Kyle Sleeper learned to play video games from his grandfather when he was just seven years old, with the duo navigating the final layers of Hell together in the action-packed PC game Diablo. Grandpa Bill wowed Sleeper not only with his skillful battling of digital demons, but also with his athletic regimen, which involved triathlons and lifting and generally just being shredded. And so, the stereotyped dichotomy between “gamer geek” and “jock” never really existed in Sleeper’s mind.
His grandfather retired by the time Sleeper was in his teens, and with retirement came a more sedentary life. The gaming regimen, meanwhile, continued. Sleeper didn’t think much of it until 2005, when his mom delivered a bombshell: Bill had quietly developed stage 4 cancer. Two years later, not long after an 18-year-old Sleeper graduated from high school, his grandfather died. It was a blow Sleeper expected, but it left an aching space in him anyway.
Nearly a decade later, Sleeper lay awake at night on a chilly San Francisco night, bored by his life as a business consultant and wondering what Bill might tell him to do. “In college, I was super involved with collegiate sports but gaming, too. My friends, brothers and I had talked about this idea of melding the two worlds, offering wellness to people like us in this niche,” Sleeper says.
Two years ago, Sleeper finally decided to move to L.A. and join forces with his two brothers and his best friend, a personal trainer and longtime gamer. The quartet of Kyle, Connor and Jarrett Sleeper and Ed Shafer are today founders of D20, a new company focusing on health products for the gaming and geek crowd. Their first products, launched earlier this year, are “Prelixr” and “Reboot,” two supplements intended to boost energy before a workout and help calm nerves before bed, respectively.
Crafting this pitch for the gaming- and geek-centric audience is an immensely savvy marketing move in 2018. More than 150 million Americans play video games regularly today, with 42 percent spending three or more hours a week on the hobby, according to the Entertainment Software Association. The esports industry is in a massive boom period, with marketing researcher Newzoo predicting 2018 revenues will top $900 million — an incredible 38 percent increase from 2017. And generally speaking, more millennials identify with “geek” culture than ever before, whether that’s through gaming, obsessing over countless comic-book movies or learning to cosplay for the first time.
But how exactly does D20 distinguish itself from the usual suspects in the massive (and rapidly growing), $37 billion industry of supplements and vitamins? A glance at the ingredients list, after all, results in the usual suspects and a sprinkle of surprises. “Pre-workout” supplements are designed to energize you, reduce fatigue and increase power, with a few main ingredients doing the heavy lifting, says Dana Hunnes, senior dietitian at the Ronald Reagan-UCLA Medical Center. So Prelixr hits you with a big 200 milligram dose of caffeine (an average cup of coffee has 95 milligrams), plus 3 full grams of creatine monohydrate, a naturally occurring substance that research suggests can boost muscular strength and endurance. There’s L-arginine and L-citrulline, the “nitric oxide precursors” designed to increase blood flow and potentially stimulate production of human growth hormone. Beta alanine is another well-researched workout supplement that helps your muscles maintain power under high intensity loads, with many users noting a buzzy mental boost, too.
So far, so basic. D20’s twist, then, comes in the form of herbal extracts and alternative stimulants like theobromine (aka cocoa extract), ginseng extract and ashwagandha, a medicinal herb some claim helps reduce anxiety. Meanwhile, the Reboot powder features familiar ingredients like melatonin (a natural hormone that helps trigger sleep cycles), 5-HTP (an amino acid that can calm anxiety and also help insomnia) and L-theanine (also thought useful for stress). Once again, the big sell with Reboot is a blend of those known supplements as well as natural extracts from valerian root, lemon balm and ginseng root. Sleeper also touts the inclusion of lutein, a substance found in leafy green vegetables that some studies show can stave off eye damage from exposure to blue light from screens.
“The thought was, what if we kitchen-sink it a little bit and include an all-of-the-above strategy? A lot of people use these individual supplements, but we wanted to cover the bases and make sure a range of people got the effect they need,” Sleeper says. “Then let’s think about the kind of vitamins you need, say, to stop macular degeneration. Nobody is helping you sleep and heal your eyeballs at the same time.”
In the name of science, I put aside my regular pre-bed weed regimen to try out Reboot. While I can’t say whether my eyeballs (which are definitely in need of healing) have improved, the stanky-sweet powder, brewed into a warm cup of tea, did lull me into a blissed-out chill within half an hour of consumption. The only problem was that the sensation reminded me a lot of what it feels like to just consume a 5-milligram dose of melatonin alone, which runs a fraction of Reboot’s roughly $1.15 per dose. It also was far less pleasant to drink the saccharine tea than to just pop a pill or gummy, but I felt good the next morning — no grogginess, no headaches.
As for the Prelixr? There were promising results there, too. I tried it for the first time on Saturday morning, on my way out of the apartment for a two-hour session at an indoor climbing gym. It tasted like Gatorade with a bitter, slightly bile-like edge (I had to chug it), but within minutes, the effects kicked in hard. Turns out 200 milligrams of caffeine straight into an empty stomach does wake you up, but I was thrilled by the lack of jitters and how Prelixr sharpened my focus, even just in conversation with friends during the car ride. Frankly, it reminded me of a mellow dose of Adderall. As someone who routinely consumes 30 ounces of iced coffee on a weekend morning, I was pleased with the outcome.
Hunnes wasn’t surprised that I felt some positive effects, given that a number of the main ingredients have been medically tested and have a lot of anecdotal support. What she called into question, however, was the methodology. “Basically, what they’re marketing is reductive medicine, which refers to stripping down an herb or root and trying to extract one or two benefits from it very specifically. They’re taking all these ingredients like ginseng, melatonin, lutein and blending it together to say the mix can give you all these benefits,” she says after poring over the ingredient list online. “The problem is, supplement companies don’t really have to prove what they say these ingredients do, and especially not what they claim a blend can do.”
Hunnes and other dietitians remain critical of the efficacy of certain herbal extracts like cinnamon or beet root, as well as the habit of supplement mixes to have “way too much” of certain nutrients like vitamin B12 (Prelixr has 225 percent the daily recommended amount, which Hunnes pointed out is mostly being expelled via pee). “I recommend concentrated vitamins for patients who have a deficiency. Otherwise, I’m definitely a food-first person. Get your nutrients from food, and it’s not necessary to fill the coffers of the supplement industry,” she concludes.
Sleeper has considered the criticism and the skeptics, and admits that an important part of D20’s marketing is transparency. On the site, you can find links to reputable medical studies for each of the ingredients in their products. (The counter, of course, is that you can cherry-pick studies for all kinds of purported medicinal phenomena.) The company also avoids overselling the benefits: “Supplements are a funny business to get into. None of it is medicine, none of it can be said to cure a problem you have — if we could say that, it wouldn’t be a supplement, it would be be a medicine, and you’d need a prescription for a lot of it. A lot of the stuff that shows up in supplements may or may not work for you,” Jarrett Sleeper, Kyle’s brother, writes in one blog post.
That said, Kyle Sleeper argues that D20’s products offer high-quality ingredients and somewhat unique blends for a competitive price. “If you took just our herb blend and sold that separately, you could sell that at the same price per dose as the whole Prelixr product,” Sleeper says. “We just made something we like with all of the things we want, without the shit ingredients you find in many other supplements. You could also make these blends at home, and it would be way more expensive.”
While D20 is leveraging partnerships with influential streamers and the gaming chat program Discord, Sleeper is also quick to defend D20’s broader agenda. It doesn’t intend to compete with brands like G-Fuel or Gamersupp, which have basically repackaged energy drinks for gamers with the promise of increasing performance, he says. Instead, the team hopes that the target market will see D20 as a company selling wellness, with an earnest understanding of the nerd crowd.
Conveying that authenticity is a tricky but important task, says Andrew Deutsch, a fitness expert and founder of Nerdstrong, a gym in North Hollywood that’s infused gaming and geeky pop culture references into its workouts to great success. “I think there’s a huge market, personally. People have to be genuine, and they can’t try to pander to this group. A nerd is a natural skeptic, especially when it comes to the fitness industry,” Deutsch says. “We’ve been in this business for four years and thrived as a gym for people who don’t want a conventional gym. And these same people do branch out and use products like supplements. If D20 has people who want to support nerd-dom and not just capitalize on it, it might be a slow burn, but ultimately, it’ll probably be successful. A lot of these existing brands are selling body images and experiences that aren’t relatable to nerds.”
The business was funded largely by Sleeper, with additional investment from friends and family, but he anticipates D20 will make six figures in revenue over the course of the year. The company is already in the process of reformulating its products after initial feedback from customers, and it’s brainstorming other items to add to the roster, again with a focus on helping treat the issues and symptoms that can arise from sedentary, digitized habits. The plan is to start another round of fundraising in the fall or winter, and then release a second stream of products. The company is also thinking of branching out into multivitamins for gamers with higher vitamin D (“Because sometimes they don’t get enough sunlight”), probiotics for gut health or a joint formula to help relieve long-term pain and damage.
He emphasizes that these aren’t products for hardcore weightlifters or hardcore gamers, but rather the big group in between. “We see Drake, of all people, playing a game on Twitch with Ninja, who is a top gamer. This is arguably the coolest mainstream person in America, and this motherfucker is playing Fortnite in front of an audience!” Sleeper says with a laugh. “That’s the world we live in now, and we think we have the products for it.”