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John Ruch Posted by on August 24, 2016.

Father, son team up on Perimeter-based video gaming business

When Stephen Johnston Jr. was a student at Buckhead’s Pace Academy more than 20 years ago, his dad got a phone call from a teacher and feared the worst. But the news was a bit different.

“He’s helping me teach the class. He knows more about computers than I do,” Stephen Sr. recalled the teacher saying.

Stephen Johnston Sr. left, and his son are partners in Stephen Jr.'s company, Launch Media Network. (Special)

Stephen Johnston Sr. left, and his son are partners in Stephen Jr.’s company, Launch Media Network. (Special)

Today, the father and son are partners in Stephen Jr.’s Launch Media Network, a video game journalism, marketing and social networking company that recently left Buckhead’s Atlanta Tech Village and opened a new headquarters in Sandy Springs.

“We grew out of Tech Village,” said Stephen Jr., whose company of nine full-time employees and a bevy of contractors and freelancers is among more than 80 businesses in Georgia’s booming video game industry.

The Johnstons are natives of Sandy Springs, where Stephen Sr. co-founded cellphone companies in the 1980s. But Stephen Jr. founded his gaming-related company in 2006 while living in Virginia.

Originally called Guild Launch, the company’s initial business was providing social networking and event-organizing platforms for players of gigantic online roleplaying games. Stephen Jr. was a fan of “World of Warcraft,” an online fantasy game that requires players to team up in large groups to beat certain villains. He saw a business opportunity in the challenging task of getting players around the world to coordinate like that.

For comparison, he says to imagine trying to get five friends to go out for pizza together. “One gets the time wrong. One doesn’t show up. In games, you need to get 40 people in the same place at the same time,” he said.

Guild Launch’s calendar feature included automatic coordination of the world’s many quirky time zones, a huge task Stephen Jr. says few businesses face. “It’s something some large corporations deal with—and gamers,” he said, likening Guild Launch to building a network for a multinational company “and putting wizards and dragons on top of it.”

The platform later expanded to include other types of games, such as e-sports, and was renamed Gamer Launch. Today it serves more than 4 million gamers and 600 different games.

While those are big numbers, some types of online gaming have seen a drop in the player base, and there’s more competition for networking. In 2013, the company rebranded as Launch Media and started a new division called GameSkinny, specializing in video game journalism and marketing.

The company raised $2 million in capital for that change and that’s when Stephen Sr. got more closely involved, becoming chairman. He’s also gotten more involved in playing video games himself.

“I play ‘Angry Birds,’” Stephen Sr. said with what turned out to be understatement. He’s ranked the 38th best player in the world for the mobile game’s spinoff “Angry Birds Star Wars II”—an admittedly “useless skill.”

It’s the sort of story GameSkinny might tell. The business pays freelance writers to cover gaming topics—some of them company-sponsored—and offers a nine-week training program in game writing and how to market it. Some colleges accept the program as credit, and Launch Media has worked with the University of Georgia’s New Media Institute, the Johnstons say. Trainees can earn a “revenue share” based on the website traffic on their articles.

Last year, Launch Media moved to the family’s native Atlanta, using space in Tech Village. Karen Houghton, a Tech Village spokesperson, said the company is “producing some great things in the gaming community.”

“Our goal was to get embedded [in] and connected to the Atlanta tech scene,” said Stephen Jr. “We saw the explosion of technology here.”

Much of Georgia’s booming gaming industry is based in north Fulton. That includes Alpharetta’s Hi-Rez Studios, whose game “Smite” is among those served by Launch Media’s Gamer Launch product.

Launch Media quickly outgrew Tech Village with its nine full-time employees, the Johnstons say. Last month, it moved to 8010 Roswell Road in Sandy Springs, where it shares space with Stephen Sr.’s telecom company Lucid Communications Services.

Stephen Jr. said he likes the company’s position as “gamer” becomes an increasingly broad term. Today people not only play video games; they also watch them in arenas, on TV and online. And the “Pokémon Go” phenomenon shows the “ubiquity” of gaming beyond the stereotypical geek culture, Stephen Jr. said.

“When we look at ‘video gaming’ across everything that means, it really is media at this point,” he said.

For more information, see launchmedianetwork.com.