Posted May 12, 2020

Sports have long been a center of gravity for our social lives, bringing together friends, family, and fans. For many, sports are woven into our lives—we have childhood memories of watching baseball games with family, football games after a big Thanksgiving dinner, or tailgating a college football game with our closest friends from school. When we move away from our hometowns, we stay in touch with friends through sports memes and jokes. In recent years, we’ve seen the rise of an important new dimension: esports. This generation has grown up playing and watching video games the same way previous generations enjoyed watching physical sports like boxing and tennis—as a social activity to build deep relationships with family and friends. We’ve seen a groundswell of enthusiasm as hundreds of millions of fans now congregate online to watch teams of professional gamers compete. 

It is against this backdrop that we are excited to announce that a16z is leading the Series B for Sleeper, an innovative social platform with the mission of strengthening friendships through sports and esports. In these difficult, socially distant times, it’s a charge that has become more important than ever.

The CEO and CTO of Sleeper are Nan Wang and Weixi Yen, childhood friends who epitomize the convergence of technology, social networks, and sports/esports. After college, they moved to different coasts, then different countries, each gathering expertise in mobile games, finance, and startups. Throughout, they kept in touch by watching football—their fantasy league spans nearly 20 years—and playing League of Legends with mutual friends. Eventually, Nan and Weixi teamed up with Ken Wang and Henry Leung to found Sleeper—a novel way to bring friends together around sports through chat, news, and social features.

The Sleeper team realized early on that consumer behavior was evolving: Our phones are constantly in-hand; we text even as we simultaneously watch games on TV. We share video clips of spectacular plays, tease our friends, and post news about players and upcoming games. The Sleeper team recognized the huge opportunity to integrate all of these activities into a unified, thoughtfully designed mobile app that bakes social features into every interaction. Sleeper combines everything from integrated messaging to avatars that can wear team jerseys to a fantasy football experience—all in one app.

That vision has taken off. I met Nan and Weixi when they were just getting started; in just a few short years, they’ve built an app that reached over one million active players last football season. Sleeper is one of the fastest growing apps in all of sports: Its fantasy leagues grew 700 percent year-over-year, with nearly daily activity from its user base. Given that it’s an app that brings friends together, it’s not surprising over 90 percent of Sleeper’s growth has been viral, as users invite their friends to the app.

We know that sports is a huge market. Over 59 percent of Americans describe themselves as sports fans; globally there are billions of fans for soccer, basketball, cricket, tennis, and more. Individual tournaments like the World Cup and the Olympics draw over 3.5 billion viewers. Many top athletes are global celebrities. And companies built on sports—whether in media, apparel, or teams—are some of the most valuable on the planet.

We are also excited about the rise of esports and the continued popularity of gaming. In recent years, events like the World Championship for League of Legends have exceeded 100 million viewers, more than sports linchpins like Wimbledon, the Tour de France, and the Daytona 500. Furthermore, the broader games industry has revenues of over $100 billion—more than the music and film industries combined. Whereas in the past many of us grew up playing kickball to build friendships, now that bond is being forged in Roblox and Fortnite.

While Sleeper initially targeted the football audience, the company plans to expand into other verticals, starting with esports. Starting today, Sleeper is launching a new fantasy sports game built on the upcoming League of Legends summer season that allows fans to draft and play their favorite talent from regional competitive leagues. This update will be released in iOS and Android in multiple markets around the world, starting with North America, Europe, Korea, Brazil, and Vietnam. The crossover audience for traditional sports and esports is growing—putting those experiences in the same app allows friends to connect across different seasons and sports.

Beyond the traditional televised or in-person viewing experience, Sleeper is ultimately reinventing the social experience of sports and our ability to interact around games. With it, we and the team hope to build one of the great new social products of this generation.

Welcome Nan, Weixi, Ken, Henry, and the rest of the Sleeper team to the a16z family!