From Closet Gamer to Millionaire: How Kevin Chou Made It Big

A lot of people talk about giving back. Kevin Chou did it.
By Zak Jason

The only child of Taiwanese immigrants, Kevin Chou grew up bored and lonely in Moorpark, a sleepy middle-class suburb of Los Angeles.

As he recalls it, he spent much of the ’80s in his parents’ dining room playing 8-bit floppy disk games on his father’s IBM XT.

“I had no friends. I had video games,” Chou says today with a wry laugh.

“It’s very surreal,” says Chou, “to go from being a closet gamer to watching a whole generation cheer on, and aspire to be, gamer-athletes—we’ve all won. And it hasn’t been that long.”

His favorite was Microsoft Decathlon, one of the first multiplayer games ever released, which featured gold medalist Bruce (now Caitlyn) Jenner as a character. Every couple of weeks, Chou’s cousin Holly Liu, MIMS ’03, would visit and they’d spend hours crouched over a shared keyboard, Chou smashing the 1 and 2 keys on the left, Liu thumping the + and - keys on the right, as they raced jagged white and pale-blue dots around a track, or hurled pink, globular shot puts. The graphics look Precambrian today, but to Chou “it was magical that you could do this incredibly competitive Olympic thing from home.”

Today gaming is a sport, thanks in no small part to Chou’s own efforts. Professional esports is a billion-dollar industry, with dozens of leagues (for FIFA soccer, Super Smash Brothers, Call of Duty, etc.) drawing millions of fans worldwide. In February 2018, 40 miles east and a galaxy beyond Moorpark, Chou sat in the owner’s box at Burbank’s Blizzard Arena. Former home of The Tonight Show, Blizzard now hosted a sold-out tournament between the Dallas Fuel and Seoul Dynasty, a South Korean esports team that Chou purchased in 2017 for $20 million. Like Jerry Jones in the NFL and Steve Ballmer in the NBA, Chou has become a sporting mogul. His athletes, clad in black-and-gold jerseys with a menacing tiger logo, are followed across Asia, Europe, and the United States. Hundreds of fans were here in the arena, hooting in tiger-stripe face paint and brandishing homemade signs, with many thousands more watching via live feed. Instead of a gridiron or parquet court, they compete on the screen, playing the battle-royale shooter game Overwatch.

In the best-of-five match, Dynasty took an early 2–0 lead, but when Dallas surged back with an ambush of orange cannons, aquamarine laser beams, and bright green “orbs of destruction,” Chou jogged down to the floor to watch with the fans. Game 4 went into overtime, but Dynasty used a series of expertly timed royal blue force fields—a skill sought by Chou and his talent scouts as they built the roster of joystick jockeys—to run out the clock and win the day. Fans gave them a standing ovation. “It’s very surreal,” says Chou, “to go from being a closet gamer to watching a whole generation cheer on, and aspire to be, gamer-athletes—we’ve all won. And it hasn’t been that long. I’m not that old.”

Chou is, in fact, only 39 and looks younger, with his spiked black hair and thick round spectacles. In 2014, Fortune named him to its “40 under 40” list of the world’s most influential young people in business. At the time, he was still CEO of Kabam, the mobile gaming company he founded at age 26. In 2017, he sold that company for a combined $1 billion. Since then, he has cofounded Gen.G Sports (parent of Seoul Dynasty) and Forte Labs, a company that brings cryptocurrency to the video gaming world.

I first met Chou at Forte’s headquarters on the 22nd floor of a stone-and-glass tower in San Francisco’s Financial District. After a weekly “lunch and learn” session with the company’s 25 employees (many of them Berkeley graduates), we sat in a glass-walled conference room named Fort Knox.

In that secure environment, Chou recounted his childhood. “I just remember being bored,” he said. “But I was lucky to be bored, and to have no pressure on what to do or who to be.”

“Cal is a symbol of many positive things for me,” says Chou. “One of the most important is upward mobility.”

It wasn’t for lack of parental attention. With his mother, he maxed out the five-book quota at the library every month—The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Tolkien—and tinkered on the computer with his father, a scientist for the Department of Defense. From Decathlon Chou graduated to Super Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda (“Oh my God, the storytelling, and you the player are the storyteller!”), and then to the arcade classic Street Fighter II. Most often he played as Chun-Li, a high-kicking assassin with her hair tied in neat bows and ribbons.

Chou enthused on Chun-Li’s strengths and weaknesses for nearly four minutes. In the end, he summarized her as “a relatively simple character.” What made her special, he said, was her “timing, and understanding how to interrupt all the other characters’ moves.” Chou himself seems a relatively simple character—with some spectacular abilities.

Of her cousin, Holly Liu says, “Kevin was always highly introverted, but you knew there were deep conceptual thoughts in his head.” On long car trips, he would remain silent except when someone posed a brain teaser, and then he would come to life. And between devouring video games and sci fi novels, Liu adds, “Kevin was kind of always living in the future. I think that helped him develop his superpower ability to see around corners.”

The bliss of boredom would soon end. When Chou was a sophomore in high school, defense budgets shrank, his father was laid off, and the family tumbled into financial and personal turmoil. His parents soon divorced. Finding a stable career suddenly became essential for Chou. “We didn’t have a lot of money, and I didn’t want my parents to worry about me.” With experience buying and trading penny stocks with his father, Chou decided to pursue finance. “I never thought gaming would be a worthwhile career.”

He was accepted into Berkeley but didn’t think his family could afford it. Walking around campus on Cal Day, he feared it would be his only visit. But when he stopped by the financial aid office, an administrator named Richard Black restructured his aid package on the spot. Suddenly, Berkeley was viable. “I told him that if I ever really make it, I’ll give back,” said Chou.

Feeling adrift, Chou took six months off. He rode his motor­cycle up and down High­way 1. He visited family in Taiwan. He played Play­Station in his pajamas.

“Cal is a symbol of many positive things for me,” says Chou. “One of the most important is upward mobility. To this day, I fly the Cal flag outside my front door to remind me of what it was like to grow up in a small town as immigrants,” and how Cal “helped me to reach my dreams today.”

Adds Liu, “There were so many unknowns in his life then, and Cal offered hope, stability.”

After graduating magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa with a B.A. in business administration from Haas, Chou became an investment banker at Deutsche Bank, and it seemed he’d achieved the American dream. “I was the picture of upward mobility,” he says. But in 2003, the recession rolled in, and Chou was laid off.

“It sucked at the time,” he says, “but I was lucky to be laid off. It forced me to think, ‘What the hell am I doing?’ I wasn’t worried about getting another job. It was much more existential.”

Returning to the typical finance path—to a hedge fund or private equity shop—suddenly terrified him. His 12 months in investment banking were “some of the most miserable in my life,” he told graduates (no doubt many of them soon-to-be investment bankers) in his Haas commencement speech in 2016. “Where I expected to do complex financial models, I spent all my sleepless days and nights changing font sizes and colors in a PowerPoint presentation.”

Feeling adrift, Chou took six months off. He rode his motorcycle up and down Highway 1. He visited family in Taiwan. He played PlayStation in his pajamas. He played poker and won a few tournaments. He even considered making a career of that, but along the way he grew excited by the wide-open world of tech, newly revitalized after the dot-com bubble. He spent a year at a consumer data startup and two years with a venture capital firm in Menlo Park. “I could tell he was bored being on the sidelines. He’s too competitive,” says Liu, his former Decathlon foe.

Billed by the busi­ness school as a “state-of-the-art learning laboratory,” Chou Hall is also the greenest aca­demic build­ing in Amer­ica: certified LEED Plati­num and Zero Waste.

In 2006, he decided to start his own online venture, the social media site Watercooler, with Liu (director of user experience), Michael Li ’01 (CTO), and Wayne Chan (GM). Originally designed as a competitor to the networking site Linked­In, the fledgling company struggled. Chou and his team recruited their friends to join, but within six months the site tanked. As Chou remembers, a whole day could go by without a single user logging in. “We did nothing to keep people interested, and did nothing to scale,” he confesses. “Just because you build it, they won’t come without a hook.”

With that in mind, they rebranded Watercooler as an ad-driven sports app on Facebook, offering user-generated trivia games, March Madness brackets, and fantasy football. It was a hit. A million users joined in the first month. As the company grew, Chou spent most of 2008 seeking a second round of funding. By mid-September, he had succeeded. The legal documents were signed and Chou was just waiting for the wire to come through. That’s when Lehman Brothers went under. The Great Recession was on and the deal was off.

So instead of celebrating a new infusion of resources, Chou made layoffs and resumed a smoking habit. Desperate to salvage the enterprise, he would meet with more than 80 investors over the next nine months. “Kevin was my real-life MBA,” says Liu (herself one of Fortune’s “10 Most Powerful Women in Gaming”) of watching him in action.

“Another one of his superpowers is his silver tongue; he’s able to weave together a phenomenal story and leave investors who’ve heard it all to go, ‘Oh my God, this is really big.’” The story that he told back then was of switching from seasonal fantasy games to evergreen multiplayer games that could spread among Facebook’s 300 million-plus users.

Investors bit and, in 2009, Watercooler rebranded as Kabam. The company debuted with the multiplayer strategy game Kingdoms of Camelot. To date, more than 9.5 million users have installed the game. A runaway success, Camelot helped Kabam earn $30 million in 2010, and led to gaming deals with Disney, Lionsgate, MGM, NBCUniversal, Paramount, and Warner Brothers. Basically, everyone who was anyone in the entertainment business. “He’s not the Tony Robbins type,” says Liu, “but he surrounds himself with the best at what they do and gains their confidence by thinking about what they do very strategically.”

Former Berkeley-Haas dean Rich Lyons adds, “he’s a deeply reflective person; he’s a thinker, not a transactor, and that’s why people just want to be around him.”

As Kabam grew, Chou navigated new challenges. In 2011, as Facebook cut into Kabam’s ad revenue, the company pivoted to mobile games before the App Store was flooded with them. He considered an IPO, but decided to sell in 2016, ultimately closing for almost $1 billion.

Tired and burned out from what he calls “all the near-death experiences,” Chou took another six months off. He traveled the world with his wife, Connie Chen, cofounder and chief medical officer of San Francisco’s Vida Health. As he had promised Richard Black, the admin who made attending Cal possible, he gave back to Berkeley, becoming a trustee in 2015 and providing $25 million of the $60 million cost to construct Connie and Kevin Chou Hall, the six-story, 80,000-square-foot addition to Berkeley-Haas that opened in fall 2017. Billed by the business school as a “state-of-the-art learning laboratory,” Chou Hall is also the greenest academic building in America: certified LEED Platinum and Zero Waste. (It wasn’t his first financial arrangement with the University; Bears fans will remember that the gridiron in Memorial Stadium was, for a time, Kabam Field. Chou had bought naming rights to his alma mater’s home turf.)

In 2018, Chou started Forte, which enables video game developers and players to use Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies to buy and sell game-related products such as cloaks, maps, and slingshots. It may sound esoteric—and it is—but cryptocurrency helps squash rampant fraud in the world of gaming commerce. “Today someone can sell a powerful sword on eBay for $100,” says Chou, “and when someone else buys it, say, ‘Just kidding, I don’t even have the sword.’ We dealt with fraud like this at Kabam all the time.” But because all cryptocurrency transactions are recorded in a ledger viewable to the public, Forte allows buyers to verify whether or not the seller actually owns the sword.

Peering around the next corner, Chou sees possibilities for Forte’s technology that extend far beyond gaming. Just before his daughter was born 18 months ago, he agreed to sell his motorcycle. He now commutes on the subway from a house in the Mission District, observing. “How many people spend the entirety of their BART ride looking at a phone?” he asks “We’re already basically living in a virtual world, and that’s only going to expand.” He imagines a near future where the entirety of a VR-enhanced real world becomes a game, “like in Ready Player One.” In that world, he believes, cryptocurrencies will be the way to safely and securely conduct trade.

Chou credits his time off with inspiring his successful career moves. “Not working,” he says, “has helped me realize that by far the most important thing is finding that voice in your head that’s truly, authentically you. It’s not easy. Sometimes, just from the pressure of growing up in a certain way, you have all these voices in your head that are other people’s voices. You may think they’re your own, but they’re not.”

Ironically, his counsel is “Unplug. Tune everything else out.” 

 

Zak Jason is WIRED magazine’s research editor. He has written for The New York Times Magazine, Slate, and the Guardian.

From the Summer 2019 issue of California.
Image source: Noah Berger
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