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Nifty Games added $38 million in new capital so it can launch its NFL Clash and NBA Clash mobile games.
About $26 million comes in the form of an investment led by Vulcan Capital, while $12 million comes in the form of debt financing. Much of that money will go toward launching the games and acquiring new users, said CEO Jon Middleton in an interview with GamesBeat.
That kind of funding is something Nifty couldn’t have dreamed about when it started in 2018. But since that time, we’ve gone through a pandemic in which games have seen a huge surge and a venture funding boom. And for Nifty, Peter Moore (the former head of the Xbox and Sega of America businesses) joined the Lafayette, California-based company as a board member.
On top of that, Nifty has been testing its quick-session, head-to-head sports mobile games, and they’re turning out to be good, Middleton said. He isn’t talking about a release date yet for NFL Clash, but he hinted the company could announce that in the near future.
Still, all of that adds up to a good time to raise money for the company.
“It’s interesting times out there in the fundraising world,” Middleton said. “Having Vulcan as our spearhead investor is pretty outstanding, because not only are they a triple-A tech investment firm, they obviously own the Seahawks and the Trailblazers as well. It’s a lock-and-key fit.”
The company has raised more than $50 million to date, making it one of the best-funded mobile game startups. Middleton and former Universal games exec Pete Wanat started the company in 2018, and it now has 40 employees. It has also contracted art out to other overseas companies.
“We’re very excited about the backers we have behind us,” Middleton said.
In addition to Vulcan Capital, the investors in the current round include March Gaming, Defy Partners, and Courtside Ventures, as well as a strategic group of new investors. The latter include South Korean funds Woori Capital, K-NET, and Hansae Yes24. Other new investors include Steve Pagliuca, the managing owner of the Boston Celtics; Speedwagon Capital; and Gaingels, a global network of LGBT/ally investors. The latter is good to have aboard for diversity and accessibility, which are necessary for reaching a wide audience, Middleton said.
Moore had just left a successful stint at the Liverpool Football Club in the United Kingdom when Middleton asked him to join the board.
Moore said in an interview with GamesBeat that Middleton and Wanat caught his attention because they were making games that he could enjoy as a more casual player. He acknowledged he could have been better at the hardcore PC and console EA Sports games that he once managed, but these quick-play Clash games were more his style.
“I play all day and every day, so there’s very rarely a day goes by where I’m not jumping on six or seven times a day because you can do that when you have 5 or 6 or 7 minutes to play a game,” Moore said. “I can work my way up the ladder. I look forward to it, and I just find it very approachable.”
He was also impressed that Nifty’s scrappy founders lined up licenses from the National Football League (NFL), National Football League Players Association (NFLPA), National Basketball Association (NBA), and National Basketball Player Association (NBPA).
“It’s not Madden or FIFA, but it’s so much fun. It’s so strategic,” Moore said. “I’m excited about NFL, and equally, if not even more excited about NBA because of the global reach of the NBA, particularly in the Asian market.”
Nifty Games aims to build out a slate of titles with the world’s largest sports licenses to deliver gameplay tailored for mobile-first.
But there is competition, and it’s waking up. In June, EA agreed to buy Playdemic, the maker of Golf Clash, for $1.4 billion. It also paid $2.4 billion for Glu, whose portfolio includes MLB games. And Zynga, headed by former EA execs Frank Gibeau and Bernard Kim, bought StarLark, the Chinese developer of Golf Rivals for $525 million. That means both companies are ready to make quick-play sports titles that resemble Supercell’s Clash Royale game.
I asked if the sleeping giants had awoken. And Moore said they were still “wiping the sleep out of their eyes,” as Nifty Games was almost ready to ship its titles while the others were just getting started.
“We’ve been at this well over a year and a half getting this thing ready to go,” Moore said. “So it’s one thing waking up. It’s another thing having something ready to go.”
When I heard this, I laughed and remembered why I enjoyed interviewing Moore in the past. He was always about loud and funny competition. I asked Moore if he relished competing with EA CEO Andrew Wilson and former EA exec Gibeau at Zynga, and he laughed.
“I think you know my former employer in EA — you and I, Dean, have talked about this for a decade — has always struggled a little bit with mobile,” he said. “Obviously, the board made the decision to get after Glu and get Playdemic. They are in the racing world with Codemasters, leveraging their balance sheet to catch up on maybe where there have been some strategic missteps. I’ll leave it at that. EA is an oil tanker of immense proportions, and we’re a little motor torpedo boat. But there is plenty out there for all of us to do well.”
(I didn’t ask Moore if he made those missteps, but maybe I’ll ask that another time).
The tanker and the torpedo boat
Wanat said that Nifty’s advantage is that it has a lot of experts on mobile games from companies like Zynga and Scopely, and they also have a lot of free-to-play experts and die-hard sports fans.
“They understand the passion that drives what a sports game is, and why it’s inherently different than any other types of games or genres on mobile,” Wanat said.
That’s what appealed to the investors. In a statement, YB Choi, partner at Vulcan Capital, said his firm sees an incredible commercial opportunity in bringing premium sports games to casual mobile game fans, in which they get to build a roster with favorite pro players and call the shots as their team competes all season long. Middleton said he was pleased to have the all-star investors, including Pagliuca, co-owner of the Boston Celtics and co-chair of Bain Capital.
“We’re swing above our weight with the partnerships and the content that we have,” Middleton said.
The challenge will be user acquisition, as it will cost a lot of money to target and acquire the sports fans who spend money on games.
“We know in the world of mobile that user acquisition is tough and expensive at times,” Moore said. “We are making sure the team is strong and at the same time we are making sure that there is plenty of money left here in this funding to be able to deploy against user acquisition. “
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