Fantasy sports startup Sleeper closes Series B led by a16z as it expands to esports amid pandemic

Sleeper is widening its ambitions to esports as the arena sports world goes into hibernation amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

While CEO Nan Wang has high hopes that the upcoming NFL season can proceed amid the pandemic, he’s hoping to expand his fantasy sports app’s appeal to gamers by launching support for the intensely popular title League of Legends. Wang says that esports support was always in the cards, but that its rollout was never supposed to come this early.

“Originally, the goal was to do arena sports and then strategically select esports that we thought would be big market opportunities,” Wang says. “In the absence of sports, it becomes easier for us to push something that was further out on the roadmap.”

As Sleeper looks to push beyond its 1 million active users, the company is bulking up on funding reserves. The fantasy sports app has closed a $20 million Series B funding round led by Andreessen Horowitz. Kevin Durant, Baron Davis, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Twitch CEO Kevin Lin are also recent investors. In August, the company shared it had raised a $5.3 million Series A led by General Catalyst.

For now, all of Sleeper’s services are free and there aren’t immediate plans to change that. Wang says that delayed and canceled seasons of arena sports is likely going to push out the company’s timelines for beginning to generate revenues.

Sleeper’s investors have hailed the startup as leading the way among a new class of vertical-focused social networks.

“The next social platforms are going to be vertical and look a lot more like games, offering deeper engagement than broad social networking platforms. Sleeper’s leagues provide shared activities between friends, and has some of the best stickiness metrics we’ve seen,” Andreessen Horowitz GP Andrew Chen said in a statement.

With its League of Legends launch, Sleeper is in the position of helping define a fantasy league experience for a popular franchise. The league’s organization isn’t fundamentally different from other fantasy sports. Users recruit a fantasy crew and draft professional esports athletes to their teams. From there, users in a league participate in weekly head-to-head matches with each other, making predictions and leveraging gameplay-specific mechanics.

League of Legends support is a big deal to Sleeper because it also represents the company’s first international foray. Users in the U.S., Europe, Vietnam, Korea and Brazil can participate in this upcoming fantasy season.

On the product side, the startup recently launched voice chat to capitalize on users stuck at home amid the pandemic. Wang tells TechCrunch the team is also hoping to add video chat to the app soon. Wang also notes that Sleeper is on track to launch three new sports this year.

As Sleeper aims to grow around the roadblocks of pandemic lockdowns, Wang and his team hope that their continued focus on social features can ensure the startup’s shared success in the worlds of online gaming and arena gaming.

“The roadmap for us has always been to win both sports and esports because they both have the same underlying motivation,” Wang says. “The most important thing for any sports fan is being able to enjoy it with their friends and family members.”