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Meet VENN, the company hoping to build MTV for the gaming generation – TechCrunch

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Maybe a network will be the thing that replaces the single streaming media star.

VENN, a new company launching with $17 million in funding from some of the biggest names in gaming, is hoping to harness the power of streaming media’s online celebrities and funnel them into a channel that can command the kind of advertising revenues of the networks of old.

The vision harkens back to the golden days of MTV, when shows like TRL ruled the media landscape and a New York-based network set the cultural agenda through the prism of pop music.

For the creators of VENN — who include Ariel Horn, a four-time Emmy-winning producer who brought the commercial storytelling from his network days working on Olympics broadcasts for NBC (a division of Comcast) to the esports phenomenons of Riot Games and Blizzard Entertainment; and Ben Kusin, a former global director of new media at Vivendi Games — MTV is the template for creating a cultural commodity from what’s becoming the lingua franca of a new generation of consumers.

Where music (and particularly music videos) was once the genre-spanning language for a generation, the two entrepreneurs see gaming culture as the touchstone for a new audience. And where fragmentation has created a confusing market for advertisers to reach that audience, the content funnel and single source that a network can provide offers an attractive alternative to reaching out to a single celebrity gamer, streamer or platform.

That’s the pitch behind VENN, which not only stands for Video Game Entertainment News Network, but also represents the Venn diagram, whose center resides at the intersection of gaming, music, fashion and entertainment broadly, according to the two co-founders.

VENN co-founders Ben Kusin and Ariel Horn

“You’re looking at a $150 billion per-year industry,” says Kusin. “We think streamers, casters, content creators, these are the new celebrities… what MTV TRL used to be back in the day, if that were to launch today, what would it look like? This culture would be seen through the lens of gaming.”

His co-founder, Horn, agrees. “We see gaming as the lens through which we want to create and contextualize Gen Z,” says Horn.

Horn knows the potential audience better than nearly anyone. In his last job, he presided over esports events that commanded viewership in the hundreds of millions. Both Kusin and Horn think the same-sized audience could exist for their network — if not larger, because the two producers and their channel aren’t beholden to a single title, franchise or publisher.

Nor are they subject or beholden to a single distribution platform.

“We’re a universal network,” says Kusin. “We will be distributed on Twitch, on YouTube and on Pluto, Hulu and Roku… Anywhere and everywhere that our customers are consuming content.”

The company is currently looking to recruit top-tier talent and bring their sponsor-based streams and formats into a traditional network environment, with higher production values and something approximating the types of talent contracts and deals that would be afforded to a network figure. These streamers, gamers and others would be able to supplement their existing sponsor-based income with their work on VENN, the two co-founders said.

The executives would not comment on what, specifically, the programming would include, but indicated that VENN was in discussions with a number of the top streamers in the gaming corners of services like YouTube and Twitch from which they’d pull programming. One genre that will likely make its way onto the network is an American Ninja Warrior-style competitive show for speedruns through different levels of games.

“There are already shows on Twitch,” says Horn. “It’s reported out there for you in real time. You’re getting all kinds of feedback.” What’s necessary, he says, is to elevate the production value and add other kinds of more traditional programming around it.

“There are two hundred million people consuming YouTube gaming content… There are esports teams [like] Liquid [and] G2 whose talent consider themselves entertainers,” says Kusin. “We’re giving the entire industry a home and a heartbeat.”

The appeal for brands is obvious. If there’s a single place to go to capture the audience that follows streaming celebrities like Ninja, Tfue or VanossGaming, that real estate is far more desirable than pursuing independent sponsorship deals with each individual streamer.

LOS ANGELES, CA – JUNE 12: Gamers ‘Ninja’ (L) and ‘Marshmello’ compete in the Epic Games Fortnite E3 Tournament at the Banc of California Stadium on June 12, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Brands trying to put their money into gaming is not that straightforward,” says Horn.”There isn’t really a network like this that exists right now… that exists for the industry at large.”

Other companies that have emerged to capture advertising dollars or create networks of entertainers in something akin to an agency model may beg to differ. These are companies like 3blackdot or Popdog, which represent a significant chunk of online gaming talent. Or more traditional sites that have significant followings like IGN, which bills itself as the No. 1 games media company.

Beyond the competition, VENN is still rolling the dice on whether the new generation of consumers wants to have a more produced, mediated entertainment network rather than continue to gravitate to the unmediated experience of watching live streams of their peers do the things that they’re doing themselves. YouTube is more than just a vehicle to mainstream stardom, these streamers are their own mainstream stars for millions of viewers who seem fine with the no-fi production values that YouTube almost demands.

Investors are betting that they are, because VENN has raised a $17 million treasure chest to spend on bringing its vision to the market. The money comes from some of the biggest names in gaming, led by the European investment firm BITKRAFT. Additional investors include: Marc Merrill, the co-founder of Riot Games; Mike and Amy Morhaime, the co-founder of Blizzard Entertainment and its former head of global esports; Kevin Lin, the co-founder of Twitch; and aXiomatic Gaming, an esports investment group with stakes in Epic Games, Team Liquid and Niantic. 

“It’s about time we significantly raise the bar for video content in gaming and esports. We need to elevate the stars and stories in our community and provide a better and larger opportunity for brands to reach gamers,” said Jens Hilgers, founding partner of BITKRAFT in a statement.   



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Arcade1Up pinball cabinet review: Fine for families, interesting for modders

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Enlarge / Say hello to the Arcade1Up Attack From Mars physical pinball cabinet. The chassis is physical; its games are all virtual. Read below to understand what the heck that means.

Sam Machkovech

If you’re of a certain generation, chances are you have imagined (or, at this point in your adulthood, built) your own home arcade that resembles something out of the golden ’80s era. One useful path to making this a reality, especially in tighter quarters, is the “multicade,” an invention that squishes multiple games into a single cabinet.

But what if your old-school gaming dreams revolve around something bigger and bulkier, particularly pinball? Until recently, your options were either buying a bunch of original pinball cabinets or building your own ground-up emulation solution. And the latter is complicated by the realities of how pinball plays and feels.

I’ve wondered how long it would take for that to change in the gaming-nostalgia market, especially as companies like Arcade1Up produce and sell more multicade cabinets for home use. The time for change is now, evidently, thanks to a handful of manufacturers producing pinball multicades. Arcade1Up in particular launched three distinct pinball emulation cabinets this year, each revolving around a different license.

Thanks to Arcade1Up, I’ve gone hands-on with arguably the most interesting product in its 2021 pinball line: a collection of 10 classic tables, all created by Williams during its arcade heyday but emulated for more convenient home play. What exactly does $600 get you in terms of emulation and build quality?

Time to get Mad and Medieval

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Game Boy Advance game gets split-screen multiplayer through new FPGA core

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Developer Robert Peip shows off some split-screen Game Boy Advance multiplayer gaming through his new FPGA core.

Here at Ars, we’re big fans of situations where emulation creates a classic gaming experience that’s actually better than what you could get with original hardware in some way or another. In the past, that has meant upsampling rotated sprites in SNES’ “Mode 7” games or adding “widescreen” support to NES games or mitigating the controller lag that was built into certain older consoles or overclocking an emulated SNES to remove slowdown without ruining gameplay timing.

The latest emulation-powered retro-gaming upgrade to cross our paths greatly simplifies an oft-overlooked capability built in to many Game Boy Advance titles. Namely, it adds the ability to play multiplayer titles in split screen on a single display.

This upgrade is the work of Robert Peip, a developer who’s spent years working on field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs). These days, Peip works primarily on the MiSTer FPGA an open source project that recreates classic gaming hardware extremely accurately through emulation “cores” that replicate every single logic gate involved in the schematics of the original system (most of Analogue’s high-end retro hardware is similarly powered by FPGA cores). Such cores are currently available for consoles ranging from the Odyssey 2 through the Neo Geo era and more.

Peip’s new “special version” of the Game Boy Advance FPGA core works relatively simply, running two GBA cores in a single MiSTer. As Peip explains, “you get 2 raw GBA cores, one connected to SDRAM, one connected to DDR3, communicating directly inside the FPGA. Sound is used from Core 1 only.”

Thus, games originally designed to be played on two consoles connected via link cable can now be played in split screen on a single MiSTer with a single connected display, as shown in this demonstration video. Peip says that “most multiplayer games should be supported,” a statement that presumably includes original Game Boy games (which work on a GBA link-cable through a supported secondary mode).

Playing these multiplayer GBA games on original hardware required two separate consoles, two copies of the game, and a GBA link cable, ensuring most casual players probably never even bothered (some GBA games offered limited multiplayer with just one cartridge). And while previous GBA emulators have offered link-cable support, even that required a LAN or Internet connection between two separate machines with two separate displays. While some RetroPie users have done a bit of finagling to get multiplayer games for the original Game Boy working via split screen, we’ve never seen a similar one-machine, one-display solution for Game Boy Advance multiplayer games before this.

Peip’s turnkey test core for multiplayer GBA emulation is currently only available by supporting his Patreon, and it is currently missing features like savestates, fast forward, and visual filters available on other GBA cores. Still, we’re excited to have a new, easier-to-use method to try the oft-ignored multiplayer modes in some classic portable titles. Now if we could only get split-screen support for those four-player GBA titles…

Listing image by Nintendo

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Peter Jackson’s 6-hour Beatles documentary confirmed for Disney+ this November

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Peter Jackson’s next six-hour epic is finally coming out this year—and in a first for the acclaimed director, the film will launch directly to a streaming service. It will also be broken up into episodes.

The Beatles: Get Back, an expansive documentary originally announced for a theatrical run this August, has had its release strategy tweaked. On Thursday, Jackson and Disney confirmed that the entire project will launch exclusively on Disney+ during this year’s American Thanksgiving holiday. Each third of the documentary will launch on the streaming service on November 25, 26, and 27. As of press time, Disney hasn’t said how the film will reach audiences outside of Disney+’s supported territories. Neither Jackson nor Disney clarified how the original theatrical run might have worked or whether the global pandemic forced anyone’s hand.

Today’s news confirms that Jackson had an abundance of footage to work with. Roughly three years ago, the remaining Beatles handed him access to a musical holy grail: over 60 hours of previously unseen video recordings, mostly capturing the Beatles working on the album Let It Be and rehearsing for, and then performing, the band’s legendary 1969 rooftop concert in London.

Jackson stitched the footage together with access to what Disney calls “over 150 hours of unheard, restored audio”—meaning yes, somehow Apple Corps. still has some tapes in hiding after this many Beatles special edition albums, anthologies, video games, and Cirque du Soleil collaborations. For further context on the Let It Be recording sessions, the film will be paired with a physical book full of photos and original interviews, now delayed to an October launch.

Jackson’s comments in today’s news, as provided by Disney to members of the press, imply that he indeed sought to release a long documentary: “I’m very grateful to the Beatles, Apple Corps., and Disney for allowing me to present this story in exactly the way it should be told.” He also commented on the original documentary footage, filmed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, as something that is “not nostalgia—it’s raw, honest, and human.”

The Beatles: Get Back will launch on a Thursday, thus breaking Disney+’s latest initiative of launching new series episodes on Wednesdays instead of Fridays. If anyone can break a newly sacrosanct Disney+ rule, it has to be the Beatles.

Listing image by The Walt Disney Company / Apple Corps / Wingnut Films

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