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

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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Continue reading this story from our content partner, ABC13.

Technology is changing America's pastime, and the Houston Astros have the lead off. Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Houston Astros executive addresses innovations in sports from esports to health care

Root for the home tech

Over the past decade or so, sports franchises have seen a boom in technology integration. The fact of the matter is that both the teams and the players need to tap into tech to have a competitive advantage on the field — and especially when it comes to the business side of things.

"Technologically advanced companies want to do business with technologically advanced companies," says Matt Brand, senior vice president of corporate partnerships and special events at the Houston Astros. "Old cats like me need to realize you have to stay current or else you're just going to get passed up."

Brand was the subject of a live recording of HXTV — the video arm of Houston Exponential — at The Cannon. He addressed several trends in sports technology, and shared how the Astros are approaching each new hot technology.

The Astros are pretty ahead of the curve when it comes to technology, Brand says, and the trick is keeping a pulse on potential game-changing technology far in advance of implementation.

"The things that we're developing now in 2019 and 2020 are the thing that are going to help us in 2024 and 2025," Brand says.

The approach to technology in sports is changing as younger players enter the scene.

"This generation of players want all the technology they can get," Brand says. "They want what's going on up to the day."

From esports to sports betting sites, here's what the hometeam has on its radar, according to brand.

The evolution of pitching technology

One aspect of the game that's been greatly affected by technology is pitching. Brand says that pitching coach, Brent Strom, is better able to do his job nowadays that there's better quality video and monitoring technologies. Brand cited the transformations of former pitcher Charlie Morton and current pitcher Ryan Pressly. Both saw impressive transformations in their pitching ability thanks to Strom and his technology.

"Brent has the ability to take technology and blend it with the craft," Brand says.

The players as industrial machines

One way the franchise thinks about its players is as machines — in the least objectifying way, surely. But Brand compares baseball players to major, expensive oil and gas machines, and in heavy industry, it's very common for a company to drop $30 million or more on a machine. Of course the company would schedule preventative maintenance and service appointments to protect their investments.

"We've got players now who are high performance machines," Brand says, citing players like Justin Verlander. "We want to make sure we have the best technology and the best care around them."

From doctors and nutritionists to the latest and greatest technologies, implementing the best practices is a good way to protect your assets.

Wearables and sleep technology

Another trend within sports is tracking sleep using technology. Wearable devices to track sleep and health are widely used, says Brand, but the Astros weren't comfortable with the constant monitoring.

"They feel like it's an invasion of privacy," Brand says. They feel like the data would be used against them when it came time to negotiate their contracts.

But prioritizing sleep is crucial in a sport where players travel across the country playing 162 games a season. Brand says investing in the players' sleep equipment is something they make sure to do.

Esports

Brand says, somewhat controversial, that esports is pretty low on the franchise's priority list, and there's one reason for that: Money.

"A lot of these sports teams aren't profitable right now," Brand says, noting that he knows that will probably change over the years.

While the teams themselves might not be making money, the number of users of video games makes for a different avenue to revenue.

"The platforms are what we see as profitable," Brand says, explaining how he's seen brands like Nike advertise in gaming apps.

"There's definitely a pathway to profitability, but esports means different things to different people," he says.

Sports marketing and betting

Looking toward the future, Brand says he sees movement coming in marketing and betting within sports.

With mobile devices in the hands of most sports event goers, brands have access to authentic, engaging content.

"Everyone with a phone is a producer of content, and a lot of brands want that content," he says.

Sports betting technologies have seen profitable success in other United States markets that allow it.

"Betting is the next biggest thing in sports," Brand says. "All the major leagues are saddled up with big money there. In Texas, it's illegal still, but it's coming."

Comicpalooza takes place Friday, May 9, to Sunday, May 12. Courtesy of Comicpalooza

Here's what you can expect at Houston's Comicpalooza this weekend from esports to Game of Thrones stars

Bend the knee

People from around the world will be flocking to downtown Houston by the thousands, and not just for the Astros and the Rockets. The 11th annual Comicpalooza is taking over the George R. Brown Convention Center from Friday, May 10, to Sunday, May 12.

"This major super block in downtown will be absolutely electric this weekend," Michael Heckman, Comicpalooza president, tells InnovationMap.

Last year, the convention attracted over 50,000 people from 47 states and 17 countries, and it made an economic impact of over $20 million, Heckman says. This year, with the help of Game of Thrones stars and an inaugural ESPN event, Comicpalooza should surpass last year's accomplishments.

Here's what you can expect from this weekend.

A crowd at the panel that has two Game of Thrones actresses

Emilia Clarke (left) plays Daenerys in Game of Thrones, and Nathalie Emmanuel plays her adviser and friend, Missandei. Photos courtesy of Comicpalooza

A panel on Saturday morning at 11 am will have two Game of Thrones stars — Emilia Clarke (Daenerys) and Nathalie Emmanuel (Missandei). The panel is sure to attract the masses, and the two actresses are major gets by the organization.

"To be able to get Emilia Clarke in the middle of the final season of Game of Thrones, with only two episodes to go — the hype has been unbelievable," Heckman says. "To be able to have a pop culture phenomenon like that come here to Houston — and it will be her first fan event. She's done the San Diego Comic Con, but that was more of a media event."

Both actresses also have autograph visits available for purchase. Clarke's are sold out online, but some opportunities will be made available day of.

The first ever ESPN collegiate esports competition

ESPN's inaugural esports competition for college students is premiering at Comicpalooza. Jamie McInall/Pexels

For the first time ever, ESPN is having a collegiate esports championship and chose Houston to be the place for the finals.

"We've understood the value of [esports] for Comicpalooza for a number of years. ESPN is making a big investment — it's their first ever event of this nature, but it won't be their last," Heckman says.

Students from hundreds of schools have competed to make it to the semifinals and championship in Houston, and scholarships are on the line. The weekend will have 22 teams across five video games — Hearthstone, Heroes of the Storm, Overwatch, StarCraft II, and Street Fighter V — according to ESPN. To read more about the competition, click here.

Makers on display

Anyone can check out the Comicpalooza Maker's Space — there's even a place to fix any cosplay wardrobe malfunctions. Photo via comicpalooza.com

Calling all makers — professionals or wannabes. Comicpalooza's Maker's Space is open to cosplayers, artists, engineers, scientists and everyone in between who wants to create and build using old and new technology, from small electrical parts to towering 3D printers and Lego masterpieces.

"What a lot of people don't know is there are so many interesting aspects to Comicpalooza — from literature tracks to a film festival to a makerspace," Heckman says. "There are hundreds of exhibitors on the expo showfloor, but there's an area carved out for makers."

A party on the promenade

Free concert anyone? Photo via comicpalooza.com

From 6 to 10 pm on Saturday, Avenida Houston will be transformed into an after party put on by Saint Arnold's and headlined by Icona Pop. It's free to attend, and you can get more info here.

VIPs all around

It's not just the Game of Thrones people being featured. Photos via comicpalooza.com

Comicpalooza attendees can grab photos with or autographs from over 30 different actors across major franchises — like Star Trek, Walking Dead, and so much more.

The list of actors is as follows: Emilia Clarke, Nathalie Emmanuel, Grant Gustin, Wilmer Valderrama, Dan Fogler, Gates McFadden, Michael Dorn, John Wesley Shipp, Peter Serafinowicz, Griffin Newman, Yara Martinez, Brendan Hines, Scott Speiser, Jeremy Davies, Andrew Divoff, Mira Furlan, Erick Avari and more.

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

As Houston transitions into summer, the city's tech and innovation ecosystem enters a new season — but with the same level of entrepreneurialism and can-do spirit.

This week's innovators to know includes a Houston tech founder fresh off fundraising, an architect with the future of the workplace, and a startup leader with a way to digitally connect churches to their congregations.

Joe Alapat, CEO and co-founder of Liongard

Courtesy of Liongard

After raising a $17 million round for his startup, Joe Alapat, CEO of Liongard, joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss fundraising during a pandemic and how he's seen the Houston innovation ecosystem grow.

In the episode, Alapat also shares his advice for Houston startups looking to tap into the Houston innovation ecosystem — something he's watched grow over the past five years. Now, he says, when it comes to new startups in Houston, "the waves are hitting the shore."

"Houston has always been an entrepreneurial city, and this is just that next stage," Alapat says on the episode. "For me, it's the technology side that excites me even more to see technology companies really succeeding." Listen to the episode and read more.

Day Edwards, founder and CEO of Church Space

Photo courtesy of Church Space

Large gathering places have been shut down for months at this point, and that includes places of worship. Houston entrepreneur Day Edwards, founder and CEO of Church Space, usually focuses on connection organizations to spaces for worship or events. But, she is now focused on getting services online for congregations to connect with.

"It felt like the perfect opportunity to give churches a way to reach more people during the pandemic," says Edwards. "This would create more impact than anything we could possibly offer at this time." Read more.

Larry Lander, principal at PDR

Photo courtesy of PDR

While much of the country has been working from home for weeks, Larry Lander opines that this has made physical office space more important than ever.

"As a place to provide a technology offering we don't enjoy at our kitchen table, as a place to better support small group work beyond the tiny real estate of our laptop screens, and as a place that physically represents what our organizations are truly all about," he writes in a guest column for InnovationMap. The role of the workplace has never been more critical to business success." Read more.

Houston area gets failing score on social distancing, according to report

We got an F

According to a study that evaluated social distancing execution in counties, the Houston area didn't do so well and earned failing scores all around.

A widely used social distancing scoreboard from Unacast, a provider of location data and analytics, shows only one county in the Houston area — Austin County — received a grade above an F for social distancing as of May 20. But Austin County doesn't have much to brag about, since its social-distancing score is a D-. The Houston area's eight other counties, including Harris, flunked.

Relying on a huge storehouse of cellphone data, the Unacast scoreboard measures social distancing activity on a daily basis in every state and county compared with activity before the coronavirus outbreak. The scorecard assigns a letter grade of A through F based on current social-distancing behavior.

Each grade takes into account three factors:

  • Percentage change in average distance traveled compared with the pre-coronavirus period
  • Percentage change in visits to nonessential places compared with the pre-coronavirus period
  • Decrease in person-to-person encounters compared with the national pre-coronavirus average

So, how did Harris County, for instance, fare in those three categories? On May 20, its grade in each category was an F. Why? Because it had less than a 25 percent reduction in average mobility (based on distance traveled), less than a 55 percent reduction in nonessential visits, and less than a 40 percent decrease in "encounters density" compared with the national average.

The scoreboard indicates Harris County's grades have bounced around. On April 4, for example, Harris County received an A in the nonessential-visit category for reducing those visits by at least 70 percent.

Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, said in an interview published May 20 that he's worried the easing of social distancing in Houston will lead to a spike in coronavirus cases.

"I think here in Houston we're underachieving in a lot of aspects in public health, and it's no fault of the … public health leaders," Hotez said.

In Texas, the Houston area isn't alone in its apparent failure, at least recently, to adhere to social-distancing guidelines.

On May 20, not a single county in the Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth, and San Antonio metro areas earned higher than a D on the Unacast report card.

All five counties in the Austin area got F's, as did all 13 counties in Dallas-Fort Worth, according to the scoreboard.

But as with Harris County, other metro areas' scores in individual categories have fluctuated over time. Here are a few examples:

  • On April 4, Travis and Dallas counties earned an A for at least a 70 percent reduction in nonessential visits.
  • On April 11, Tarrant County received a B for a 55 percent to 70 percent drop in average mobility.

In the San Antonio area, Bandera County earned the highest grade (D) of any county in the state's four major metros. Atascosa and Medina counties eked out grades of D-, while the remainder of the area's counties wound up in the F column.

In line with trends for its major-county counterparts, Bexar County's social distancing scores in individual categories have gone up and down. On April 11, for example, Bexar County earned a B for a 55 percent to 70 percent decline in average mobility.

The scores for the state's major metros appear to reflect the recent loosening of stay-at-home restrictions across Texas. But health experts still recommend sticking with social-distancing measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus. In fact, Unacast points out that the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cite social distancing as the "most effective way" to combat coronavirus infections.

Unacast says it launched the social-distancing scoreboard in March to enable organizations to measure and grasp the efficiency of local social-distancing efforts.

"Data can be one of society's most powerful weapons in this public health war," Thomas Walle, co-founder and CEO of Unacast, says in an April 16 release.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Texas startup’s at-home COVID-19 test finally approved by feds

CORONAVIRUS RESPONSE

After its earlier effort was tripped up, Austin-based startup Everlywell on May 16 finally gained approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to launch its at-home coronavirus test.

In a May 18 release, Everlywell says the self-administered test will be available later this month. The company, which specializes in at-home tests for an array of conditions, is the first to receive approval from the FDA for an at-home coronavirus test that's not associated with a lab or a manufacturer of diagnostic products.

The FDA's emergency authorization allows Everlywell to work with a number of certified labs that process authorized tests, rather than just a single lab.

"The authorization of a COVID-19 at-home collection kit that can be used with multiple tests at multiple labs not only provides increased patient access to tests, but also protects others from potential exposure," Dr. Jeffrey Shuren, director of the FDA's Center for Devices and Radiological Health, says in a release.

Everlywell's at­-home test determines the presence or absence of the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID­-19 illness. Everlywell's test kit uses a short nasal swab and includes:

  • A digital screening questionnaire reviewed by a healthcare provider.
  • Instructions on how to ship the test sample to a lab.
  • Digital results within 48 hours of the sample being received by the lab.
  • Results reviewed by an independent physician.

Anyone who tests positive test will receive a telehealth consultation. All positive test results are reported to federal and local public health agencies when mandated.

On March 23, Everlywell was supposed to start shipping 30,000 coronavirus test kits to U.S. consumers. But before a single test was sent, the FDA blocked distribution of at-home, self-administered tests from Everlywell and other companies. After that, Everlywell pivoted to supplying coronavirus tests to health care providers and organizations.

As with the company's previously approved coronavirus test, Everlywell says its test for individuals is sold at no profit. The $109 price covers costs such as overnight shipping to a lab, lab-processing fees, and kit components. Some health insurers cover coronavirus tests.

Everlywell says it's working with members of Congress to enable companies that are neither healthcare providers nor labs to be directly reimbursed by health insurers. The startup also is exploring how its coronavirus test could be made available for free.

"Widespread access to convenient testing will play a crucial role in the country's ability to address the pandemic and prevent overburdening our healthcare facilities. As the national leader in connecting people with high­-quality laboratory testing, we are committed to fighting the spread of this virus in America," Julia Cheek, founder and CEO of Everlywell, says in the Everlywell release.

The company continues to supply its coronavirus tests to qualified healthcare organizations and government agencies.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.