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Battlefield Sports Winning Big in Export

Taking the challenge of export success to a new level is an ongoing process for Peter and Nicole Lander. They talk to Nukte Ogun about capturing a niche in a market many thought was dead and buried

Fighting through rough terrain to defuse a bomb and rescue a group of hostages is not an everyday occurrence, unless you’re in the armed forces or playing a computer game. Or at least, that was the case. Through the world of military simulation (milsim), anyone can wage a warehouse war to protect an internationally renowned VIP.Peter Lander has always loved games, and spent most of his youth playing everything from Dungeons and Dragons to live action role-playing (LARP). With a background in computer science he began his own software company, but dreamed of creating a live gaming experience. Finally, in 1999, the necessary technology was created, and with it came Battlefield Sports.Lander developed a pilot battlefield in his hometown of Cairns, Queensland, for gamers to play Battlefield Live, like an outdoor version of laser tag. Within a year, it was time to expand. “It became clear pretty quickly that there were a lot of people around the world wanting to do the same as we do,” says Lander. So with its own line of original equipment, Battlefield Sports joined the export skirmish, shipping its technology internationally, and throughout Australia.Lander admits the business really took off after the creation of their website, for which he credits his co-founder and wife, Nicole. With representatives in 27 countries, Battlefield Sports has won numerous export awards and, more recently, Nicole was named a finalist at Queensland Business Review’s inaugural women in business awards.The result of successful company marketing and communication was a sales increase from $1.6 million to $2.1 million during the last financial year. Now with 87 percent of their business coming from export, Lander is sure they’re on the right track. “Australia only represents a small percentage of the global market. If we weren’t exporting as a high percentage, we’d be doing something wrong.” 

Defining Markets

The road to export was not immediately smooth. Lander negotiated some rough territory before realising Americans are less willing to buy from an Australian website than Australians are from an American site. “That was a little thing, but that was important,” says Lander. So they quickly created a website with Americanised English.They also needed to revise the original name of Laser Skirmish. “Americans don’t use the term skirmish, so they don’t know what it means. If you have a word you don’t actually understand, you tend to blank it out or skip it. So all they ever read was laser,” says Lander. “A lot of the time they thought it was indoor laser tag, or that we used real lasers, and neither one of those things is accurate. So it was important to find a whole new name.” Using the name Battlefield Live exclusively for export resulted in a product that was understood in a major market.

For critics who believe Battlefield Live really is just another version of the sci-fi themed laser tag, Lander explains there are many differences. “This was about creating a genuine combat game. Indoor laser tag was never about that, it was about plastic phasers and trying to score an individual high score, and no one ever really died.” Gamers who ‘die’ leave the game. “Gaming has moved on quite a bit over the last 20 years and is now about a more realistic simulation. With Battlefield Live, you actually use tactics and stuff that a real military unit would use.”


Points of Difference

What Lander believes really sets them apart is the extent of Battlefield Sports’ completely mobile technology, and its ability to enable the outdoor game. “The technology we developed and inducted in the Australian Technology Showcase allowed the infrared light from the sun to be filtered out very effectively, and only kept a little bit of infrared light we needed to trigger hits. While the competitors’ kit does work outside, it degrades considerably in sunlight.”The infrared light used by Battlefield Sports is on the safe side of the visible spectrum, and is also the technology of choice for the US Army’s military-grade combat simulation equipment. The guns have integrated sensor detectors on their barrels and fire harmless ‘ghost bullets’ to simulate the direct-fire effect on the battlefield. The sensors provide an even performance in both shade and sunlight, so the game is fair wherever it’s played, says Lander.To complete the combat experience, each gun is fitted with a riflescope, and gamers actually have to aim, rather than just point in a general direction as in laser tag. The riflescopes are one of the few parts in the Australian-built guns that need to be imported.Making the gaming scenarios even more mobile than before is Battlefield Sports’ patented inflatable barricades. The barricades come in various shapes and sizes, including doorways and windows. “They allow the game to be delivered in just about any location, and they look authentic and draw people into the game.” Businesses that use Battlefield Sports equipment are able to deliver the game in festivals and high-traffic locations. Once consumers have trailed the product, they are more likely to go out to the business owner’s more remote location.

Their approach has been so successful that company clones are popping up internationally. “We’re certainly in a competitive marketplace now, whereas we weren’t when we started. So we’ve had to continually improve to grow and survive,” says Lander. But he isn’t worried. “We provide a level of support, in terms of business support, that no one else can provide because they don’t have the experience to provide it.”

Battlefield Sports recently quadrupled the size of its production and test facilities. “We are expanding our facilities to handle increasing customer demand and to accommodate the dramatic forecasted growth in new advanced packages,” says Lander. The expansion began soon after the company secured a contract to provide safe and realistic training for the Barbados Cadet Corps, the youth arm of the Barbados Defence Force.Part of what makes the training so realistic is the Battlefield Sports’ eye for detail. The team uses metal props, rather than plastic, for more accurate weight and balance. The metal adds to the ‘wow’ factor, is more durable and maintainable, and in general more convincing to new generation gamers accustomed to realistic games. But they also offer smaller models for younger players.Good business sense is having team-focused objectives, says Lander. Team members need to communicate to overcome adverse situations, similar to the conditions SWAT and Special Forces teams regularly face.This approach has led to another line of business that is important to their survival: corporate team building. While corporate teams improve their own communication skills, the Battlefield Sports team also picks up a few pointers. “We usually learn from running team-building exercises as much as the customers do. It’s a good learning experience for us.”

The ability to work successfully as a team is what Lander believes drives most of their export success. “With teams, any teams, having an overriding common purpose is probably the most important thing. We’ve got a tremendous passion as a group for games. Even when we’re not officially working, we eat and sleep this stuff all the time.” While Lander finds passion vital, he admits there are other factors at play. “Getting the communication and organisation in place, that helps as well. And people who are productive tend to be happy.”


Online Marketing

Although most of the work at Battlefield Sports is done as a team, when it comes to marketing it is Nicole who bears the brunt. Marketing is mostly done online, and in the days before pay-per-click Nicole often used sear
ch engine optimisation and networked online communities to get the company name out.These promotion tactics enabled Battlefield Sports to develop strong exports in their major markets—the US, Canada, Britain and European Union member countries. “If you’re marketing via the internet, as we did from day one, you don’t really have a border,” says Lander. “We’ve got a niche product with global appeal. So how does one communicate with these diverse people all over the world cost effectively? Without the internet we would not have existed.”Battlefield Sports has also experimented with other marketing methods, including trade shows, but with less successful results. “Trade shows can be a great waste of money if you don’t get the right show,” says Lander. Now they only target large leisure industry shows.The company’s promotional experiments include applying for numerous awards, which led them to learn about government grants on offer from state development representatives. As a result, Battlefield Sports received the Queensland Industry Development Scheme Grant, which they used to develop the current generation of infrared sensor, and the Export Market Development Grant (EMDG), which helped reimburse some export marketing expenses.What Lander finds most fulfilling about exporting milsim, is the customer reaction. “Having a business of successful export is really important, but it’s the games that make an impact on people’s lives. In 20 years you can look back and say: remember we did that?”When fun-loving Lander considers this point a little more, he also mentions the obesity epidemic and the benefits of combining physical exercise and gaming, in what he calls exertainment. “The biggest challenge is, there are so many entertainment options available to children and teens that don’t require them to be active,” says Lander. “It really won’t work just by telling them they should exercise more. Very few people respond to that sort of push.“One of my drives is to make the gaming experience more readily available and more compelling so we actually make a serious inroad into this level of fitness and calorie use.”Besides the abundance of unhealthy and unwilling gamers, Battlefield Sports also faces the hurdle of exporting a product that essentially resembles a gun. “The only country we’ve had a complete stop on was Brazil. They have a ban on toy guns,” says Lander. They eventually gave up on that export destination. Another challenge was a delivery to Thailand just after the military coup. There the M16 copies went through a stringent series of checks, though Lander says this is not a common occurrence. “To the rest of the world they’re just harmless toys.”Through all the mishaps, Lander has learned some valuable lessons. “You’ve got to become an absolute expert at evaluating other people. I think it’s something which isn’t learnt in business school, but it’s probably the most important thing.” Ignoring early indicators can lead to export disaster. “You choose to ignore them at your own peril,” says Lander. “With the right people involved, you’re most of the way there.”Also from experience, Lander tells entrepreneurs to forget anything resembling work-life balance during the first two years of a new business. Balance can only be achieved when sufficient policies and employee training systems are in place. Lander recommends writing up a complete job description, so employees understand even the most minute details in the process.With 140,000,000 gamers worldwide fervently awaiting the newest, most realistic experience, Lander is constantly focused on research and development. “The complete gaming experience is still quite immature. More can be done to create truly compelling venues, so our strategy is starting to move towards really piloting mini theme parks.” And this includes improving Battlefield Sports’ technology and player experience. “You can always do better.” 

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