOS

Many parents and school administrators typically scoff at video games, worried that these will distract students from their academic priorities. An Iloilo-based startup led by GenZs seeks to prove that gaming can be financially rewarding and skill enhancing for students as it builds a business out of nurturing student gaming communities.

“When you go to the [school] admin, the first thing that they will say is that gaming isn’t helping the students with their studies, so we tried to find an angle around video games on why it could help,” Ariane Lim, co-CEO and cofounder of AcadArena, says in an interview, citing the key reason why she started this company in 2019.

AcadArena, a leading local organization for campus gaming and esports education, provides financial aid and “play-to-earn” scholarships for exemplary student gamers to help them graduate. It hosts esports tournaments, seminars, conventions and other activities in partnership with student organizations under its Alliance Network. It also aims to educate the youth about Web 3.0, a new version of the internet with blockchain-based ecosystem, and the metaverse, an interconnected 3D virtual reality world.

In 2021 alone, AcadArena engaged more than 150,000 students from around 500 colleges. From just 10, partner-organizations have grown to 60, including those from top universities.

Recently, AcadArena raised $3.5 million from a seed funding round—one of the largest in Philippine gaming history. Furthermore, 28-year-old Lim and her co-founders—co-CEO Kevin Hoang, 29, and chief operating officer Justin Banusig, 22—are among the youngest in the country to raise this kind of funding.

The funding round was led by funds such as 1KX and Hashed, while more than 50 investors participated, including the founders of Twitch, Crunchyroll, Kabam and Sky Mavis, the company behind Axie Infinity.

The group will use the money to hire more manpower, acquire more play-to-earn assets as well as fund product development, strategic partnerships and student communities.

Most of AcadArena’s revenues come from brand sponsorships, Banusig says. As a student “market engine,” he says brands like Globe, Twitch and Logitech tap their startup to “serve as a platform for their brand to connect to the youth.”

The company also earns its share of revenue from play-to-earn scholars, as well as from gaming and technology consultancy services.

Play-to-earn, a recent phenomenon that has revolutionized gaming, allows players to earn cryptocurrencies or non-fungible tokens (NFTs). As young people turned to gaming hoping to earn money on the side during this pandemic, Filipinos have become the top NFT holders in the world.

Esport natives

The company’s three founders have long “lived and breathed” esports and gaming even before they put up AcadArena. After graduating from Ateneo as a Creative Writing major in 2015, Lim started working for Garena Philippines, publisher of League of Legends and headed its collegiate program from 2016 to 2018.

“When Garena closed down around 2018, it seemed like a waste because we did a lot of good things. We met a lot of schools, a lot of orgs … so we continued the good work in AcadArena come 2019. Here, we’re more game agnostic. We can focus more on education [and] community building,” says Lim.

US-based Hoang was then working for Twitch student, which aims to educate students interested in gaming. Hoang was already working on programs that were similar to what Lim wanted to do in the Philippines, which led to them working together.

They didn’t want to focus in Manila, knowing that there’s a big pool of talent in other parts of the Philippines. Thus was how Banusig, then a college student, was enlisted to be their regional operator for Visayas.

When AcadArena started in 2019, “it was really just a gig for us,” says Banusig. But in 2020, when the pandemic erupted, the team saw the opportunity to build something that would offer create interactive experience for students while they are stuck at home.By 2020 to 2021, the group transitioned into a full-time business.

Monetizing gaming skills

Filipinos are no strangers to esports competitions. Just last year, two Filipino teams won the world championships for the online game Mobile Legends: Bang Bang—Bren Esports in January 2021 for M2 World Championships and Blacklist International for the M3 World Championships last December—with a prize pool of $300,000 and $800,000, respectively.

AcadArena, for its part, hosts local tournaments where students can earn cash prizes and scholarships.

“One of our major events is the University Alliance Cup. It’s kind of like what we consider as the UAAP (University Athletic Association of the Philippines) of collegiate esports in the Philippines,” says Banusig. Here, student organizations compete for more than P150,000 in cash prizes, with the top three eligible for a scholarship grant.

AcadArena also grants financial aid to student gamers, with over P2 million worth of funds from various brands and content creators. It gives up to P15,000 to aspiring content creators through the Twitch Student Creator Grant, or to a female student role model through AcadArena Women in Esports grant. It also offers a P15,000 family grant through the Good Game Grant.

Through its Axie Student Scholarship grant, students are given access to an Axie account until graduation. It shoulders the gaming costs for a 70 to 30 percent income split favoring the scholars.Axie Infinity requires players to purchase at least three “axies” —creatures that they can collect, breed, raise, battle, and trade – which, at the minimum, can cost around $60 each.

“So that’s a lot of money for a student scholar,” says Banusig. “And obviously, given that the crypto space is very volatile, very new, we don’t want students to put up their own money for them to participate in this. Students should be able to explore these spaces without having the risk of draining their finances.”

As interest in play-to-earn games continues to grow, Lim is quick to note that the group is not pushing to profit off gaming or pressuring the students to do so.

“We see video games as a tool for many things, [such as] character and skills development. Whether or not you do esports or gaming after, it does not matter; it still made you a better person. If you are able to branch into a career in esports, we’re there to tell you to keep it real. It’s not enough to keep talking about it as a dream. You have to know the risks around going to esports and video games and you need the skills,” she added.

Supporting play-to-earn games such as Axie Infinity, says Lim, is an alternative way of helping students financially.

“Because if you think about it, who needs money? At a very crucial time, it’s going to be students. Who doesn’t have a way to earn money but who has a lot of time to play? It’s students.”

Even after these students graduate, they will be able to use the skills learned from taking part in esports, Lim says. “Not only do they have a degree, they have a lot of skills that their course would otherwise not teach them. They know how to plan a project. They know how to do online broadcasting. They know how to manage a team.”

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