Tech entrepreneur launching video game for sports referees

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Kyle Armstrong never stops thinking of innovative ways to improve sports referees and the leagues they work in. His most recent innovation involves a computer program that is both a training device and video game.

In 2011, Armstrong founded Zooom, a Zionsville tech company that created a platform to help high schools and small colleges evaluate game officials. The firm now has deals in several states.

Zooom took a big hit during the pandemic.

“COVID threw a big monkey wrench into our business because Zooom breaks down video,” Armstrong explained. “From a business standpoint, it was just devastating. Games stopped, so our business essentially stopped.”

Zooom is going again, but during the downtime, Armstrong and his partner, former NFL referee Mark Baltz, came up with a

Kyle Armstrong, left, and retired NFL head linesman Mark Baltz, right, think they have a financial winner with the RefReps video game. (Photo courtesy of RefReps LLC)

new—and fun—idea.

After a chance meeting between Baltz and David Pierce, a sports management professor and director of IUPUI’s Sports Innovation Institute, Zooom and IUPUI officials began discussing the idea of creating a simulator for sports referees.

Then Armstrong came up with the idea for a video game. But this wasn’t just fun and games. Armstrong came up with an idea for a video game that could not only help train sports referees but also generate healthy recurring revenue.

So the RefReps video game was born.

Armstrong’s new company, RefReps LLC, will launch its first video game version—for basketball referees—in January.

Armstrong said versions of the game for baseball and football will follow, and he’s considering versions for soccer, softball, volleyball and wrestling.

“The problem for a lot of referees is there’s no way to practice or train for their job before their first game,” Armstrong explained. “And right now, there’s a shortage of referees in Indiana and nationally. So the result is a lot of inexperienced sports referees. This game, while it can be fun, is really made to address a serious problem.

“You can read all the rulebooks and watch all the video in the world, but nothing gives you the feel for the speed of the game like this video game,” Armstrong added.

Earlier this year, Armstrong started a Kickstarter campaign to gauge demand

“The demand is huge,” he said.

Armstrong thinks there will be demand from high school and college sports officials and leagues. He’s also been contacted by youth leagues—including a large regional YMCA organization—as well as college intramural sports programs.

“I’ve gotten calls and emails from all over the world,” Armstrong said. “I’m getting calls from Division I referees who are saying ‘I want to use this with my study group.’ The allure of the video game is due to the uniqueness of it, and with COVID, they haven’t been able to go to summer camps and do all the things to work on their craft. There’s a gap in referee training even beyond the pandemic, and this new game fills that gap.”

With RefReps, the player sees the play on a computer screen—which is often projected to a big-screen television. Players make the referee calls based on what they see, complete with corresponding hand signals. RefReps tracks the video game players’ movements and scores them on the accuracy of the calls.

Then an analyst comes on the screen, “like ESPN or Tony Dungy on NBC,” Armstrong said, “and breaks down the play on the screen” and describes the correct officiating call.

“We’ve got the analyst on the screen with all the graphics. It’s TV studio quality,” Armstrong said. “They’re breaking down the flow of the game and the flow of the play as the official saw it so the official can learn from it.”

Armstrong, Baltz and IUPUI’s Pierce pulled together several players to create RefReps.

A 20-year-old IUPUI student, Robert Burita, developed the software over two months. “It’s absolutely awesome,” Armstrong said.

Front Runner Media, a student-run company based out of Warren Central High School, compiled and assimilated the video.

Armstrong’s company goes to games and places cameras around and within the playing venue, including cameras on the field or at court level, in the press box and flown overhead via drones.

Front Runner Media weaves the video together into a presentation.

An analyst stands in front of a green screen to add play analysis to the game, Armstrong said, “It’s just like those guys on Sunday breaking down plays, but it’s all about officiating. We use graphics, telestrators, high-definition video and get all kinds of angles.”

Armstrong’s company partnered with Ball State University’s computer science department, which is building a content engine is for the video game.

Students from IUPUI and Ball State are working on sales and marketing for the game.

“This has been one of the most rewarding projects I’ve ever worked on, especially working with the students,” Armstrong said. “I could tell you a hundred stories.”

The RefReps starter kit—which includes a motion sensor and the downloadable game for one sport—will cost $324.98. A two-sport starter pack—when it is available—will cost $424.97.

Additional content—more games and different officiating scenarios and analysis—for an already purchased sport starter pack will be $59.99.

A starter pack for an additional sport—which would not include a new sensor—will cost $124.99.

“We’re going to continually offer new content,” Armstrong said. “That’s part of the beauty of this. It will generate an ongoing revenue stream.”

Armstrong is confident the company will get off to a fast start when the product hits the market Jan. 25.

“We have a very good distribution deal,” Armstrong said. “Buyers will get a digital download and buy a piece of needed hardware.”

RefReps will be sold through the global gaming website Steam and will also be sold through RefReps’ own website.

Armstrong thinks the new venture will have $500,000 in revenue by July.

“If we can sell this product to 6.5% of Zooom’s clients, we will reach $500,000 in revenue,” he explained. “By 2023, I think we’ll easily be in the $1 million to $5 million revenue range.”

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