Natural Selection Tour A Highlight Of Social Streamer Caffeine’s Investment In Action Sports

Long gone are the days when tuning in to your favorite live sports broadcast meant sitting down on the couch, turning on the TV and finding the event on a linear network.

Sure, some live sports—notably the NFL and college sports—continue to follow this model. But many others, especially non-stick-and-ball sports, rely on streaming to meet their audience where they are.

Social broadcasting platform Caffeine, which launched in 2018, has allowed this trend to inform its strategy for eventized programming—and it’s already returning eye-popping results. In the last five months, Caffeine has increased its monthly active users from 3 million to 21 million, in part because it bolstered live competitive formats and eventized programming across culture, music, and sports.

Though action sports is only part of that push—Caffeine’s ethos lay in working with varied partners and competitive programming, not focusing on just one fixed vertical—serving as a featured streaming partner for February’s Dew Tour and this week’s Natural Selection Tour freeride snowboarding competition have helped establish the platform as a home for action sports.

“It’s really about finding what people under 35 are really hunting for and looking for in their competitions and events and communities that don’t really have a home at this point,” Caffeine CEO Ben Keighran told me.

This year, the first stage of the Natural Selection Tour—a series of 12 head-to-head “DUELS” that riders filmed in various locations, with judges reviewing raw footage to determine a winner and the best of the rest being edited down into a bite-sized video—was housed on Red Bull TV.

The Revelstoke stage of the Tour, held on March 6, streamed live on Caffeine, YouTube and Natural Selection Tour’s website. The Alaska stage that will run at the end of March will be a live-to-tape event that will air on Caffeine and YouTube.

“We’re still only in our third year, and our strategy from the beginning was just to try to be as many places as possible because we’re still growing, we’re still young as an event property and media company,” Rice, who is also an advisor for Caffeine, told me.

“I think it’s amazing what Ben’s trying to build over there, just the technology that Caffeine has; it would be amazing to try to utilize their technology more in the future,” Rice added. “They’re known to have a better product than, say, a Twitch just because the latency is so crazy, how short it is.”

(Stream latency represents the delay between an event being captured on camera and being streamed live to viewers. According to Caffeine, its streams are often 15 seconds to a full minute faster than other streaming platforms.)

Rice also lauded the “cross-pollination between the user base on Caffeine and the type of people who like to watch Red Bull TV.” What Natural Selection Tour is doing, he said, is right at the center point.

“It’s a crazy time to be in media with things changing so rapidly,” Rice said. “You pretty much have whiplash from just how much it changes from year to year.”

Keighran, a big-mountain snowboarder himself, met Rice when the latter was filming The Art of Flight with production house Brain Farm. Rice and his group were looking to get the film distributed on AppleAAPL
TV; at that time, Keighran was the Apple TV product design lead.

Also a passionate gamer, Keighran knew Twitch (which is owned by AmazonAMZN
) had stumbled onto something groundbreaking when it launched in 2011, creating an interactive social space for watching video games.

“I thought, ‘The future of watching live broadcasts and live sports looks a lot like Twitch, but I just can’t imagine these snowboard guys doing something on Twitch,’” Keighran said, given its “hardcore gamer” slant.

So Keighran left Apple to found the company that would grow into Caffeine, creating a platform that not only would stream live sports—and gaming, culture and music events (the platform is huge for battle rap, thanks in part to a partnership with Drake)—but, crucially, allow the community to interact with the creators and with each other in real time.

There are two types of partnerships Caffeine can put in place with an event—since we’re focusing on action sports, let’s say it’s Dew Tour, Natural Selection Tour or The Berrics: exclusive or nonexclusive.

In both cases, Caffeine receives a proper feed from the truck or control center and runs it on its platform. The Natural Selection Tour feed was nonexclusive, also streaming live on the Tour’s own website and YouTube.

If the stream is exclusive—for example, a battle rap competition—Caffeine can get involved in the production at the studio level, having commentators talking to the live audience and taking questions in real time.

Caffeine’s nonexclusive Natural Selection Tour feed for the Revelstoke event was mutually beneficial. Caffeine is looking to increase its action sports offerings and to lure that type of fan—who doesn’t have a centralized location to watch those events currently—to its platform. And Natural Selection Tour, looking to grow aggressively in its third year, gains access to Caffeine’s 21 million users.

For an event as spectacular as the Natural Selection Revelstoke competition—where 12 men and women riders, including Rice, pushed the limits of freeride snowboarding in the remote British Columbia wilderness—having a platform that integrates real-time discussion is a must.

“As a snowboarder, to me, snowboarding is all about progression. It’s what makes it so fun and so exciting,” Keighran said. “What we saw on Monday at Revelstoke, with the Natural Selection Tour, was nothing short of the most progressive snowboarding competition the world has ever seen—period.”

“Progression is something we deeply value at Caffeine too,” Keighran added. “We are progressing the distribution and experience for live broadcasting competitive formats like Natural Selection, and the fans got to enjoy the benefits on Monday. More people saw it than ever before and got an incredible real-time experience with fans and the community.”

According to figures from Caffeine, 24 hours after the event aired on Monday, it had 450,000 views and counting on the platform as people continued to tune in and watch the VOD link, putting it well ahead of last year’s Natural Selection Tour streams on the platform.

It’s not only large-scale events that stand to benefit from partnering with Caffeine. The platform also provides a home for athletes such as X Games host Jack Mitrani and professional skateboarders Garrett Ginner, Steve Barra and Eric Koston to create content live and monetize those streams.

“The kinds of content that an influencer or someone wtithin the community can livestream can range from anything from a pre-show or post-show commentary about what’s coming up or what just happened through to a podcast or even a live fan reaction,” Keighran said.

Viewers on the platform can buy gold and can spend it on props, which they can send to creators during a stream. Those creators then earn credits that can be cashed out for real money. The platform also just recently introduced pre-roll advertising.

“Rather than just sort of putting content out on IG and hoping to reach the followers they’re not quite reaching at this point, there’s a melting pot on Caffeine for people hunting for this kind of content,” Keighran said. “That’s the opportunity for a Jack Mitrani through to anyone who wants to get up and take the microphone and start talking live and be part of the community.”

Though it’s just increased its monthly active userbase sevenfold, Caffeine is keeping up the energy. The streamer is not yet profitable, but aims to get there in the next two years.

“The thing is, livestreaming tech is really difficult to build, and you have huge failures trying to build it,” Keighran said. “Even Amazon, with college football, their servers went down. When you have, in our case, millions of people trying to hit you all in the same moment, catastrophic failure can happen. It took us quite a few years to get the tech right.”

Big-name investors like FoxFOXA
Corporation and venture capital firms Andreessen Horowitz and Greylock Partners have bet big on Caffeine, which closed its Series D financing round in 2020 for $113 million, valuing it then at over $600 million.

“We’ve proven ourselves,” Keighran said. “Does the company know how to onboard users around these kinds of events and competitions at this point? Hell yes! The next frontier is to get 40 million or 50 million people on the network.”

Action sports, which have rarely had a linear network home (there’s X Games on ESPN and ABC—though the competition draws most of its viewers digitally these days—and the Olympics on NBC), is a good bet for Caffeine’s growth plan.

According to Statista, in 2021, approximately 57.5 million viewers in the U.S. watched digital live sports content at least once per month. That number is projected to reach 90 million by 2025.