Secret Stash ep 3: The untold story of Dennis Fong’s gaming empire

Secret Stash
Jun 18, 2024

The gaming industry overemphasizes gameplay so much, we often don’t often stop to think about the impact community has on our love for the game. The matchmaking, friend finding, and social interactions play a huge part in a game’s success and gamers’ overall experience. 

Since his teenage years, Dennis Fong has been all about improving the gamer experience in every way outside the actual gameplay itself - from esports to social, chat, streaming, and toxicity. In fact, by age 19, Dennis had not only earned the title as the world’s first esports champion, but also became CEO of a 100-person gaming media company. Since then, he’s gone on to found four additional businesses, all of which have majorly impacted the gaming industry as we know it - thanks to his many innovations in community and social. 

That love of community is what’s guided Dennis’ entrepreneurship all these years - and turned him into a successful five-time founder. He’s had a hand in every major non-gameplay innovation: esports before esports, Discord before Discord, and even Twitch before Twitch. 

In this episode of Secret Stash, co-hosts Justin Kan and Archie Stonehill sit down with Dennis and walk through a raw chronology of his career (and life) - from young esports champion in 1996 to five-time CEO in 2024. 

Tune into our latest episode below or wherever you listen to your podcasts. Or, keep reading for the highlights. 

Meet Thresh, the world’s first esports champ

Dennis got his start in gaming like any other kid - playing games with his two brothers, going to LAN parties, and competing in local tournaments. “I was just a keyboard player, and it wasn't until I switched to mouse and keyboard that I eventually beat [my brothers]. Then I never lost him after that.”

He’d soon be known as Thresh - and would eventually go on to be the world champion of Doom, Doom II, Quake, Quake II, and Quake III. 

But it wasn’t until the mid 1990s that Dennis became known as a professional gamer worldwide - when Joseph Pereira, a journalist from the Wall Street Journal, reached out about an article he was writing about “this new online gaming thing”. He followed Dennis around for the day and got so captivated, that he shifted focus and turned the article into a full profile on Dennis - published on the front page and above the fold. (You can read it here.)

“That moment literally changed my life because by the next day I was getting calls from CEOs of companies wanting to sponsor me” - like Hasbro and Earthlink. Still a teenager, Dennis was suddenly earning $150,000 a year. 

Think of him as the first gaming influencer, or the first VIP gamer. In the WSJ article, the CEO of Spacetec commented, “We think Thresh will do for our product what Michael Jordan has done for Nike sneakers”. 

The pros and cons of being a young entrepreneur

In 2000, Dennis decided to retire from gaming and focus solely on his company GX Media, which he founded at age 19 with his brother. GX Media owned and FiringSquad. He admits he “had no clue” what he was doing at the time, but “caught the right wave, which was the original dotcom bubble in the nineties.” (Editor's note: Dennis is definitely being too humble.)

Even now, several companies later, Dennis believes that being a founder and CEO is “the hardest job in the world” - recalling that the first few years of GX Media was the most stressed he’d ever been, pointing to the food allergies and carpal tunnel syndrome he’d even developed as a result. 

Looking to Dennis and Justin (both extremely young founders), and throwing Mark Zuckerberg into the mix, Archie commented that his generation “grew up with … young corporate idols to replicate and emulate” - “a detriment” because it’s an even tougher job when you don’t have 40 years of experience to fall back on. 

That said, there are advantages to being a young entrepreneur - and that’s “being super naive”. In spite of the pressure, “youth in general has the advantage of being optimistic, naive, not jaded, and trying stuff that seems to have been done before but with a slight wrinkle”. 

Chiming in, Justin noted that “having backed tons of different founders at different stages, when people work too much in the corporate environment, they lose perspective that you could just do anything and that all the rules are just made up by human beings”.

Accidentally inventing SaaS

Every few months, the CIOs and CTOs of “some pretty big companies” like Dell and PlayStation, who were gamers too, would ping Dennis and ask if they could license’s community software. 

Dennis and his brother Lyle pushed it off for about a year and a half - until they were exploring acquisition talks. Lyle had the genius idea to door test whether or not they could actually sell it. This is around 2000, so before SaaS was really a thing. They went back to Dell and PlayStation and decided that instead of offering a license deal, they’d sell the software by usage. Naturally, Dell and PlayStation took the deal - and that’s the story of how they landed what would become Lithium’s first two customers. And … accidentally invented the software as a service model. 

Soon, Dennis and Lyle were powering all of’s and’s community functionality. From there, Lithium managed to close a ton more customers before eventually selling to Vista Equity a decade later. 

Following your interests 

Though Lithium was accidental, Dennis shares that Xfire, his next company, was “definitely something built more for me,” designed to solve all his frustrations as a gamer. In fact, he admitted, “I don’t think I ever really considered the financial aspect of entrepreneurship as much. It was more just following interests. No one’s doing this. Let’s just go do it.”

“There were a lot of really cool, fun things that we ended up doing, but it came directly from  stuff that we wanted as gamers. So that made it pretty easy. It’s whatever you dream up.” 

Innovations we still use today

And it worked. Not only was Xfire the most used chat client at the time (with 40-50M monthly users!), but many of their innovations are standard in gaming today. 

For example, “the Xfire idea came from building an instant messenger for gamers. A lot of [his] frustration at the time was when [he’d] get IMs, they’d blink on your screen and steal focus from the game … which is super annoying.” So his team built an instrument that, first of all, didn’t do that, and second, detected what game the player’s playing and then showed it as their status to friends. Today, that’s called ‘game presence’, where you can see what game your friend is playing and join them in a click. It’s also something Xfire basically invented. 

Dennis and Xfire also invented game overlays thinking, “it would be so awesome if you could not have to tab out at all, just send messages directly from the game”. His amazing engineering team figured out how to hack OpenGL and DirectX and draw it on top of the game. 

Gamer profiles is another thing they invented - they tracked all the hours and achievements and put it in a single profile. Dennis left Xfire shortly after it was acquired in 2006, and started another company called Raptor - a social network for gamers. “It was taking that gamer profile idea we had at Xfire and then multiplying it by 10”. Raptor got to about 100M users and ended up selling to Take Two. 

In fact, Raptor even spun out another company called PlaceTV, which invented automated highlights - before League of Legends even had a replay system. 

Archie noted that “like a lot of stuff, this is something players were always doing spontaneously that game developers eventually catch up to”. 

Another accidental company: GGWP

So after GX Media, Lithium, Xfire, and Raptor, we’re onto Dennis’ most recent venture: GGWP, an anti-toxicity platform. Like Lithium, it was another accidental company. 

Dennis and his two other founders, George Ng and Kun Gao, were gaming together during COVID. But because Dennis is (obviously) a much better gamer, the three got queued at a level beyond George and Kun’s ability. Naturally, teammates got upset - which was “sometimes funny, but most of the time, not … So we’re like ‘why does this problem still exist?’ There’s gotta be a better way.”

With “nothing better to do” during lockdown, they called up some friends - like founders of Riot and EA - and told them, “if you’re willing to give us some of your time, maybe we’ll come up with some ideas you’ve never tried before”. 

After four months, Dennis, George, and Kun came back to Riot and EA and said “here’s an approach you guys haven’t tried. Obviously it leans very heavily on AI and big data - trying to build a proactive system that understands context and looks at things holistically … You should create a reputation score to synthesize and normalize someone's behavior historically.”

They replied that it’s an awesome idea but they’d never be able to build it in-house. But, if they go and build it, they promised to work together and even fund them. Now, GGWP - like Dennis’ four other companies - is a hyper-successful startup changing how games solve toxic behavior.  

The secret to success 

Though Dennis has never built a game or game company himself, he probably understands gamers and their needs more than anyone else. That deep understanding of the end customer, combined with his obsession for creating better communities, is his secret to success as a five time founder who’s made a lasting impact on gaming as we know it. 

Subscribe to Secret Stash wherever you get your podcasts. See you in the next episode!

About the Author

Secret Stash

Secret Stash is the podcast spilling all of gaming's secrets, hosted by Archie Stonehill and Justin Kan.
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