Houston-based Mainline is providing the tournament software for an unprecedented esports showdown between the Big 12 schools. Jamie McInall/Pexels

While college football's fate this fall is up in the air thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, the Big 12 Conference is definitely going to face off virtually thanks to esports software developed in Houston.

According to an announcement from the Big 12 Conference and Learfield IMG College, its multimedia rights partner, the tournament has opened for registration for all 10 member schools — Baylor University, Texas Christian University, University of Texas, Texas Tech University, Iowa State University, University of Kansas, Kansas State University, University of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State University, and West Virginia University.

"This is a great opportunity to engage in an emerging space on a Conference-wide level," says Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby in a news release. "This opportunity is a unique way to provide original content from within a competitive environment during these challenging times. We appreciate the collaborative efforts that have made this first-of-its-kind Big 12 Championship tournament possible."

Houston-based Mainline, an esports software startup, has been selected to provide the tournament software for this unprecedented event, which is set to take place July 13 to 16. Each of the 10 schools will host its own single-elimination qualifying tournament featuring Madden NFL 20. Students have until July 10 to register to compete. Big 12 Now on ESPN+ will air both the schools' finals and the Big 12 Conference Championship tournament. The host of Big 12 This Week, Bill Pollock, will call the tournament.

Not only will Mainline's tournament software enable the competition, but it will allow Learfield IMG College to sell sponsors on esports visibility. Just like the football season, the esports tournaments will promote school branding and an opportunity to connect with student participants.

"It's more important now than ever to provide college students the ability to stay connected and engaged, and our technology can help aggregate the college esports community to help make that happen," says Chris Buckner, Mainline's CEO and founder, in the release. "This will multiply the opportunity, power and fun of esports to college students attending all Big 12 universities and keeps students competing while still practicing social distancing."

Earlier this month, Buckner joined InnovationMap's Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the opportunities — as well as the challenges — the pandemic posed for his company.

"Everyone is looking for how to get sports, or esports, in front of people because everyone is just missing [sports] so much," Buckner says on the episode. "Our June will pretty much be the best month of our company, and a lot of that is driven by the fact that everyone is looking for a digital solution rather than an in-person solution."

With sports offline, esports startup Mainline has seen an opportunity for growth during the COVID-19 outbreak. Photo courtesy of Mainline

Houston esports software startup poised to have best month amid pandemic

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 35

When you think about the types of industries that are having a moment during the COVID-19 crisis, it's hard to deny the growth in exposure and viewers esports and gaming has seen across the world.

Mainline, Houston startup that develops software for esports tournaments at the collegiate level has seen opportunity in the gaming sector's growth. This year, Mainline is poised to onboard over 100 schools to their system, and, while most of those schools were lined up before the pandemic, the process has been sped up, says Chris Buckner, co-founder and CEO of Mainline on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

"Everyone is looking for how to get sports, or esports, in front of people because everyone is just missing [sports] so much," Buckner says. "We've been very fortunate to work in the industry we do."

On campuses this past spring, basketball was cut short, baseball was canceled, and football's status is currently unknown. Colleges are looking for a way to connect with and engage students, Buckner says. And, Mainline has even been able to attract interest on the professional level.

"Our June will pretty much be the best month of our company, and a lot of that is driven by the fact that everyone is looking for a digital solution rather than an in-person solution," Buckner says.

The business of esports was already growing, but COVID-19 has lit a fire for companies with solutions in the industry. Buckner says at the start of the pandemic, he had to lay off employees that were focused on physical events. Now, in light of the growth of business, he says he's looking to hire as well as raise another round of funding next spring.

Buckner shares more about the opportunities — as well as challenges — COVID-19 has posed for the esports startup on the podcast. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you get your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


Uconnect Esports, based in the Katy area, has secured partnerships with big gaming brands ahead of a busy 2020 season. Jamie McInall/Pexels

Houston esports startup scores partnerships with big gaming brands

teaming up

A esports marketplace based in the Houston area has won some big partnerships for 2020.

Uconnect Esports, which is headquartered in Katy, has announced it has formed partnerships with Twitch Student, HyperX, and Cooler Master. These new partnerships will support the company's 2020 events.

"As organization leaders of the first generation of collegiate esports, our goal at Uconnect Esports is to open an entire ecosystem for sponsorships and support," says Dylan Liu, CEO and founder of Uconnect Esports, in a news release.

Uconnect acts as a marketplace for esports players and brands by streamlining and automating the entire sponsorship process. The company first launched alpha platform in August 2019 at it's Texas Collegiate Esports Summit.

"Collegiate esports is a new space for many brands and collegiate administrators," Liu continues in the release. "We are helping both sides enter the ecosystem while prioritizing students. We want to make sure that these organizations and this ecosystem continue to be led and driven by students, with the support of administrators and brands."

Since launch, Uconnect's platform has been used at 120 collegiate esports and gaming organizations across the continent, and last spring, Uconnect connected its gamers to eight brands through 160 collegiate sponsorships. Gaming brands have taken notice to the resource the company is providing.

One of the new brand partners, Twitch Student, will use Uconnect's platform exclusively at over 100 collegiate esports and gaming events.

"Uconnect Esports continues to devote themselves to elevating collegiate gaming and esports clubs in North America," says Mark "Garvey" Candella, director of Student and Education Programs at Twitch. We are proud to continue our support for community leaders who bring students together and create opportunities for each other."

Houston-based Mainline has announced new partnerships with a few universities. Jamie McInall/Pexels

Houston esports company taps nearby universities for partnerships

Game on

A Houston esports platform has announced that four universities — including one in town — have made moves to optimize the company's technology.

Texas A&M University, the University of Texas - Austin, Louisiana State University, and Houston's own University of St. Thomas have made a deal with Mainline. The company, which just closed a $9.8 million series A round, is a software and management platform for esports tournaments.

The four schools will use the software to host and grow their on-campus esports communities, according to a news release.

"These are top universities seeing the value of esports on-campus and making a choice to support their students' desires to play and compete — much like in traditional sports," says Chris Buckner, CEO at Mainline, in the release. "Adoption of Mainline is validation of the opportunity to engage students and the broader community with a compelling esports platform, as well as strengthen a school's brand, provide additional partnership opportunities and market their initiatives"

While UST has is still in the process of utilizing Mainline for its esports platform to grow its program and will use the software for its first tournament in 2020, A&M first used Mainline's software this past spring, but has doubled down on its commitment to esports.

"Texas A&M recognizes the significant esports presence on campus and the importance of supporting this thriving student community. Mainline allows us to maintain the brand continuity of the university, and to drive incremental inventory and value for sponsors," says Mike Wright, director of public relations and strategic communications at Texas A&M Athletics, in the release.

The platform provides its clients with an easy way to manage, monetize, and market their tournaments.

At UT, the school's administration, along with its Longhorn Gaming Club, is currently running two tournaments on Mainline: Rocket League and League of Legends.

"Texas has had a long established esports community on campus, and our partnership with Mainline will enable us to more closely work with Longhorn Gaming to better support this audience to benefit our students and partners," says Mike Buttersworth, director of the Center for Sports Communication and Media at UT, in the release.

Meanwhile at LSU, the university is running an esports Rocket League qualifying tournament on the Houston company's platform to select a three-student team to represent the school at the inaugural "Power Five Esports Invitational" in New York in January, according to the release.

"This kind of tournament is a first for our campus, and Mainline is making it easy for us to be able to host this qualifying tournament for our students to ultimately represent our university at the Power Five Esports invitational," says Robert Munson, senior associate athletics director at LSU.

As for Mainline, these four schools are just the beginning for universities using the platform.

"Mainline is continuing this collegiate momentum with another 10 powerhouse universities expected to come aboard our platform by the end of 2019, and 50 more by the spring 2020," says Buckner.

Chris Buckner has secured a $6.8 million series A round for his Houston-based esports company thanks to support from a local investment firm. Courtesy of Mainline

Houston esports company closes $6.8 million series A round led by local investor

Show me the money

A Houston software company is cashing in on the growing esports industry with a multimillion-dollar fundraising round led by a local investor.

Mainline, which specializes in esports tournament software and management, closed its series A at $6.8 million. Houston-based Work America Capital led the round, and Mainline will use the funds to grow its platform, event management customer base, and marketing efforts, as well as to hire developers, marketing, and sales talent.

"The world of esports and gaming is exploding; however, continuity in tournament organization is lacking, keeping the sport from really taking off in other viable and exciting markets," says Chris Buckner, Mainline CEO, in a news release. "Mainline gives brands the tools they need to run powerful esports programs that will evolve the quickly maturing industry to the benefit of players, students, and the greater esports ecosystem."

Mainline, which spun off its sports engagement business earlier this year into a company now called Truss, created a white-labeled tournament platform for esports that's used by various clients across the industry and was instrumental to ESPN's inaugural Collegiate Esports Championship that was hosted in Houston earlier this year.

Work America Capital has supported sports technology in town before — including Houston-based Integrated Bionics, which has developed a GPS- and video-optimized sensor used by athletes around the world.

"As with any industry that takes off like a rocket, problems arise that must be solved through innovation," says Mark Toon, managing partner of Work America Capital, in the release. "Mainline is standardizing, organizing and optimizing the esports industry, paving the way for more players, more teams, more money and bigger, better tournaments."

Mainline is focused on expanding its services as esports continues to grow. According to the release, the total industry revenue for this year is expected to reach $1.1 billion worldwide, and viewership numbers have jumped from 335 million to 454 million in just two years.

"The strategic vision of Mainline puts them in the driver's seat with a consistent platform across amateur, collegiate and professional competitions," says Toon. "Given Mainline's partnerships and customers, they have paved a way to grow quickly across all sports and into other markets. We are excited to dedicate our time, resources and capital to the company."


Mainline has created a white-labeled software for esports gaming and tournaments. Courtesy of Mainline

Houston's esports team has been sold to a local investor. Jamie McInall/Pexels

Houston Outlaws esports team sold to local real estate investor for $40 million

Game on

Houston real estate investor Lee Zieben has agreed to terms with Immortals Gaming Club to purchase the Houston Outlaws for a total deal value of $40 million, sources familiar with the deal told ESPN.

According to an original ESPN report, the deal has not been executed but is expected to close in late August, with Zieben currently having a binding letter of intent with Immortals for the purchase, according to sources. Paperwork submission to and approval of the Overwatch League is pending, league sources said.

If completed as expected, Zieben will pay $30 million in cash and securities and assume the $10 million debt in remaining payments to the Overwatch League for the Houston Outlaws franchise slot, sources said. Immortals declined to comment. Lee Zieben's office and the Overwatch League did not respond to a request for comment.

Immortals will sell the team after they acquired Infinite Esports & Entertainment, the parent of OpTic Gaming and the Outlaws, in June.

Immortals will retain their ownership of OpTic, splitting that team and the Outlaws for the first time. In June, Immortals completed a deal with Activision Blizzard to enter the franchised Call of Duty League that is set to launch in 2020.

The deal for Infinite saw Immortals guarantee payments of $35 million to $45 million worth of cash and equity share to Texas Esports — backed by Texas Rangers owners Neil Leibman and Ray Davis and Houston Astros minority owner John Havens — and Aurelius Esports, led by former Infinite president Chris Chaney. Immortals also assumed debts Infinite owed, including the Outlaws' Overwatch League payments and OpTic's remaining franchise fees to the League of Legends Championship Series, totaling the deal to an enterprise value of over $100 million.

With the acquisition of Infinite, the Overwatch League required Immortals to sell the Outlaws to a third party as quickly as possible, due to Immortals' ownership of the fellow league team, the Los Angeles Valiant. No team is allowed to own equity in two different teams in the Overwatch League.

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Photos: Here's a sneak peek at The Ion Houston's construction progress

eye on the ion

The Ion Houston is expected to open its doors this year, and the building's exterior is close to completion. Now, the construction team is focusing on interiors and then tenant build outs.

The 270,000-square-foot coworking and innovation hub owned and managed by Rice Management Co. is slated to be a convening building for startups, corporations, academic partners, investors, and more. The building is organized as follows:

  • The underground Lower Level will act as academic flex space with a few classrooms and open-concept desks for The Ion's accelerators, including: The Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator, DivInc, the Rice Alliance's Clean Energy Accelerator, and the Aerospace Innovation Hub and Accelerator. There will also be an event space and The Ion's own programming.
  • On the first, street-level floor, The Ion's restaurant tenants will reside with access from both the greenspace as well as into the building. The Ion's first three restaurant tenants include: Late August, Common Bond, and STUFF'd Wings.
  • Additionally, the first floor will be home to a venture studio and the prototyping lab. There is additional space available for other tenants.
  • On the second floor, there will be 58,000 square feet of coworking space managed by Common Desk. Note: For floors 2 and up of the Ion, tenants will have access cards that allow them entrance. The first and lower floors will not require access cards.
  • The third floor of the building will house eight to 10 tenants each with 5,000 to 10,000 square feet of space. Chevron was announced as the first tenant and will reside on this floor.
  • On the fourth and fifth floors, The Ion will house one to two larger tenants on each level. These levels of the building were added on to the existing structure. The fourth floor features two balconies that tenants will have access to. Microsoft is signed on to have its space on half of the fifth floor.
The Ion is still planning on an open date in late spring or summer. For leasing information, click here. Scroll through the slideshow of construction images and renderings to see the progress of the building.

Exterior nears completion

Photo by Natalie Harms

The building's exterior is almost complete and kept much of the original building's facade. The new materials brought in match the existing color scheme.

Texas winery taps Houston tech company for innovative AR experience

cheers

The Lone Star State is home to a vibrant and innovative wine scene, but, just like most hospitality businesses, winemakers missed the opportunity to engage with their patrons amid the pandemic. With a new idea of how to engage its customers, Messina Hof, an award-winning Texas winery, rolled out a new tech-optimized, at-home experience.

The winery partnered with VISION, a Houston-based production group, to create an augmented reality app. Combining the efforts of Messina Hof's in-house label design team and the animation capabilities of VISION, the app took four months to design.

"It was a labor of love for both parties to be able to experiment with this; it was uncharted territory," says Karen Bonarrigo, owner and chief administrative officer of Messina Hof.

The three wines released — Emblaze (Sweet Red), Vitality (Dry White), and Abounding (Dry Red) — each tells a story through the AR experience.

"We wanted to try not only and push the technology as far as we can push it, but also try to really incorporate some heavy storytelling," says Dan Pratt, VISION Creative Director.

The idea to incorporate technology felt like a natural one to Bonariggo.

"The earth, water, and sunshine all go into developing what the profile is for each wine," explains Bonarrigo.

Each of the three wines have scannable labels that bring up a VR experience for app users. Photo courtesy of Messina Hof

VISION, who worked alongside Messina Hof to develop the project, blended the winery's rich family ties with the Old World history of winemaking.

When customers download the app and hold their camera over the label, a trailing vine emerges onto the screen and wraps around the bottle. As vines grow around each bottle, the three each visually signify a different natural element of winemaking — earth, water and the sun. As a rustic sign emerges, it prompts users to then click for recipe pairing recommendations.

Rather than a single-use experience, Messina Hof and VISION wanted to create an app that users could both engage with and learn from. The AR app allows users to view recipes and browse wines in one place.

"We knew we wanted the app to be functional for people to be able to interact with both when they're doing the AR experience, but then also to be able to continue to come back to it later," shares Bonarrigo. While AR wine labels have emerged in some California vineyards, she says, "it's definitely uncharted territory for the Texas industry."

Overseeing the food and wine pairing at Messina Hof is one of Bonarrigo's passions, so it was a natural choice to include recipes in the app. Messina Hof offers a concept called Vineyard Cuisine, coined from the Bonarrigo family cookbook, and incorporates wine in every meal at the vineyard.

"The idea of tying [the wine] to a recipe gave us the opportunity to be able to share new ways [our customers] could use wines in their everyday cooking," she explains.

She hopes the app's recipe feature will help families connect together.

"So often we get used to sitting down at the table, eating really quickly, and then moving on to the next thing, but there's so much connection that can happen with each other when we can slow down a little bit and have a conversation," she continues.

To Pratt, AR was the perfect way to emphasize and expand on the shared experience of wine.

"We wanted this to be an extension of that experience for people. You know, based on the love of wine and laughter with friends," he says.

For those who can't currently gather in a room together, Bonarrigo has hopes that Messina Hof can bring people together from afar.

"I think now more than ever the ability for our regular customers, even within Texas, to then share those wines with family members or friends that are outside the state seems more intuitive," she explains.

"We are so used to being creatures of habit in sharing our wine face-to-face with people that when we had the unexpected opportunity to not do that, we realized that we still have ways to be able to connect with customers through technology," says Bonarrigo.

She finds the "ease of access of being able to connect with them through the online web store" has kept Messina Hof in touch with customers throughout the pandemic, as well as digital happy hours and tasting events.

Messina Hof Harvest Green Winery & Kitchen, the newest location, opened in February, becoming the Greater Houston-area's largest winery. The space features an expansive tasting room and 83-foot wine bar, full-service restaurant, covered patio, two private tasting rooms, a wine production, barrel room, and wine warehouse.

"We knew that when we launched that location that we wanted to be able to have a series of wines at that location that was special, but also out of the box," says Bonarrigo.

Bonarrigo and her husband Paul have ushered in the expansion of Messina Hof over the last nine years. The family business began in 1977 when Paul's parents, Paul Vincent and Merrill, started an experimental vineyard. Messina Hof has locations in Bryan, Grapevine, Fredericksburg, and Richmond.

"This is our largest winery expansion endeavor that we've done," she says. "We wanted the wines to be extra special."

Similar to Messina Hof, companies across industries are seeking to explore interactive technologies to reach their customer base. "A number of our clients, and also new clients that we may not have been able to reach before, have certainly reached out to us to figure out new ways to reach an audience," shares Pratt.

Winemaking may be an Old World skill, but Messina Hof is excited to bring Texas wine into the future.

"So much of winemaking is science, and so much of it is art. There's always this push and pull as to which is more of a majority in the end product," explains Bonarrigo, who notes that Messina Hof has been using technology to innovate and optimize the growing process. The new AR app is a push toward bringing the experience her family loves into the homes of customers.

"This definitely gives a new talking point to wine," she says.