A small San Francisco start-up called “Sleeper” is hiring an all-female design team and casual fantasy sports fans as staffers to create an all-inclusive franchise that aims to take on fantasy football giants ESPN and Yahoo.
Founded by Nan Wang, Ken Wang, and Weixi Yen in 2015, the sports app aims to exploit the intimidating impression traditional fantasy sports sites leave to casual gamers and women and create a platform where they feel welcome.
Wang said the decision to hire an all-female design team is in line with the company’s strategy, which was based on the characteristics of a “sleeper” player who seems under the radar, but has all the potentials to win.
“We feel like we’re that breakthrough talent,” Wang said, admitting knowing their position as underdogs in the booming fantasy sports gaming industry.
Sunny Yen, Sleeper’s director of product design, said the company would work to lure more women and casual fans – a sector fantasy football giants have left out – into the industry.
Like the 15 other members of the all-female design team, Yen is not a big sports fan. But she casually looks at these sites and almost always feels that they are “for hardcore fans only.”
“I feel like they build a wall to keep the woman, female audience out,” Yen said, referring to Yahoo and ESPN.
Sleeper is looking to change the status quo and give women and casual fans a chance to enjoy these complicated game, “and the only way you can do that is to think outside of the box,” Wang said.
Aside from inclusivity, the app also aims to be a platform where people can hang out with friends.
With a more straightforward user interface, the Sleeper app promises a smoother experience, not bombarded by massive stats and mechanics, which have been common in major industry players. The app also offers its chatroom, which is proving to be popular among early users.
A tough hill to climb
Though Sleeper looks set for success this year with all the changes in marketing and promotional strategies and a series of new offerings, the start-up is looking at a long climb.
Sleeper has not confirmed the number of its users despite claiming its base has grown over the years. While Yahoo Fantasy Football has established itself with more than seven million users, and ESPN remains unbothered by the all-inclusivity battle cry since it has more than one million women playing fantasy football. Those figures are in 2018 alone.
In a statement, Yahoo Sports proclaimed its inclusivity, which “is reflected in our staff as well as in our audience.”
Ambitious plan in motion
The start-up said it now has a total of $7.3 million in funding after its series A round of financing led by General Catalyst yielded $5.3 million earlier this month. Its initial $2 million seed funding was led by Birchmore Ventures, with the participation Expa, Uber co-founder Garrett Camp’s venture fund.
Sleeper has also introduced a slew of new offerings in a bid to expand its user base, which it claims grew between 700% and 900% since the app was launched in beta in 2017.
The California-based company recently unveiled team mascots – a feature that only Sleeper offers. A user can purchase the mascot for $5 to $20 and use it to taunt their opponents. The mascots also represent the users’ team during games. Sleeper plans to sell more accessories to profit as it vows to continue running an ad-free service.
“We know that people love to accessorize their experience via skins and avatars, and it’s pretty lucrative in the e-sports world,” Wang said.
Aside from introducing new offerings, the start-up has also revamped its marketing strategy, which then relied heavily on word of mouth and casual engagements on Twitter and Reddit.
Sleeper recently signed its first commercial partnership with Pittsburgh Steelers star Juju Smith-Schuster to promote the app to new users further.
Smith-Schuster confirmed the partnership by holding a celebrity draft which gathered the likes of Hollywood star Zac Efron and famous video game streamer Ninja.
Commenting on the partnership, Smith-Schuster said: “I see Sleeper as being one of the biggest platforms for the sports fan in the future.”
While their primary focus remains on cementing their name as a rival fantasy football site, Sleeper has set out an ambitious plan to branch out into other sports, including basketball.
According to reports, the start-up is also looking to tap into the growing college basketball audience, as well as enter the big game of the NBA. Sleeper is also looking to offer fantasy games for the English Premier League. All of these plans are set out for 2020.
“We’re the underdogs in this space competing against some big names, but we have the right talent to do so,” said Wang, its chief executive officer.