Jeremy Melul, an entrepreneur and rabid soccer fan, got a glimpse of all this at an early age. And he wondered.
What if there was a way, digitally, to use technology to enhance the experience? In an instant, would it be possible to pull up a virtual portfolio of games in your area, know who was playing in those games and, further, figure out if you could find a spot?
Welcome to Jogabo. The world's first and, potentially, its most powerful soccer social networking tool.
"I knew how much of a pain it was just to find games or other people to play with," says Melul, a French-born soccer buff who holds a master's of mechanical engineering from Stanford. "Even if you're the organizer, just to get things set up, I always wanted it the most so I always stepped up. I took the hit and I was constantly sending emails, but at school when I was at Madrid, I realized how many people wanted to play."
When Melul was in Madrid several years ago, still formulating the kernel of the idea that eventually turned into Jogabo, a micro example turned into a macro idea. A start-up game with 14 players turned into a massive undertaking that drew about a thousand players less than a month into the endeavor. Melul realized then how strong the game's pull was.
Most will look at Jogabo as a soccer-first app, and that's not a distinction its creators are fighting. When it rolls off the showroom floor for mass consumption in the next few months, Melul and his co-founders know that Jogabo's most readily identifiable feature will be its ability to find you a place to play soccer nearby, and quickly. You'll also be able to track stats, know who you're playing with and GPS-locate games near you. This all supplies the backbone.
The product became mobile-only just last December, when Melul and co-founders Medhi Djabri and Pierre-Guillaume Herveou crystallized the vision for the app. Since then, the crew has been feverishly preparing for a planned roll-out in the next three months. From there, they plan to provide constant updates on the model, wherever that takes them.
But at its core, Jogabo is a social device that offers its users something more than a typical night-out experience at soccer. Because if soccer is a social game, Jogabo is its companion app.
Indeed, the app's functions aim to unite its users through the guise of the beautiful game. When Melul was in South Africa during the World Cup in 2010, he was struck by the game's ability to serve as a societal social hub. It rubbed off on him to such a degree that it got the wheels spinning on turning the concordant nature of the game into a 21st-century device.
"(Soccer) is the central place where all the social connections happen," Melul says, "with the visitors that are here interacting with the locals and the young and the old."
The group unrolled a private beta of the app in Santiago, Chile last year when it first excited its founders with its power. Without any prompting, one of Jogabo's first users landed in Santiago, launched the app, found Melul's game and joined him on the field. Melul was as surprised to see him as anyone.
"It's kind of an extreme example that shows the power of the platform and the sport itself," Melul said.
When Melul's group decided to move to San Francisco from Chile to mold their project, they ran into some quizzical looks from interested observers abroad. Of all the places across the globe with impassioned soccer supporters, why choose to root a soccer-based project in a country that, at least on a nation-wide scale, values the sport below four others?
For Melul, anyway, the answer was easy to find.
"Soccer is kind of the little ugly duckling that's trying to make it," he says. "And what happens is this community of soccer people is ever so tight because you guys want to show that this is not just a little sport. This is your sport and you want it to be up there with the others. That's something I really appreciated, and that's why we came to the U.S. We wanted to be the catalyst to show that we can get these people connected and show the world that people play soccer in the U.S."
It hasn't always been easy. Melul and his co-founders "had no money, no skills," he says. "We learned on our own how to program." Indeed, Melul told me he just sold his last valuable belonging to pay for some of the video for Jogabo. Right now, Melul is in London in an attempt to secure a connection with the Nike Accelerator, which funds start-ups that it deems have potential to succeed in the long run. Should Jogabo gain entry, immediate funding and support are on the way.
So yes, on a baseline level, Jogabo will connect you with a soccer game. But it will also link you up with dozens, maybe hundreds of other soccer players in your travels. And, for its founders, that's perhaps its most valuable aim.
"We've completely lost that, it seems, in Europe or the U.S.," Melul says. "We've lost that whole social side to it where people can interact and meet the people they play with. Pickup soccer in the U.S. is the closest thing I think. So I wanted to make sure that we would work on something that was kind of meaningful."
- Will Parchman