In the ’90s, if you wanted to get a pulse on latest trends among young people, you would tune into MTV’s “Total Request Live.”
“TRL” counted down the most popular music videos, and legions of screaming fans would gather outside of MTV’s studios to get a glimpse of their favorite celebrities.
Now VENN, a new startup led by an Emmy-winning producer and a former Vivendi Games executive, hopes to create its own version of that for video game fans.
New York-based VENN, which has raised $17 million, plans to open two studios in L.A. and New York in mid-2020. The company aims to create 55 hours of content each week, including programs that involve video game competitions. VENN, which stands for Video Game Entertainment & News Network, will distribute its shows on streaming platforms including Twitch, YouTube and Hulu TV.
“Back in the ’80s and ’90s, the lens to pop culture was music,” said Ariel Horn, a former executive with Riot Games and NBC Universal. “Now, we’re looking at gaming. The esports athletes are the new celebrities.”
Horn and former Vivendi Games executive Ben Kusin are VENN’s CEOs.
The audience for esports is continuing to grow at a rapid pace. This year, there are 30.3 million esports viewers in the U.S., according to research firm eMarketer. That will increase by 52% to 46.2 million in 2023, the firm said.
As esports’ popularity increases, brands are looking to reach younger audiences who aren’t watching gaming on traditional television channels and are instead live streaming content from YouTube or Amazon-owned streaming platform Twitch. Advertising revenue in esports is expected to increase from about $178 million this year to $213.8 million in 2020, eMarketer said.
But brands are also concerned about putting their ads next to cheaply produced content associated with creators who say inappropriate things. In addition, some of the platforms hosting esports content are relatively new and don’t have sophisticated enough advertising tools for marketers, said Eric Haggstrom, a forecasting analyst with eMarketer.
“Esports presents a great avenue for brands to interact with these people, but it’s a little difficult,” Haggstrom said.
VENN hopes to fix this problem by producing high-quality shows, much of which will be live streamed. The programs will include talk shows, reality shows, documentaries and esports events. VENN said it will grow its audience for its shows by working with esports content creators who are popular and want to connect with a larger audience and work on higher-quality produced programs.
VENN’s L.A. and New York studios will be gathering spots for people to engage with esports and brands. The company will employ about 60 people in both cities.
“We’re going to be the first 24/7 live studio, bi-coastal manifestation of this entire industry,” Kusin said. “We’re giving gaming a home and a heartbeat. We want to be as close to as many people as possible, to where if they want to reach out and experience what this world is about, we’re there.”
Even though Kusin and Horn are well connected in the gaming industry, they first met each other seven months ago after Riot Games co-founder Marc Merrill introduced them.
“We had this epiphany ‘ah ha’ moment, which became what we know now as VENN, the TV network we developed,” Kusin said.
Kusin said that he believes VENN will succeed because videos centered around gaming have already generated large audiences online. There are more than 200 million people on YouTube who consume gaming content every day, Kusin said.
“The market’s been proven for this,” Kusin said. “We just want to make the content more compelling, more engaging and help further the growth in support of this industry.”
VENN said that it would target people ages 16 to 34, with 60% males.
Unlike traditional TV networks, Kusin said he and Horn know how to make gaming content that younger audiences will enjoy. Kusin grew up with gaming. His dad was one of the co-founders of a business that became known as GameStop. Meanwhile, Horn pioneered esports broadcast production at Riot Games and Blizzard Entertainment.
“Because Ariel and I both come from gaming we speak that language,” Kusin said. “It’s almost as if we have the Rosetta Stone to translate their wants and needs.”
VENN’s many investors include prominent names in the gaming industry such as Merrill, Blizzard Entertainment’s co-founder Mike Morheim and Kevin Lin, co-founder of Twitch. Esports investment fund BITKRAFT and private investment firm Eldridge Industries co-led the investment round.
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