"Lacrosse is the sickest sport ever." Carlo Sunseri is being neither cute nor ironic. His enthusiasm is uncomplicated. "It's down to the finesse of the game," he says. "The speed, the stick-work, the physicality: lacrosse inspires passion." Sunseri, who fell in love with lacrosse in high school and played to top college league level, is not merely passionate about the sport: he is evangelical. During his final year at the Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh he founded a video game company with a single purpose: to create lacrosse-based video games that could compete with EA's flagship sports series in terms of quality and attention to detail.
Since 2009 Sunseri has independently released no fewer than ten lacrosse titles. Most, such as those he made with the endorsement of the National Lacrosse League have been realistic in approach. Others, such as the iOS game Laxy Bro, a lacrosse-themed Flappy Bird clone, are more flippant. But Sunseri's puppy-esque energy and fervour is not without a business case, even if he has been unable to convince any major video game publisher to help develop the games. Last month his latest project, Lacrosse 15, was funded on Indiegogo for close to $150,000, more than double its goal. There is, it turns out, a paying audience to support his vision.
Lacrosse is older than football (on both sides of the Atlantic). The sport, in which two teams of ten players pass a ball using a lacrosse stick (a pole of varying lengths with a netted pouch fixed to the top end) and attempt to heft it into the opponent's goal was reputedly originated by Native Americans almost a thousand years ago. By the 17th century lacrosse was widely played across America. For a time the sport featured in the Olympics. And yet it remains a niche interest compared to the younger team games played around the world. Some even poke fun. Perhaps it's the word itself, both Gallic and feminine in its formation. Or maybe it's the fact that, on the field, lacrosse appears less physical than American Football, less plainly elegant than soccer, less brutal than hockey (whose unadorned sticks seem somehow more honest), and more complicated than all of the above.
These are, Sunseri insists, prejudices founded on ignorance. "Lacrosse has all the best attributes of other sports games: the hitting of American football, the stick work of hockey, the passing of soccer, and the up and down action of basketball," he says. "It also translates extremely well to a video game." So well, in fact, that Sunseri believes that his game could prove instrumental in helping to popularise lacrosse. "Lacrosse is the fastest growing sport in the US," he says. "It's at a tipping point to go mainstream. I believe the video game will help to get lacrosse sticks into more people's hands. Look at what EA's FIFA did for the sport of soccer in the U.S. - That's what I want our video games to do for lacrosse.
Sunseri grew up in Mt. Lebanon, a small suburb of Pittsburgh during the early 1990s. He played America football and lacrosse through high school, but eventually dropped the former in order to more fully focus on lacrosse. Simultaneously he was fostering an interest in computers. "Our family got a desktop computer just when the internet was becoming popular," he says. "I spent tons of time on it researching video games, lacrosse, and how to start a business." Suneri's interests came together naturally. "I'd always dreamed of playing an awesome lacrosse video game that was the quality of Madden Sports," he says. "Even when we were playing the original PlayStation, I wondered why no one, EA in particular, had ever made a simulation lacrosse video game. It wasn't until college that I really thought about the possibility of making a video game when Microsoft announced XNA and the Indie Game Channel."
At college Sunseri studied sports management and, during the second year of his course wrote a business plan and design document and approached a small developer in the UK to see if they might partner with him on a lacrosse game. "I still remember the first web chat I had with the team and thinking this has to be a dream," he says. "I put together my ideas for an ideal lacrosse video game and every day for months, I would wake up and help design, market, and playtest a game that I had always wanted to play."
The result was College Lacrosse 2010, launched on Xbox Indie Games channel. Sunseri worked hard to promote the game, accumulating 230,000 Facebook fans. "It was a surreal experience. I was working on a video game that I had dreamed about since I was in elementary school and there was a thriving community of people interested in every detail about the game." The response from those fans, starved of a video game representation of their sport, was tremendous. "That's when I decided I would focus on producing lacrosse games full time."
During the past five years Sunseri has launched an average of two lacrosse games every twelve months, a bruising work rate for any developer, even if many of the games iterate upon and improve the previous entry. "Developing games on a small budget is limiting," he says. "There's not much time and money available for each game so you have to release games more often to recoup your costs. We have to build the game, release the game, and hope to recoup our costs so that we can continue developing." Sunseri is also at the whim and mercy of platform holders. "In 2009 the plan was to release the original game on Xbox Live for $10," he says. "But two weeks before launch Microsoft changed the maximum price to $5.00. I was devastated."
The stipulation turned to his advantage, however. "I approached the pro lacrosse leagues about licensing their teams and players in hopes of releasing a second game to recoup the lost $5," he says. "The National Lacrosse League was instantly receptive and we ended up creating an award winning series of NLL lacrosse video games." Sales across the series have been strong. "The demand for a lacrosse video game is high," he says. "I've been able to continue putting money back into improving the games and making new titles for people to play."
Despite the success, major game publishers haven't been so receptive. "In 2013, I felt like we were at the closest point to creating a AAA lacrosse video game funded by a major publisher like EA or 2K," he says. "We put together the pitch, had the team in place, and presented the game to the publishers. Unfortunately, the feedback was that lacrosse was still too niche of a sport to support a fully funded game. As a lacrosse player and fan, the fact that they say lacrosse is too small doesn't make sense to me, but as an entrepreneur running a business, I can see their reasoning."
Sunseri's dream remains un-dampened by the rejection. "I believe that lacrosse could go mainstream like football, baseball or hockey," he says. Certainly, outside of the video game arena, the sport is gaining momentum. Major League Lacrosse, a men's professional league, was inaugurated in 2001 in the United States. But regardless of whether this apparent upward trajectory continues, Sunseri is in for the long haul. "Lacrosse has given me so much and has taught me so many lessons, I'm committed to giving back to the sport through coaching and video games," he says.
"My aim is to release a yearly simulation lacrosse video game that's fully licensed and on par with Madden, NHL, FIFA, and NBA 2K. As of today, we are now one big step closer to making this game a reality, thanks to the lacrosse community." Indeed, Lacrosse '15 surpassed its funding goal to such a degree that Sunseri has pledged to release versions for Xbox One and PS4 as well as Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC. "I see this feat as a major milestone in the history of lacrosse," he says. "And I look forward to the day when millions play the sport worldwide."