Making History @ Churchill Downs
Hello, Photo Finish faithful! Ian Cummings here, Founder / CEO of Third Time Entertainment. Just now slowly recovering from easily the most stressful and busy few weeks of my entire life, so I thought it prudent to stop and reflect on some of the recent happenings and share a little of the behind the scenes excitement of making history – creating a real life activation of a blockchain-enabled game at one of the biggest sporting events in the world.
Back on April 12, we officially announced our partnership with Churchill Downs / Kentucky Derby and Photo Finish™ LIVE. The negotiations and discussions had been ongoing for nearly 2 years, leading my subconscious to believe that it would never happen. However, when we finally pushed it past the finish line, we were also presented with an amazing opportunity to have our very own tent in the infield of Churchill Downs for both Friday and Saturday at the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby days.
Mind you, we"re a very small game development studio with essentially zero experience running parties or events. At the same time, we were deep in the throes of launching Photo Finish™ LIVE by April 24. Further, it should also be mentioned that the week leading up to the Kentucky Derby is typically our busiest week of the year due to our broadcast simulation partnership with NBC Sports. As soon as the post positions are announced, we are immediately heads-down on creating a top quality simulation of the race for their broadcast.
Regardless, I knew we couldn"t say no to the opportunity, so the only solution was that many of us buckled down and didn"t sleep from that day forward as we prepared for the live launch, the NBC simulation, our $CROWN token release, media, press releases, and of course planning and building the actual tent for the infield.
I had called around Louisville and reached out to referrals from the amazing folks that worked at Churchill Downs to help get our tent set up, but no one had any availability. So we had to plan out how we could build this out ourselves to deliver a virtual racing experience that would impress our new partners as well as spread the word of our game in as little time as possible.
After talking in depth with the team at Churchill Downs about the typical infield audience and vibes, we quickly realized that we would not be specifically trying to “sign up new players” at the event (more on that later), but we still knew we had an amazing opportunity to increase the visibility and legitimacy of the Photo Finish™ LIVE game and brand. Our goals for the event were relatively simple:
- Collect emails to build our database of potential future players
- Create a fun and memorable experience that people would share with their friends
- Capture as much footage as humanly possible for future marketing materials
We also heard that the internet would be “spotty” – meaning we could not deliver a “real” version of the full Photo Finish™ LIVE horse racing ownership experience. Instead, we created a bite-size grouping of pre-simulated races that would be able to play on loop for players casually walking up to enjoy and ideally join. ScubaSteve, a great member in our community, helped me find 12 races that had previously run in beta (with palatable horse names!). Then, I hired the legendary MoKnowz to call each race individually to have the whole day addressed in a pre-made 9 hour video. I strategically placed each race in between the (actual) races of the day to avoid interfering with the real life schedule (side note: my macbook finished the 1.3TB render literally the morning of the Oaks).
Lastly, I called a company called Cupcake, who were super excited to partner up. They offered to create an NFC-scan chip to enable someone to get an NFT in a super easy fashion using just a phone number. The design was quite simple – for all 12 races, I created one-off NFTs of each horse in the race (not Gen Zero tickets or PFPs in our current collection). If a person came up and scanned, they"d get a horse in the upcoming race. If their horse won, they"d win any number of prizes from us – koozies, cash money, etc. The idea was to encourage ultra simple onboarding, enjoying a race, and scanning a separate QR in the tent (or clicking their NFT) to come over to the PFL site easily.
Oh, and in terms of capturing video, I convinced my cousin Zack (an experienced world class cinematographer, editor, and director) to join us for all of the days, and told him to shoot everything he could in terms of people, horses, etc. (He got so much unreal footage, I can"t wait to share it!)
The Tent – Setup
Upon arriving at the track the day before and getting set up, we could not have been more thrilled and excited. To look around and see such massive brands like Ford, TwinSpires, Woodford Reserve, Old Forester, Fanatics, etc all around us was absolutely surreal. To be sitting in the grandstands and see the Photo Finish™ LIVE logo beaming in the sun never got old. We unloaded our truck, set up our 3 75” TV"s and our PA system, stretched black spandex over our rented bar top tables, hung our banners, built our photo op wall (and had to run to Walgreens to buy a steamer to get the wrinkles out), and got our Cupcake NFT scanner ready for action. Within 3 hours or so we were OFFICIAL.
The tent almost fully setup on Thurby day
The Tent – Kentucky Oaks Day
On Friday morning, I arrived before the sun came up at the track, 6am to be exact, to be interviewed by the local NBC affiliate in Louisville. Our head of content Ryan Yousefi had lined up this great opportunity, and although I was going on about 3.5 hours of sleep (due to staying up super late to create more and more iterations of the NBC simulation), the adrenaline carried me through.
By the time people started showing up around 10am, and we started having folks come in and check out the product, we hit our first major roadblock – the quality of cellular internet in the infield. I had specifically chosen to save off the big 9-hour pre-made video in order to reduce our reliance on the internet, but I was shocked at how little cell service even really worked at all. Of our first 50 or so people that came up and scanned their phone to get the NFT, less than 10 actually succeeded. And the more people that showed up, the worse it got. We were in contact with Cupcake, they tried restarting servers and optimizing things on their end, but to no avail.
So, from that point forward, we had to change our approach. The Kentucky Oaks day was a good day to learn this because the audience was EXTREMELY young. Shockingly. I had no idea but basically 90% of the infield on Friday was just high school students. Though we did capture some great moments with groups of people getting a few horses and really shouting at the screen as if their allowance depended on it, overall we were realizing things needed to change.
So, we decided to head out a little early and retool our setup for the following day.
The Tent – Kentucky Derby Day
Getting home early afforded me the chance first to really finalize the NBC simulation. If you remember, there were at least 5-6 scratches and changes for the Derby, so I was constantly having to remake and alter the simulations. Luckily I knocked everything out by 10pm or so and was able to have a real night"s sleep. The next morning, with the help of ChatGPT, I created a super quick website that instead of using Cupcake"s NFC protocol would allow someone to enter their email and it would simply spit out a random number in the race. And as a backup plan, I created some manual forms that people could just write in their email with a pen. We went to Office Depot bright and early, printed the sheets, bought a clipboard and some pens, and then were off to the Derby.
After a few shaky offerings in the first few races, we started to find our footing. We realized even the simple ChatGPT site I made wouldn"t load for most people, so we had to go the clipboard route. I decided to get on our microphone / PA system that we had been using for music and game audio and become as obnoxious and loud as possible to try and get as much attention to our tent as we could.
The rest of the team – Alex, Justin, and Starkiller – hustled every single person walking by into coming over, giving us their email, and trying it out.
We"d throw $20 bills at people if they had a winning horse. We gave away all 250 of our koozies (which all had QR codes on them). We got people to come in and check out the game in order to take free photos at our photo wall. We even attracted people into the tent by giving away the rest of the box of cheap pens we"d gotten at Office Depot that morning. As the hour of the Derby approached we were running races every 10-15 minutes with engaged and excited crowds every single time. We"d finally cracked the code I thought, having to do the most analog version possible but hitting on all cylinders.
Walking out of the Derby exhausted, in the pouring rain, I couldn"t help feeling elated that we had pulled off the impossible. The smallest of teams had pulled off an absolutely epic experience, despite constant hurdles. We"d gotten thousands of new eyes on an internet-based horse racing game with zero internet connection.
Was the event perfect? Surely not. This was, as mentioned, our very first IRL activation and we had to do it all ourselves within a matter of weeks. Did we acquire a thousand new players to immediately sign up, buy horses, and join the discord? No, probably not, but as mentioned before, that really wasn"t the intent. You can see in the interviews and things that I did above, we tried our best to stay at the highest level possible – no mention of NFT"s, no talk of blockchains, no asks to join discords, just “VIRTUAL HORSE RACING, KENTUCKY DERBY PARTNER, REAL MONEY”. I look at the event as a smashing success. We acquired hundreds of thousands if not millions of eyeballs over the course of the weekend on socials, live TV interviews, on NBC, and in person. I made amazing contacts and have great inroads with future partnerships with so many others that I met while there. We have enough marketing content to last us for the next year. My email is chock full of inbound requests. Our in-game server traffic more than doubled. We still acquired tons of emails and new contacts. We dominated the Twitter timeline and (I think) set ourselves apart with our legitimacy. Now we"ve got to continue to execute and bring everything we do up to this level.
For a group of 8 game developers and no marketing team, I"d say we killed it.
And next time will be even better.
Founder / CEO
PS: Here"s what we arrived to the next day. We don"t even want to know what happened.