Rustin & Kha of E-Coliseum are cultivating community at the intersection of gaming and culture.by KC Orcutt | |
DropLabs Creator Series: Rustin Sotoodeh and Kha Lu.
In 1958, physicist William Higinbotham made history when he created what is believed to be the first video game. In the early 1970s, the advancing technology made its introduction into the commercial realm in the form of the now-classic cultural phenomenon known as Pong. Video games have been continually evolving and shaping culture ever since, connecting billions of participants around the world and generating nearly $120 billion in revenue. Thanks to passion-driven entrepreneurs like Rustin Sotoodeh and Kha Lu, the future of gaming as a bona fide community is in good hands.
After making an impressive debut in downtown Los Angeles as a company and launching the world's first eSports gym in 2018, Rustin and Kha have been working tirelessly to establish their business and showcase how the all-encompassing world of competitive, organized video gaming is thriving on a local and global level alike. Through creating a physical space for enthusiasts of all skill levels to gather, Rustin and Kha are not only offering an opportunity for gamers to improve their abilities and compete with others, but are simultaneously fostering a community in a widespread tangible way. Their company E-Coliseum is dedicated to providing an infrastructure within eSports for others to connect beyond the screen, exemplifying how the gaming industry is socially no different than other facets of mainstream culture.
From strategically collaborating with brands such as Adidas for gaming activations to sharing their experiences and opinions on their HYPEGEEK podcast, Rustin and Kha are innovating through taking direction action. By understanding the ins and outs of what some may still consider a niche market, they are able to cater to those who share their authentic love for gaming and help push the eSports movement forward. During a recent conversation with DropLabs, Rustin and Kha shared their story, speaking in-depth about their vision for E-Coliseum, what led them to embracing the eSports industry as a career path and their take on how DropLabs technology can expertly be applied to the world of gaming.
What do you do for a living and what helped you get started?
Kha: To give the overall story, Rustin and I met when we were about halfway through college, which was around two and a half years ago when we were both juniors. We met through a mutual friend; he went to USC and I went to Loyola Marymount University. I started out as a computer science major and ended up switching over to marketing, which led me towards the eSports route. I rowed in college and played soccer my entire life so it was part of this natural transition to becoming an eSports athlete. It was convenient to play with my friends who were in different schools and also having this competitive outlet that had been lacking for me after I stopped playing sports in the traditional sense. I really indulged myself in eSports but never really saw it as a career path until I met Rustin. He had started doing something really cool and wanted to create these experiential eSports events, such as creating tournaments and bringing back the LAN party sleepover type of vibe that you'd have with your friends playing late at night. I was really intrigued by what he was doing and I was able to jump on board with the company E-Coliseum.
Rustin: Like Kha said, we met in college. I played football at USC my freshman year but I was always a huge gamer. The way I got my start in the industry was through selling sneakers on the side. One of my professors who I had sold sneakers to actually owned a gaming company. It got to the point where I was like, look, you don't have to pay me for these, just give me a job for the summer. I shadowed him and worked at his AR and VR gaming company where I learned, contrary to what my parents had told me, that you can actually make a tangible career in gaming. The industry is so massive and it's actually quite lucrative, and that experience helped me learn where I wanted to plant my flag. I figured, if I'm a sneakerhead, and I love video games, there has to be more people like myself out there.
On top of that, eSports was growing so rapidly and ultimately, we realized there's a huge need for community. It was kind of like, if you like basketball, you can go to a public court and find that community, but where do you go to find other gamers? With that question in mind, I entered USC's largest pitch competition, bringing the concept of creating the world's first eSports gym. I wanted to create a place for people to go compete in tournaments, have access to professional trainers and find other people who enjoy video games. We placed third in the contest and won $10,000 through that, and then from there, had an angel round where one of the investors was actually that same professor, which was a really incredible full circle moment. During this time, Kha joined the company and we started doing pop-ups. During our senior year, we launched the first eSports gym in downtown LA and balanced running that with finishing up our finals. We learned so much during that time and made a pretty significant name for ourselves in the eSports community because no one had really seen a physical gaming event done in this type of capacity where there are influencers and other aspects of culture involved.
What are some of the projects you worked on after making your debut as a company and what are some things you’re currently working on?
Rustin: After that, we started to collaborate with different brands. We did an experience for Capitol Records and we've done summits for Nike. We did the gaming room at adidas' Coachella House, so we were the first people to actually bring eSports to Coachella. We've achieved a lot of firsts in the gaming space, partially because doing events like this felt normal to us but was completely alien. It's allowed us to really separate ourselves and be unique. We've since moved forward with this community.
We've always been dedicated to helping people find community in the space and helping others find people to play with. We're launching an online platform called Higround, which is an alpha release of our matchmaking platform that'll help us build a community of aspirational gamers who want to help each other grow. With the rise of eSports, there's a huge desire to find teammates and organized tournaments to enter, but no one has really built that infrastructure or pipeline. We're going to start by helping these people find teammates but eventually we want to help people to grow in the gaming space. The same way kids grow up wanting to be LeBron James, they want to be like Ninja and we want to help them achieve that.
Do you have any early memories of when you first discovered your passions or realized that the entrepreneurial path made sense for you to take?
Rustin: What led me to become an entrepreneur actually goes back to when I was in middle school. Skating culture was really influential, especially on the fashion side, and everyone wanted to wear the coolest clothes. I wanted to be the person making those clothes, so I started a little t-shirt company where I would sell t-shirts I made out of my locker in sixth and seventh grade. Kids would order my designs during lunch or in between classes, and I would go home and iron the designs onto the t-shirts and sell them at school. Almost everyone was wearing my shirts, even the principal and my teachers, so that was pretty cool.
At the same time, I was really into technology and was hacking people's iPhones, iPads, XBoxes and PSPs. I had both the entrepreneurial side and then the tech/gaming side. My parents always saw gaming as a distraction but it's massive today. In terms of revenue, gaming is larger than music and movies combined, and you really can make a living. However, once I got into USC, I ditched my entrepreneur and gaming background. I wanted to try to keep the dream alive of becoming a pro athlete and playing football. Once I made the team, I realized that this isn't actually what I want to do. It was something that I wanted to accomplish but after I accomplished it, I started to get back into selling things and flipping sneakers. That reignited the entrepreneurial side of me, which led me back to gaming.
Kha: For me, I wouldn't say it was an early memory that ignited my interest or anything like that. I think most people in my generation have grown up with home consoles so gaming has always been a side hobby for a lot of my peers. It was only until recently when I was in college that I realized where the gaming world could take me professionally. I realized there's a lot of intrinsic benefits to gaming that a lot of people don't see and that has now become an integral part of our company culture. There's a community, there's a social structure around it and there's a lot of friends you can make. When I stopped playing sports in college and focused more on school, I realized I was a competitor at heart and finding that outlet through eSports was really new and exciting for me. That's when I started to fall in love with it. For me, the entrepreneurial side came from an understanding of what I was good at and what I liked. In addition to creating content and learning more about marketing, I was very intrigued by consumer behavior and learning how to sell things to people. This all lends itself very naturally to eSports. It wasn't an early revelation or anything like that, it was more so about discovering different parts about myself and meeting the right people. I'd say it was all pretty destined.
How would you explain the DropLabs experience to your friends?
Rustin: The way I've been describing it, is that it feels like you're at a concert. You can listen to music and enjoy it, but when you go to a concert, it's a totally different experience where you can actually feel the vibration of the different aspects of the song. So with the sneakers, it mimics that and it brings that to life. It also makes you want to go back and listen to all of your favorite songs again because it's like a rediscovery. It's kind of like you're putting on a pair of glasses and realizing you were blind before. [Laughs] A friend of mine is producer who has these insane studio monitors and we were playing all these songs that I know and am very familiar with, but with the DropLabs shoes, it was like I could hear them way better. It's a new experience. The same applies for gaming as well. I was playing Halo and I know all of the game's sounds, but I've never felt them so it was pretty crazy honestly.
Kha: To put it simply, it allows you to immerse yourself even more into what you're listening to or what you're watching. I'd say that the best games to play with the DropLabs shoes would be single-player adventure games, such as Red Dead Redemption or Grand Theft Auto. During games where you're pretty much in a movie controlling one player, with your headphones on and staring at the screen for hours, having an extra level of immersion with sensory touch is just such a cool benefit. Having that stimuli allows you to experience what you may have already experienced but on a different and deeper level.
In what ways would you say DropLabs can help you to become a better gamer?
Kha: The technology of these shoes could be applied to games where surround sound is very important. For example, the audio of Fortnite is very advanced and you're about to hear 360 noise. Within the game, there's a setting of 3D audio where you can really identify where, for example, footsteps are coming from, whether it's to your left, right or behind you. It's really advantageous to have this sense of sound and understanding of where your opponents are, especially in high intense situations. The shoes themselves can give you a next-level alertness. Even with games like League of Legends where sound isn't as important because it's more visual, there are different cues within the game that can help. Let's say a certain move becomes available but you didn't notice it on your screen. Getting a vibration or notification in your foot could allow you to activate that move a lot faster. There are a lot of different advantages to something like that.
What would you say is the biggest misconception about the gaming industry?
Rustin: I'd say it's that gamers are anti-social. I think that's the biggest misconception ever. The very fabric of gaming is social. You're going online to play with other people. You're talking to them. You're doing things together. Games are the new social network so I think gamers aren't part of this weird anti-social group; they just receive that stigma for some reason. Now, thanks to the rise of eSports and the rise of Twitch and these different things, gaming is becoming more accepted and we want to push that forward.
Kha: What Rustin said really falls along the lines of what I believe as well. Changing that stigma is really what we preach as a company. Additionally, the gaming industry has always been massive but in the past couple of years has been brought to the mainstream in different ways. Sure, there are a lot more games and a lot more eyes on it now, but contextually speaking, the industry has always been really big and progressive. That negative social stigma has allowed people to dismiss gaming as just a hobby. Now, with the rise of eSports and streaming, there are different opportunities to create a more tangible career and as that becomes more visible on a widespread level, the negative stigmas will start to dissipate as everything keeps moving forward, which is a really good thing.
Do you have any words of wisdom or advice you'd like to share that you've found particularly helpful or inspiring?
Rustin: The biggest thing I learned at the end of 2019 that I'm carrying into 2020 is to run your own race. Everyone has a different starting point and so you shouldn't necessarily compare yourself to others, especially if you desire to be in a larger competition. You have to be patient and understand that there are certain things that need to happen in your life in order for you to learn and grow and be who you are. It's important to optimize for learning and not necessarily for how you look compared to other people. Focus on yourself and your actions will speak for you.
Kha: For me personally, especially doing this at 23 years old and not having the amount of wisdom I could give compared to those who have a lot of years behind them, it's important to keep going. That's what's really ingrained in my head. In an industry like eSports, I think it's a massive benefit to lean into my age and not be intimidated by those who either have more experience or who have said that something won't work, etc. It's important to form your own opinions and work at your own pace, like Rustin said.
Rustin Sotoodeh and Kha Lu of E-Coliseum can be found on Instagram at @rust1n and @khap0w respectively, as well as can be found on Twitch at twitch.tv/ecoliseumtv and twitch.tv/khap0w and on the web at linktr.ee/ecoliseumtv
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