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Soylent Has A Dream: To Be The Red Bull Of Video Gaming

The would-be food of the future is bland, nutrient-rich, and beloved by a small crowd of experimental techies. Can sponsoring a pro gaming league help it reach the masses?

Helena Kristiansson / ESL One

This weekend, as thousands of fans descend on Madison Square Garden to watch professional video gamers duke it out with spells and blades, they'll encounter a startup executive in a space suit. He'll offer them sample-size cups of a thick, white fluid that, he hopes, will one day replace their lunch.

This would-be future food, Soylent, is a bland-tasting blend of carbohydrates, protein, vitamins, and other nutrients that has been around for about two years now, gaining devotees among techies who don't have the time or the desire to eat food.

Big-name investors have put millions into the Los Angeles–based company. But Soylent, the brainchild of a 27-year-old software engineer named Rob Rhinehart, remains a little too weird even for many of the white-collar geeks it wants to reach. Now, the company is betting that major league video gaming, or e-sports — a global industry with a fast-growing and passionate fan base — will be its ticket to more widespread adoption.

In September, Soylent signed a sponsorship deal with the Electronic Sports League, which runs events including ESL One, the tournament being held this weekend in New York. The deal represents the biggest item in Soylent's marketing budget this year, with the company paying between $100,000 and $300,000 — executives wouldn't get more specific than that — to sponsor ESL One. Soylent will have its logo plastered over the event and the online broadcasts beaming the fantasy battle arena game Dota 2 to millions of fans. Soylent has also agreed to sponsor an upcoming pro season of the popular first-person shooter Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.

Soylent was inspired by a recent visit to the Santa Monica campus of Red Bull, the energy drink maker whose original films and athlete sponsorships have made it synonymous with extreme sports. Soylent hopes to become a major patron of feats of computerized daring, and has considered sponsoring an e-sports team, executives told BuzzFeed News. Once it completes an office expansion, the executives said, Soylent wants to invite professional video gamers to train in a special gaming room, which, of course, will include plenty of free Soylent. In its own small, quirky way, this food-hacking startup with a name from science fiction wants to be the Red Bull of competitive video gaming.

"I kind of like basketball, and I watched my college football team, but I was never that really into traditional sports," Rhinehart said in a conference room in Soylent's downtown L.A. office, where workers were renovating the upper floor. "And I think it's really cool that e-sports are taking off, because, like, I always loved chess — having a really strong mental, strategic aspect to a game."

There's an undeniable logic to Soylent getting into bed with the nerd version of the NFL. All-night hackathons and marathon LAN parties are often littered with boxes of pizza or other junk food; Soylent's pitch is to replace an unhealthy convenience with a healthier one. More fundamentally, Soylent thinks gamers will be receptive to its geeky, science-heavy ethos. In the guarded phrasing of David Renteln, a Soylent co-founder and its chief marketing officer, "the demographic is very much a demographic that is interested in scientific concepts."

From the beginning, Soylent encouraged its fans to tinker with the recipe, which it published online. The company now plays up the idea of environmental sustainability, noting that a portion of the ingredients in its 2.0 line comes from algae rather than farms. Rhinehart, who announced Soylent to the world in a blog post called "How I Stopped Eating Food," chronicling a 30-day stretch of surviving only on his pasty brew, likes to use his own body as a science lab. After challenging himself to temporarily cut down on his water use, he wrote in a blog post last year, he consumed 500 milligrams of the antibiotic Rifaximin, which "massacred my gut bacteria" and, he claimed, made him stop pooping. ("Soylent's microbiome consultant advised that this is a terrible idea so I do not recommend it.")

Rhinehart's weird habits have made him into something of a nerd folk hero. He doesn't do laundry, for example. Instead, he kills microbes in his clothing with a UV Sterilizer, a process he repeats a few times before donating the shirts and underwear and buying new ones. "If I was doing a full load of wash it would be more efficient, but since I have very little clothing and would only be washing a few pieces at a time it actually is more energy and water efficient to have new ones manufactured," he told BuzzFeed News in an email. He also has a pet pig.


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