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Meet the Tough Mudder founder growing a Netflix-backed immersive gaming revolution

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Will Dean is starting a revolution. 

He has created a ‘no mobile club’ at his children’s school, where so far over half of the year’s parents have mutually agreed to hold off from buying their kids smartphones until at least the age of 13.

While not quite the Arab Spring, it may sound extreme to some. But Dean – who founded the popular endurance event company Tough Mudder in 2010 – insists he is not some sort of neo-luddite.

“I am not anti tech…quite the opposite,” he told City A.M., “But we’ve created these incredibly powerful tools in the last 20 years and we haven’t really created a set of rules to go with them. And unfortunately we see that right with all these terrible statistics around teenage depression and anxiety and all the rest of it. 

“So it’s not the tools that’s the problem. It’s the lack of rules and the lack of role models of companies that people actually have some trust and faith in and are doing more than just paying lip service to the supposed mission that they have.”

Dean, who has an MBE for his donations to sport, is now getting stuck into his next – far less muddy – endeavour in an attempt to fix this. 

Founded in 2018, Immersive Gamebox is a group entertainment company that allows teams of up to six players to tackle challenges in game adaptations of popular shows and films from the likes of Netflix and Paramount.

The idea for the company came to Dean during a rainy trip to Swansea when he was playing with some virtual reality (VR) equipment with friends.

“I just thought it was weird,” he said, “What is the point in us all being together and not being together?”

All the games, which currently include ones based on Squid Games, Ghostbusters and Black Mirror, are designed to pit players against the environment instead of each other.

With around 40 sites across the UK, Germany, the US, Australia and UAE, the company saw 80 per cent year on year growth in 2023, while hitting its millionth player. It has secured £50m in funding to date.

Immersive Gamebox is now plotting an ambitious expansion, aiming to reach 100m players across 1,000 sites by 2028.

Dean said he wanted to leverage his experience running Tough Mudder but in a completely different space. “Over the last 10 or so years I’ve learned a lot about selling tickets for group based experiences, doing deals with media companies, keeping a product fresh and doing clever, innovative, edgy, marketing,” he said.

Will Dean MBE (Image: Immersive Gamebox)

That is probably how he has landed partnership deals with digital media giants Netflix, Sony and entertainment company Merlin, which is behind the Shrek Experience in London.

In return for the IP rights to use their shows, Immersive Gamebox helps Netflix and other studios to ensure their shows stay front and centre of subscribers’ minds in between seasons.

“What we give them is, in a year or two’s time, we’ll be in every major city in the US and every three months there can be a new game coming out. That’s where we have value – and at a price point that’s affordable for the average middle class family,” Dean explained.

Gaming is at the forefront of many media companies’ plans, especially following Microsoft’s recent acquisition of Activision Blizzard, the Call of Duty creator. Netflix has been looking to jump into the gaming market since 2021 and recently started to test its games in the UK on televisions and computers.

According to Enders Analysis, global gaming revenue estimates hit $184bn (£146bn) in 2023 – up $1bn from the year before but down from a pandemic induced peak of $193bn (£153bn) in 2021. Analysts said 2024 is likely to be a “bumpy and uncomfortable year” for the industry but they foresee longer term growth.

And Dean is bullish on the appetite for group gaming experiences as people look for new types of experiences post-pandemic, especially in an often rainy and cold London where “people need fun indoor stuff to do”.

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