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Azubu: "We have to punch above our weight"

Streaming service CEO Ian Sharpe on how it plans to take on Twitch and YouTube

Despite its outspoken boss and its efforts in the eSports community, Azubu isn't the first brand you think of when someone mentions streaming. It's not even the second. CEO Ian Sharpe is honest about why the company has so far had a low profile in the space, and bullish about how it plans to take on Twitch and YouTube.

"Azubu was less in stealth mode and more in sent-to-Coventry mode because the previous management - I took over in August 2013 - had made such a mess of things. They were sponsoring teams without there being any kind of viable business model. They launched a streaming platform where everything was hard coded so you couldn't adjust anything. They had executives who moved to Berlin for no apparent reason other than to fill expensive flats full of furniture from IKEA and then vanish," he explains with a weary sigh.

"Right now a Logitech or a Coca-cola bounces off Twitch"

"Azubu was there but was generally regarded as an elaborate money laundering scheme."

His first job was to challenge that misconception and start to resurrect the brand, a job not made easier by the fact that the headlines were dominated by the flashy PR of the bigger players.

"The North American and European market is so heavily dominated by Twitch and YouTube, they're easy stories. Not many people champion the underdog, we have to punch above our weight and we have to do something particularly innovative and cool to get noticed."

Azubu's plan is to focus on eSports and offering the pro players much more tailored streaming options, allowing them to manage their businesses and their livelihoods in a real way.

"The essence of the strategy is that compared to Twitch where Kevin [Lin] stood up at an event recently and said there are 11,000 broadcasters with us who are making at least minimum wage, that's not the full potential of this industry. We want to enable streamers to have a range of revenue streams at their disposal so that they can sustain themselves as entertainers and players in addition to the tournaments that we can open up streaming to something a bit more deep than a stream with some chat."

Sharpe explains this means custom-made modules for the Azubu broadcasters, interactivity built into Azubu player, allowing sponsors to be involved in a meaningful way. He believes the big advertisers are currently being disappointed.

"Right now a Logitech or a Coca-Cola bounces off Twitch. They get disappointed because a logo on a shirt and burnt-in overlay doesn't amount to a tangible return on that campaign. There's nothing measurable, there's no direct attributable sales and so they think 'Oh, we've been involved with eSports but there's nothing there' and they retreat from that. That will perpetuate the cycle because unless this becomes a business it will remain a marketing component of such IPs and publishers that do it."

He adds that the community can only lift itself out of that rut with self determination, and that comes from alternative revenue streams, which in turn comes from giving brands friction.

"It becomes like an FPS where you're going room by room and trying to clear out the Twitch infestation"

Azubu has also worked closely with its broadcasters, for better or worse, to meet their needs.

"There's both a formal and informal approach. Where we started off two years ago - and it was very early, too early - was to sit down with teams like CLG and say, 'What do you want from a streaming site?' We heard all of that but we only had a skeleton staff to build it so it took us a while to get to where we are now. We had to build investor confidence, had to showcase the future and get more buy-in and that takes an inordinate amount of time," he says.

"Now the very essence of putting the beta up is so the broadcasters who work with us can say, 'This doesn't work, I need this button to be here, why is my stream lagging, etc, etc, etc.' So that is a source of... it veers between healthy conflict and an open wound in the sense that if your livelihood and your audience are on the line they get very persnickety about it. But at the same time we respect the feedback."

Another Azubu strategy is working globally in markets where Twitch doesn't have a foothold yet, Brazil, India, China. It already has a strong presence in Korea with an alliance with The Korea e-Sports Association (KeSPA).

"It becomes like an FPS where you're going room by room and trying to clear out the Twitch infestation."

Azubu hopes to take on Twitch with agility, innovation and the ability to slipstream in Twitch's wake as it deals with becoming part of the Amazon family. Sharpe is also concerned about what the current corporation strongholds on streaming means for eSports as an actual sport.

"Esports is being contorted right from birth. When you've got Google and Amazon and Riot and Valve - less Valve because they're letting it grow organically - but when it's being manufactured... There's something unholy - unholy is too strong but you know what I mean - it's not real. And it should be because these are people's careers and livelihoods."

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