Success came from a focus on opportunity, accessibility and education
It may only take a few minutes to play one of Bill Karamouzis’s games, but the Edmonton-born entrepreneur has spent the last two decades in his corner of the video-game industry, making a name for himself while bringing casual gaming to millions of players around the world.
In contrast to detailed, time-intensive video games, casual games are games that anyone can pick up and play with little instruction. (Think Candy Crush or Minesweeper.) They tend to have simple rules and very short gameplay sessions lasting minutes or even seconds.
Despite their simplicity, however, casual games can be serious business, with a projected industry revenue of more than US$17 billion in 2022 alone.
The games themselves are free to play, but earn money from a mix of advertising and in-app purchases. In September 2021, Karamouzis (Bachelor of Technology '20) claimed a share of that growing pie, as his company Addicting Games was acquired by Toronto-based Enthusiast Gaming for US$35 million.
“I’ve sold companies before,” says Karamouzis (Bachelor of Technology ’20), who was named president of Enthusiast as part of the sale, “but this one was the best fit between my team and their team, and, from a product standpoint, everything aligned really well.”
At this point in his career, Karamouzis is a leader in the casual-gaming industry who has also elevated the genre by injecting some of his games with an educational twist that benefits students around the world (and that provided the entrepreneur with an unexpected boost during the pandemic). His companies have staff in California and Alberta, and he divides his time between both places.
To really understand how this sale marks the culmination of 20 years of hard work, however, you have to go back to the late 1990s, when Karamouzis was still a teenager in north Edmonton.
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Master of his domains
Back then, Karamouzis’s entry into the tech world was borne of a lark, when he taught himself to build a website that aggregated the most popular images and animated GIFs being passed around the internet. Within a few years, though, he was earning more money from banner ads than he was at his day job, as a website administrator for Capital Health.
This was the era before search engines became the default way of finding information online, and when a lot of people would simply type in likely sounding URLs in the hopes that they would be taken to the right place. Karamouzis noticed this trend and decided to take advantage of it.
His first purchase was flashplayer.com, which somehow was not owned by the makers of the then-ubiquitous video software, and which became the new home for his personal site. He went on to purchase several dozen others, including fact.com, draw.com, and executiveMBA.com.
Karamouzis jumped to the big leagues with addictinggames.com, a domain he bought and then developed into a full-fledged casual-gaming site before selling it to an online film company called Atom Entertainment in 2005. The terms of that sale were not made public, but part of the deal involved Karamouzis becoming a shareholder in Atom. Ten months later, Atom Entertainment was acquired by mass-media giant Viacom for US$200 million.
The numbers add up for mathgames.com
With his first big sale complete, Karamouzis reassessed the market and realized that gaming sites were becoming more specialized. He started buying a suite of new domains, especially those that catered to young female gamers, which Karamouzis thought was an underserved demographic.
And he continued turning heads across the tech world for his unorthodox strategy, such as when he spent a whopping US$350,000 just to acquire the URL for cookinggames.com, convinced the domain would drive more than enough traffic to be worth the price.
That interest in niche gaming led Karamouzis to create Teach Me, a company focused on educational games, the largest piece of which is mathgames.com. Karamouzis has been slowly growing the site for nearly a decade, beginning with “humble” traffic translating to 5,000 questions being solved by users per day, and climbing to more than 200,000 by 2018.
These games, while fun, have a real educational component. Karamouzis and his team consulted with math teachers throughout the site’s development, and made sure the content aligned with the Common Core State Standards Initiative, which outlines learning goals for students in the United States.
Aware that games like these were sometimes used as actual assignments, he also wanted to make sure they were as accessible as possible, in that they could be played on something as simple as a mobile device.
“So we go in like the SWAT team and take control of the website."
“We never wanted to create a technology gap,” Karamouzis says. “That’s the reason why mathgames.com was one of the first gaming sites that works on smartphones. At the time, our investors would ask us, ‘Why would anyone want to do math on their phone?’ Our answer was, ‘People don’t want to do math on their phone. They must do math on their phone.’ At their homes, that might be the only device that has internet access.”
Along the way, an unexpected opportunity presented itself. In the years since Karamouzis had sold Addicting Games, the site had changed hands again and been redeveloped. In 2018, however, the current owners reached out to Karamouzis to let him know they were now looking to sell off their assets – would he possibly be interested in reacquiring addictinggames.com?
“So we go in like the SWAT team and take control of the website we had built 13 years earlier,” Karamouzis says with a laugh. “It was a really big moment for us. Being able to bring a property that had so much nostalgia back to life was super fun for me.”
Then came COVID-19
The newly revamped Addicting Games now included all of Karamouzis’s other properties, including mathgames.com, competitive typing game Type Racer and Little Big Snake (at one point the most popular game in all of Indonesia). User engagement continued to steadily climb, reaching 10 million users per month as of 2019, and the company received a financial boost in the form of a US$1.5-million investment from the Toronto-based Enthusiast Gaming.
Then COVID-19 arrived and everything changed.
During the first few days of the continent-wide shutdown in March 2020, Addicting Games faced the same uncertainty all companies did. But by the end of the week, they noticed something odd: new users were logging onto mathgames.com. Hundreds of thousands of them.
Eventually, Karamouzis and his team figured out what was happening. As schools scrambled to get their students set up for online learning, they were sending the kids online to play math games until the actual lesson plans were ready.
But that traffic didn’t slow down even once online learning was established. Math Games has a help-desk function, and Karamouzis saw it was inundated with thousands of new questions – not the usual technical queries about how to use the site, but rather questions about the concepts themselves. It turned out that parents working from home were now taking on the role of ad hoc math tutors for their children, and a lot of them needed help.
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With schools stretched to their limits trying to make online learning work, “it felt like Math Games was becoming an essential service,” Karamouzis says.
In response to the sudden demand, Karamouzis and his team hired 20 teachers from across North America to create tutorial videos explaining the concepts being explored in the various games on the site. In all, they created more than 1,100 videos, which are designed to pop up on the screen whenever a user gets too many questions wrong. These videos have now been viewed millions of times in total. Karamouzis believes the Math Games tutorial library is one of the largest of its kind anywhere on the internet.
“We always intended Math Games to be a tool for a teacher to use,” he says. “We had to evolve it to be that way, in real time, because we didn’t want students to be blocked.”
An unlikely return to the classroom
While all this was going on, Karamouzis decided to take what some considered a surprising turn for a seasoned entrepreneur – he went back to school himself.
Twenty years earlier, Karamouzis had struggled through a semester at NAIT while trying to build his first website. But as his side hustle started pulling more and more of his attention away from his classwork, Karamouzis eventually decided to drop out and focus on his business full time. The decision worked out – to put it mildly – but he always regretted not completing his education.
“I didn’t want to leave NAIT. I liked my time there."
“It was one of those things that lingered [with me],” Karamouzis says now. “I didn’t want to leave NAIT. I liked my time there. So I always looked to see if there was a way I could get back. And that’s when I discovered the B. Tech program.”
Joseph Varughese, chair of the Bachelor of Technology program, says he is impressed by Karamouzis’s most recent sale, and points to his previous track record as proof of his longstanding business acumen. He hopes that Karamouzis’s experience at NAIT will enrich his life as an entrepreneur going forward.
“Our program focuses on supervisory skills and leadership skills, so that you can help manage a team and build a team,” Varughese says. “All of these other tools and techniques [business owners use] are great, but if you can’t work with people, it’s not going to matter.”
Building on ‘north-side’ hustle
With the biggest sale of his career to date now complete, Karamouzis is already on to new projects and new horizons.
His recent game EV.io, for instance, is both a casual game and an online first-person shooter that’s playable completely within a web browser. This is another move towards accessibility, rather than making players shell out for the latest Xbox or PlayStation console. EV.io also includes an optional non-fungible token component, where players can purchase digital collectibles in-game. They’re available in limited quantities and sales and ownership is tracked in a blockchain.
Another project involves a unique partnership with pro sports. The inaugural season of NFL Tuesday Night Gaming began in September, bringing together players present and past to compete in live-streamed game play with big-name game creators. The goal is to bring new audiences to both brands, particularly youth to football. In that sense, the power of the medium is not lost on Karamouzis.
“We are honoured to have been chosen by the NFL to collaborate on this unique and important initiative that will help expand the NFL’s reach to gaming audiences,” he said in a release.
No matter what he’s working on, Karamouzis splits his time between California and his hometown – and it’s the latter, he believes, that has given his businesses a secret leg up over the years.
His business partner and co-founder is just such an Edmontonian. Rhys Jones (Computer Sciences Technology ’00) went to high school with Karamouzis and has worked with him continuously since 2005, most recently as Addicting Games’s chief technology officer. He’s now Enthusiast’s vice-president of product management.
“We’re similar people,” Jones says of his long-time colleague. “It’s that north-side, go-get-it attitude. Bill’s been working for himself for 20 years and has always had that drive.”
“Edmonton is full of builders,” Karamouzis agrees. “You can build a team here. In a lot of parts of the world, when things get difficult in a company, people will jump ship and the company will fall apart. But in Edmonton you can find world-class talent that also has the tenacity to stick with problems. That mentality is a really good one.”