Seattle investors back Battlesnake, makers of a growing game that turns coding into competition

“Battlesnake” action during a tournament broadcast on Twitch. (Battlesnake Image)

Programmers looking to experiment or get better at the tools and technology that they use for their day jobs are turning to a competitive game called “Battlesnake” — made by a company of the same name — to earn bragging rights among a community of coders. Now Battlesnake is turning to Seattle investors for new funding to help the startup expand its reach.

Madrona Venture Group led a $1.5 million round for Victoria, B.C.-based Battlesnake, the company announced Wednesday. Liquid 2, Ascend, 200 OK, and angel investors including Jason Warner (former CTO of GitHub) and Chris Aniszczyk (CTO of Linux Foundation) also participated.

Battlesnake originated in the Pacific Northwest as a developer recruiting event in 2015, and by 2019 the flagship Battlesnake Tournament in Victoria drew 1,200 developers and another 1,000 spectators intrigued by the e-sports-like drama of watching competitors compete with their coded snakes.

Battlesnake co-founder and CEO Brad Van Vugt. (Battlesnake Photo)

Co-founder and CEO Brad Van Vugt told Mekhato that “Battlesnake” sits at a “weird intersection between gaming and programming.” At its core, it’s a game that experienced programmers use to explore new ideas and new algorithms and new technologies.

“It’s not education, we’re not teaching folks to program,” Van Vugt said. “If you want to learn to code there’s lots of ways to get there. We’re specifically serving mid-career and further-along developers that are looking for ways to engage with new technologies. It’s mostly for fun.”

When the pandemic derailed in-person events in 2020, Battlesnake went completely online and gave programmers stuck at home the ability to connect with each other and compete for prizes. The community has grown to some 10,000 developers around the world.

Amazon Web Services hosted a tournament for all of its North American interns over the summer and AWS Program Manager Chelsea Stumm called the experience a “friendly, welcoming, and challenging way to build real programming experience both inside the company and in the broader developer community.”

A post on the AWS Machine Learning Blog does a deep dive on how to use Amazon’s SageMaker cloud machine learning platform to compete in the game.

As a phenomenon, “Battlesnake” the game is kind of a two-headed monster. At one end is a group of very skilled developers who are very secretive about their algorithms, using a variety programming languages, tech stacks and cloud providers to compete and become celebrities of sorts in the developer community. At the other end is a less competitive, more collaborative “Battlesnake” where devs discuss tech and share resources to help each other build better snakes.

The game itself basically involves snakes on a grid eating food, outmaneuvering each other and trying to stay alive as long as possible. Each snake is controlled remotely by a web server or an AI or whatever tech stack the particular programmer has chosen.

The six-person startup produces shows on Amazon-owned Twitch, and Van Vugt views the competition as more accessible to the average viewer than e-sports games such as “StarCraft” or “League of Legends.”

“What we’ve found is the game mechanics of competitive, multiplayer ‘Battlesnake’ are so simple that anyone can watch and understand and immediately understand why one strategy is better than another or why one snake is beating another snake definitively,” Van Vugt said.

The crowd of developers at a Battlesnake tournament in 2019. (Battlesnake Photo)

The new funding will help Battlesnake, whose fall league is about to start, meet increased demand for events and competitions from various communities such a university clubs or engineering teams at companies that want to use the platform to learn and try things internally.

Van Vugt sees lots of room for growth, mentioning massively popular games such as “Minecraft” and “Roblox” and the communities that have grown up around them. Learning about programming strategies and algorithms should be fun and entertaining.

The skill involved and the unique nature of competing and winning at the game can also be an added feather in a programmer’s career cap. Some add their “Battlesnake” success to their GitHub and LinkedIn profiles or their resumes. The backstories and storylines that come with being involved in the game build personality behind the developers, which Van Vugt said then they can take to potential employers or to other communities.

“It’s really interesting to recruiters,” Van Vugt said. “This isn’t like a brain teaser. This isn’t a LeetCode or a HackerRank where you’re doing little one-off puzzles. It’s a really big, hairy, open-ended problem that you can solve however you want and then show results against it.”

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