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How Discord, born from an obscure game, became a social hub for young people

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How Discord, born from an obscure game, became a social hub for young people

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By Kellen Browning, The New York Times Company

Back in 2015, computer programmer Jason Citron was struggling to break into the video game industry. The new multiplayer game he had created with his development studio, Hammer & Chisel, was not catching on.

So Citron made an abrupt about-face. He fired game developers from his company, turned the game’s chat feature into his only product, and gave it a mysterious name: Discord.

“I think at the time we had maybe six users,” Citron said. “It wasn’t clear it was going to work.”

At first, Discord was only popular with other gamers. But more than six years later, driven in part by the pandemic, it has exploded into the mainstream. As adults working from home flocked to Zoom, their children downloaded Discord to socialize with other young people through text and audio and video calls in groups called servers.

The platform has more than 150 million monthly active users, up from 56 million in 2019, with nearly 80% connecting from outside North America. It has grown from gamers to music enthusiasts, students, and cryptocurrency enthusiasts.

In September, San Francisco-based Discord announced it was raising $500 million in funding, valuing the company at $14.7 billion, according to PitchBook, a market data provider. It more than doubled its workforce in 2021, reaching around 650 people.

Discord’s evolution into a mainstream tool was an unexpected turn in Citron’s career. Citron, 37, said he grew up playing video games on Long Island, almost didn’t graduate from Full Sail University in Florida because he spent so much time playing World of Warcraft and that he had his first date with his future wife in a game room.

“A lot of my best memories are from those experiences, so my whole career has been about empowering others to create those kinds of moments in their lives,” he said.

Before Discord, he ran a social gaming network, OpenFeint, which he sold in 2011 to Japanese gaming company GREE for $104 million. Citron was seen by others in the gaming community as innovative because it tried to keep gamers’ attention through social interactions with their friends, a new strategy in the nascent mobile gaming market.

“At least he’s trying to bring something new to market,” said Serkan Toto, a games analyst in Japan, adding that Citron’s reputation was “like a geek, in a good way.”

How Discord, born from an obscure game, became a social hub for young people

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