Simon Cowell, co-founder and CEO of Zebedee, a payments platform for virtual worlds, joined host Paul Gordon for the Coinscrum Meet the Founders Series. Simon is a traditional finance alum where his previous role involved working with venture capitalists. That’s how he became familiar with Andreessen Horowitz, an early Coinbase investor. He heard Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong speak at an event in 2014 and started falling down the bitcoin rabbit hole. He left his old job and went full time into crypto, where he’s been ever since.
Zebedee is built on the Lightning Network and it is designed for game developers. In his other life, Simon was focused on building long-term sustainable cash generative businesses. When he came to crypto, he landed at cryptocurrency exchange Bitstamp, which is where he started thinking about the next long-term sustainable business model that can be built in the same way as an exchange.
When Bitcoin began to scale successfully with the Lightning Network, it became clear that Bitcoin could be a payments processor.
(3:23) “But I wasn’t so enamored with the idea of just trying to replace fiat payments with bitcoin immediately. The economy is too big and functions in a very different way and that’s a really big apple to try and bite off. So for me it was what are the other unique capabilities that are uniquely enabled by a global digital programmable currency? And for me it was perfectly, gaming was the exact slot that fit in that,” said Simon.
Gaming is already a digital programmable world, but it lacks a good means for transmitting payments. The economic activity in games is limited by ads or making purchases with fiat, such as subscriptions or in-game currencies. You can’t have direct economic activity within and between games, however.
(4:15) “I thought that bitcoin with its upgrade to the Lightning Network was the perfect place to do that. So that’s why we set about building the infra in order to enable that,” explained Simon.
The Zebedee team is made up of three co-founders. In addition to Simon, there is Andre Neves, who also serves as chief technology officer, and Christian Moss, aka Mandelduck, who is focused on the gaming side of things. Chaincode recommended Andre to Simon when he was looking to build out his team. He came across Christian during his early days of bitcoin research back in 2014 when he played a game that he found on r/bitcoin and that was built by Christian. Simon reached out to him on Twitter, they met up at a bitcoin conference in 2019, and the rest is history. The trio represents the different skill sets to make Zebedee successful, Simon said.
Zebedee started out building the APIs so that game developers could easily interact with Bitcoin and the Lightning Network for payments. They wrapped it in a tool that game devs are familiar with to make it easily accessible. The platform is primarily custodial.
(7:15) “From there it’s about integrating into other existing tech stacks. So we launched on the consumer side, we built a mobile wallet. Andre built it. It’s been his passion project. And the idea of the wallet that we built is we want to be the payment service in the middle that connects the games with fintech. We’re that node in the middle,” said Simon.
Zebedee’s market is people who have yet to be onboarded into crypto. As a result, the tech needs to be very easy for them to do so. The bitcoin wallet that they’ve built isn’t a financial app in the traditional sense. It’s more of a social gaming portal with a great UX, Simon explained, which you can see and interact with using games.
On the other side of the tech equation, it’s about integrating their own stacks of games and e-sports tournaments, for example. On the crypto side, it’s just about plugging into the Bitcoin network using Lightning.
(8:45) “We think there’s a huge chunk of activity that can just be bit off with having transferable value between the games…by which I mean just bitcoin,” said Simon.
Bitcoin in Games
Zebedee does not yet offer NFTs. They may support things around other coins and NFTs in the future. But right now, they are focused on the most commercially viable solution that they can offer to the mass market. That’s why they picked bitcoin. It’s also why they didn’t launch their own gaming coin because it’s just not needed, Simon noted.
(9:57) “So for us it’s first of all, let’s find ways to have bitcoin in games that can be used within that game and taken out and used in other games or even buy a cup of coffee with, maybe even pay your rent if you’re really good at games,” said Simon.
The Zebedee team believes that’s a very big near-term market despite the fact that there are some exciting things happening around in-game economies where you can trade things around. That model is much more complex, and it’s another reason why they started with just bitcoin, as there’s a huge amount you can do just with that in the first place.
(10:48) “And what we’re really trying to do is crack into a new market. And I think we’ve got that with our latest game release. It looks like fingers crossed, I have a feeling we’re going to have our first breakout into the non-crypto mass market,” said Simon.
At the application layer, Zebedee hasn’t experienced any problems with the Lightning Network as they are scaling. In January, they did 100K transactions and they are expecting to at least 10x that this month. To scale, all Zebedee needs to do is to make its channels bigger and open more channels.
(13:50) “The network is growing according to need now. And the good thing about the Lightning Network is all the companies within it, we all seem to be quite close. There’s a lot of companies springing up but certainly companies that have actual activity, we’re all quite close and we’re all collaborating to make sure that we have the right amount of liquidity between us,” said Simon, adding that they are also collaboratively helping to develop new standards.
Gaming & Crypto
The Zebedee team talks with developers about using cryptocurrency in their games, and there are still concerns around that. Meanwhile, the crypto community has been building its own games, whether on the Lightning Network or otherwise, that tend to not get that much traction just because it’s a difficult thing to do.
Zebedee announced at the end of December an integration into CS:GO (Counter Strike: Global Offensive), which they launched on Feb. 5. They are launching their own service integrated with bitcoin for payments. So you can play and your score is basically bitcoin that you get in and out. It’s not high stakes gambling and is more about having your points be some kind of value, Simon explained.
(19:22) “It’s more about you have extra skin in the game. When you can see your bitcoin balance going down, even if it’s just a few cents, up and down, every time you’re shot, your adrenaline is pumping and it just adds that layer of excitement that wasn’t there before when…there was no consequence for winning or losing,” said Simon.