A former baseball star looks to ace video games

Reuters News

7/14/2011 1:59:03 PM - Reuters News

By Liana B. Baker

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Curt Schilling was one of Major League Baseball's dominant pitchers for some 20 seasons and since retiring, his game playing has taken a new direction -- he owns a company aiming to conquer the $65 billion video game industry.

Schilling's company, 38 Studios, so named for his jersey number, is no casual pastime for the three-time World Series champion, who won pitching titles with the Arizona Diamondbacks and Boston Red Sox.

Schilling has invested $30 million to $35 million of his own money into the company, he told Reuters in a recent interview in Los Angeles. The company plans to release its first game next year.

The former All-Star chose a tricky time to jump into the video game business, where startups such as Zynga Inc have won fanfare and challenged old powers by rolling out simple, addictive games for Facebook and smartphones.

Against this backdrop, Schilling's 300-person business has pursued a different strategy: It plans to release a new fantasy-action franchise featuring original characters and stories.

It is the sort of business plan that used to be commonplace but has fallen out of favor as major video game publishers, including Electronic Arts and Activision Blizzard, have tried to lessen their risk by focusing on expanding existing franchises rather than developing new ones.

"It's hard, but anything worth doing in life is challenging and hard and I've never had a problem with hard," said Schilling, who is remembered for pitching in the 2004 playoffs with an injured ankle that bled through his sock.

How the 44-year-old Schilling ended up on stage last month at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, the industry's top U.S. trade show, is a path that dates back to 1980 when a close friend bought an Apple computer and Schilling began playing games on it.

"I was hooked," he said. "I was coding and programing and playing games and I've been playing ever since."

STAYING OUT OF TROUBLE

While traveling during his baseball days, Schilling said he would return to his hotel room, log on to the Web-based fantasy game "World of Warcraft" and play along with his sons back home.

"There were a lot of ways to get in trouble as an athlete," he said. "So I stayed in my room and played PC games on my laptop."

As his pitching career wound down, Schilling told his wife Shonda he was thinking about starting a video game company and that he wanted to set aside a little money to fund it.

Before long, "that little chunk of money got really big," said Schilling, who founded 38 Studios in 2006, just before his last professional baseball season. He would work mornings at the office in a Boston suburb before heading to Fenway Park to pitch.

"When you start a company on your own and you're looking to get funding, exposure is not a bad thing," he said. "We won the World Series in '07 so I was pretty comfortable being able get meetings with a lot of people with a phone call."

Schilling said he is proud that his company has no backing from venture capitalists. Instead, funding has come from his own wallet and a small group of investors.

"Had we gone out and gotten VC money early, we would have given away the very thing you strive to keep, which is control of your product," he said.

GROWING AND PLANNING

A turning point for 38 Studios came in 2009 when it bought "Big Huge Games" a Baltimore-based development house owned by THQ Inc, the publicly traded video game company known for its wrestling and ultimate-fighting titles.

That accelerated development of 38 Studios' first game, "Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning," which will hit stores in 2012. The single-player role-playing game was created by best-selling author R.A. Salvatore along with Todd McFarlane, the creator of the comic book Spawn. The company has partnered with EA to publish and market the game.

After that launches, Schilling's company plans to release an online multiplayer game based on the same characters.

Another big boost came from the state of Rhode Island, which last year offered $75 million in financing to move the studio from Massachusetts.

He took them up on it and finished the relocation in April. Schilling said while he still goes into the office, he tries to take a back seat to his talented staff working on the video games.

"Things have gotten infinitely better from a games perspective than five years ago because I'm now less hands-on," he said.

Schilling must stick with his project for several years if he wants to see the games released and turn a profit. He said he is committed to building a multimillion-dollar company.

"I'm in this until I think I'm not having fun or my wife tells me to get out," he joked.

(Editing by Paul Thomasch and Maureen Bavdek)