In a games industry dominated by a few juggernaut companies, these founders and content creators are taking back power and writing their own stories.
By Matt Craig and Ethan Davison
The $200 billion (estimated revenue) gaming industry is increasingly dominated by a handful of companies. That includes tech giants like Microsoft and Tencent and gaming notables like Take-Two Interactive, which just spent $12.7 billion on Zynga, and Sony, which paid $2.6 billion for Destiny developer Bungie.
As the industry gets more corporate, a new generation of innovators including entrepreneurs, content creators and corporate insiders are carving their own, alternative paths. Consider Dayton Mills, 24. Mills dropped out of school at age 16 to build servers that run Minecraft networks, then founded his first company at age 17, providing game analytics. He cofounded gaming studio Branch with Connor Hollasch, 25, in 2020 and the pair have already raised $12.5 billion from Coinbase Ventures and others to build social games for Web3 where users earn digital tokens through playing. “We give everything to our players for free. You’re not paying for tokens. You’re not buying things in the game,” says Mills. “The players can create a game within our game and control how transactions work.
They are among the honorees on Forbes’ 2023 30 Under 30 Games list, which highlights the industry’s young stars and up and comers. Members of this year’s class of 2023 were selected from hundreds of nominations, submitted through a public online nomination form and generated from conversations with a variety of sources including industry insiders, internal research and Under 30 alums. Candidates—who had to be 29 or younger as of December 31, 2022, and could not have been previously named to a Forbes 30 Under 30 list—were then reviewed by a panel of judges including Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, a popular streamer and 30 Under 30 alum (2019); Nicole LaPointe Jameson, CEO of Evil Geniuses; Kiki Wolfkill, the studio head of Halo Transmedia and Entertainment at 343 Industries; and Eric Monacelli, a senior director of product and franchise development for Marvel Games.
This year’s list of Under 30 standouts includes a number of other notable entrepreneurs. Much like Mills, Matheus Fonseca (21) started Moonsworth while still in high school to develop new content within Minecraft. Today Fonseca and cofounders Colin McDonald (22) and Jordan Iribarren (25) operate competitive Minecraft PvP server Lunar Network and modpack Lunar Client, and reports over 2 million active players.
Jean Ortega (26) cofounded what is now the largest esports organization in the emerging gaming hotbed of Brazil. His LOUD Esports won this year’s “Valorant” world championships and became 2021’s most tweeted about esports team worldwide, according to Twitter data. In 2020, Rustin Sotoodeh (27) and Kha Lu (26) developed graphic, and customizable, keyboards inspired by streetwear trends, and later earned collaborations with IP like Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog and the popular anime series Attack on Titan. Esports lifestyle brand 100 Thieves acquired their Higround brand in October 2021; the founders stayed on as CEO and chief marketing officer, respectively.
Content creators, the true stars of the gaming industry, are also increasingly monetizing their followings with their own products, deals and even public offerings. Jack “CouRage” Dunlop (28) parlayed his popular streaming and broadcasting career into an ownership stake in 100 Thieves while Yousef Abdelfattah (26) helped take his esports outfit FaZe Clan public this year at a $725 million valuation (the value has since dropped precipitously). Chess player and commentator Alexandra Botez (27) capitalized on the chess boom in the aftermath of the popular Netflix series “The Queen’s Gambit” to grow her own chess-focused Twitch channel, which she runs with her sister Andrea Botez (20), to over 1 million followers and to sign brand deals with mainstream companies like Jack in the Box.
Another super successful Twitch streamer Ali “SypherPK” Hassan (26), who has 20 million followers across platforms and recently was given a skin of his likeness within “Fortnite,” is funneling the money he’s made as a creator into Oni Studios, which he cofounded with his wife Daniela Ali (28). What started as a team of five to support Hassan’s channels has grown to a 60 person outfit that serves as a creative house and incubator for emerging creators. Oni will soon open a 30,000 sq. ft. production headquarters near Austin, TX, funded entirely by “SypherPK” earnings. “This is going to be my legacy,” Hassan told Forbes last month at TwitchCon. “It’s something that I hope will last much longer than my streaming career.”
This year’s list continues to demonstrate how young people from diverse backgrounds are changing the gaming industry. Of the nominees selected by the judges, 15 are women, and 18 identify as people of color (some entries are shared by multiple cofounders). Several work at the industry’s biggest companies, where they are providing unique perspectives and helping shape and keep fresh the gaming cultures at these giants. One of the youngest members of the “Fortnite” marketing team and the only black female, Oyin Egbuson (27) was instrumental in bringing the first female athlete (Naomi Osaka), Asian American athlete (Chloe Kim) and the first Latina and member of the LGBTQIA+ community (Chica) into “Fortnite” as playable characters. The first African-American narrative designer at any of Activision’s studios, Matthew Musey (22) was admitted into the Writers Guild of America West at age 21 for his work on “Call of Duty: Vanguard.” Ambrielle Army (28) built a 60%+ female production team at Riot Games working in the development of in-game skins for “League of Legends,” before moving over to Singularity 6 in August to work on “cozy” games aimed at more diverse audiences.
This year’s list was edited by Matt Craig and Ethan Davidson. For a link to our complete Games list, click here, and for full 30 Under 30 coverage, click here.