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The game industry has been having a good 2020. The rest of the world can’t say the same. Leyline wants to help balance that.

Leyline is a nonprofit that can give folks in-game rewards and other goods like gift cards in exchange for charitable deeds. This could include donating time, blood, or even your computer’s processing power. This clever idea could encourage gamers to do more good for their local communities and the wider world.

I interviewed Leyline founder and CEO Jeremy Dela Rosa — himself a former Blizzard Entertainment employee — about this new nonprofit, how it will work, its goals, and the difficulty of starting such an endeavor during a pandemic.

This is an edited transcript of the interview.

Above: Jeremy Dela Rosa (and friend).

Image Credit: Leyline

It’s all a game

GamesBeat: How did you get this idea of gamifying charity?

Jeremy Dela Rosa: It’s a bit of a journey. I’ve certainly been thinking about this for a long time as far as, what’s a big opportunity for improving the state of the world, particularly through gaming? In large part, gaming is this gigantic untapped resource that we’ve not really capitalized on. There are more than 2.7 billion gamers on the planet, and that’s going to be growing by an extra billion, easily, within the next five years. What I was doing, I was essentially working at Blizzard for the past 10 years, and I was doing a lot of different roles. I was a producer helping build the Battle.net platform, where we hosted all the Activision Blizzard games. Launched seven triple-A titles including Diablo III, WoW, StarCraft II, Overwatch, Hearthstone. I lived abroad in Paris in our European hub to run our digital marketing, data analysis, and platform development. I came back to California to help launch our esports leagues. And what I realized is that man, we’re generating a lot of value and a lot of revenue. What is actually going back to the people, going back to the planet? To me, it wasn’t enough.

And things really came to a head this year as COVID hit and the economy is getting destroyed. I looked at the amount of profit that’s being made in the video game world because quarantine life has thrust video games to the forefront. Unfortunately, I don’t think the proportion of giving back was correct. And so I decided to resign and sell my house, cash out all my retirement money, sell all my material possessions, and launch a non-profit. The intent is to start to change the rules of how our economy works, because right now it’s just not working for everyone. In particular, we have not incentivized doing good things with the right economic model. Currently, what it takes for us to do good in the world requires us to spend money, to spend time, or to donate our skills. What we want to do is create this incentive where you’re earning passive income by doing good things. We know we could do this, and so we’re building a platform to make that happen.

GamesBeat: That’s a huge personal financial stake you have in this. Is that scary?

Dela Rosa: It’s certainly scary. That’s been on my mind for many years now. And a lot of it kind of comes into a context where — I’m paying attention to what’s happening in the world, and it’s truly awful. The amount of individuals that are about to get thrust into poverty, extreme poverty, is historic. OECD is projecting more than 470 million people will be thrust into scarcity by the end of this year. My parents are immigrants from the Philippines. They were born and raised in extreme poverty. I spent a lot of time in the philanthropic world getting immersed there to try and make a difference. It’s truly an awful existence. Mental health, your general health, educational outcomes, domestic violence, all these things dramatically increase with poverty. I wanted to make sure that we could put a dent in all that.

GamesBeat: What kind of rewards can gamers using Leyline earn?

Dela Rosa: The use case is quite simple. The first thing you do is you sign up for a Leyline account. You download an app that’s going to allow you to donate your spare computing power to scientific research. The kind of research projects we’re supporting are researchers trying to find solutions for COVID-19, for cancer, for climate change, for space exploration. You have a range of projects you can support. In doing so, as you’re leaving your computer on, doing nothing, you’re accelerating scientific research, and you’re going to earn Leyline points. Then you use those Leyline points to claim a gift card, for example, or a unique digital in-game item that’s been donated by one of our sponsors.

As well, we’re partnering with other sponsors like hardware manufacturers. NZXT and Xidax are providing coupon codes for buying their hardware. There’s any number of different cash value items that will be in our prize pool. The more sponsors and partners that we bring into the ecosystem, it’s going to incentivize more people to donate, because they essentially get all these rewards for very little cost and effort. That’s the idea. We’re creating a donation engine that’s kicked off by this prize pool, and it’s a reinforcing positive feedback loop.

GamesBeat: You talked a bit about donating processing power. It reminds me of the PlayStation 3 Folding@Home project. Is that a fair comparison?

Dela Rosa: That was a fantastic victory, in fact, because just that program alone, with the help of PS3, produced about 115 scientific white papers, which is gold in that community. We’re not trying to replace that. We’re actually a partner with them. Our current partner we’re working with is Boinc, a project coming out of UC Berkeley. It’s a platform where you can connect any number of volunteer computing donors to these research projects. Folding@Home is essentially the same thing, just a different technology, and a focus on viral research. Boinc includes all that viral and disease research, but also has other science projects too. For us, Leyline’s position is that we’re a platform that’s going to connect to any number of these projects. Whether it’s Boinc or Folding@Home, or even if you’re donating blood through the Red Cross, we as Leyline will be a platform that rewards any number of different activities. Boinc is our first partnership and our first use case. Our intent is to scale the platform so we incentivize and supercharge any non-profit on the planet.

GamesBeat: How is Leyline able to know if I donate blood?

Dela Rosa: Here’s the cool thing. Every partnership we would set up is based off the user building an account connection to that service. Boinc was a great use case for us because they have a system that’s been running for more than 17 years now, validating the amount of contribution they’re making. They calculate a Boinc score for how much you’ve contributed. At Leyline, we have a partnership with Boinc, and all we have is a basic API call. We don’t take any private user data. The user says, yes, I allow you to query Boinc and come back with my results, and then we just grant Leyline points off what’s been validated by the partner. In the case of the Red Cross, the Red Cross has a full database of every blood donation and plasma donation I’ve made. I could go to the Red Cross and say, let me link up my Leyline account to your database, and then every time I donate, we get the validation. Boom, you reward the user with Leyline points, and maybe a cool exclusive item that’s unique to that particular partner. In that way, it incentivizes both the intrinsic and the extrinsic motivators for the donor.

Next level

GamesBeat: How far do you want to go with the gamifying? Is this competitive? Will there be leaderboards?

Dela Rosa: That’s the first step of many, actually. Here’s the cool thing. A lot of our team that we’ve pulled together for this has tons of experience building these kinds of engagements for the gaming community. I’ve been part of the team that built the WoW site, the Diablo site, the Overwatch site. We’ve done all the data science around what engages and motivates individuals. There are key areas that game communities, game developers have mastered. Things like social connection or a sense of achievement and accomplishment for the challenges you’ve overcome, a sense of competition and cooperation, the sense you’re having an impact on a greater world around you. And obviously money and in-game items you can earn, but then you can start to demonstrate your social reputation. We’re going to do all of that. You’re going to have your own digital identity on Leyline. The core mechanic is we would have your representation as an avatar and various gears and suits and skins and items that you’re going to collect, so it’s uniquely you. All these items are unique as well, because they’re built on a blockchain. It can’t be copied, duplicated, or hacked.

That already has intrinsic value, but now you can take it a step further and say, look at your digital resume. Aside from all the cool cosmetics you have, you also know, hey, I donated 100 gallons of blood across my life. That’s on my profile. People know it’s validated and true. Similarly, we can also see that you’ve donated tens of thousands of hours toward accelerating scientific research, and have participated in achieving a white paper for cancer research. These are all powerful data points we can surface for your social reputation and validation, which again is again very key to the engagement that exists today in a lot of digital game worlds. We want to bridge that amazing game virtual experience that we have and then tie it to actions taking place in the real world, incentivizing real-world improvements and celebrating your achievements with this virtual identity that’s now public to all your friends and family.

Overwatch's Symmetra

Above: Symmetra from Overwatch.

Image Credit: Blizzard

GamesBeat: Was it difficult for you to find partners and businesses that wanted to work with you, or did your experience at Blizzard make that process easier?

Dela Rosa: Definitely the latter. I think I’ve been very fortunate to have traveled around the world, worked with a lot of big companies, a lot of different sponsors. I did a lot of the deals that we needed to do to launch the Overwatch League. We were selling teams for $20 million a pop, so there’s a lot of pitching involved, a lot of negotiations. I was super fortunate to be able to load up that Rolodex and bring it over into the non-profit world. The value prop and the way we frame it is a slam dunk for sponsors. It’s threefold. First, every company right now has a lot of pressure to emphasize how much impact they’re having for corporate social responsibility, that PR value. That’s already a primary incentive to be attached to a non-profit like this. Second, they’re also looking to reach a particular audience for their brand awareness and acquisition and engagement. Our platform and our market is very much younger millennials, Generation Z, gamers, the mobile market. Anyone interested in social good and social justice. These individuals are hard to reach in the marketing world.

When I was at Blizzard I was also heading up one of our collegiate programs, and sponsors would pay top dollar to reach these students just with their brand, even to get a logo on a Twitch stream. And the reason is because this younger generation, this demographic, is not exposed to any of the traditional marketing, like paid media ads or Facebook ads. A lot of digital marketing today is adblocked. 85 to 90% of this generation isn’t seeing ads anymore. They’re looking for an authentic way to engage and get in front of these audiences, and they’re willing to pay. With that, there’s a third piece, which is the tax-exempt receipts. Because we’re a non-profit and pending 501c3 status, these companies will be able to report it as a tax write-off. So there are some massive benefits for sponsors to plug into this network. That’s what we’re aiming to do, and that’s helped a lot in terms of driving the partnerships we’ve locked in. We have about half a dozen that are pretty close to closing a deal, and then we have about two dozen more that are in the pipe, in discussions. Things are looking pretty positive.

GamesBeat: What’s it like starting a nonprofit in 2020? Has it been more difficult than it would have been in, say, 2019?

Dela Rosa: It’s a mixed bag. I’d say in some ways it’s hard and in some ways it’s much easier. I’ll start with the easy parts. The fact that we can conduct business 100% remote has given us a tremendous amount of flexibility. We have a global work force now. We have team members out in Argentina, Canada, France, Germany, Philippines, Belarus. We’ve been able to spin up talent extremely fast, because we don’t have to worry about relocating anybody or making adjustments for cost of living and so on. That’s been very powerful. The rate of new collaborative tools and scalability for development has accelerated tremendously. That’s worked to our advantage a lot. In many ways — we just launched this company four months ago, and I’ll be frank with you. We’ve built more infrastructure in these four months than we could have done at Blizzard in the past four years. It gives a sense of scale, how much flexibility and economy and speed that startups have in this day and age. A lot of it is based on the platforms, for example how much Google Cloud Services enables for you to spin up databases and scalable platforms, without having to have any major infrastructure in place. That’s been a big advantage for us.

The challenge on the flip side is that so much is happening in the world, in society, that it’s hard to capture attention. There’s a lot of noise in the media, where you have to have an incredibly powerful message, a very viral message, to get the right audience. We’ve had to invest a lot into the right marketing strategy to make this project successful. The other element, too, is that you’re going to have VCs and investors who are scared to take risks on certain portfolios. They’re looking for a way to store their assets and money and realize an ROI on that. Because we’re a non-profit, we’re not here to sell equity or make rich people richer. We don’t have the ability to raise capital through big investors. That’s the lay of the land when it comes to launching the non-profit. Where we’ve settled, for our first big moment, is with a crowdfunding campaign. Since we’re designing this platform for the people versus the big investors, we figured the best way to raise funds is to have people vote with their dollars, believe in this thing, and take it a step further to include them in how we’re building this, to have very transparent communications and enable the community to have a say in how this product evolves and develops. Ideally, they can even be a part of building it too.

GamesBeat: Is there anything else you think I should know about Leyline?

Dela Rosa: I want to emphasize that aside from trying to build this product for the future, we’re also trying to radically rethink how an organization should function. The key pillars for how we’re going to conduct ourselves is that we’re non-profit. We’re not here to become millionaires. All the money beyond our operational costs will go right back to the people. Second, we’re open source. Radically transparent. Everything that we build is going to be publicly accessible to review, to inspect, to break, and for people to volunteer to help fix it. That allows us to be held accountable for every promise we make, because nothing is going to be hidden from the public. The third thing is that we’re an open knowledge project. You can think of this as similar to how Wikipedia functions as open knowledge. Wikipedia is not aiming to make a ton of money or run ads. We see the same kind of knowledge-sharing opportunity in how a business gets run, how we develop software, and how we go to market with that.

My experience at Blizzard, particularly in running our collegiate programs, is that there’s a massive demand from students, from recent graduates, and even from the recently unemployed, where they need an environment for them to develop their skills and their careers. The problem in the crisis we face right now is that there are no jobs available, or they’re extremely limited. Or as a recent graduate you don’t have the opportunity to get into an entry-level position, because the minimum requirement is 3-5 years. People are stuck here. We want to give a launch pad and a springboard for these individuals, who at this point are already at 40 million recently unemployed in the past three months, just in the US alone. We can start to make a big dent here by just giving access to knowledge and access to the amount of veterans that we have in this organization who are willing to mentor and train and share their knowledge. That’s something very different to market than the product, but it’s an essential piece of how we’ll mature over the next few years. Again, we’re trying to take this radical approach to how to run a company, which is very much not what you see in the private sector, and even not really what you see in the non-profit sector too. We’re trying to take the best of those worlds and innovate there.

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