Evil Geniuses CEO Nicole LaPointe Jameson is coming to Disrupt

As the opportunities in the gaming world continue to expand aggressively as part of post-COVID shifts to the entertainment sector, esports has found its own opportunities in reaching new audiences. While competitive gaming is still in its early stages, the stakeholders of the industry are some of gaming’s most prominent publishers and organizations, and disrupting how business gets done can be a major challenge for rising leagues and platforms.

We’re excited to have Evil Geniuses CEO Nicole LaPointe Jameson join us at TechCrunch Disrupt this week to discuss the business of competitive gaming and how esports is faring in its quest to gain an even larger audience. We’ll talk to LaPointe Jameson about the various leagues and stakeholders in the industry and where the momentum is shifting.

Evil Geniuses is a two decade-old competitive gaming brand, but over the past few years, the esports company has seen a dramatic revamp, exiting leagues and joining new ones while bulking up its roster and looking to find new opportunities in a space that has matured dramatically this decade but is still chasing after mainstream audiences. The esports organization was formerly part of Amazon as a result of the Twitch acquisition, but in 2019 was acquired by Chicago-based Peak6 Investments.

LaPointe Jameson joined Evil Geniuses as CEO back in 2019. At the time, the 25-year-old investor had scant experience running a gaming organization, but since her appointment, the esports company has looked to shake up how companies in the esports world operate. Earlier this year, the company launched its own esports analytics platform, collecting and parsing professional and amateur gameplay data and giving the industry access to more streamlined tools to analyze players and recruit.

As one of very few Black women in charge of an esports organization, LaPointe Jameson has looked to build out a more diverse organization and find a more expansive audience outside traditional niches. The league has helped pioneer signing mixed-gender teams to compete at major competitions.

“To clarify for the people in the back that didn’t catch it the first time… I don’t care where you come from. Nor your creed, gender, religion, class, past industry, or sexual orientation. If you are the best of the best, you have a home here at [Evil Geniuses],” LaPointe Jameson tweeted earlier this year.

We look forward to chatting with LaPointe Jameson, alongside a whole host of amazing speakers at Disrupt, including Canva CEO Melanie Perkins, and actor-entrepreneur Ryan Reynolds.

The show is coming up fast. Get your ticket now for less than $100 before the price increases tonight — and we’ll see you soon.

For the love of the loot: Blockchain, the metaverse and gaming’s blind spot

The speed at which gaming has proliferated is matched only by the pace of new buzzwords inundating the ecosystem. Marketers and decision makers, already suffering from FOMO about opportunities within gaming, have latched onto buzzy trends like the applications of blockchain in gaming and the “metaverse” in an effort to get ahead of the trend rather than constantly play catch-up.

The allure is obvious, as the relationship between the blockchain, metaverse, and gaming makes sense. Gaming has always been on the forefront of digital ownership (one can credit gaming platform Steam for normalizing the concept for games, and arguably other media such as movies), and most agreed upon visions of the metaverse rely upon virtual environments common in games with decentralized digital ownership.

Whatever your opinion of either, I believe they both have an interrelated future in gaming. However, the success or relevance of either of these buzzy topics is dependent upon a crucial step that is being skipped at this point.

Let’s start with the example of blockchain and, more specifically, NFTs. Collecting items of varying rarities and often random distribution form some of the core “loops” in many games (i.e. kill monster, get better weapon, kill tougher monster, get even better weapon, etc.), and collecting “skins” (e.g. different outfits/permutation of game character) is one of the most embraced paradigms of micro-transactions in games.

The way NFTs are currently being discussed in relation to gaming are very much in danger of falling into this very trap: Killing the core gameplay loop via a financial fast track.

Now, NFTs are positioned to be a natural fit with various rare items having permanent, trackable, and open value. Recent releases such as “Loot (for Adventurers)” have introduced a novel approach wherein the NFTs are simply descriptions of fantasy-inspired gear and offered in a way that other creators can use them as tools to build worlds around. It’s not hard to imagine a game built around NFT items, à la Loot.

But that’s been done before… kind of. Developers of games with a “loot loop” like the one described above have long had a problem with “farmers”, who acquire game currencies and items to sell to players for real money, against the terms of service of the game. The solution was to implement in-game “auction houses” where players could instead use real money to purchase items from one another.

Unfortunately, this had an unwanted side-effect. As noted by renowned game psychologist Jamie Madigan, our brains are evolved to pay special attention to rewards that are both unexpected and beneficial. When much of the joy in some games comes from an unexpected or randomized reward, being able to easily acquire a known reward with real money robbed the game of what made it fun.

The way NFTs are currently being discussed in relation to gaming are very much in danger of falling into this very trap: Killing the core gameplay loop via a financial fast track. The most extreme examples of this phenomena commit the biggest cardinal sin in gaming — a game that is “pay to win,” where a player with a big bankroll can acquire a material advantage in a competitive game.

Blockchain games such as Axie Infinity have rapidly increased enthusiasm around the concept of “play to earn,” where players can potentially earn money by selling tokenized resources or characters earned within a blockchain game environment. If this sounds like a scenario that can come dangerously close to “pay to win,” that’s because it is.

What is less clear is whether it matters in this context. Does anyone care enough about the core game itself rather than the potential market value of NFTs or earning potential through playing? More fundamentally, if real-world earnings are the point, is it truly a game or just a gamified micro-economy, where “farming” as described above is not an illicit activity, but rather the core game mechanic?

The technology culture around blockchain has elevated solving for very hard problems that very few people care about. The solution (like many problems in tech) involves reevaluation from a more humanist approach. In the case of gaming, there are some fundamental gameplay and game psychology issues to be tackled before these technologies can gain mainstream traction.

We can turn to the metaverse for a related example. Even if you aren’t particularly interested in gaming, you’ve almost certainly heard of the concept after Mark Zuckerberg staked the future of Facebook upon it. For all the excitement, the fundamental issue is that it simply doesn’t exist, and the closest analogs are massive digital game spaces (such as Fortnite) or sandboxes (such as Roblox). Yet, many brands and marketers who haven’t really done the work to understand gaming are trying to fast-track to an opportunity that isn’t likely to materialize for a long time.

Gaming can be seen as the training wheels for the metaverse — the ways we communicate within, navigate, and think about virtual spaces are all based upon mechanics and systems with foundations in gaming. I’d go so far as to predict the first adopters of any “metaverse” will indeed be gamers who have honed these skills and find themselves comfortable within virtual environments.

By now, you might be seeing a pattern: We’re far more interested in the “future” applications of gaming without having much of a perspective on the “now” of gaming. Game scholarship has proliferated since the early aughts due to a recognition of how games were influencing thought in fields ranging from sociology to medicine, and yet the business world hasn’t paid it much attention until recently.

The result is that marketers and decision makers are doing what they do best (chasing the next big thing) without the usual history of why said thing should be big, or what to do with it when they get there. The growth of gaming has yielded an immense opportunity, but the sophistication of the conversations around these possibilities remains stunted, due in part to our misdirected attention.

There is no “pay to win” fast track out of this blind spot. We have to put in the work to win.

Xbox and Special Olympics hold first ‘Gaming for Inclusion’ esports event

Gaming in general is moving towards accessibility, but that’s not as much the case in esports, which like other sports are competitive and by nature somewhat exclusive. Xbox and the Special Olympics are working together on a new event that combines competition with inclusion, and it’s going on right now.

This week, Special Olympics athletes will be competing against each other in tournaments of Rocket League, Madden NFL 22, and Forza Motorsports 7. The prize, other than prestige and pride, is playing with one of the Special Olympics’ celebrity supporters: “NBA superstar Jayson Tatum, NFL legend Jamaal Charles, and WWE Superstars.”

“This tournament is a meaningful and important step in making esports more accessible and it empowers Special Olympics athletes with a new way to compete,” said Jenn Panattoni, Head of Xbox Social Impact. “Xbox has invested in numerous accessibility features and products, like the Xbox Adaptive Controller and features like copilot or speech to text. The purpose of all this continued work is to ensure that players feel welcome and that they belong on the Xbox platform.”

The tournaments are being recorded right now, and will be broadcast over the rest of the week, along with the “celebrity showcase” coming Saturday with recaps. You can check out a schedule at the bottom of this post, but generally just keep an eye on the Xbox Twitch channel and Special Olympics YouTube channel.

I like to highlight these events because accessibility has been on the back burner for so long in the gaming world, and now we’re seeing big moves by developers, publishers, and partners to make things better. Microsoft’s XAC is a great example, as is the panoply of visual, audio, and difficulty options in the latest Ratchet & Clank game. Esports is definitely one of the areas that needs more diversity, though, and the participating players were glad to take part. I asked Special Olympics Jose Moreno and Colton Rice for their thoughts on the matter.

Do you think competitive gaming is getting more accessible?

Rice: Competitive gaming is definitely getting more accessible. Not only are the games becoming more accessible, accessibility allows people with disabilities to become more competitive players. People with intellectual disabilities are always trying to compete at their best. We want to do what everyone else is doing, and sometimes just need a little help to make that happen.

Moreno: I do think that competitive gaming is getting more accessible because Microsoft has started bringing out video game controllers that are accessible for people with intellectual disabilities, physical disabilities – accessible to everybody. I’m a lifelong gamer, and accessibility in esports has been game-changing. Accessible gaming wasn’t available when I was growing up. Today, it’s so much more fun to play when you can play with friends of all abilities and everybody can participate.

Special Olympics athletes Colton Rice, left, and Jose Moreno.

How are you experiencing that change?

Moreno: In my opinion, the more the video games industry include people with intellectual disabilities, the better the video game community is going to get to know how we love playing video games just like everybody else. And through events like Gaming for Inclusion, I’m not just able to compete – I’m included as a part of a community of gamers where I am welcomed and included.

Rice: People with intellectual disabilities have skills and pay attention to details; when we set our minds to do something, we practice until we are the best we can be especially when we enjoy doing it – and that includes gaming. People with disabilities just need more time to learn, but when you’re dedicated to something that you’re passionate about, you won’t stop until you succeed.

What’s something you’d like to see more of, from developers, publishers etc?

Moreno: I would like to see more from developers or makers or publishers of video games in general or computer games to include more people with intellectual disabilities in the video game workforce. People with intellectual disabilities can play a variety of roles and provide unique perspectives on how to improve the gaming experience. Publishers and developers can get a different perspective from people with disabilities; whether that’s featuring people with intellectual disabilities represented in their storylines or seeing them in the games themselves. We’re eager to be a part of this process, and there are lots of passionate gamers with intellectual disabilities who would like to participate in focus groups or in actual jobs as creators within the industry.

Rice: The companies who make these games are trying to make high quality games that are enjoyable for everybody. There is still a lot that can be done to make games more accessible. For example, it can be frustrating when gamers with intellectual disabilities are learning a new game with instructions that are hard to read. It can take hours to learn how to play the new version of a game you’ve played for years. That doesn’t mean people with intellectual disabilities aren’t capable of playing or competing – it just means we need better accessibility tools to help us learn.

If gaming companies want to create accessible, inclusive games, they could benefit from including gamers with intellectual disabilities in the creative process to help make or test “easy read” or beginner’s instructions, or find ways to simplify navigation between different levels of a game. Gaming can build a community and reach people who feel left out. Accessibility allows everybody to have fun.


This competition and other events in online gaming have been essential to keeping the Special Olympics community connected and active over a difficult couple years.

“Special Olympics has a long-standing partnership with Microsoft that has been incredibly valuable for the athletes and families of the Special Olympics movement,” said the organization’s Chief Information and Technology Officer, Prianka Nandy. “With the COVID-19 pandemic, our main concern has been the safety and health of our athletes, who are amongst the most vulnerable population to have an adverse or catastrophic outcome from the virus. This led to the cancellation and postponement of thousands of annual in-person events and competitions – which meant our athletes have missed out on the connections and opportunities to experience the joy of being with their teammates, coaches, and friends. At this time, our goals remain to raise awareness of the Special Olympics movement and the accomplishments, hopes, and dreams of our incredible athletes, and to change attitudes towards people with intellectual disabilities within the gaming community, all while remembering that gaming can be fun and inclusive for all.”

3 methodologies for automated video game highlight detection and capture

With the rise of livestreaming, gaming has evolved from a toy-like consumer product to a legitimate platform and medium in its own right for entertainment and competition.

Twitch’s viewer base alone has grown from 250,000 average concurrent viewers to over 3 million since its acquisition by Amazon in 2014. Competitors like Facebook Gaming and YouTube Live are following similar trajectories.

The boom in viewership has fueled an ecosystem of supporting products as today’s professional streamers push technology to its limit to increase the production value of their content and automate repetitive aspects of the video production cycle.

The largest streamers hire teams of video editors and social media managers, but growing and part-time streamers struggle to do this themselves or come up with the money to outsource it.

The online streaming game is a grind, with full-time creators putting in eight- if not 12-hour performances on a daily basis. In a bid to capture valuable viewer attention, 24-hour marathon streams are not uncommon either.

However, these hours in front of the camera and keyboard are only half of the streaming grind. Maintaining a constant presence on social media and YouTube fuels the growth of the stream channel and attracts more viewers to catch a stream live, where they may purchase monthly subscriptions, donate and watch ads.

Distilling the most impactful five to 10 minutes of content out of eight or more hours of raw video becomes a non-trivial time commitment. At the top of the food chain, the largest streamers can hire teams of video editors and social media managers to tackle this part of the job, but growing and part-time streamers struggle to find the time to do this themselves or come up with the money to outsource it. There aren’t enough minutes in the day to carefully review all the footage on top of other life and work priorities.

Computer vision analysis of game UI

An emerging solution is to use automated tools to identify key moments in a longer broadcast. Several startups compete to dominate this emerging niche. Differences in their approaches to solving this problem are what differentiate competing solutions from each other. Many of these approaches follow a classic computer science hardware-versus-software dichotomy.

Athenascope was one of the first companies to execute on this concept at scale. Backed by $2.5 million of venture capital funding and an impressive team of Silicon Valley Big Tech alumni, Athenascope developed a computer vision system to identify highlight clips within longer recordings.

In principle, it’s not so different from how self-driving cars operate, but instead of using cameras to read nearby road signs and traffic lights, the tool captures the gamer’s screen and recognizes indicators in the game’s user interface that communicate important events happening in-game: kills and deaths, goals and saves, wins and losses.

These are the same visual cues that traditionally inform the game’s player what is happening in the game. In modern game UIs, this information is high-contrast, clear and unobscured, and typically located in predictable, fixed locations on the screen at all times. This predictability and clarity lends itself extremely well to computer vision techniques such as optical character recognition (OCR) — reading text from an image.

The stakes here are lower than self-driving cars, too, since a false positive from this system produces nothing more than a less-exciting-than-average video clip — not a car crash.

Epic Games to shut down Houseparty in October, including the video chat ‘Fortnite Mode’ feature

Houseparty, the social video chat app acquired by Fortnite maker Epic Games for a reported $35 million back in 2019, is shutting down. The company says Houseparty will be discontinued in October when the app will stop functioning for its existing users; it will be pulled from the app stores today, however. Related to this move, Epic Games’ “Fortnite Mode” feature, which leveraged Houseparty to bring video chat to Fortnite gamers, will also be discontinued.

Founded in 2015, Houseparty offered a way for users to participate in group video chats with friends and even play games, like Uno, trivia, Heads Up and others. Last year, Epic Games integrated Houseparty with Fortnite, initially to allow gamers to see live feeds from friends while gaming, then later adding support to livestream gameplay directly into Houseparty. At the time, these integrations appeared to be the end goal that explained why Epic Games had bought the social startup in the first place.

Now, just over two years after the acquisition was announced, and less than half a year since support for livestreaming was added to the app, Houseparty is shutting down.

The company didn’t offer any solid insight into what, at first glance, feels like an admission of failure to capitalize on its acquisition. But the reality is that Epic Games may have something larger in store beyond just video chat. That said, all Epic Games would say today is that the Houseparty team could no longer give the app the attention it required — a statement that indicates an executive decision to shift the team’s focus to other matters.

While none of the Houseparty team members are being let go as a result of this move, we’re told, they will be joining other teams where they will work on new ways to allow for “social interactions” across the Epic Games family of products. The company’s announcement hinted that those social features would be designed and built at the “metaverse scale.”

The “metaverse” is an increasingly used buzzword that references a shared virtual environment, like those provided by large-scale online gaming platforms such as Fortnite, Roblox and others. Facebook, too, claims the metaverse is the next big gambit for social networking, with CEO Mark Zuckerberg having described it as an “embodied internet that you’re inside of rather than just looking at.”

To some extent, Fortnite has begun to embrace the metaverse by offering non-gaming experiences like online concerts you attend as your avatar, and other live events. Ahead of its shutdown, Houseparty also toyed with live events that users would co-watch and participate in alongside their friends.

An Epic Games spokesperson tells TechCrunch the Houseparty team has worked on (and continues to work on) a number of other projects that focus on social. But some of the “multiple, larger projects” Epic Games has in the works remain undisclosed, we’re told.

In terms of social products, Houseparty’s technology now underpins all of Fortnite voice chat and the features they built are widely available for free to developers through Epic Games Services. They also worked on building out new social experiences, which have ranged from the social RSVP functions for Fortnite’s global events, like the recent Ariana Grande concert, to the upcoming “Operation: Sky Fire” event for collaborating quests and other game mechanics. More social functionality and new experiences are also being built into Fortnite’s user-generated content platform, Create Mode.

While it may seem odd to close an app that only last year experienced a boost in usage due to the pandemic, it appears the COVID bump didn’t have staying power.

At the height of lockdowns, Houseparty had reported it had gained 50 million new sign-ups in a month’s time as users looked to video apps to connect with family and friends while the world was shut down. But as the pandemic wore on, other video chat experiences gained more ground. Zoom, which had established itself as an essential tool for remote work, became a tool for hanging out with friends after-hours, as well. Facebook also started to eat Houseparty’s lunch with its debut of drop-in video chat “Rooms” last year, which offered a similar group video experience. And bored users shifted to audio-based social networking on apps like Clubhouse or Twitter Spaces.

Image Credits: Apptopia

According to data from Apptopia, Houseparty has been continually declining since the pandemic bump. To date, its app has seen a total of 111 million downloads across iOS and Android, with the majority (63 million) on iOS. The U.S. was Houseparty’s largest market, accounting for 43.4% of downloads, followed by the U.K. (9.8%), then Germany (5.6%).

Epic Games, meanwhile, said the app served “tens of millions” of users worldwide. It insists the closure wasn’t decided lightly, nor was the decision to shutter “Fortnite Mode” made due to lack of adoption.

Houseparty will alert users to the shutdown via in-app notifications ahead of its final closure in October. At that point, Fortnite Mode will also no longer be available.

Gamestry gets $5M to give games video creators a sweeter deal

Barcelona-based gaming video platform Gamestry has snatched up $5 million in seed funding, led by Goodwater Capital, Target Global and Kibo Ventures — turning investors’ heads with a 175x growth rate over the past 12 months.

While the (for now) Spanish-language gaming video platform launched a few years back, in 2018, last year the founders decided to shift away from an initial focus on curating purely learning content around gaming — allowing creators to upload and share entertainment-focused games videos, too.

The switch looks to have paid off as a growth tactic. Gamestry says it now has 4M monthly active users (MAUs) and 2,000 active creators in Spain and Latin America (its main markets so far) — and is gunning to hit 20M MAUs by the end of the year.

While Twitch continues to dominate the market for live-streaming games — catering to the esports boom — Gamestry, which says it’s focused on “non-live video content”, reckons there’s a gap for a dedicated on-demand video platform that better supports games-focused video creators and provides games fans with a more streamlined discovery experience than catch-all user-generated content giants like YouTube.

For games video creators, it’s dangling the carrot of a better revenue share than other UGC video platforms — talking about having “a fair ads revenue share model”, and a plan to add more revenue streams for creators “soon”. It also pledges “full transparency on how the monetization structure works”, and a focus on supporting creators if they have technical issues.

So, basically, the sorts of issues creators have often complained that YouTube fails them on.

For viewers, the pitch is a one-stop-shop for finding and watching videos about games and connecting with others with the same passion (gaming chat) — so the platform structures content around individual games titles.

The startup also claims to present viewers with better info about a video to help them decide whether or not to click on it (aka, tools to help them find “quality instead of clickbait”), beyond basics like title, thumbnail and videos. (Albeit to my admittedly unseasoned eye for assessing the calibre of games video content, there is no shortage of clickbaity-looking stuff on Gamestry. But I am definitely not the target audience here…). So the viewer pitch also sounds like another little dig at YouTube.

“Despite being the de-facto place for uploading content, YouTube is a generic platform that is not optimized for gaming and therefore doesn’t cater to the needs of gaming creators,” argue founders — brothers Alejo and Guillermo Torrens — adding: “Vertical or specialized platforms emerge whenever markets become large enough that current platforms can’t serve their users’ needs and we believe that’s exactly what’s happening today.”

Target Global’s Lina Chong led the international fund’s investment in Gamestry. Asked what piqued her interest here, she flagged the recent growth spurt and the platform having onboarded scores of highly engaged games content creators in short order.

“The problem Gamestry is addressing is that the vast majority of creators don’t make much money on those platforms because they are ads/eyeball driven businesses,” she told TechCrunch. “Gamestry provides a space where creators, despite audience size, can find new ways to engage with their audience and make a living. This problem among creators is so big that Gamestry now has over 2k highly engaged creators uploading multiple content pieces and millions of their viewers on the platform every month.”

It will surely surprise no one to learn that the typical Gamestry user is a male, aged between 18 and 24.

The startup also told us the “most trending” games on its platform are Minecraft, Free Fire, and Fortnite, adding that “IRL (In Real Life) content is also very successful”.

As well as YouTube Gaming, other platforms competing for similar games-mad eyeballs include Facebook Gaming and Booyah.

China roundup: Beijing wants tech giants to shoulder more social responsibilities

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world.

This week, the gaming industry again became a target of Beijing, which imposed arguably the world’s strictest limits on underage players. On the other hand, China’s tech titans are hastily answering Beijing’s call for them to take on more social responsibilities and take a break from unfettered expansion.

Gaming curfew

China dropped a bombshell on the country’s young gamers. As of September 1, users under the age of 18 are limited to only one hour of online gaming time: on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays between 8-9 p.m.

The stringent rule adds to already tightening gaming policies for minors, as the government blames video games for causing myopia, as well as deteriorating mental and physical health. Remember China recently announced a suite of restrictions on after-school tutoring? The joke going around is that working parents will have an even harder time keeping their kids occupied.

A few aspects of the new regulation are worth unpacking. For one, the new rule was instituted by the National Press and Publication Administration (NPPA), the regulatory body that approves gaming titles in China and that in 2019 froze the approval process for nine months, which led to plunges in gaming stocks like Tencent.

It’s curious that the directive on playtime came from the NPPA, which reviews gaming content and issues publishing licenses. Like other industries in China, video games are subject to regulations by multiple authorities: NPPA; the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), the country’s top internet watchdog; and the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, which oversees the country’s industrial standards and telecommunications infrastructure.

As analysts long observe, the mighty CAC, which sits under the Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission chaired by President Xi Jinping, has run into “bureaucratic struggles” with other ministries unwilling to relinquish power. This may well be the case for regulating the lucrative gaming industry.

For Tencent and other major gaming companies, the impact of the new rule on their balance sheet may be trifling. Following the news, several listed Chinese gaming firms, including NetEase and 37 Games, hurried to announce that underage players made up less than 1% of their gaming revenues.

Tencent saw the change coming and disclosed in its Q2 earnings that “under-16-year-olds accounted for only 2.6% of its China-based grossing receipts for games and under-12-year-olds accounted for just 0.3%.”

These numbers may not reflect the reality, as minors have long found ways around gaming restrictions, such as using an adult’s ID for user registration (just as the previous generation borrowed IDs from adult friends to sneak into internet cafes). Tencent and other gaming firms have vowed to clamp down on these workarounds, forcing kids to seek even more sophisticated tricks, including using VPNs to access foreign versions of gaming titles. The cat and mouse game continues. 

Prosper together

While China curtails the power of its tech behemoths, it has also pressured them to take on more social responsibilities, which include respecting the worker’s rights in the gig economy.

Last week, the Supreme People’s Court of China declared the “996” schedule, working 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week, illegal. The declaration followed years of worker resistance against the tech industry’s burnout culture, which has manifested in actions like a GitHub project listing companies practicing “996.”

Meanwhile, hardworking and compliant employees have often been cited as a competitive advantage of China’s tech industry. It’s in part why some Silicon Valley companies, especially those run by people familiar with China, often set up branches in the country to tap its pool of tech talent.

The days when overworking is glorified and tolerated seem to be drawing to an end. Both ByteDance and its short video rival Kuaishou recently scrapped their weekend overtime policies.

Similarly, Meituan announced that it will introduce compulsory break time for its food delivery riders. The on-demand services giant has been slammed for “inhumane” algorithms that force riders into brutal hours or dangerous driving.

In groundbreaking moves, ride-hailing giant Didi and Alibaba’s e-commerce rival JD.com have set up unions for their staff, though it’s still unclear what tangible impact the organizations will have on safeguarding employee rights.

Tencent and Alibaba have also acted. On August 17, President Xi Jinping delivered a speech calling for “common prosperity,” which caught widespread attention from the country’s ultra-rich.

“As China marches towards its second centenary goal, the focus of promoting people’s well-being should be put on boosting common prosperity to strengthen the foundation for the Party’s long-term governance.”

This week, both Tencent and Alibaba pledged to invest 100 billion yuan ($15.5 billion) in support of “common prosperity.” The purposes of their funds are similar and align neatly with Beijing’s national development goals, from growing the rural economy to improving the healthcare system.

Playbyte’s new app aims to become the ‘TikTok for games’

A startup called Playbyte wants to become the TikTok for games. The company’s newly launched iOS app offers tools that allow users to make and share simple games on their phone, as well as a vertically scrollable, fullscreen feed where you can play the games created by others. Also like TikTok, the feed becomes more personalized over time to serve up more of the kinds of games you like to play.

While typically, game creation involves some aspect of coding, Playbyte’s games are created using simple building blocks, emoji and even images from your Camera Roll on your iPhone. The idea is to make building games just another form of self-expression, rather than some introductory, educational experience that’s trying to teach users the basics of coding.

At its core, Playbyte’s game creation is powered by its lightweight 2D game engine built on web frameworks, which lets users create games that can be quickly loaded and played even on slow connections and older devices. After you play a game, you can like and comment using buttons on the right-side of the screen, which also greatly resembles the TikTok look-and-feel. Over time, Playbyte’s feed shows you more of the games you enjoyed as the app leverages its understanding of in-game imagery, tags and descriptions, and other engagement analytics to serve up more games it believes you’ll find compelling.

At launch, users have already made a variety of games using Playbyte’s tools — including simulators, tower defense games, combat challenges, obbys, murder mystery games, and more.

According to Playbyte founder and CEO Kyle Russell — previously of Skydio, Andreessen Horowitz, and (disclosure!) TechCrunch — Playbyte is meant to be a social media app, not just a games app.

“We have this model in our minds for what is required to build a new social media platform,” he says.

What Twitter did for text, Instagram did for photos and TikTok did for video was to combine a constraint with a personalized feed, Russell explains. “Typically. [they started] with a focus on making these experiences really brief…So a short, constrained format and dedicated tools that set you up for success to work within that constrained format,” he adds.

Similarly, Playbyte games have their own set of limitations. In addition to their simplistic nature, the games are limited to five scenes. Thanks to this constraint, a format has emerged where people are making games that have an intro screen where you hit “play,” a story intro, a challenging gameplay section, and then a story outro.

In addition to its easy-to-use game building tools, Playbyte also allows game assets to be reused by other game creators. That means if someone who has more expertise makes a game asset using custom logic or which pieced together multiple components, the rest of the user base can benefit from that work.

“Basically, we want to make it really easy for people who aren’t as ambitious to still feel like productive, creative game makers,” says Russell. “The key to that is going to be if you have an idea — like an image of a game in your mind — you should be able to very quickly search for new assets or piece together other ones you’ve previously saved. And then just drop them in and mix-and-match — almost like Legos — and construct something that’s 90% of what you imagined, without any further configuration on your part,” he says.

In time, Playbyte plans to monetize its feed with brand advertising, perhaps by allowing creators to drop sponsored assets into their games, for instance. It also wants to establish some sort of patronage model at a later point. This could involve either subscriptions or even NFTs of the games, but this would be further down the road.

The startup had originally began as a web app in 2019, but at the end of last year, the team scrapped that plan and rewrote everything as a native iOS app with its own game engine. That app launched on the App Store this week, after previously maxing out TestFlight’s cap of 10,000 users.

Currently, it’s finding traction with younger teenagers who are active on TikTok and other collaborative games, like Roblox, Minecraft, or Fortnite.

“These are young people who feel inspired to build their own games but have been intimidated by the need to learn to code or use other advanced tools, or who simply don’t have a computer at home that would let them access those tools,” notes Russell.

Playbyte is backed by $4 million in pre-seed and seed funding from investors including FirstMark (Rick Heitzmann), Ludlow Ventures (Jonathon Triest and Blake Robbins), Dream Machine (former Editor-in-Chief at TechCrunch, Alexia Bonatsos), and angels such as Fred Ehrsam, co-founder of Coinbase; Nate Mitchell, co-founder of Oculus; Ashita Achuthan, previously of Twitter; and others.

The app is a free download on the App Store.

Streamers are boycotting Twitch today to protest the platform’s lack of action on ‘hate raids’

Over the last month, Twitch users have become increasingly concerned and frustrated with bot-driven hate raids. To protest Twitch’s lack of immediate action to prevent targeted harassment of marginalized creators, some streamers are going dark to observe #ADayOffTwitch today.

Per the protest, users are sharing a list of demands for the Amazon-owned Twitch. They want the platform to host a roundtable with creators affected by hate raids, allow streamers to approve or deny incoming raids, enable tools to only allow accounts of a certain age to chat, remove the ability to attach more than three accounts to one email address, and share a timeframe for when comprehensive anti-harassment tools will be implemented.

TechCrunch asked Twitch if it has plans to address these demands. Twitch responded with a statement: “We support our streamers’ rights to express themselves and bring attention to important issues across our service. No one should have to experience malicious and hateful attacks based on who they are or what they stand for, and we are working hard on improved channel-level ban evasion detection and additional account improvements to help make Twitch a safer place for creators.”

Twitch Raids are a part of the streaming platform’s culture — after one creator ends their stream, they can “raid” another stream by sending their viewers over to check out someone else’s channel. This feature is supposed to help more seasoned streamers support up-and-comers, but instead, it’s been weaponized as a tool for harassment.

In May, Twitch launched 350 new tags related to gender, sexual orientation, race and ability, which users requested so that they could more easily find creators that represent them. But at the same time, these tags made it easier for bad actors to harass marginalized streamers, and Twitch hasn’t yet added tools for streamers to deal with increased harassment. In the meantime, Twitch users have had to take matters into their own hands and build their own safety tools to protect themselves while Twitch works on its updates. Twitch hasn’t shared when its promised anti-harassment tools will go live.  

As recently as December, Twitch updated its policies on hateful content and harassment, which the platform said have always been prohibited, yet vicious attacks have continued. After facing targeted, racist hate raids on their streams, a Black Twitch creator RekItRaven started the #TwitchDoBetter hashtag on Twitter in early August, calling out Twitch for its failure to prevent this abuse. While Twitch is aware of the issue and said it’s working on solutions, many users find Twitch’s response to be too slow and lacking.

Along with streamers LuciaEverblack and ShineyPen, RekItRaven organized #ADayOffTwitch to put pressure on Twitch to make its platform safer for marginalized creators.

“Hate on the platform is not new,” Raven told WYNC’s The Takeaway. But bot-driven raid attacks are more difficult to combat than individual trolls. “I’ve had people come in with bots. It’s usually one or two people who program a bunch of bots, you bypass security measures that are put in place and just spam a broadcaster’s chat with very inflammatory, derogatory language.”

While Raven said they have since had a discussion with Twitch, they don’t feel that one conversation is enough.

As part of #ADayOffTwitch, some streamers are encouraging their followers to support them financially on other platforms through the #SubOffTwitch tag. Twitch takes 50% of streamers’ revenue, so creators are promoting their accounts on platforms like Patreon and Ko-Fi, which take a much smaller cut. Though competitor YouTube Gaming takes 30% of revenue, and Facebook Gaming won’t take a cut from creators until 2023, Twitch remains dominant in the streaming space. According to Streamlabs and Stream Hatchet, Twitch represented 72.3% of the market share in terms of viewership Q1 2021.

Still, popular creators like Ben Lupo (DrLupo), Jack Dunlop (CouRage), and Rachell Hofstetter (Valkyrae) have recently left Twitch for exclusive deals with YouTube Gaming. If Twitch remains unsafe for marginalized creators, others might be swayed to follow their lead, exclusive deals or not.

Facebook enters the fantasy gaming market

Facebook is getting into fantasy sports and other types of fantasy games. The company this morning announced the launch of Facebook Fantasy Games in the U.S. and Canada on the Facebook app for iOS and Android. Some games are described as “simpler” versions of the traditional fantasy sports games already on the market, while others allow users to make predictions associated with popular TV series, like “Survivor” or “The Bachelorette.”

The first game to launch is Pick & Play Sports, in partnership with Whistle Sports, where fans get points for correctly predicting the winner of a big game, the points scored by a top player, or other events that unfold during the match. Players can also earn bonus points for building a streak of correct predictions over several days. This game is arriving today.

Image Credits: Facebook

In the months ahead, it will be followed by other games in sports, TV, and pop culture, including Fantasy Survivor, where players choose a set of Castaways from the popular CBS TV show to join their fantasy team and Fantasy “The Bachelorette,” where fans will pick a group of men from the suitors vying for the Bachelorette’s heart and get points based on their actions and events that take place during the show. Other upcoming sports-focused games include MLB Home Run Picks, where players pick the team that they think will hit the most home runs, and LaLiga Winning Streak, where fans predict the team that will win that day.

In addition to top players being featured on leaderboards, games have a social component for those who want to play with friends.

Image Credits: Facebook

Players can create their own fantasy league with friends to compete with one another or against other fans, either publicly or privately. League members can compare scores with each other and will have a place where they can share picks, reactions and comments. This league area resembles a private group on Facebook, as it offers its own compose box for posting only to members and its own dedicated feed. However, the page is designed to support groups with specific buttons to “play” or view the “leaderboard,” among others.

The addition of fantasy games could help Facebook increase the time users spent on its app at a time when the company is facing significant competition in social, namely from TikTok. According to App Annie, the average monthly time spent per user in TikTok grew faster than other top social apps in 2020, including by 70% in the U.S., surpassing Facebook.

Facebook had dabbled in the idea of becoming a second screen companion for live events in the past, but in a different way than fantasy sports and games. Instead, its R&D division tested Venue, which worked as a way for fans to comment on live events which were hosted in the app by well-known personalities.

The new league games will be available from the bookmark menu on the mobile app and in News Feed through notifications.