We are a group of people who found our friends, and many of our most memorable experiences, through tabletop games. Collecting cards, traveling to tournaments, roleplaying late into the night, strategizing obsessively, painting miniatures – you name it, someone (or everyone) here was or is really into it. Even today, there is generally a tabletop gaming experience at the foundation of our greatest friendships; many of them with each other.
Robert: I moved around a lot as a kid, and my seven Magic decks became a springboard into every one of those new communities. That shared interest was so critical to my early friendships.
But throughout all of our earlier experiences in tabletop gaming, both online and locally, we were consistently underwhelmed by the attention and care given to our favorite hobby. Local shops were uninspiring and uninviting, especially to those outside of the “gaming” culture. Online stores were dreary, unprofessional, and disinterested in quality service. Store owners expected customers like us to bear the full responsibility of building their communities and increasing their sales, then provided a few plastic tables and chairs in return. The entire ecosystem was backwards.
Zach: When I first got hooked on The Spoils, I eagerly put together a deck for one of the upcoming regional tournaments. I needed quite a few cards to make it work, so I set out to buy some singles. I ended up placing an order online after finding very little support locally. My package shipped a few days after I placed the order, and everything arrived the day before the tournament. Just in time, right? I excitedly opened it up only to find that the contents were completely wrong. They weren’t even Spoils cards! I e-mailed the store, received no response, and ultimately got crushed at the event playing an awful deck. I eventually got those singles…four weeks later. That set me on fire.
We knew things had to change — that the existing standard, and in fact the entire approach to tabletop gaming, could be significantly better. In 2007, after a number of soul-searching conversations and $300 in personal investment, we launched the Team Covenant website and officially became incorporated. Our goal was to improve every aspect of the hobby and, in doing so, establish a new standard for the industry.
What most people do not know is how those early years nearly broke us.
We started selling a few game lines, produced our first tutorial video, hosted and live-streamed our first convention, modified our website to become a quasi-social network, produced our first battle report, furiously wrote blogs, attended more conventions, and worked day and night to break through the noise. We devoted most of our waking hours to our goal, driving ourselves, and one another, to new levels. And when things came crashing down around our heads, as they sometimes did, we had no choice but to improvise — no matter how long it took.
Jonathan: That first tutorial for Dragonball was done entirely in Final Cut Pro. I was pushing the software so hard that it immediately crashed my computer if the clips were live. So I wrote down all of the timecodes for my desired effects and then created them without any visuals, basically just using math. It took me three months.
After a while, we found that we’d painted ourselves into a corner. Without credit lines or outside funding of any kind, every single bet we placed had to pay off. Unfortunately for us, many of our ideas were too ambitious or, as we reluctantly discovered, too expensive. Many were simply misguided. Either way, a good number of them did not pay off. We worked other jobs to pay the bills and spent our free time obsessing over how we might manifest our vision for tabletop gaming in a practical way. Sometimes, we found ourselves wondering if that was even possible.
Steven: Robert, Jonathan, Tim, and I all lived together in a little house to save money. Zach came over one day and it was so cold that no one could type. That started some conversations…
Robert: During those early years I ended up selling all but one of my Magic decks to get through the bad months. Still hurts.
We were barely afloat when we decided that opening a physical space was our best chance to break through. The tangibility of a brick and mortar store would force us to “show” instead of “tell”. If it worked, we might actually be able to prove that our approach to tabletop was both feasible and desirable.
We pulled from the last of our collective savings, sold off personal assets, and asked friends for investment money. With about $10,000 to work with, we found the cheapest rent possible and got to work.
Zach: The timing was crazy. We signed the lease in January 2012 and then immediately The Spoils announced that it was done. Likewise, Privateer Press engaged in complete radio silence about Monsterpocalypse. That meant we were down to selling the Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings living card games, Warmachine, and Burning Wheel. When buildout got underway, I counted every penny. I remember internally cringing with every unexpected purchase of more black paint for the ceiling tiles!
Amazingly, our gamble — and all of our work — started paying off. After about six months, a solid community of fantastic people was convening weekly at The Covenant Store, many of them experiencing tabletop gaming for the first time. Of course, we did everything we could to keep them coming.
Steven: It was so critical that both Robert and I were available to play a game at any moment. That is really how the community started growing. Our customers knew that they could get a game at the store, even if no other customers were on the premises — so the trip was always worth it for them. Once the value of visiting Team Covenant’s physical location was ingrained in enough people, the overlap started happening and tournaments were feasible. We were having Thrones events with over twenty people!
Zach: You had Tim working 40 hours a week without a paycheck. Jonathan making incredible videos for free. Steven and Robert working 60-70 hours a week for $700/month. I still have old spreadsheets that show around 140 hours of work logged every week, and that figure did not count the extensive cleaning or video shoots before the store opened every day. Meantime I was picking up all of the freelance work that I possibly could in order to hedge against a bad month.
We were thrilled to be bringing in enough revenue to pay all of our bills, even if it was taking hundreds of unpaid hours each month to do so. We continued to grind, build, test, and grow. We launched a scrappy online subscription system (We had to charge cards monthly and then issue manual refunds if a pack did not release – many of our current subscribers still remember this phase!) and moved our retail store to a better location. Our custom tokens started gaining traction and our videos were reaching larger and larger audiences. Things were finally looking up!
Zach: I showed Steven and Jonathan some early prototypes for Netrunner-themed tokens and they just flatly said ‘nope’. Jonathan pulled up Illustrator and mocked a few things up. After hundreds of revisions over the next six months, we launched Data Tokens. Within a day we had to change them from ‘shipping in December’ to ‘shipping in January’ due to the amount of pre-orders. That was the first night of good sleep I’d had in a long time.
Yet after working through eight years of severe struggle and constant pressure, we were far from relieved. Everything felt wrong. We consistently disagreed about methods and could not reconcile our diverse personal beliefs swirling around how best to “elevate the hobby.” Long nights of philosophizing became the norm, and out of those many hours of discussion we eventually concluded that things like “elevating the hobby” and “gaming reborn” could really mean anything. Why were we willing to sacrifice so much in order to improve the tabletop experience? Why did it matter?
Robert: It was all so heated, and those debates caused some of the most profound emotions I have ever felt. We were all on such different pages; everything was a fight for the future of the company. We were really having to figure out what it meant to transition from a small, family-style enterprise to a real, successful business. And the financial stress was obviously on everyone.
Jonathan: We have always been great at building and achieving, usually through sheer determination and perfectionism, but I think it became obvious we had built on sand. There was nothing firm underneath, no fundamental understanding of who we were and where we were going. That led to an incredible amount of uncertainty, and I had no idea what was going to happen when the dust settled.
The answer to this existential crisis emerged just as the depth of our frustration was threatening to tear Covenant apart.
We ultimately realized that our purpose is to connect people. Looking at our own histories, we had mistakenly brushed over how meaningful and life-changing these game experiences actually were. We had been obsessed with change and improvement for its own sake, because we knew things should be better, but there was so much more to it. Elevating the industry, changing the paradigm, is only valuable if it better facilitates the connection between human beings – a connection that tabletop gaming is uniquely capable of achieving. This is the true power of the hobby, and why we are now willing to unquestionably devote our lives to it.
Jonathan: I will never forget walking into the first MonCon. I expected it to be quiet and intense, but instead everyone was vibrant, joyous, and, well, loving. Within an hour of these strangers arriving in Tulsa, lifelong friendships were being formed around a game. What else can do that?
Steven: That stretch of soul-searching, of discussion, disagreement, and debate, were actually some of the most exciting days for me. Blame it on the impulses that led to my philosophy degree. But we all came out of it with such a strong sense of purpose and understanding. Amid all of the intensity, we wove together the DNA of Covenant. It became painfully obvious how profound these tabletop gaming connections ultimately were. I mean, it is how we all met. It was right in front of us — literally — the entire time.
Everything had to change. We scrapped most of our then-current projects. Cancelled plans. Took a collective breath. And then we asked ourselves where we needed to concentrate our focus first, what we needed to do to best facilitate these connections.
The answer was not what we expected.
After obsessively poring over data, surveys, and forums, evaluating the online and local retail landscape, and candidly interviewing our local players, we discovered that the most significant thing driving people out of the hobby and away from each other was the lack of convenient access to the games themselves. Local stores were rarely stocking or promoting games that were not Magic: The Gathering, Yu-Gi-Oh!, or Pokemon. Without local support, players ordered online from inconsistent, inconvenient, faceless warehouses — or, more often, they never ordered at all.
We learned that the focus for tabletop gamers too often had to be about keeping up with games instead of playing them with friends. Planned gameplay sessions devolved into “what products do I need?” or “wait, what pack is that card from?”. Many players did not even trust their local or online stores to correctly fulfill the pre-orders that they paid for in advance, and most were underwhelmed by every shopping experience available to them.
Zach: As we surveyed the landscape with this new understanding, the problems throughout the industry jumped out in sharp relief. For instance, once I traveled to a tournament and ended up playing in the basement because the shop owner only supported Magic. During my first game, a cat jumped onto the table. In order to play the games you loved, you had to overlook so much. You had to really want to play, in the face of, if not adversity, at least apathy. The games were great, but no one was providing quality, respectable access to this industry.
Access. Convenient access. It simply did not exist.
So again, we got to work. And here we are.
With a clear purpose driving our actions, we are more focused and inspired than ever. We have rebuilt our entire web infrastructure and invested heavily in our subscription service in order to facilitate ease of access. Subscriptions immediately solve the product-access dilemma by allowing players to focus on connecting instead of buying, and we have big plans for that service, as well as our approach to content, local retail, and beyond. We have never been more excited for our future and the future of this industry.
Zach: Getting these games into people’s hands is the first step, and our subscription service has made significant progress there. But awareness, outreach, perception, sustainability, and many other issues, still need to be solved. We intend to tackle each of them in a deliberate, concerted way, and will not be satisfied until access to these gaming experiences is as effortless and joyful as it can be. The connections formed are too profound — and given the state of the world, too important — to strive for anything less.