Start-Ups

Entrepreneur eyes mobile game changer

Following the success of his F&B venture, Mr Lee (from left) started mobile game studio SparkJumpers with Mr Prabowo and Mr Tan. The company has just launched a competition for its game, EndGods, called League of Gods, with a $100,000 prize pool.
Following the success of his F&B venture, Mr Lee (from left) started mobile game studio SparkJumpers with Mr Prabowo and Mr Tan. The company has just launched a competition for its game, EndGods, called League of Gods, with a $100,000 prize pool.ST PHOTO: ALICIA CHAN

Thai Express eatery founder wants to take on big boys in gaming with his game studio's first product, EndGods

Pushing limits with tournament launched for game

He has taken on Crystal Jade and Starbucks and thrived against the odds. Now, serial entrepreneur and Thai Express founder Ivan Lee is girding for another David versus Goliath fight - this time, against gaming giants Electronic Arts, Blizzard, Valve and Riot.

"When I started Thai Express, I was the smallest. I looked at Crystal Jade, I looked at Starbucks, and I thought, 'Wow, these are my competitors'," he recalled.

But such daunting prospects did not faze Mr Lee, 40, who openly acknowledges that he has a highly competitive streak.

He set up the first Thai Express in Holland Village in 2002 and, just six years later, in 2008, sold 70 per cent of his share in the chain for $80 million.

Now, following the overwhelming success of his F&B venture, Mr Lee is setting his sights on a whole new arena - mobile gaming.

"The game business is dominated by juggernauts, like Electronic Arts, Blizzard, Valve and Riot. We are the smallest," he said. "So okay, game on, let's compete."

Two-and-a-half years ago, he founded mobile game studio SparkJumpers, with director Randy Prabowo, 28, and development manager Tan Eng Khoon, 33.

Their first game, EndGods, is a strategic brawler, where two players deploy combinations of characters over different lanes to conquer opposing forces.

The company has just launched a competition for the game, called League of Gods. It has a $100,000 prize pool, and the finals will be held in May at Suntec City.

Mr Lee decided to focus on mobile gaming because of the potential he sees in the ubiquity of handheld devices.

"In a country like Singapore, mobile phones start to become a part of you, almost like an extension of your hand, whereas we're not at our PCs all the time," he said, noting that the market for mobile games has been steadily growing.

Mr Lee also has a personal interest in the area, as he grew up on a steady diet of video games. Even today, the serial investor says he plays every day, spending his time on a variety of titles from the Civilization series to Heroes Of The Storm and Diablo III.

When the trio began developing a mobile game, Mr Lee said that he wanted it to be "easy to pick up, but difficult to master".

"Mobile games can suck up a lot of time, but they mostly lack depth - you can't have competitions, and they're mostly pay- to-win. I am very passionate about building a game with depth," he said.

The competitive aspect of the game is also very important to him. "Without the NBA (National Basketball Association), we wouldn't know that you can reverse dunk, and without the Spanish football league, we wouldn't know that you can curve the ball like that. The pros show you what the game can really be," he said.

In November last year, they organised the first EndGods competition, which had a $30,000 prize pool. The top prize of $10,000 was won by competitive Dota 2 player Wong "NutZ" Jeng Yih.

The ongoing League of Gods also boasts one of the highest prize pools for a local competition.

The team has also engaged top players from other video games to play EndGods, in the hope that this will push the strategic limits of the game. For example, Singaporean professional League Of Legends player Wong "Chawy" Xing Lei will be taking part in the League of Gods tournament.

To date, Mr Lee and a group of private individual investors have spent $4 million on developing and marketing EndGods in Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan. They have plans to expand to China soon.

The game, which is technically still in its beta phase - it will launch fully some time this year - currently has a player base of 5,000 users who log on at least twice a month.

Although EndGods may not yet be a household name, Mr Lee is certain that this will change in time to come.

"In three to five years, we will be globally renowned," he said. "When you mention games like Dota 2, League Of Legends, and Counter-Strike, you will mention EndGods alongside them."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 13, 2016, with the headline 'Entrepreneur eyes mobile game changer'. Print Edition | Subscribe