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A slew of other (high-profile) investors participated in the investment, which brings the San Mateo, California, company’s total venture raised to $27.3 million since its 2015 inception, according to Crunchbase data.
Also putting money into the Series B were NBA Star Baron Davis, NFL Pro Bowler JuJu Smith-Schuster, ESPN analyst Ros Gold Onwude, Twitch COO Kevin Lin, and the a16z Cultural Leadership Fund. Existing backers General Catalyst, Birchmere Ventures and Rainfall were involved as well. NBA Star Kevin Durant and Thirty Five Ventures co-founder Rich Kleiman participated in the Sleeper’s Series A.
The startup’s origin story is actually sweet. Lifelong friends who kept in touch over the years, bonded by a shared love of sports, came up with the premise behind Sleeper.
The company started out as a messaging platform that served as a way for people to connect socially over sports. It has since evolved into a gaming platform offering fantasy leagues “even your grandma can use.”
Sleeper launched fantasy football in 2018, and by 2019 had more than 1 million active players (making it the fastest growing sports app in the world, according to the company).
Today, the startup is making its debut in esports with a season-long fantasy League of Legends game. The game will be available across five competitive leagues in their respective regions: North America, Europe, Korea, Brazil and Vietnam.
“Our popularity is driven by the fact that we emphasize the social elements of sports,” said CEO and co-founder Nan Wang. “People use sports as an excuse to hang out with people they care about and Sleeper gives them a vehicle to do that virtually.”
The company has more than doubled its number of employees to 23 since the beginning of 2020. It plans to use its new capital to scale its products.
“We want to take what we did with football and scale that into other sports and esports, such as professional and college basketball,” Wang told Crunchbase News. “With shelter-in-place happening and no sports going on, people are wanting to play with each other more than ever.”
One of my favorite things about this funding round is the way NBA player Baron Davis got involved. He was an actual user of the product and reached out to the company via the app to find out how he could get involved and speak to the executive team.
“I ignored it, because I didn’t believe it was really him,” Wang recalled. “Then I got a LinkedIn invite from one of his associates and I realized it was actually him.”
Davis believed in the mission of the product and even got his mom to play in a fantasy league on Sleeper last year, Wang said.
“Sleeper is the one platform that allows me to connect and share in intimate experiences with friends, coworkers, and fans,” Davis said in a statement. “Sleeper is building a community of people that care about their sports and esports teams, players, culture, all while playing in fantasy leagues for bragging rights. My momma learned how to play this year, and she’s even more competitive than I am!”
The team was particularly proud of Onwude’s involvement as they say they have worked hard to make Sleeper more inclusive.
“We have more females on our platform than any other fantasy sports platform,” Wang said. “Three out of 10, compared to 1 out of 10.”
Not surprisingly, the bulk of its users are under the age of 35..
For a16z’s Andrew Chen, who led the round, Sleeper is a creative way to help people stay connected.
“For a lot of sports fans, Sleeper becomes the center of gravity,” he said via a telephone conversation last week. “I love the idea of creating that center of gravity.”
Additionally, it was just “very clear” to Chen that the Sleeper team were “complete visionaries in the space.”
From his early conversations with the co-founders, they were already talking about expanding the platform to include soccer, basketball and esports.
“I loved the ambition and energy they projected from the very beginning around building a single app for people to enjoy a variety of sports,” he said.
And lastly, it’s clear to a16z that what Sleeper is doing is working.
“When an app goes from zero to 1 million active users, and people are using it nearly every day without buying installs or a bunch of advertising, and pulling other friends into the product, you know that people really love this thing,” Chen told Crunchbase News.
Reporter’s Note: This story was updated post-publication to reflect new information provided by the company regarding the timing of Kevin Durant’s investment.
Illustration: Li-Anne Dias.