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Tampa tech firm pivots, aims for colleges, universities that want to engage students through esports

Margie Manning

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Marcus Howard, CEO, ProjectMQ speaking at 1 Million Cups St. Petersburg

A love of video games inspired Marcus and Malcolm Howard to pursue technology careers.

The twin brothers have put a big bet on the industry repaying that love with business success.

They’ve spent the past seven years self-funding ProjectMQ, a Tampa company that developed a multi-media search engine to help independent game developers sell more games and help gamers find games they love. But two months ago, they pivoted, turning ProjectMQ into an esports agency that uses video games to help colleges and brands connect with Gen Z.

“About 50 percent of the revenue we’ve gotten in the last two years has been from esports so we pivoted from the multi-media search engine to an esports agent,” Marcus Howard, CEO, said at 1 Million Cups St. Petersburg, a weekly gathering at The Greenhouse to help entrepreneurs connect with the local community.

Esports, or electronic sports, are video games often played in professional competitions. The industry is exploding, Howard said. “It’s more popular than the Oscars and the Grammys and by the end of 2021, esports will have more viewership in the U.S. than all professional sports leagues except the NFL.”

ProjectMQ is capitalizing on the momentum it established early on, including a patent for the user interface on its multi-platform app. Game developers and gamers visited the site from 122 countries around the world, and game developers in 40 countries added hundreds of pieces of indie game content to the site. ProjectMQ participated in Tampa Bay Wave’s first TechDiversity cohort, and the company won the PayPal Business Makeover contest in 2018.

But funding issues led to the pivot.

“We couldn’t raise a friends and family round. We couldn’t get a bank loan. Less than 1 percent of all venture capital dollars in the U.S go to black-owned businesses. But we believe so much in this idea that we’ve been funding it with the salaries from our day jobs,” Howard said.

As an esports agency, their target market is colleges and universities that want to build a sense of community among their students to keep them engaged and enrolled.

“Colleges have an issue building community. With rising tuition costs and so much information online for free, they have to be competitive and relevant to an audience of students. We know that kids are playing video games but very few colleges have the infrastructure to support esports. We also know that brands want to engage with Gen Z but they struggle to reach them as well. With the rise of ad blocking and cord cutting it’s very difficult to for brands to use traditional media to reach Gen Z,” Howard said. “We become the solution as an indie game esports agency connecting schools and brands to gamers in the Gen Z demographic.”

ProjectMQ is selling a wall-mounted console — Howard called it a “modern arcade machine” —that contains a rotating selection of indie games, so there’s always a fresh experience for colleges to offer to students. And, to get students out of their dorm rooms and into the common areas where the console likely will be located, ProjectMQ is using its propriety algorithm that can identify games about two years before commercial launch.

“Most likely the games you play on our machines you won’t see anywhere else. These games are so undiscovered that unless you are leveraging these machines it’s almost impossible to find them,” Howard said. “There are 120,000 games in the global market but less than 10 percent of them are good games, high quality, novel, worthwhile experiences. Our discovery technology lets us identify those and we’re funneling them into these devices so we can provide a catalog of experiences that the average student can’t get in their dorm room.”

The cost to a college or university is $5,000 for six months, which includes installation, software updates and branding opportunities, with logos on the face of the machine. Students can play games for free using credits; once those credits are used up, they can pay to play, $3 for 10 minutes and $5 for 20 minutes. There’s a 60-40 revenue share — the school keeps 60 percent of the revenue generated, and ProjectMQ takes 40 percent, to license games from developers and for payments processing.

ProjectMQ also is building a platform to allow colleges to provide online esports tournaments for their students both on and off campus. “The goal is to connect the entire ecosystem with a crypto currency like bitcoin so that as you are in each of these different experiences you can bring that value with you,” Howard said.

ProjectMQ has partnered with some big players in the technology industry, including iHeartMedia, but Howard is most proud of its partnership with Junior Achievement.

“Last year we brought a game development camp to Junior Achievement to use video games to teach kids how to make games, which taught them how to be small business owner and how to write code,” he said

ProjectMQ is working with a strategic partner in Los Angeles that has placed the arcades in several businesses. “We’re helping them expand to the education market,” Howard said. “We’re in conversation with four universities in Tampa Bay. They’re very interested, and we expect to have some deployments this semester.”

Howard hopes to garner enough revenue from college sales to relocate the company’s esports director, who currently lives in Los Angeles, to Tampa and to cover his salary.

“Hopefully next year we’ll generate enough at scale so my brother and I can do the same,” he said.

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