Local startup betting on card game audiences bringing big business
Josh Mandell | Saturday, August 05, 2017 at 6:20 p.m.
In a room no bigger than a closet, Phil Braverman and Khai Hoang rolled dice and dealt out cards featuring images of monsters and wizards as three video cameras recorded their every move.
On the other side of the room’s soundproof walls, Paul Michel and Gary Leek watched the live video feed and gave a running commentary of their Magic: The Gathering card game.
“Oh, wow— that’s what you call a power play,” Leek said.
“That’s a bit aggressive,” said Michel.
While these cameras were on a closed circuit, Charlottesville entrepreneur Wilson Hunter will use the footage in his efforts to build an interactive online platform for thousands of people to watch card games, board games and other niche competitive hobbies.
“Cardboard Live will bring viewers into the driver’s seat by conveying the psychology and the emotions of each player in the game,” Hunter said.
Magic: The Gathering is a card game produced by Wizards of the Coast, a subsidiary of Hasbro. Each game represents a battle between wizards who employ spells, artifacts and creatures — depicted on thousands of collectible cards — to defeat their opponents. According to Hasbro, about 20 million people worldwide play the game.
Tom Buxbaum, manager of The End Games in Charlottesville, said Magic: The Gathering is “far and away” the most popular game sold at the store.
“I think it’s the combination of a well-designed game and good tournament play that makes it so successful,” Buxbaum said.
Hunter, an elite Magic player, founded Cardboard Live this year. He is among the first entrepreneurs to be accepted by Cville Machine, a startup accelerator on Market Street that eventually will provide seed funding for the new companies.
Last weekend, Hunter brought some of his friends and fellow Magic aficionados to the Machine space to help him record about eight hours of game footage for future software development.
In an interview with Jim Cramer of CNBC last week, Hasbro CEO Brian Goldner said about a million people watch live streams of Magic tournaments every month.
Buxbaum said official broadcasts produced by Wizards of the Coast include icons and other graphics to explain each player’s moves. However, he said it was harder to follow the action in other Magic: The Gathering live streams.
“You have to be an expert to understand what’s going on in those videos,” said Hunter. “We are trying to mainstream the viewing experience.”
Hunter said Cardboard Live’s platform will allow viewers to zoom in on any area of the card table, and will use image-recognition software to track which cards are in each player’s hand.
Hunter said viewers also will be able to read biographies of individual players and information about their card decks.
“Part of our objective is to tell the story of the whole tournament with rich layers of information,” he said.
Hunter said Cardboard Live will generate revenue through clickable advertisements for specific cards and other products related to the game being aired.
The company will contract with computer programmers in Poland to create a beta version of its streaming platform this year, Hunter said.
“We are about a month away from the hardcore development phase,” he said. “This testing is an important step, and these players are going to help us a lot with marketing.”
Cardboard Live has signed on as an official sponsor for Braverman, a North Carolina native who competes in the international Magic: The Gathering Grand Prix.
“The online viewing experience for Magic has stagnated over the years,” said Braverman. “Cardboard Live seems like the next step.”
Michel, a student at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, started playing Magic: The Gathering with Hunter when they attended Monticello High School together.
“It just consumed us,” Michel said. “It became all that we wanted to talk about and think about ... I think you can express your personality through your Magic deck, and your identity can bleed into the game.”
Michel, Braverman and Hunter co-host “The Brainstorm Show,” a podcast that delves into “the nitty-gritty of card choice and deck-building” in Magic: The Gathering.
“We really want to see [Hunter] succeed,” Michel said. “Magic: The Gathering is not just a passion for him — it’s an expression of his intellectual curiosity.”
After graduating from Appalachian State University in 2011 with a degree in marketing, Hunter spent six years in Johnson City, Tennessee, designing and selling school yearbooks for Herff Jones.
“The thriving tech startup community in Charlottesville — and Cville Machine, specifically — made me want to move back,” Hunter said. “I’m grateful to Machine for giving me this space; otherwise, I’d be doing this in my basement.”
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