This startup network wants to be the MTV for gaming culture

This startup network wants to be the MTV for gaming culture

In 2019, the gaming industry took in a record $120.1 billion, according to Nielsen’s gaming data researching arm SuperData . For context, the global box office and music industry last year generated $42.5 billion and $20.2 billion in revenue, respectively. Gaming has long shifted out of a relatively niche […]

Gaming has long shifted out of a relatively niche corner of the entertainment industry to shaping mainstream culture—not to mention becoming a land grab of acquisitions for tech companies, such as Amazon’s acquisition of Twitch.

Part of gaming’s massive reach stems from the fact that it’s just as much of an interactive experience as it is lean-back viewing: Twitch alone clocked more than 5 billion hours watched in the second quarter of 2020, while Facebook Gaming saw 200% year-over-year growth with 334 million hours watched.

With such a clear appetite for consuming gaming content, two industry veterans want to elevate the experience with their new network VENN.

VENN, which stands for Video Game Entertainment and News Network, is a 24/7 network targeting Gen Z and millennials that aims to do for gaming what MTV did for music and pop culture in its heyday.

“If you think about the archetype of cool kids a few decades ago, it was the football player and the cheerleader walking around high school being all boss and badass. Now it’s these young kids carrying around laptops and cranking 90s on Fortnite,” says Ben Kusin, cofounder and co-CEO of VENN. “That’s the generational shift that’s occurring, and traditional media has really lagged in being able to understand, much less address, that kind of opportunity.”

If a 24/7 gaming network sounds familiar, Comcast’s venture G4 tried a similar approach when it launched in 2002 and ultimately fizzled out 12 years later.

A more optimistic read of G4’s fate is that it was an idea ahead of its time, less because of its content and more so because it was largely tied to linear TV at a time when video streaming was taking off.

However, Kusin and his co-CEO Ariel Horn think they’re hitting the market with the right approach and at the right time—and yes, that means during a pandemic.

I want my VENN

As the son of GameStop founder Gary Kusin and a former brand marketer for Electronic Arts, Kusin has taken note of gaming’s evolution over the years, eventually pinpointing what he believed was a whitespace in the market: elevating the user-generated gaming content on Twitch and YouTube to network production-level quality while simultaneously underscoring gaming’s broadening appeal and influence across music, film, fashion, and beyond. Kusin brought his idea to Marc Merrill, the cofounder of gaming publisher Riot Games, who connected him with his former head of global esports content Ariel Horn because, apparently, he’d been batting around the same idea.

Horn had spent nearly 10 years in marketing and promotion at NBC before joining Riot Games.

“I’ve spent a really long time observing the way that gamers identify with the video games that they love. And I saw that esports is only a narrow slice of a larger gaming audience,” Horn says. “So Ben and I are really focusing on that whitespace of the expanded version of entertainment that uses gaming as a lens into pop culture—much like what MTV did back in the ’90s.”

Kusin and Horn raised $17 million and secured production studios in New York City and Los Angeles. VENN was set to launch in NYC’s One World Trade Center as the network’s flagship location.

“Very much like what 1515 Broadway was to MTV,” Kusin says. “But everyone’s got a plan until you get punched in the mouth. And lo and behold, COVID came onto the scene.”

Instead of pushing the launch to next year, Kusin and Horn pivoted their focus to their L.A. studio in Playa Vista, which had fewer COVID-19 cases in the area and more studio space to adhere to social distancing measures. They also cut their planned 55 hours of original programming in half to accommodate the smaller workforce in order to go live with their network in August.

Boosting talent up and spreading them wide

VENN is launching with six original shows, including the daily news program The Download, variety show VENN Arcade Live, and interactive fitness show Looking for Gains.

For much of VENN’s content, it was a matter of finding existing talent like CashNasty—YouTuber, competitive gamer, and host of Looking for Gains—and channeling his interests for gaming and fitness into its own program that’s unique to VENN but could easily exist within his own channels.

“We are a talent-first network, and we believe that the creators of this generation are incredibly special because they’re making things without even a roadmap sometimes,” Horn says. “They create these formats that they don’t even realize are formats.”

There’s perhaps no better example of that in VENN’s lineup than The Sushi Dragon Show, hosted by internet sensation Stefan Li, aka TheSushiDragon.

Li had gained prominence on Twitch for his gonzo live streams in his basement that often involve him dancing in front of a green screen with elaborate technical work. But he says he hit a plateau in not being able to stream and create as much as he’d like because he was too bogged down on the back end—and if you watch his behind-the-scenes content, you could understand why.

So when VENN reached out to him about having his own show, Li leapt at the chance to maintain his unique vision for his content but with a professional team in place to make it a stronger reality—and one that he can still do from his basement.

“That’s been a huge hurdle for me, getting that time to centralize all these ideas and then I’m doing it all myself,” Li says. “So this team has helped me figure it all out. I’m not the one drilling holes in a wall anymore, putting shelves up, and troubleshooting PCs. I can finally get help.”

Horn says, “When you look at traditional media, it’s largely top down: There’s a format and this is how you do it. For us, we want to build the connective tissue between the organic content and the way that it connects with the audience, be it the pacing, or the way you engage with the creator.”

In terms of distribution, VENN’s approach runs counter to the TV’s landscape pervasive streaming fragmentation.

“We are decentralizing the content. We are the opposite of what’s happening in the OTT landscape,” Kusin says. “We believe that trying to convert and earn eyeballs onto an exclusively owned platform is a very daunting business task.”

At launch, VENN will available on Twitch, YouTube, and Facebook Gaming, in addition to its own website VENN will also roll out to connected-TV platforms, including VIZIO SmartCast, Xumo, STIRR, and Distro TV.

“TV has historically created an inflexible model, which is causing massive disruptions in the industry and potentially could lead to its downfall. Any business that can’t follow its customers where they’re consuming a product is highly problematic,” Kusin says. “TV can’t live on these places like Twitter or Twitch or YouTube because the model doesn’t allow for it. So we went into this thinking, how do we shift the rubric?”

As far as revenue, Kusin says they’ve built a pipeline of sponsorships “in the tens of millions of dollars,” that includes traditional ads as well as branded integrations. And while the COVID-19 pandemic has knocked overall ad spending in the U.S. down 10% with nearly a quarter of media buyers stating they were pausing spending, Kusin and Horn are optimistic because both interest in streaming and gaming have skyrocketed with stay-at-home orders amid the pandemic.

“We were calling out this whitespace way before this once-in-a-century event has pushed people more [toward] creating content and going direct to the audience,” Horn says. “So as we’re going into the next phase of what’s going on and talking with our partners—and of course being understanding and empathetic to their individual business challenges—they’re more eager than ever to talk to us and to work on plans with us.”

That said, there’s another legacy player entering the chat that could divert some of that spending.

The return of G4

In late July, the Twitter account for G4 posted a cryptic trailer that shows an abandoned studio with the camera eventually coming to an old-school TV displaying a game of Pong, a callback to G4 launching its network with a marathon of the classic game. The trailer ends with the G4 logo, the year 2021 flashing on screen, followed by the tagline, “We never stopped playing.”

We never stopped playing.

— G4TV (@G4TV) July 24, 2020

It’s a pretty clear signal that G4 is staging a return sometime next year. While the network certainly had a few missteps in its run, it did garner a devoted fanbase with series like Attack of the Show! and X-Play. How G4 is planning to translate today’s gaming culture to today’s TV landscape is anyone’s guess.

But Kusin doesn’t seem worried about the competition.

“What’s good for gamers is good for us,” he says. “Realistically, a year from now is an eternity in today’s world, and VENN is live today, so it’s simply too far outside our horizon to comment.”

The gaming industry is big enough for two players, but right now only one has the controller.

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