For a game seemingly about immortal pilots waging interstellar wars, EVE Online has a surprising amount of ties to reality. Stories from EVE often play out on stages far beyond the confines of the game world and reach audiences far beyond its players. Sometimes, skills learned in the cut throat world of EVE can change a person’s future.
Peel away EVE’s layers of space and spreadsheets and you’ll see skills applicable to our everyday lives: managing a supply network, understanding vendor relationships, profit and loss analysis, human resource management. These are all skills a person might find handy if they were trying to start their own business and become a real-life CEO. Player Matthew Ricci did just that.
Ricci says that he first started playing EVE in 2009, at the age of 20 or 21, after becoming exhausted with the grinding and raiding in other MMORPGs. “I stumbled across an internet meme popular back in the day, the learning curve of MMORPGs. It had this inverted line graph with a bunch of bodies on it,” Ricci told Kotaku, describing an image attempting to depict the intense learning curve of EVE. “I thought to myself, [EVE] can’t be THAT hard.”
After downloading and installing EVE, Ricci logged in for the first time to what he hoped would be his new obsession. “As soon as I looked at the interface, I was overwhelmed. I quit within an hour. This is way too hardcore for me.”
EVE Online is a notoriously prickly game, almost arcane in nature, and even if you do get started, it’s difficult to keep playing long enough to figure out exactly what you’re doing. This was especially true in 2009, before major overhauls to the game’s New Player Experience.
“I was so mad at myself for giving up so quickly,” Ricci said. “A week went by and I was signed up for another free trial. I was determined to make it stick. This time, it did, it blew up and became a huge passion for me.”
Pretty soon Ricci found himself completely caught up in the game, to the detriment of his other responsibilities. He recalled, “It was two weeks before Christmas, and I was celebrating my first Christmas holiday at my parents’ home and was running up and down the house into my bedroom checking my laptop out of panic. My wife, wondering what was going on, checked in on me, only to find me on my computer, and questioned me. I distinctly responded to her, ‘Babe, I am AFK mining in a bestower. I need to be careful of gankers.’ Needless to say, she stormed off in an epic rage… It was a true Doomsday attack right into the hull.”
These early warning signs didn’t dissuade him from playing, though. He joined a Nullsec-based player corporation, which was trying to carve a name for itself in the game’s captuarable territories. Just being a part of the group wasn’t enough for him for long. “I became the main fleet commander for the corporation. Then the head of recruitment. Then I became the main contact between our corporation and all of our allies.” The more Ricci played, he said, the more he realised that what he wanted was to be in charge of things, which meant being the Human Resource Manager, the Fleet Commander, the CEO, and the overall leader of the group of about 200 players.
Despite his desires, leadership ability wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. “I was around  at the time, and my corporation [was] bigger than the rest of our allies. I got a big head, and decided we would run off and do our own thing.” Ricci and several other players broke away from his former alliance and forged a new one, gathering other corporations to his banner. Before his group could become the kind of group that goes down in legends, EVE happened. “We were backstabbed. Someone infiltrated our alliance to spy on us, and stole everything that wasn’t nailed down,” Ricci said. “That was it for me.”
Ricci realized that the game was negatively impacting his life. The massive amount of time and effort he was investing in EVE was causing his physical and mental health to deteriorate. “I was micromanaging everything. I was stationary in my gaming chair for twelve plus hours a day, six days a week,” Ricci said. “I was deteriorating, and not growing as a person in my real life, and had begun to sink into depression.” He decided something had to change. “So I quit. The first time.”
Ricci stepped away from the game for several years. He focused on improving his family life and on changing his career. He quit his job as a financial advisor for mutual funds and accepted a position working with his father as an entry-level account manager at a consumer electronics company. These changes helped, but they weren’t enough. “I was in a pretty good place. But slowly I began to feel anxiety and depression building. I needed something to take the edge off. I wanted to play EVE again,” he said.
Ricci’s wife was not thrilled with the idea of him returning to EVE. “She didn’t take the news well, but I promised her I could handle it, I was much more mature now,” Ricci said. “She had seen how intense I used to play the game, she knew how much time, energy and soul I poured into the game. She was worried about seeing me falling back to playing twelve hours a day. My wife is my best friend, and the love of my life. She was right to be worried.”
Going back to something that had previously caused depression and anxiety in an effort to stave off those same emotions might seem unintuitive, but it made perfect sense to Ricci. “I found a lot of success in EVE, I was somebody there. Like in all MMORPGs, you can be whoever you want… I was good at leading people, it came very natural to me. As [my group] would grow and blossom I felt great, and it would become a sort of feedback loop for me personally.”
But Ricci also wanted to be careful. “When I came back to EVE Online the second time, my idea was that I had to find a way to balance EVE with my life, career, and my family. I wanted to be more casual.”
Old habits die hard, though. “I’m the type of person who has to be the leader. I knew that about myself at eight years old: my dream was to run a huge corporation.” Eventually, this desire led Ricci to start his own EVE corporation and to begin recruiting other players. This soon meant he was dedicating himself to the game all over again. “After a while, people started to complain. We needed a better system, we needed better hunting grounds.” Ricci moved his corporation’s home base to a new star system and gave it a new focus. They moved into a structured PvP sector known as Faction Warfare, in low security space, and began to use the resource in the area to produce giant capital ships, all while fighting other players to defend their new space and protect their operations. His corporation did mass recruitment, gaining over 250 members at its peak and having, over the course of Ricci’s involvement, between 500 and 600 people.
Eventually, they had different players mining minerals from asteroids almost around the clock, as well as pre-planned gatherings where the corporation would mine together and protect each other. Those minerals were funneled to their production-focused players, who would use EVE’s incredibly complex industry system to produce enormous capital vessels to bolster their power or to sell to line the corporation’s pocket book. Between all of these planned activities, they would take fleets out into the Faction Warfare zones, looking for other players to fight. Despite his intentions, Ricci had been sucked back into EVE.
After a while, the game began to feel like a second job. “The corporation had grown to the point that there was always someone online doing something,” Ricci said. “Inevitably, most of those things seemed to require my attention. I had to be online all the time.” Since he worked from home selling consumer electronics for his dad’s company, being constantly available was easy. “But the constant pressure began to run me into the ground, and my work began to suffer.”
One day while he was playing EVE, Ricci’s daughter, who was just learning to talk, came into his room. He says she asked, “‘Daddy, are you working?’ Without a thought, I said yes, I was. She accepted my answer, said OK, and happily walked out of the room.”
“It broke me. I was working, in my mind, but I was working on the corp’s industry portfolio. Not something for my job, not something for my family or to pay our bills.” He said he was angry at himself for effectively lying to his young daughter, and he knew something had to change.
“I distinctly recall looking at my computer screen, and having these angry thoughts, full of self loathing and doubt. ‘Why can’t I do this in real life, why can’t I use this energy for something real?’”
Ricci asked himself, “What’s the difference between a fake ship, or digital ammo, or any other EVE item, and a real pair of headphones?” The more he thought about it, the more he realized that there wasn’t one, not in any way that mattered to him. He came to the realization that he was already doing a lot of the tasks required to run a business, only he was doing it for fun, in his spare time, for free.
“The average EVE Online player has the untapped potential to drive industries of change. That’s something I think is not said enough about EVE Online in a firm way—seeing something that you think you can do better, and doing it. That’s the spirit of entrepreneurship.”
When he first started considering how EVE might apply to his life, he was full of self-doubt. “I don’t know how to figure out profit margins, I can’t staff a company, I don’t know how to really do all of this,” he said he thought at first. But then he realized, “Well, yeah I do. I’ve got this mining spreadsheet that tells me the exact profitability of every action I take, every ship I build. I know how to go to a trade hub, check prices, calculate shipping costs, fuel, taxes, broker’s fees, and I know how to use all of that to make a profit.”
Inspired by his realizations, Ricci called his father, a successful businessman, seeking some advice. “I told him that I wanted to open a sales firm in the IT and electronics sector. He laughed. He told me to quit while I was ahead, that I would never be successful, and it infuriated me. I was already in sales, I was doing all of this work for another company, and I saw no reason that I couldn’t do this myself!”
“Entrepreneurship is central to the spirit of EVE,” Ricci said. “When you log in, you have to choose your path. You have the tools, but nothing is laid out for you, just like in real life… EVE Online reinforced this to me. Every step of the way other players had told me that there was no way I could do the things I wanted, no way that I could achieve my in-game goals.” Soon after his realization, Ricci quit EVE for the second time, but he still wanted to prove that he could translate everything he’d learned from the game into real life.
Within 24 hours of the fateful conversation with his daughter, Ricci says he began turning Zentech Canada Corporation, a company founded by his father in 2010 for what Ricci says were taxation and contract purposes, into an active business. The company now helps international consumer electronics manufacturers enter the Canadian market. According to a message Ricci sent EVE developer CCP, Zentech had about an $8 million dollar portfolio of retail sales at the end of 2018. Ricci chalks it all up to skills he learned in EVE.
In Ricci’s opinion, sales is effectively equivalent to recruiting for an EVE Online corporation. “EVE encourages you to find problems and gaps in the community, and leaves it up to you to be creative, to fill that gap, and solve that problem.”
“Once you convince them to join you, to sample your product, you have to treat your corporation members as repeat customers, who trust in your brand and keep coming back… Dealing with other companies, especially major suppliers or retailers like Amazon, Best Buy, or Staples, is kind of like dealing with major trade hubs like Jita or Amarr. Understanding broker fees, fuel costs, export taxes and how all of those things factor into the bottom-line and profitability is effectively the same in real life or in EVE, just with different kinds of currency.”
Ricci says he even learned a thing or two about business from EVE’s player-versus-player combat. “In the real world, every single day is PvP,” he said. “Say two people are trying to sell the same backpack to a customer. One person has better craftsmanship, but no reputation with the buyer. And the other person has better equity with the customer, but an inferior product. People tend to go with the brand they trust over the facts of the products. Every single day in sales, you’re competing for that customer’s trust and patronship. This is the face of real life PvP.”
The parallels that Ricci sees between his EVE life and his business life have helped him fulfil a childhood dream due to the ideals and lessons he learned in a video game. He hopes that others can do the same. “Find your real world EVE,” Ricci advises other players looking to connect their gaming experiences to the rest of their life.“Find what speaks to you, what makes your heart sing, and accept the fact that if you’re playing EVE Online, you basically already have an MBA. The average EVE player is beyond creative and inspirational. There are more insane stories that come out of EVE than anywhere else, there are better leaders than come out of anywhere else. You can take the EVE that you know, and you can apply those lessons to real life, and you’d be surprised what you can accomplish.”
UPDATE (5/31, 12:40pm): Since publication, several readers have raised questions about Ricci’s age during certain events and about details regarding the founding of Zentech. After speaking with him about these concerns, we’ve learned that he was born in 1988, making him 20 or 21 when he started playing EVE in 2009. Quotes he gave us about being 19 were inaccurate and did not match a previous statement he gave to CCP Games, stating to be 21. We should have caught this discrepancy prior to publication. In regards to the founding of Zentech, Ricci tells us the company was created in name in 2010 but did not actively do business until around the time of summer 2015, when Ricci decided to pursue his own business goals. We regret the confusion. We have updated the story accordingly and changed the headline to more accurately reflect the situation.