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Too Many Game Subscription Services? Here's How to Choose

By Whitson Gordon
PlayStation Plus, PlayStation Now, Xbox Live Gold, Game Pass, Game Pass Ultimate—we break it down so you can pick the right one for you.

They Found Community, and Then Love, in Online Games

By Elizabeth Landau
It's no surprise people build great friendships when they game together. But these folks found much more—sometimes across long distances and cultural divides.

Hulu officially launches its co-viewing feature, Watch Party

By Sarah Perez

Hulu’s social viewing feature, Watch Party, has now launched to all on-demand subscribers, the company announced today. The co-viewing feature was first introduced during the earlier days of the pandemic in 2020, allowing Hulu users to watch shows together from different locations, as well as chat and react to what they’re watching in a group chat interface on the side of the screen.

Initially, the feature was only made available to Hulu’s “No Ads” subscribers before being tested with Hulu’s ad-supported subscribers in a more limited capacity. To celebrate the Season 2 premiere of Hulu Original “Pen15,” the company had offered the Watch Party experience to its ad-supported customers for 10 days, starting on September 18.

In November, Hulu began testing the Watch Party feature with election news live streams — the first time it had offered co-viewing with its live content.

Today, Hulu says Watch Party is no longer in a “test” phase, and is now officially available to both sets of on-demand customers, including those on its commercial-free and ad-supported plans alike.

At launch, Watch Party works across thousands of on-demand titles from Hulu’s library. This includes not only Hulu’s own original content but also other licensed and broadcast programs like “The Golden Girls,” “This Is Us,” “Family Guy” and “The Bachelorette” — all of which Hulu said had been popular titles for Watch Party during the testing period.

To use Watch Party, you’ll look for the new Watch Party icon that appears on a title’s detail page on Hulu.com. This will provide a link that you can then share with up to seven other Hulu subscribers, age 18 or older. The experience doesn’t require a browser plugin, but works directly on the Hulu website itself.

As the program plays, users can chat and react with emoji in the group chat window, or even pause the viewing experience if they need to take a quick break. This won’t pause the stream for other viewers, as with some other co-watching experiences — instead, the user can rejoin the group and stay behind others or they can use a “Click to Catch Up” button in the chat window to get back in sync.

Co-watching has been a popular pandemic activity as people looked for ways to stay connected with friends and family when they couldn’t spend time in person. In addition to Hulu, Amazon Prime Video launched co-viewing and Twitch launched its own Watch Parties. HBO teamed up with Scener, Plex launched Watch Together and Instagram and Facebook rolled out co-viewing too. Netflix users still have to use third-party tools, however.

YouTube upgrades Premieres with trailers, themes and a live pre-show option

By Sarah Perez

YouTube today is launching three new features designed to improve its “Premieres” experience, including trailers, themes, and live stream “pre-shows” that later redirect to the main event. Premieres, which first arrived in 2018, are designed to give creators the ability to leverage the revenue generation possibilities that come with live videos without having to actually “go live.”

Instead, Premieres allow creators to promote a scheduled video release by pointing fans to a landing page with a live chat in the sidebar, just like other live videos. This lets creators take advantage of money-making features like SuperChat, Stickers, ads, and Channel Memberships.

However, some creators want to engage with fans live ahead of their video premiere. The new “Live Redirect” feature will now make it a more seamless experience when they do so, as it allows creators to host a live stream that redirects to the upcoming Premiere just before it starts. This gives creators time to build up their audience ahead of the video’s release, as they can now not only join the chat to engage fans, but also live stream to their fans directly.

Image Credits: YouTube

YouTube says it tested this feature over the past several months with We Are One Film Festival, New York Comic-Con, BTS, Cardi B, and Justin Bieber, in advance of today’s launch.

Another new feature will allow creators to upload a pre-recorded video that will be featured on the Premiere landing page before the main event. This trailer can range from 15 seconds to 3 minutes in length, and works to create hype for the premiere ahead of its release. Creators can also encourage their fans to set a reminder so they won’t miss the video’s launch.

Image Credits: YouTube

The video countdown experience that plays just before their Premieres go live can also now be customized A new set of Countdown Themes will include those designed for different vibes or moods, like calm, playful, dramatic or sporty, for example.

Image Credits: YouTube

Since their launch, Premieres have been used by over 8 million YouTube channels, including big names like BLACKPINK, Tiny Desk, James Charles, Supercell, and Cirque du Soleil, among others. Their adoption significantly grew during the pandemic, the company also notes. Since March 1, 2020, YouTube has seen over 85% growth in daily Premieres, with over 80% of the channels having never before used a Premiere until this year.

The first two features will arrive to creators with at least 1,000 subscribers starting today, but Countdown Themes won’t be available for a couple of months, YouTube says.

Gillmor Gang: Electrical Banana

By Steve Gillmor

Thanks I’m giving for the start of the first big online season. Yes, the pandemic has put in place a gigantic move to the digital for our immediate and accelerated future. We all know how this plays out in the required state of things pre-vaccine. But there’s an undercurrent not so hidden there of a dynamic answer to my wife’s stubborn question: Where’s my Jetpack?

She’s a child of the 60s, a post-Beatles time of imploding dreams and dashed expectations. James Bond got to fly a Jetpack, but the telltale burned gasoline exhaust made the effect an artifact of what wasn’t going to happen. In an electric decade and noise-canceling AirPods, maybe it’s more likely to surface than not, but if so, what’s the next Jetpack?

My vote is for the electric newsletter, a notification engine that knows what I’m tracking, projects the trends circulating my core peers, and invests proactively in the products we want to accelerate. It’s a self healing economy, a research coordinator, a humor and media rewarder. On the Gang, we use a blend of live streaming, backchannel notifications, and everything up to but not including a newsletter.

From its earliest days, Twitter promised a future where RSS authority would be mined in a social context. What I mean by that is RSS delivered the ability, the chair in the sky opportunity Louis C.K. described, the chance to explore the world alongside the artists formerly known as accredited journalists. It was always a tough sell for the displaced gatekeepers, but flash forward to today and you can see they’re all bloggers and podcasters now.

The moment the meritocracy window opened, the definition of success moved to the readers, the viewers, the social enterprise as Marc Benioff insisted. Software as a service mined those social signals as fuel for what the iPhone delivered in the mobile wave. Now the mobile economy is expanding to the silicon on the desktop. M1 seems like an evolution, but its entry point on consumer laptops is designed to produce network effects in the same way Office 97 boosted Windows 95 into orbit.

So where is this electric newsletter if it’s so important? As a vehicle for finding stuff I didn’t know I cared about, newsletters suffer from too many of them with too few business models driving them. Subscriptions derive revenue but reduce the network effects of advertising supported subsidy of firewalls. You get reach but quantity explodes. Context glut is not a pretty thing, either.

Our early attempts at constructing a Gang newsletter spawned the realtimeTelegram feed; its group-shared notification stream valuable as much for what we skipped as when we dipped in to it. As a framing device for the Gillmor Gang recording sessions, we could anticipate both what we wanted to talk about and what we wanted to avoid. Trump fatigue gets burned off in Telegram, while science and innovation get drilled down on and fleshed out in advance.

Adding a Twitter feed (follow @gillmorgang) pushes Likes and retweets into the mix. The live recording stream generates Facebook Watch Parties and additional comments. An edited version here on TechCrunch adds this related commentary. But where’s the newsletter for all these live pieces?

Perhaps the answer goes back to the Jetpack? It may not be the Jetpack we are looking for, but rather the components that make up this stream as a service. A Jetpack offers the dream of instant teleportation without the traffic jams or being polite about your Uber driver’s musical taste. Zoom already offers some of that promise, where saving the commute opens up hours in your day. Zoom-enabled shopping and delivery management will go a long way.

As Donovan presciently proclaimed, Electrical Banana gonna to be the very next phase. My electric newsletter is the perfect definition of a pipe dream. It’s not so much as when it’s going to get here as what.

__________________

The Gillmor Gang — Frank Radice, Michael Markman, Keith Teare, Denis Pombriant, Brent Leary, and Steve Gillmor . Recorded live Friday, November 20, 2020.

Produced and directed by Tina Chase Gillmor @tinagillmor

@fradice, @mickeleh, @denispombriant, @kteare, @brentleary, @stevegillmor, @gillmorgang

For more, subscribe to the Gillmor Gang Newsletter and join the backchannel here on Telegram.

The Gillmor Gang on Facebook … and here’s our sister show G3 on Facebook.

The Last of Us Is Getting a TV Show, Which Seems Redundant

By Julie Muncy
HBO is turning the wildly popular game into a series.

The New Demon's Souls Remake Tries Too Hard to Be Realistic

By Julie Muncy
The PlayStation 5 reboot, like Shadow of the Colossus before it, loses the visual language of the original, undoing its magic.

Snapchat launches a TikTok-like feed called Spotlight, kick-started by paying creators

By Sarah Perez

After taking on TikTok with music-powered features last month, Snapchat this morning is officially launching a dedicated place within its app where users can watch short, entertaining videos in a vertically scrollable, TikTok-like feed. This new feature, called Spotlight, will showcase the community’s creative efforts, including the videos now backed by music, as well as other Snaps users may find interesting.

Snapchat says its algorithms will work to surface the most engaging Snaps to display to each user on a personalized basis.

To do so, it will rank the Snaps in the new feed using a combination of factors, like how many other people found a particular Snap interesting, how long people spent watching it, if it was favorited or shared with friends, and more. The algorithms will also consider negative factors, like if a viewer skipped watching the Snap quickly, for example. Over time, the feed will become tailored to the individual user based on their own interactions, preferences, and favorites. This is a similar system to what TikTok uses for its “For You” feed.

Image Credits: Snap

However, on TikTok, only users with public profiles can have their videos hit the “For You” feed. Spotlight, meanwhile, can feature Snaps from users with both private or public accounts. These Snaps can be sent to Spotlight directly or posted to Our Story. The company says the Snaps from the private accounts will be featured in an unattributed fashion — that is, no name will be attached to the content. There will also be no way to comment on these Snaps or message the creator, Snapchat explains.

Users who are over 18 can opt in to public profiles in order to have their names displayed, which allows them to build a following. But while this allows users to private and directly reply to the creators, there are no public comment mechanisms on Spotlight.

That’s a different setup than on TikTok and gives Snapchat a way to avoid the much larger hassle of handling comment moderation.

The Spotlight feed itself, though, is moderated. The company says all Snaps that appear on the new feed will have to adhere to Snapchat’s Community Guidelines, which prohibit the spread of false information (including conspiracy theories), misleading content, hate speech, explicit or profane content, bullying, harassment, violence, and other toxic content. The Snaps must also adhere to Snapchat’s new Spotlight Guidelines, Terms of Service, and Spotlight Terms.

Image Credits: Snap

The Spotlight Guidelines specify what sort of content Snapchat wants, the format for the Snaps, and other rules. For example, they state the Snaps should be vertical videos with sound up to 60 seconds in length. They should also include a #topic hashtag and should make use of Snapchat’s Creative Tools like Captions, Sounds, Lenses or GIFs, if possible, The Snaps have to be appropriate for a 13+ audience, as well.

Captions are a new feature, designed for use in Spotlight. Also new is a continuous shooting mode for longer Snaps and the ability to trim singular Snaps.

The Snaps can also only use the licensed music from Snapchat’s own Sounds library and must feature original content, not content repurposed from somewhere else on the internet . That could limit accounts that repost internet memes, which tend draw large subscriber bases on rival platforms, like Instagram and TikTok.

In addition, Snaps in Spotlight won’t disappear from being surfaced in the feed unless the creator chooses to delete them.

Users will be alerted to the new Spotlight feature when they return to Snapchat following Monday’s launch. Afterward, they’ll be able to take Snaps as usual then choose whether they want to send them to their friends, to their Story, to Snap Map, or now to Spotlight.

Image Credits: Snap

The feed itself will be accessible through a prominent new fifth tab on the Snapchat home screen’s main navigation, and is designated with a Play icon.

To encourage users to publish to Spotlight, the company will distribute over $1 million USD every day to Snapchat users (16 and up) who create the top Snaps on Spotlight. This will continue through the end of 2020. The earnings will be determined by Snapchat’s proprietary algorithm that rewards users based on the total number of unique views a Snap gets per day (calculated using Pacific Time), as compared with others on the platform.

The company says it expects many users to earn money from this fund each day, but those with the most views will earn more than others. It will also monitor this feed for fraud, it warns.

With the music licensing aspects already ironed out, Snapchat is now looking to leverage the over 4 billion Snaps created by its users every day to power the new Spotlight feed. This move represents Snapchat’s biggest attempt at taking on TikTok to date — and one that it’s willing to kickstart with direct payments, too. That will likely encourage plenty of participation among Snapchat’s young user base, given they’re already using the app on a regular basis. And once posting to Spotlight becomes a habit, Snapchat could have a viable competitor on its hands, at least among the younger demographic that favors its app.

Its biggest disadvantage, of course, is that it has struggled to reach beyond its young user base. That’s something TikTok has done better with, by comparison. The Wall St. Journal last week noted that TikTok teens were often following accounts from senior citizens, for instance, and the AARP had earlier reported TikTok had attracted a middle-aged crowd, as well.

Snapchat says Spotlight is live today on both iOS and Android in the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the U.K., Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, and France, with more countries to come soon.

Hulu UX teardown: 5 user experience fails and how to fix them

By Steve O'Hear

Hulu is the first major streaming platform to offer a social watching experience. And with most major league sports now being allowed to resume behind closed doors, Hulu’s combined proposition with ESPN will likely help entertain the service’s 30+ million users over the winter months.

But users have a surplus in choice of streaming services right now, so how will Hulu stay competitive?

With the help of UX expert Peter Ramsey from Built for Mars, we’re going to give Hulu an Extra Crunch UX teardown, demonstrating five ways it could improve its overall user experience. These include easy product comparisons, consistent widths, proportionate progress bars and other suggestions.

Comparing features inside packages

If your product/service has different tiers/versions, ensure that the differences between these options are obvious and easy to compare.

The fail: Hulu has four different packages, but the listed features are inconsistent between options, making it incredibly difficult to compare. Instead of using bullet points, they’ve buried the benefits within paragraphs.

The fix: Break the paragraphs down into bullet points. Then, make sure that the bullet points are worded consistently between options.

 

Steve O’Hear: I’m really surprised this one got past the marketing department. Not a lot to say except that I would argue that when UX, including layout and copywriting decisions, become decoupled from business goals and customer wants, a company is in trouble. Would you agree that’s what has happened here?

Peter Ramsey: Honestly, this happens all the time. I think it’s just a symptom of the designers building things that look nice, not things that work nicely. I probably raise this issue on about one-third of the private audits I do — it’s that common.

Keep a consistent width

Try to maintain a consistent page width throughout a single journey — unless there’s a major benefit to changing the width.

The fail: During the Hulu sign-up process, the page width doubles at a totally unnecessary point. This is disorienting for the user, with no obvious rationale.

The fix: Hulu has a pretty consistent first-half of their journey and then it drops the ball. I’d redesign these “extra-wide” pages to be the default width.

Pokémon Go Is Finally Raising Its Level Cap

By Kyle Orland, Ars Technica
The upcoming “Beyond” update will bring 10 additional levels plus new Pokémon and a seasons system.

Watch Dogs: Legion Tackles Dystopia—That It's a Part Of

By Reid McCarter
Developer Ubisoft points the finger at the underlying causes in the game, but stops short of naming and shaming. Because it'd have to shame itself, too.

'Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity' Is an Uneasy Mix of Two Very Different Worlds

By Cecilia D'Anastasio
Nintendo's highly anticipated hack-and-slash crossover misses too much of what makes Zelda: Breath of the Wild a masterpiece.

Will Zoom Apps be the next hot startup platform?

By Ron Miller

When Zoom announced Zapps last month — the name has since been wisely changed to Zoom Apps — VC Twitter immediately began speculating that Zoom could make the leap from successful video conferencing service to becoming a launching pad for startup innovation. It certainly caught the attention of former TechCrunch writer and current investor at Signal Fire Josh Constine, who tweeted that “Zoom’s new ‘Zapps’ app platform will crush or king-make lots of startups.”

Zoom's new "Zapps" app platform will crush or king-make lots of startups. https://t.co/HYtxmaO91R

Dark day for virtual event ticketing apps, since Zoom is doing that itself

Big day for whiteboards & task managers, since it's leaving those to platform partners pic.twitter.com/KCYRDteDIi

— Josh Constine -SignalFire (@JoshConstine) October 14, 2020

As Zoom usage exploded during the pandemic and it became a key tool for business and education, the idea of using a video conferencing platform to build a set of adjacent tooling makes a lot of sense. While the pandemic will come to an end, we have learned enough about remote work that the need for tools like Zoom will remain long after we get the all-clear to return to schools and offices.

We are already seeing promising startups like Mmhmm, Docket and ClassEdu built with Zoom in mind, and these companies are garnering investor attention. In fact, some investors believe Zoom could be the next great startup ecosystem.

Moving beyond video conferencing

Salesforce paved the way for Zoom more than a decade ago when it opened up its platform to developers and later launched the AppExchange as a distribution channel. Both were revolutionary ideas at the time. Today we are seeing Zoom building on that.

Jim Scheinman, founding managing partner at Maven Ventures and an early Zoom investor (who is credited with naming the company) says he always saw the service as potentially a platform play. “I’ve been saying publicly, before anyone realized it, that Zoom is the next great open platform on which to build billion-dollar businesses,” Scheinman told me.

He says he talked with Zoom leadership about opening up the platform to external developers several years ago before the IPO. It wasn’t really a priority at that point, but COVID-19 pushed the idea to the forefront. “Post-IPO and COVID, with the massive growth of Zoom on both the enterprise and consumer side, it became very clear that an app marketplace is now a critical growth area for Zoom, which creates a huge opportunity for nascent startups to scale,” he said.

Jason Green, founder and managing director at Emergence Capital (another early investor in Zoom and Salesforce) agreed: “Zoom believes that adding capabilities to the core Zoom platform to make it more functional for specific use cases is an opportunity to build an ecosystem of partners similar to what Salesforce did with AppExchange in the past.”

Building the platform

Before a platform can succeed with developers, it requires a critical mass of users, a bar that Zoom has clearly passed. It also needs a set of developer tools to connect to the various services on the platform. Then the substantial user base acts as a ready market for the startup. Finally, it requires a way to distribute those creations in a marketplace.

Zoom has been working on the developer components and brought in industry veteran Ross Mayfield, who has been part of two collaboration startups in his career, to run the developer program. He says that the Zoom Apps development toolset has been designed with flexibility to allow developers to build applications the way that they want.

For starters, Zoom has created WebViews, a way to embed functionality into an application like Zoom. To build WebViews in Zoom, the company created a JS Kit, which in combination with existing Zoom APIs enables developers to build functionality inside the Zoom experience. “So we’re giving developers a lot of flexibility in what experience they create with WebViews plus using our very rich set of API’s that are part of the existing platform and creating some new API’s to create the experience,” he said.

The crowd goes wild for Yiming

By Rita Liao

There’s no shortage of TikTok coverage in the news today as the app’s fate in the U.S. hangs in the air.

What the press doesn’t always address is how TikTok gets here — how did a Chinese startup seize the lucrative short-video market in the West before Google and Facebook? What did it do differently from its Chinese predecessors who tried global expansion to little avail? Matthew Brennan’s new book “Attention Factory” set out to answer these questions by tracing ByteDance’s trajectory from an underdog despised by Chinese tech workers and investors to the envy of Silicon Valley and the target of the White House.

Matthew has spent years working closely with China’s tech firms, not only analyzing them but also using their products as a curious local, experiences that informed his meticulously researched and entertaining book. Interwoven with captivating anecdotes of TikTok, rare photos of ByteDance’s original team, incisive analysis and telling infographics, “Attention Factory” is an essential read for those looking to understand how ideas in the American and Chinese internet worlds collided, coincided and converged throughout the 2010s.

TikTok is a rare example of a Chinese internet service that has gained worldwide success. Before expanding overseas, ByteDance had already proven the short-video model in China through Douyin, the homegrown version of TikTok.

The excerpt below follows a high-growth period of Douyin, detailing how it gained around 200 million daily active users within a year: a loyal creator community, viral memes, algorithmic recommendation and aggressive ad spending.

Before long, the Chinese startup would replicate that growth playbook in the rest of the world, tweaking it here and there to make it work.


Hundreds of fashionably dressed young people were arriving at 751 D.PARK, an expanse of industrial plants redeveloped into a hip culture venue in northeast Beijing. They were clad in baseball caps, brightly colored dresses, loose-fitting hip-hop style streetwear and limited-edition sneakers. The site had been transformed into something akin to the stage of the talent competition “American Idol,” spanning two floors filled with strobe lighting, high-volume music and trendy backdrops. This was an exclusive party — three hundred top Douyin creators coming together to celebrate the app’s one-year anniversary.

The online stars, billed as the “new generation of internet celebrities,” weren’t there to just socialize and enjoy themselves. Every influencer was aware of the unspoken competition to derive the best content from that night. They were all fighting to achieve a higher level of superstardom and the medium of battle was short video.

The influencers who knew each other gathered in small groups as their assistants tirelessly captured fifteen-second videos of their carefully crafted skits. Loners roamed around the dance floor, absorbed in finding the ideal lighting for their lip-syncing selfie videos. Lesser-known influencers nervously approached more famous ones, proposing to record a dance together to potentially tap into their peers’ following. Loud hip-hop music kept playing in the background as creators hurried to touch up the videos they had just shot. Once the editing was done, they uploaded their works and anxiously waited for the app’s algorithms to judge who would grab more eyeballs.

Dance teams took to the stage to display their skills. The crowd bopped their heads back and forth as rappers attempted to impress with clever lyrics. Later as the hosts were midway through giving out awards, a wave of noise erupted from the back of the crowd interrupting the proceedings.

It was Yiming. Dressed in a black baseball cap and gray T-shirt and accompanied by Lidong. The audience went wild — the CEO had decided to drop in unannounced! Immediately he was bombarded with requests to take pictures and videos. As those around him whooped and cried out wildly, the entrepreneur simply smiled and kept his hands calmly by his side, an awkward 34-year-old engineer type among the hyper fashionable, mostly teenage hip-hop crowd.

Yiming and Lidong appear at a Douyin promotional event marking the app’s first anniversary in Sept 2017

Yiming and Lidong appear at a Douyin promotional event marking the app’s first anniversary in Sept 2017.

He already knew from looking at the data, but this was confirmation in the flesh — Douyin had built a robust community, with powerful momentum and was on the verge of doing something special.

The breakout

October 1st marks the beginning of “Golden Week,” a seven-day-long official Chinese national holiday. Periods like these are big opportunities for China’s internet industry. People’s behaviors change for a week; many find more time for entertainment and to try new things.

Over October, Douyin’s daily users doubled from seven to 14 million; two months later, they reached 30 million. Over those three months, the 30-day retention rates jumped from eight to over 20%, the average time spent in the app soared from 20 to 40 minutes. It was as if some magic rocket fuel had suddenly been added, boosting every key metric. What had changed?

The answer was Zhu Wenjia. Zhu Wenjia, hired from Baidu in 2015, was widely considered to be one of the top-three best people in the entire company when it came to algorithm technology. He ran one of ByteDance’s most capable engineering teams and had recently been assigned to work on Douyin. The team’s work harnessing the full power of ByteDance’s content recommendation back end led directly to the astounding October results.

The better the metrics, the more resources ByteDance placed behind the app as it now had good retention and was fast-tracked into becoming a strategically important product. Suddenly support was coming in from all over the company — people, money, user traffic, celebrity endorsements, brand collaborations, and most importantly, full integration and optimization of ByteDance’s powerful recommendation engine. Chinese stars with massive fan bases such as Yang Mi, Lu Han, Kris Wu, and Angelababy opened accounts, joining in publicity campaigns, and a nationwide “Douyin Party” event roadshow was planned. Douyin had become the hottest upcoming app in China.

ByteDance ramped up the investment in all three short-video products, including Douyin. People, resources and advertising budget were all raised, leading an industry insider to comment later: “The sudden rise of Douyin wasn’t without good cause. Yiming threw more money at this than anyone and dared to hunt down and grab the best people.”

Commercialization began with the first three brand ad campaigns paid for by Airbnb, Harbin Beer and Chevrolet. Douyin’s advertising business would soon make rapid progress. ByteDance already had hundreds of sales and marketing staff who would shortly be able to add Douyin’s advertisement inventory to their sales targets.

Yiming revealed in a later interview that the company had made it compulsory for everyone on the management team to make their own Douyin videos with goals to gain a certain number of likes or suffer forfeits such as doing push-ups. It wasn’t good enough to just look at charts and data; management needed to understand short videos from a creator’s perspective also. Yiming had watched Douyin videos for a long time but creating his own was “a big step for me,” he admitted.

Yiming’s personal Douyin account (3277469). Seventeen videos at the time of writing, including clips from his global travels

Yiming’s personal Douyin account (3277469). Seventeen videos at the time of writing, including clips from his global travels.

‘Oh well … karma’s a bitch’

The video opened to a young woman yawning, dressed in pajamas with messy morning hair. Wearing glasses and with no signs of makeup, she casually lip-syncs the line, “Oh well … karma’s a bitch” and throws a silk scarf into the air. Suddenly loud background music explosively begins. In an instant, she transforms into a glamorous fashion model, almost unrecognizable from a second before. A new meme had taken hold of Douyin.

“Karma’s a bitch” was a new version of the original “Don’t judge me” challenge that had propelled Musical.ly to top the U.S. app store three years earlier. The meme was another breakthrough for Douyin; People loved watching the shocking transformations. Compilations of the meme’s videos started popping up online. In particular, the makeup skills of some women left many men in disbelief. “Karma’s a bitch” left an impact on mainstream culture and gained widespread recognition and publicity, even making waves out into English language global media.

Douyin was also increasingly hypercharging the popularity of catchy pop songs with strong hooks. In late 2017, a track known as the “Ci-li-ci-li song” exploded on Douyin. The song’s catchy energy was undeniably infectious. Yet, it was the novel set of dance moves that had become associated with the track’s hook that turned the music into a meme and dramatically amplified its success.

The track had actually been released back in 2013 by Romanian reggae and dancehall artist Matteo, under the name “Panama.” Four years after its debut, the song’s unexpected and explosive spike in popularity led the singer to hastily organize an Asia tour to capitalize on his track’s sudden fame. A YouTube video shows him meeting Chinese fans at the Hangzhou airport who demonstrate their moves to him in the arrivals hall. With the dance having been created entirely in China, the bewildered artist finds himself in the awkward situation of not knowing how to follow the moves to the song for which he is famous.

Perhaps the most reliable indicator of the platform’s increasing influence on society was how the name, Douyin, had started to enter everyday colloquial vernacular, becoming synonymous with short video. The meaning of “Let’s shoot a Douyin!” needed no explanation.

Make it rain

ByteDance knew they now had a winning formula. Retention was good, word of mouth was excellent, a large, vibrant community of video creators had been fostered. The recommendation engine was doing its job of surfacing the best content. Douyin’s fire was already burning bright; now, it was time to pour gasoline on things and spend, spend, spend.

The holiday week of Chinese New Year is another unique annual opportunity for app promotions. Hundreds of millions travel home to be reunited with their families and find themselves with free time to relax. An entertainment app like Douyin was the perfect way to pass the time; word of mouth spread naturally between family members.

To step up its efforts further, Douyin directly gave out money to users by running a Chinese New Year “lucky money” campaign. Users could collect small cash amounts in special videos by tapping on the “red packet” icons — a digital manifestation of cash-filled envelopes people give to each other during the holiday. ByteDance also went all out, spending wildly, buying adverts and promotions across major online channels to acquire users, spending about 4 million yuan a day (over half a million dollars). The combination of all these effects sent Douyin to the top of the Chinese app store charts. Various reports stated Douyin’s daily users jumped from around 40 to 70 million over the February to March period covering Chinese New Year, with some of the top accounts seeing their follower numbers quadruple.

A chart mapping the progress of Douyin, from zero to 200 million daily active users, during the first two years of operation.

A chart mapping the progress of Douyin, from zero to 200 million daily active users, during the first two years of operation.

 


This article is an excerpt from “Attention Factory: The Story of TikTok and China’s ByteDance,” which was written by Matthew Brennan and edited by TechCrunch reporter Rita Liao, who wrote the introduction to this post.

The Adorable, Against-All-Odds Charm of Zoo Tycoon

By Paige Lyman
A thriving community of fans swap stories, strategies, and their own zoos every day—and keep this 2001 game alive in the most heartwarming way.

Pathologic Hits Different During a Real Pandemic

By Eric Ravenscraft
One of the first quests in the 2005 survival game is to prove to the people in charge that a pandemic is real, so that they'll do something about it.

How esports can save colleges

By Walter Thompson
Brandon Byrne Contributor
Brandon Byrne is the CEO and co-founder of Opera Event, a technology platform that connects content creators, teams and sponsors to one another programmatically and at scale. He was previously the CFO of Team Liquid and VP of Finance and Administration at Curse.

A few months ago, I wrote a piece about esports and the Olympics after sitting on a panel discussing whether, as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, esports had an opportunity to work with the International Olympic Committee. After careful consideration and research, my conclusion was basically, “I think that the Olympics need esports a whole lot more than esports needs the Olympics.”

I was surprised by some of the data I uncovered in the course of researching the Olympics piece, specifically on audiences for international, professional and collegiate sports. I observed that while the esports model isn’t as mature as in traditional sports, esports actually garnered close to the same level of viewership, and the audience was growing astronomically. I couldn’t help but wonder how long this phenomenon would go unacknowledged by the institutions that might benefit most from it.

Enter colleges’ and universities’ flirtation with esports: There are currently more than 170 collegiate varsity gaming programs in NCAA Division I, and the number of clubs is even higher. So even as institutions investment in esports, there are still many misunderstood and overlooked aspects of the potential to drive value (and even revenue) in the collegiate esports space.

College in the 21st century

The college experience today is very different than it was 50 years ago. The pace of change outside of institutions is ever-accelerating, often leaving colleges struggling to keep up. Technology, students’ interests, evolving economies and workplaces, and changes in cultural norms have left colleges and universities in a place of less relevance than at many points in the past.

The same can be said of college sports: Outside forces have eroded a once-near-hegemonic source of collegiate pride, cultural power, recruitment, alumni engagement and, in some cases, revenue.

I did a quick review of the audience for the biggest NCAA events in the world; the Football Bowl Subdivision Bowl Championship and the NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament.

pre-championship viewers FBS bowls

Image Credits: Brandon Byrne

post-championship viewers

Image Credits: Brandon Byrne

Look at the average viewership of the big bowl games before the championship system went into effect in 2015, as well as after. Above, you see the trend line for viewership for the various big bowl viewership as well as an average. While there are certainly occasional spikes, the best case you could make here is that the product is flat — when you isolate the trend line for both, here is the result:

average viewership all bowls

Image Credits: Brandon Byrne

In the aggregate, the trend seems mostly downward.

Look at the same trends in viewership for the NCAA Final Four — the early semi-final, the late semi-final and finally the championship game.

final four viewership

Image Credits: Brandon Byrne

They look rather similar. So, while collegiate sports still have a massive following, there are two concerning issues here. First, the audience isn’t growing at all; in fact, it appears to be slightly contracting. Secondly, the audience is aging, making collegiate sports less relevant to younger people. While an older audience is still a valuable source of alumni donations and ancillary revenue, it doesn’t exactly align with another core target demographic: potential college students.

Now despite this, there is data that suggests that schools with elite academic departments do enjoy a phenomenon known as the “Flutie effect,” named after Doug Flutie, a quarterback for Boston College whose exciting performance on the gridiron was credited with boosting BC applications. An article in Forbes breaking down an HBS study goes into the phenomenon more deeply than we can here.

Granted, much of the data is from a few years ago, when college sports were perhaps more relevant, but the point is broadly the same: Having an elite program in an activity students enjoy benefits the institutions that sponsor and promote them. But what happens when enthusiasm for those activities among the student body is waning? One idea is to explore involvement in what the students of today are interested in.

As a comparison to FBS football (maxed out at 35 million viewers) and the NCAA Final Four (maxed out at 28 million), Riot Games’ Mid-Season Invitational event for League of Legends had a total viewership of 60 million people. In second place is the Intel Extreme Masters tournament in Katowice with 46 million people. While precise demographic data isn’t readily available, it stands to reason that the latter two events skew younger than the former two.

A few caveats, as these are not precisely apples-to-apples comparisons: These esports events are broken up over a number of days and encompass a significant number of matches — comparable to March Madness, perhaps — and the content is consumed in different ways. Much of the NCAA’s content is presented on television, some of which is on paid, premium channels. Esports events are broadcast on Twitch and YouTube via streams for free.

But the thing to understand is that esports audiences are growing at a 15%-16% year-over-year clip and it commands a worldwide audience, meaning its total addressable market (TAM) is MUCH bigger. The NCAA events are not likely to draw serious audiences outside of North America.

COVID-19

In the context of the pandemic, colleges are hamstrung by students’ inability to engage in a college experience in-person, which is one of the primary reasons one goes to college. Networking, developing new friends and having new experiences are all a part of the collegiate draw, none of which work as well from students’ parents’ living rooms. Similarly, collegiate sports as we know them have essentially ceased to exist, along with their functions of institutional pride, marketing and revenue. The NCAA Tournament was canceled in March of 2020 and there is no sign that it, or any other sport, will be back anytime soon.

Esports, on the other hand, are thriving in this context, thanks mostly to their ability to offer remote competition and viewing. Esports tournaments can isolate audiences, teams and even referees to allow for safe content creation and consumption.

Esports and college

Believe it or not, esports is a better fit for college than it is for the pros. I won’t go into all of the details here, but I actually wrote a separate article about why the pro sports model is NOT a good one for esports. In this article we talk about intellectual property, who owns the league in esports and how all of the entities make money. The biggest problem is, in pro sports, the teams own the league and can then act in the best interest of all of the teams. In esports, the league is usually owned or regulated by the publisher of the video game, meaning you have hands in the monetization pie in a way that pro sports doesn’t have.

The interesting thing about this is that college athletics actually has the same problem and has found a way to mitigate that. The athletes get their scholarships, and the schools, their athletic conference, and the NCAA itself all own a piece of the pie that gets packaged and sold for distribution to the ESPNs and Fox Sports of the world.

This is a much better model for esports. It’s unlikely that any group that “owned” football IP would tell the Dallas Cowboys how to market their team, what their cut is and how it will be distributed. This process happens all the time in college, though. In fact, in order for everyone to get their seat at the table, you HAVE to work all of this out so that the schools make some money (equivalent to a team), the conference makes their money (equivalent to the league) and the NCAA makes their money (equivalent to the publisher themselves). If the chain breaks down at any point, then the whole process grinds to a halt and nobody makes money.

I mention this in my article about the Olympics. The IOC is used to having full autonomy over how the Olympic Games are broadcast, which events are part of the games, who is eligible and who isn’t, etc. There is no chance this would be the case if the Olympics took on esports. The publisher would absolutely wield an incredible amount of influence over how the games are portrayed, broadcast, judged and the like. The IOC isn’t used to that. In college, that’s just a typical Saturday afternoon.

College admission is down and not just because of COVID-19. Even before the pandemic, colleges were trying to find their footing with potential students as people reevaluate the college experience. Forbes wrote back in 2019 that college enrollments were down two million students in that decade. Add onto that the preliminary data we are getting on the effect of COVID on colleges, we could see enrollment in 2020 down anywhere from 5%-20%.

Student enrollment at US colleges has been declining since 2011

Image Credits: Brandon Byrne

The outlook

For colleges, it’s not great. Revenue is massively down, with even stalwarts like Harvard University hemorrhaging cash. With enrollment down before the pandemic, we have reached a point where colleges and universities have to adapt to survive.

The good news is, I believe that esports could be an opportunity to do just that. Colleges are diving into esports, with 115 different programs offering scholarships for esports and club programs are growing even faster. Certainly, it will help attract students, but monetization in esports is really tricky.

It’s critical that colleges and universities get expert advice on how to create an ecosystem that ultimately compensates all of the stakeholders, including the college themselves. It also will require universities to move quickly and get on board with a model that is still being formed in real time. The coronavirus pandemic isn’t going away anytime soon, but I think there will be many colleges that will. The time to move is now.

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