Network seeks to become MTV for the gamer generation

The logo for video-game network VENN.

NEW YORK — In a bid to combine the huge market for video games with the booming medium of television, a pair of entertainment veterans are launching a network they say can merge the worlds in profitable ways.

VENN, as the channel will be called, will offer esports and other gaming content on both digital and linear-television platforms. Launching in 2020, the venture has attracted investment from gaming fund Bitkraft and a range of industry personalities from Twitch, Blizzard Entertainment and Riot Games.

The network is a gamble that gaming needs the home, and production values, that old-school television provides.

“We believe we are addressing an asymmetric opportunity,” Ben Kusin, the entrepreneur who is co-founding the company with esports producer Ariel Horn, said in an interview. “This is a $150 billion industry but no 24-7 network to support it.”

Gaming has become an entertainment juggernaut. The research firm Newzoo estimates sales will exceed $152 billion this year, with more than 2.5 billion gamers globally. Fortnite, the hugely popular online game, has more than 250 million accounts, according to creator Epic Games.

VENN — which stands for Video Game Entertainment & News Network — will look to capitalize on this interest using a traditional television lens.

Esports is the realm in which millions of people tune in to watch gamers play, either from their bedrooms or in more formal competitions. YouTube and the Amazon-owned streaming platform Twitch are among the space’s dominant players. By working with producers and hosts, the VENN founders say they can give the industry a larger and more respectable mainstream platform and turn a profit besides.

“We want to elevate and promote a culture that’s been overlooked by traditional media,” Horn said in the interview with Kusin. (Amazon’s chief executive, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post.)

The entrepreneur, who once served as an executive at Vivendi Games, is the son of Gary Kusin, who founded the retailer GameStop. Horn has won Emmys for his esports productions.

Kusin didn’t offer details on distribution for the network but said streaming and linear platforms were both on tap. Horn said it was too early to announce a programming slate or talent partnerships.

The pair did give general guidelines for its shows.

About 50 percent of the content will be streamed competition, the partners said, including more polished forms of the competitions now available on the likes of YouTube. The other half will include gaming-related content in talk, magazine and other unscripted formats, with the potential for more high-end scripted content down the line.

Revenue will come from subscriptions, cable operators and advertisers, and brand sponsors, the principals said. The company is building studio space in New York and Los Angeles.

Kusin said that despite the linear component of traditional cable operators, the network will “provide a hedge” by seeking to live on various digital platforms, including potential competitors such as YouTube and Twitch themselves.

Kusin and Horn hope to capitalize on a cult of personality that has sprung up around some esports athletes. “Gamers are celebrities — for a younger audience, meeting gamers is as exciting as meeting rock stars of traditional sports heroes,” Horn said.

Last month, when popular streamer Ninja switched his streaming home from Twitch to Microsoft’s Mixer, it for a time made the app the third-most-popular on Apple, ahead of YouTube and Instagram.

VENN has raised $17 million in financing from, among others, Bitkraft, Riot co-founder Marc Merrill, Blizzard executives Mike and Amy Morhaime and Kevin Lin, co-founder of Twitch, as well as BDMI, the venture arm of media giant Bertelsmann.

“If you look at the landscape today, Twitch and YouTube offer highly talented players who often produce out of their living room,” Bitkraft founding partner Jens Hilgers said in an interview. “While it’s super-authentic, it could benefit from climbing up the ladder.”

Hilgers and other investors also noted that VENN would play an important role in talent discovery and information-gathering.

“If you’re someone interested in knowing what’s happening in gaming this weekend, you have to do a lot of research. You have to know where it’s happening; you have to know the niche sites to go to,” said Merrill of Riot, which is behind the popular League of Legends franchise and its related competitions. “It will be great to have a place that does it all.” Merrill said that Riot is not involved with VENN.

Investors also said a television network can now capitalize on many of gaming’s interactive elements.

“This opportunity interested us because we think it can go well beyond traditional television,” said Keith Titan, a partner at Bertelsmann Digital Media Investments. “You can have interactivity and engage directly with fans — you can make it a two-way viewing experience,” he said, adding, “Gaming culture is all about those personal connections, especially for millennials and Gen Z.” Many of the shows will have a live component in which fans and gaming celebrities can interact, Horn said.

Principals say VENN could resemble early MTV in its ability to leverage television to bring a youth culture to the mainstream — and leverage youth culture into television profits.

“Think of what TRL was like when it started,” Kusin said, referring to “Total Request: Live,” MTV’s long-running and zeitgeist-defining pop-music show. “That’s what we’re trying to do here.”

MTV also used music as a tool to go far beyond music into politics and social issues, waters Kusin and Horn said they’ve yet to test.

VENN follows in the path of G4, a gaming-centric network that found a niche audience in the mid-2000s before changing its format. That network, VENN founders say, came about before the rise of esports, a crucial difference.

Still, whether all this will be enough to take a medium that exists, almost by design, outside of legacy media remains unclear. The idea that many video-game fans crave more high-end production or traditional TV packaging remains untested.

Also an open question is whether a nongaming television audience will embrace the network, an obstacle even some investors admitted could be difficult to scale.

“I think it’s a false hope we can grow the audience that way,” Hilgers said. “ I wish it could have that effect, but from the evidence I’ve collected in the last years, I’m just not banking on it.”

Merrill acknowledged the idea was less about being in the black right away and more about boosting the gaming community.

“I would say (immediate profit) is not the purpose of the investment,” he said. “My primary motivation is to help elevate the culture of gaming.”

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