Turning boring lines of code into a Super Bowl sporting fest

The Matrix
The Matrix made hackers cool while The Big Bang Theory made neurotic scientists slightly less weird. And now, it’s the coders’ turn, with the rise of the ‘Hackathon’. One guy wants it to go big – so big it’ll be the “sporting” event of the year for tech nerds everywhere.

What was once territory associated with either ankle-length leather jackets (ala The Matrix), or Urkel-style plaid shirts and waist-high jeans, these days, being a nerd has never been more cool.

That’s thanks largely to the rise of such high-profile tech moguls as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and SpaceX’s Elon Musk who’ve remade what it means to be a geek. These days, coders are in.

And its here Matty Blomfield (not the ex-pizza boss, he stresses) plays a part: he wants to create the ESPN of coding.


Matty Blomfield

Just as the Rugby World Cup gets Kiwis riled up every four years, Blomfield wants to do the same for developers by creating a “sporting” event stemming from writing code. Called Hacktivate, it turns boring lines of code into a spectator sport by translating the algorithms produced by teams of developers into a game or scenario that can be easily understood by the average Joe.

The first event – held in 2012 and ironically called Hacktivate: Game of Codes – featured a hungry hippo simulation which looked like it was built in the 70’s. Two hippos, blue vs red, were given a set of commands such as left, right, teleport, and change direction, etcetera, and fought it out on a giant screen to the sounds of screaming fans.

That first event was started by Blomfield and a friend studying computer science at the time – Shane O’Connell – who co-founded the web and app design agency Summer of Dev, on basically nothing but their desire to see something fun happen. Since then, the pair have been approached by data analytics company Palantir Technologies and healthcare technology company Orion Health to support their endeavours.

“There’s a lot of volunteering and sweat labour involved,” Blomfield says (even though the last event they ran cost just shy of $20,000). To run the July and September event, and to do it well, according to Blomfield, it’s costing them three-to-four times that amount.

“To run it the way we like, the stretch-goal to run it right, it’d be approaching the six-figure mark,” he says.

With this year’s Hacktivate, international designer’s event Semi-Permanent jumped in as a sponsor alongside interactive digital firm Rush Digital. Rush boss Danu Abeysuriya, who Idealogprofiled back in March this year, is very, very interested.

“Rush Digital decided they want to be involved. They’re at the top of their game in New Zealand and around the world, especially in terms of technology development and gaming, and Danu, the CEO of Rush, is right into Hacktivate,” Blomfield says.

“So now we’ve got the manpower of Rush Digital building the challenge. It’ll be on Unreal Engine 4, which means it’ll be a stunning visualisation.”

That visualisation will take form in a game of Battleship, where the best algorithm developed by the various team of coders for how the ships manoeuvre and fire will win.

This year’s Hacktivate, held at the end of July, is the first time it’s going to be scalable and is essentially a test ground for their magnum opus event in September. It will be the first time developers will be able to attend remotely – that is, to submit their code while they’re sitting in their jammies however-many-miles-away.

“It’s the first time we’ll be able to run [the event] on an international scale, compared to just these local events,” Blomfield says.

Naturally, there’s a lot of interest from the corporate recruitment angle, Blomfield says. Building an event like this means also building a database of talented developers, which translates into a lot of monetisation opportunities should they want to connect developers with employers.

At the same time, Hacktivate is organically bringing together talented developers to form teams that could solve corporate issues that would otherwise cost a small fortune to solve.

Corporations around the world now host internal hackathons, which have extended beyond the IT space and involve everyone in a company to come up with solutions to problems. Similarly, Facebook’s Hack for a Cause in 2012 is part of a continuing trend that’s seeing social wellness incorporated into geekdom.

Ultimately though, Blomfield says: “it’s about sport, about our competitors, about being able to come along and showcase [the developer’s] skill rather than [Hacktivate] purely being this machine for corporates to recruit talent.”

The September event will see over a thousand competitors from across Asia Pacific compete, with registrations already coming in from such far-flung places as Malaysia and Philippines.

Blomfield says they’re now looking at expanding the competition into Europe in early 2016, and the US later that year.

As for beyond that?

“I’ve actually set a goal. For 2030, I want this to be bigger than FIFA.” 


Concept artwork for Battleship challenge