Welcome to our weekly roundup of Pittsburgh technology news by noted local tech writer David Radin. Got tech news? Email us. And check back every Thursday afternoon for more. 

Pittsburgh paving the way for eSports branding

Watching somebody else play video games used to be what you did while you waited your turn. Today, eSports — watching other people compete in video games — has become a $36 billion worldwide market. Teams compete in franchise leagues, some with million dollar prizes, as spectators watch via live stream or occasionally by attending events.

The lol ranked boost corp, one of the best-known eSports franchises, aims to brand Pittsburgh internationally in this up-and-coming market. According to James O’Connor, the Knights’ president, “We’re looking to create a global brand around the Knights and the city — just like the Manchester United.”

O’Connor discussed his plans during a panel for Pittsburgh Entrepreneurs Forum moderated by Bill Flanagan of the Allegheny Conference on Thursday. O’Connor, Robb Lee (also of the Pittsburgh Knights) and Delara Derakhshani (of the Washington, D.C.-based Entertainment Software Association) revealed a number of facts related to this burgeoning industry that currently revolves around young participants. It differs from most industries of the past in some interesting ways:

  • eSports franchises include multiple sports types. A single owner could compete in online basketball, football and even multi-player first-person shooter (FPS) games.
  • eSports franchises are typically global. That makes the Pittsburgh Knights different, because they are branded for the city — even though the team’s players are spread around the globe.
  • Most of the viewers participate via Twitch, YouTube Gaming and Facebook, each of which is jockeying to become the top streaming service for eSports.
  • Some colleges are now providing scholarships for players — in some cases, full rides. Miami University of Ohio and Robert Morris University of Chicago (not to be confused with Moon Township’s RMU) are among those paving the way.

All three panelists were zealous in their belief that broadband is needed for eSports to meet its growth potential, and the U.S. is behind with broadband rollout. When Flanagan asked if they think the rollback of net neutrality by the FCC would have negative impact, they each replied with a resounding “yes.”

Venture For America seeds Pittsburgh start-ups with up-and-coming tech industry leaders

“In 2014, we landed in Pittsburgh; then drove around in a 15-year-old car, visiting AlphaLab, ThrillMill, Hillman Foundation and others, introducing our concept, and trying to get them to support it,” said Amy Nelson, CEO of New York-based Venture for America (VFA). She opened last week’s VFA’s Pittsburgh Job Fair hosted by K&L Gates Downtown.

Today, her program has not only gained the support of local organizations, it has become a start-up recruitment program unlike any other in Pittsburgh and other mid-sized cities. The VFA program recruits high performing students from colleges and graduate schools around the country, then vets them to find the cream of the crop. These student “fellows” each sign a two-year contract agreeing to work at an affordable compensation level for start-ups in cities attempting to grow their technology industries. They’re then matched with the right company and work in various roles from business to technical.

In 2017, Forever.com (founded by Free Markets founder, Glen Meakem) and TrademarkVision were among the Pittsburgh companies participating. This year, Pittsburgh start-ups MeterFeeder and Maven Machines are among 12 Pittsburgh companies hoping to hire a VFA fellow, which now include almost 200 current graduates.

According to Dawson and VFA’s Senior Director of Community Partnerships, Barrie Grinberg, they’re hoping to place 10 fellows in Pittsburgh this year and next, with 15 fellows placed in 2020. These young employees are intended to have positive growth impact on the companies in which they’re placed and on Pittsburgh’s innovation economy.

Don’t understand Blockchain? The experts are within a few miles of your home.

While Blockchain is discussed by political and business leaders in the news daily, it still remains a mystery to many. Having an expert explain it clearly is valuable, especially since it has the potential to be almost as disruptive as the Internet itself.

So it was a great benefit for the attendees of TiE Pittsburgh last week to hear Chris Wilmer, co-author of “Bitcoin for the Befuddled,” provide a primer for the Blockchain uninitiated at AlphaLab Gear. Wilmer, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, shared the concept and history, along with ideas about opportunities for the economy and entrepreneurs. His presentation was followed by a panel of Blockchain experts, moderated by local entrepreneur Ganesh Mani, which explored issues related to the technology and its business concepts, and ways to handle those issues.

Among the revelations that they shared:

  • Blockchain is actually a way to store data in various places where there is no central authority and lots of redundancy — and is impossible to change or delete.
  • Bitcoin is just one type of blockchain, used for financial transactions.
  • Blockchain is a concept; not a technology nor a product. “Hockey is just a collection of rules that describe a particular sport. Nobody owns the rules of hockey, and if anybody wants to change the rules, they can do so, as long as they don’t mind playing by themselves … Bitcoin is the same way,” Wilmer said, quoting Yuri Takhteyev of University of Toronto.
  • Professor Rita Singh told us that Blockchain empowers the “dark web,” where much of the online crime happens. It allows criminals to cloak their identities and operate without much risk. (Singh does forensic research at CMU, using voice data to help solve crimes)
  • Blockchain is most useful when there is lack of trust and incentive for a custodian or central authority to cheat — because it eliminates the ability to cheat.

Perhaps the most surprising fact we learned: The largest peer-review publication on Blockchain, “Ledger,” is published at the University of Pittsburgh. Wilmer serves as managing editor.