Numedeon, the 9-year-old company behind kids' virtual world Whyville.net, is taking a leap into producing simulated environments for adults, starting with a sports theme. Called SportsBlox, the site launched in beta this week as part of March Madness.
Created by scientists from Cal Tech, Numedeon is also growing up in another way. For the first time in its history, it has taken money from an institutional investor in a series B round of financing.
In a sign that investors are particularly excited about virtual worlds, the company plans to raise between $1 million and $2 million, according to Numedeon's Chief Operating Officer Jay Goss. (Numedeon plans to formally announce its funding partner April 2.) In its nine years, it has raised roughly $3 million from private investors, including the game show host Pat Sajak.
Like Whyville, SportsBlox lets people customize a virtual persona, chat with friends, and use digital currency to buy gear inside the world. Unlike Whyville, which is designed for kids age 8 to 15, SportsBlox caters to the jock set and other sports junkies, primarily men between the ages of 18 to 35. Instead of beaches and educational outposts, the site will largely feature virtual watering holes.
Goss said he hopes SportsBlox will help niche sports enthusiasts, from Nascar lovers to kite surfers, find each other inside the "corner" bar. For example, the site has Gahden (a play on the Boston Garden), a virtual hangout for Boston sports fans; Break Lights for L.A. sports fans (because of all the traffic in Los Angeles); and Curve Ball, a virtual hot spot for baseball fans. In all, the site has 20 sports bars and a "tailgate" area. As a means to make money, Goss said he hopes to bring on branded environments from marketers, too, if and when the site grows popular.
"This is indicative of where the company is now headed," Goss said. "We've spent nine years understanding the experience of virtual worlds and we've decided to become a media company that has multiple virtual worlds."
The company plans to run at least five virtual worlds by the end of the year, including launching its own enthusiast site in an area such as music, politics, or entertainment. This summer, it expects to unveil an international version of Whyville for kids in the European market, and it will introduce another world for older Americans.
Goss added that with the funds, Numedeon plans to buy its first virtual-world company this year. He did not say to whom the company is talking.