VENN – Review: More TV on Livestream

Recently this week, VENN launched with a host of content and programs revolving around gaming, popular streamers, talent and entertainment. From news segments to Let’s Plays, deep-dive discussions on fitness training, sexuality and cosplaying, VENN hits as many fanbases as it can.

I’ve taken the liberty to watch every single show on VENN to learn more about its content, style, appeal and challenges it faces. My main interest was to see how VENN differentiated itself from previous iterations of gaming channels/platforms such as GINX, G4 and my own project, ESGNTV. Secondly, I wanted to provide feedback of its content experience both as a consumer as well as a producer stemming from my media background working on streaming platforms, esports TV studios, digital esports magazines and press publishing companies.

ESGN: Neuer eSport TV-Sender startet global von Berlin aus | TopFree.de
Despite its controversies, my time at ESGN & ESGN TV brought a lot of experience and understanding in how much work and collaboration is required to host, shoot and produce a live-streamed professional show. If only I was paid for the last few months of it…

Announcement & Launch

When VENN made headlines across a variety of major news outlets, the goals of its content was three parts:

  • Founders Ariel Horn and Ben Kusin created VENN to fill in the gaps in esports and gaming content that they believe came about as publishers focused on keeping up with industry demands” – CNBC, 2019
  • Unlike with traditional TV networks, Kusin said he and Horn know how to make gaming content that younger audiences will enjoy.” – LATimes, 2019
  • The first and biggest goal is to create content that you love. Our focus is entirely on supporting and lifting up creators. We hope to do this by giving them the tools to buff what they already do and take it to new heights. We’ll be asking y’all how we’re doing so never hesitate from giving me feedback at arielhorn on twitter.” – AMA, 2020

*additional reading: USA Today, PRNewsWire, Variety

At launch, the network launched seven shows (eight if you count Sushi Dragon’s segments separately) ranging from daily news (The Download), Game Shows with Contestants (Dare Package) and Talk Shows (Guest House, VENN Arcade Live, Grey Area, The Sushi Dragon Show). Shows range between 45 minutes to almost 2 hours and host a variety of guests ranging from streamers, musical talent, celebrities and more. At launch, the platform boasted over 30 hours streamed, 24,000 hours watched, 245,000 unique viewers and a 7K+ peak concurrent viewership (though this peak has long been surpassed by now)

Feedback

Overall, VENN has a strong established repertoire of content, varied hosts, tapped markets and interests, and broadcasting overall has been smooth. The set designs are immensely different from one another and set the tone of what to expect from each show in terms of energy, vibe and atmosphere.

Having watched each show, I have found most of them to be entertaining. Personally, my favourite shows are the following:

1. VENN Arcade Live: Lively stage design, nice variety of hosts and good rotation of content keeps the show fresh and lively. The stage design feels much tighter, close-knit and comfortable as opposed to other shows where it struggles to fill some empty gaps of spacing. The hosts are professional, amicable and play off one another for the most part. The rhythm of the show maintains a consistency in content, conversation, pacing that is close to traditional television live shows. As one form of feedback, I’d recommend creating pre-recorded scripted game introductions for the games they’re about to play to guide the user into better understanding what is going on when they play.

2. Grey Area: If it were not for COVID-19 separating the guests and hosts from being near each other, Grey Area would be at the top of my list for its overall relaxing vibe, comfortable hosts and laid-back topics. Since corona is still on-going, the stage feels a bit empty and heavily spaced apart. That said, compared to the other shows that can occasionally feel similar in their tone and conversation, Grey Area comes across mature, or rather, the hosts speak with an experience that they’ve been around the block socially and professionally. One point of criticism is to perhaps start pre-recording the calls to ensure no technical difficulties (which has occurred numerous times on the show already).

3. Looking for Gains: This is the only show that creates pre-recorded content outside the studio and it really helps set it apart. Its interaction with audience members adds an element that justifies it being live. What really carries the show is Cash, the host, who has a relatable story, good charisma and can easily play the personality for two people. Where other show-hosts feel a bit stiff, Cash, alone, keeps the vibe of the show uplifting and energetic. For feedback, if the show was more hands-on beyond exercises, ranging from cooking or healthy lifestyle choices, it’d help expand the variety of each episode rather than nearly 30 minutes of work-out routines. Additionally, it would help the stage design feel more involved rather than just a backdrop.

Honorable Mention: The Download: Overall, The Download is a relatively safe ‘news cycle’ show that promises consistent content and discussion regardless of the day. Some episodes, the show feels stretched as news is definitely on the low side. The hosts are good presenters, keep the flow going and offer all sides of a discussion. There’s no real complaints about the content but I also feel it doesn’t innovate itself differently from other news shows in the gaming media sphere so it becomes: why watch VENN’s The Download over someone else?

All the rest of the shows have merits and bring something appealing to the table. Not all of them have found their moment or direction yet, but in time, they can really distinguish themselves from the rest. One caveat I have to mention is that I have watched “The Sushi Dragon Show” twice and though I don’t completely understand it, I do see the appeal of it for an audience.

Criticisms

Of course with any newly-launched product, VENN has some key points it needs to address to not only set it apart from its predecessors, but also to maximize the platform it’s trying to be on. From a product standpoint, I see VENN as everything but more polished. It’s a content-creator show-platform network being produced and broadcasted on… a content-creator show platform (Twitch, Facebook, YouTube). Some of their shows are similar to what we see on Twitch, YouTube, from media giants like IGN and more. The concern becomes, what will they do to distinguish themselves from what’s already established and secondly, what will they create to set themselves apart and round out their planned 24/7 content line-up.

More Live to feel LIVE

The most glaring part of VENN is that it is truly live and you know this by some of the rough edges each program sometimes faces: quiet moments that break the momentum, hosts a bit lost organizing a game as it isn’t already set up, guests unfamiliar with the game they’re playing and, of course, technical difficulties. Most of this can be fixed with editing and with time as for some, it’s only their second episode. The real underlying issue is the fact that each segment feels live for its fault and not because they take advantage of the live aspect. Questions or on-camera invited audience members are all things that can be done recorded live. Sometimes, polls, chat or even questions can be asked live on air but it is definitely not a focal part of the show nor is it really leaned except for a portion if not small mention between portions of a show. VENN feels live for the sake of being live.

One Bag of Content

VENN heavily relies on its hosts and guests to invite an audience to watch. The content itself is not new, it’s only the hosts and guests that give it a newness. That is an additional pressure for the on-camera leads who may not be used to a ‘tv-esque’ setting. To add, VENN has 4 talk-oriented shows leaning in a variety of directions but again, relying on the hosts to distinguish themselves from one another.

I assume with time, more varied content will be released but with that said, I already feel like gaming is secondary to the gaming people involved with each show. This may come down to preference but even if gaming is secondary, to watch two different shows play Fall Guys three times feels repetitive.

For so many genres of games, types of news and releases, I am hoping that VENN diversifies their content and games to capture everything in the future. Singleplayer games are great medium to generate discussion (as one talks and the other plays). Esports of course has a lot of buzz, talk and an overabundance of experts who can speak regularly or appear as guests. Console games also offer a different feeling when playing alongside one another than two people talking but staring at their computer screens. To see the same game three times in a row (twice on Guest House and once on VENN Arcade Live) signals to me, as an audience member, that games are a secondary thought to a network that centers its identity on gaming. Whether true or not, an expansion of ideas and content formats needs to be explored further.

Another Round of Polish

A small area I’d like to mention is that each show could use more graphics throughout the show. Either to better introduce guests, organize key information or simply to help provide additional content and trivia that guests or hosts did not get around to talking about.

On occasion, shows can feel a bit flat/stale when the same three camera angles are routinely gone through per segment. Especially true when COVID-19 prevents people from being more lively and personal with another due to distancing obligations.

Thirdly, I am unsure how much of each show is scripted, especially when it comes to topics or point of discussions on The Download or Grey Area, but from an outsider’s point-of-view, interactions and conversations could be stronger if arguments for/against, or answers to a question were articulated and formulated better before-hand (and subsequent responses can be ad-libbed for a more natural engagement).

Lastly, the website can be better utilized to highlight your hosts as well as your shows. As of right now, the homepage feels very large and redundant when it can be more jointly used as a community hub and promote its hosts more outside of the shows content.

GUEST HOUSE GUEST HOUSE GUEST HOUSE GUEST HOUSE GUEST HOUSE GUEST HOUSE GUEST HOUSE. New episode? Rerun? Who’s invited?

Conclusion

To conclude, I think VENN has a lot going for it. I also thought that GINX had a lot going for it as well as well as ESPN’s original plans and G4Tech when I was a teenager growing up. With VENN currently in beta, another studio launching in New York and very likely more content ideas being produced, I hope to see VENN thrived in areas that I, with ESGN and other previous networks like MLG, ESL and more, didn’t succeed in. I agree with Ariel Horn’s claim that there is plenty of room for VENN with today’s gaming-viewing audience. However, I also feel that creating high-quality shows are not enough to distinguish itself from a competition that multiplies with new stars and creators on a daily basis. VENN is a host of content that is hosted by a platform that hosts more content.

Since its launch, the channel network has earned 3+ million views. VENN is also on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and soon Vizo, Stirr and Xumo (according to their site).

For my colleagues in Europe, no one has heard of or even looked into VENN. The content production cycle for VENN will be key in that not everything needs to be a massive hit but as a network, you need to hit every idea and fill your slots with respectable audience sizes. Focusing purely on the NA region when gaming, esports and the culture itself is global feels like a missed opportunity but for businesses and advertisers, North America has always been the focus and I respect that business decision. I will personally keep watching VENN but look forward to when it brings more to the table.

I do not know what success looks like for VENN but I am aware of the challenges once VENN succeeds at a certain level. I’ll probably save that for my next piece as first, we need to see VENN grow.

Omega League: revenue share between teams & tournaments

Instead of Valve’s The International tournament in August, a league collaboration between teams, Epic Esports Events & WePlay! has begun. This league comes at a dire time where the final Majors of last year’s DPC system have been canceled due to COVID-19 and the DPC Leagues of the coming year are still up in the air.

With 650,000 in prizing and all the best Western teams invited, it is bound to make a splash during the months where The International would typically take place. A precursor to the DPC Leagues coming in 2020-2021, the Omega League has two separate leagues: an immortal tier 1 league with 12 teams (10 of which are directly invited) and a secondary league called Divine with a 50,000 prize-pool.

The Omega League, a cooperation between Epic Esports Events & WePlay!

A Shift in Team/Tournament Business Dynamic

As noted in the title, Omega League is a Dota league that has a revenue share agreement between teams and tournaments. While the announcement text alluded to a closer collaboration between organizations to create a sustainable ecosystem. It was not outright saying what that meant nor the terms to achieve this. The revenue share includes all points of revenue for a competition including media rights, betting agreements, sponsorship, advertising and more.

For those unfamiliar, ‘revenue share’ means that if an organization generates a profit or earns monetary value, a percentage of that earning must be divided or ‘shared’ to other parties. In this case, if tournaments generate money from sponsors, selling broadcasting rights, betting cooperations or advertising for a specific event, teams earn a percentage of that earning in exchange for their exclusive participation at their event. Because team brands and their players generate audience growth for an event, that is the justification to expect a portion of the revenue generated. For example, when working with Epicenter, I was told that just having Na’Vi (and Dendi) in their event grew viewership up to a 10% increase.

With revenue in Dota is declining for teams and tournament organizations, especially due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a joint venture between teams and tournaments is a step to try and make Dota esports more sustainable for all involved.

The teams involved in this deal are all EU/CIS organizations including Team Secret, Team Liquid, Nigma, Alliance, Virtus.pro (part of ESforce Holding that owns Epic Esports Events), Team OG, Evil Geniuses, Na’Vi. Revenue share discussions for CN and NA organizations are still ongoing. This agreement is only for third-party online competitions. DPC-affiliated leagues, majors or tournaments are unaffected.

How It Started & Details

After WePlay!’s Mad Moon (Feb. 2020), WePlay! initiated a discussion about revenue share and closer cooperation with teams for future events and tournaments. When the COVID-19 pandemic caused Majors to be canceled for safety reasons, a surge of online event invites increased for teams. Strategically, this was an ideal time for teams to test the waters regarding revenue share agreements as they now had WePlay! opening the possibility that tournaments were willing to cooperate in regards to a revenue split. With the COVID-19 pandemic issue shifting power towards team organizations, they could now determine the scheduling for their participation on their own terms.

Unified, teams sent out proposals (RFPs) to tournament organizers: OGA Dota Pit, ESL, WePlay! and Epic Esports Events with no specified initial revenue share amount in the terms. Different conversations varied in their amount for the teams’ exclusive participation during those dates. These terms give tournaments exclusive calendar dates with no competitors and allows teams to see what kind of revenue they can generate in an esports scene that offers very little. These discussions also helped untangle the overlapping scheduling tournaments were proposing without coordinating with one another first.

ESL and WePlay! agreed but Epic Esports Events held off (before eventually joining with WePlay! to create the Omega League). For Omega League, less than 10% of revenue from sponsorships, advertising, betting and more is shared revenue.

Lastly, these agreements are on a per-event basis and may not continue once the new DPC season begins.

Strategic Goals & Outcomes

*to help understand both sides of the situation, consider reading my previous piece (June 2019)

The Omega League achieves several goals for tournament organizers. For WePlay!, they further cement their place as a leader in tournament organization for Dota 2 and other Valve-related games for future consideration of the DPC Leagues and Majors, beating out StarLadder and the Epicenter brand.

For EEE and ESforce, the Omega League keeps them desperately afloat and involved in the Dota 2 scene during a critical year for their survival (hence why they’re joining forces with WePlay!, a direct competitor and very likely successor). Both the general manager for Virtus.pro and CEO of Epicenter/EEE have departed from the organization. This year, Mail.ru Group had to write off 70% of the Holding and their initial value of 100 million has dropped to 30 million in only a couple of years. This goes without saying that the Omega League also helps RuHub who have been suffering since the Maincast/ESL/DreamHack exclusive deal. Back in January, I disclosed a rumour that Maincast paid an 8-figure amount for a multi-year deal with ESL & DreamHack. RuHub is usually the default buyer for CIS media rights to ESL/DH events (approx. 1 mil per year).

It is unsure that ESforce will remain in existence for 2021 as they may not hit their goals for 2020 especially if Epicenter does not win the rights for any DPC Leagues or Majors.

For teams, this is the first step towards a sustainable future for Dota. At the moment, teams are nearly powerless compared to the stronger influence and involvement they have with League of Legends, Counter-Strike and other games (not saying it’s perfect over there either). Teams earn about 10-20% of all prize-revenue but can pay up to 400,000+ (or more – pre-COVID) in player salaries on top of lodging, food, visas, services and more. To add, Dota players are less willing to do sponsor-related activities compared to players in other games, causing sponsors to look elsewhere for cooperative opportunities (e.g: League of Legends, streaming, etc.). This causes an uncomfortable position for teams where they cannot capitalize on the success of their Dota squad for future sponsorship. Teams earn nearly nothing from that success and depending on the level of success (or lack of) of their roster, a team can lose their entire brand power in Dota if the roster dissolves or moves on. This is not to paint team organizations as victims, but rather to continue outlining my conclusion I wrote about the Dota 2 esports scene back in June, 2019 from my article “Dota 2 Majors are not guaranteed profitable events“.

June 2019: though it talks about tournament organizers, the same emphasis on players also leaves teams on the short-end of the valued stick.

It is only natural that teams seek new revenue streams if they are finding dwindling opportunity with players and sponsors. Borrowing ideas from joint leagues in CS:GO with the ESL ‘Louvre Agreement’ may be an exploratory avenue that could lead to be more equitable ecosystem for Dota 2 outside or even potentially within the DPC system (pending Valve’s decision-making). It is very clear that the intent of Omega League is a case-study to display how the Dota 2 esports ecosystem could work to the benefit for the businesses that put the most risk and involvement into the scene.

Teams understand that tournament organizers earn little to nothing (e.g WePlay! losing money on each of their events) but teams also face the conundrum that without LANs, there is no value in Dota for (western) sponsors. This emphasizes the importance of results and to ignore other obligations that would help a team business grow an audience, consistently create engagement and engagement for current and future sponsorship opportunities.

Especially true when the Dota audience is shifting to China, SEA and Europe/CIS – markets that are secondary to sponsors. These factors lead to high operating costs with revenue and sponsorships very heavily emphasized on performance: both for players and team organizations.

Conclusion & Thoughts

This article purely aims to inform audiences about the current business inner-workings within the Dota 2 scene. If Valve draws decisions based on what fans and players call for, then the only solution to a better Dota scene is to inform that public of the struggles, growth, success and challenges esports faces.

The Omega League is a step for teams to generate revenue for a game that faces a systemic challenge of finding a reliable ecosystem. It is also a demonstration of trying for consistency in quality, production, story-telling and business collaboration. If you compare Dota to the games that teams are moving towards: PUBG Mobile, League of Legends and Rocket League, you see a consistency of exposure, potential and results (whether lost or not).

As the DPC system changes every year:

  • limiting opportunity for event organizers due to less open calendar dates for third-party tournaments
  • limiting the amount of involved tournament organizers (from 11 majors/minors to 9 to 3 majors and 6 seasonal leagues) driving event organizers to other games
  • and continuing to emphasize performance-only value without much room for additional exposure for teams

it is becoming increasingly difficult for tournaments and teams to find stability and profit, especially if sponsorship value is lowering with each year (as noted in my 2019 article: “Dota 2 Majors are not guaranteed profitable events“).

To repeat, this is a systemic problem with the Dota esports scene. Omega League and revenue share is not about the money but a search for stability in a scene that disregards businesses.

7 Years, 400 Million (2019): Dota Builds Project Year-in-Review

This is a continuation of 2018’s article, “5 years, 350 million“, “4 years, 275 million“, 2017’s “3 years, 170 million“, 2015’s “2 years, 100 million” and 2014’s article: “1 Year, 40 million: Dota Builds Project Overview.

The Standard Hero Builds Project creates and manages over 161 hero builds to help new players learn how to play their characters.

I am celebrating 7 years of updating the Hero Builds. In December 2018, I took a haitus. In February 2019, I announced the end of the Hero Builds Project and 1 month later, I was sponsored by Rivalry.com to revive the project.

If I wrote in 2016 to 2017 that those were the most prominent years for the project and myself, I would say that 2017 to 2018 was considered the most difficult and enduring for me and the project.

5 Years, 350 Million (2018): Dota Builds Project Year in Review

For 2019-2020, I would say that my shift in focus and desire to update the builds without having to take too much interest in public opinion has increased my dedication to Dota 2 and Hero Builds. Thanks to my sponsor, Rivalry.com, my motivation for the Hero Builds Project continues. The sponsor confirms there is an inherent value in the dedicated and consistent work, regardless of waning feedback or vocal support.

Within this review, I will provide statistics detailing the impact the project has had in public matches, growth or decline in subscription growth and more. In addition, future plans, thoughts and desires will be mentioned for consideration.

350 Million to 400 Million Subscriptions – A Year of Statistic

Despite the article being released in 2020, I maintain subscriptions statistics on an annual basis (previously bi-weekly). The main reason for this lower rate of stats tracking was that the interest about these statistics is very little nowadays and the growth has been relatively consistent for the past years.

Does this look familiar? It’s because the daily rate of games that use my guides has not changed: 82.96% (82.67% in 2018).

From what we were able to simulate, approximately 82.96% of all daily matches use one or more of my guides. The percentages represented show the likelihood of 1 to 7 guides simultaneously being used during a match. There has been an increase 0.29% of daily guide usage per game. We found this very peculiar and went to verify with an independent source and fellow data scientist who verified our methodology and numbers. That said, anyone who wants to discuss our approach and analysis, we welcome additional (expert) opinions (like in 2018). Please contact me directly to further cooperate.

Between 2018 to 2019, this section’s results can be summarized as the following:

  • Subscription growth has been positive with 50 million new subscriptions
    • 400 Million in total subscriptions across 161 guides
  • 500 Million more games have been played using my guides
    • 1.8 billion games since 2013 (including overlap)
  • The Phantom Assassin guide leads with 5 million unique subscribers
    • The highest on the entire Steam platform
  • Average # of subscriptions for the project reaches 2.5 million

I am still very happy that there is continued growth and satisfaction with the hero builds. With the New Player Experience coming, I am hoping that future users will continue to seek out my builds.

Sponsorship

Today, I am happy to announce my continued partnership with Rivalry.com. Their continued support has been generous and their expectations have been so few (I am not even obligated to mention them in any social media posts or blog posts). As Dota leans more towards Eastern audiences and sponsors seek Western impressions, it is relieving to see Rivalry continue to support me and other brands, people and teams in this space.

Future

Last year, I tried my hand at doing a coaching show with some friends who were generous enough to give their time to guest-appear. In addition, I’ve started writing some professional insights into the esports industry. Both were great in exploring some opinions I always wanted to say. Though I do enjoy working with on-camera talent, I am not so sure it is the right calling for me.

In addition, last year I enjoyed my time working on the StarLadder Minor, Berlin Major and PUBG Europe League. Similar to my professional work two years ago, the insight, experience and knowledge I’ve gained in esports has been tremendous.

Last year, I wrote a variety of articles about the esports industry including dropping some knowledge about the Dota 2 scene. It has lead to a lot of new career paths that I am currently exploring.

This year, I would like to say and do more. I’m seeking to better display my qualities and explore what I can and cannot aptly do. The importance of always wanting to do more helps against questions of self-doubt. A few ideas have been circling in my head ranging from on-site event interviews to more Dota coaching but I am unsure if they are worth pursuing further. That said, both stem from my desire to learn and be able to do more with Dota 2. For now, I continue to test and research hero builds on my Twitch channel. As always, my methodology to update the hero builds has been a mix between watching and researching commonly-played item/skill builds to personally testing them and seeking feedback on improvements.

Finally, last year I wrote some suggestions for the upcoming New Player Experience for Dota 2. For the Hero Builds System, I continue to advocate the same things I have for the past 5 years: “[…] improve guide selection for new users so the first one at the top isn’t picked just because it has the highest subscription count and games played (these indicators are mostly due to those guides being around the longest).”

Not listed in the original post, this spontaneous idea I had is something that I think would be really cool to include.

Conclusion

You’ve made this relatively ordinary person achieve something pretty extraordinary.

February 2019

I think I’ve talked about why I started making hero builds many times and the skinny of it was a mix of things: my self-validation through being useful for others, a tribute to the old Play-Dota guides I used in the early 2000s and most importantly: being pro-active with my frustration that people didn’t know how to play or build their heroes (including myself).

The project achieved some, if not, all these goals and there’s really nothing more I can be thankful for than that.