Facebook Introduces Standalone Gaming App, Looking to “Capture Deeper Engagement”
Back on April 20th, Facebook (FB) announced the launch of a dedicated gaming app for Android devices (FB says the iOS version is pending approval). The standalone mobile application is the company’s most ambitious endeavor to date in its attempt to capture interactive streaming market share, a space currently dominated by Twitch and YouTube Gaming. Much like its competitors, Facebook Gaming gives registered users the chance to create content, watch others play and connect with fellow viewers.
Howie Long-Short: Facebook was an early leader in the digital gaming space with the successful releases of games like FarmVille and Words with Friends (back in 2009), but Tom Richardson (SVP of Strategy at Mercury Intermedia & a digital media professor in Columbia University's Sports Management program) explained that with the industry having trended towards “more immersive and expansive gaming environments” (think: games that required more horsepower than a tab within a mobile app could provide) the company has since lost “tens of millions of minutes worth of engagement” to competing platforms. In the Q1 ’20, Facebook Gaming users watched just 1/6 as many hours as those consumed on Twitch and 1/2 the number spent on YouTube Gaming.
Among the reasons Facebook's market share slipped away during the 2010s was the company allowed its user experience to lag behind. While Twitch, YouTube Gaming and Mixer all introduced gaming-specific applications, Facebook Gaming was just a tab within the main FB platform. Richardson says that from a digital product standpoint, “there’s a big difference between including interactive streaming as an engagement function within an existing app and creating a standalone dedicated app with greater functionality.” The hope is that by developing a better, more robust user experience Facebook Gaming can recapture some of the lost engagement. Of course, they’ll still need to deliver on both the experience and content ends to increase viewership.
Facebook hopes its Gaming app will appeal to casual fans as well as the hardcore gamer, but it’s fair to wonder if that’s feasible - or even worth attempting. If FB focuses its efforts on driving viewers of the “casual stuff, it won’t be enough to satisfy the esports and streaming audience” (the ones consuming all of the minutes) and it’s hard to imagine a game of Candy Crush commanding engagement levels comparable to the games found the “more immersive worlds of Twitch and YouTube Gaming.”
Interactive gaming is a “battle amongst the gargantuans (think: Facebook + Google, Amazon and Microsoft).” With each tech-giant maintaining essentially the same agenda, Facebook Gaming will need to find ways to differentiate its product if it’s going to claw back market share. One functionality that could potentially give Zuckerberg's company a leg up is a ‘go-live’ feature that allows users to stream gameplay with just a few taps on their mobile phone. While likely to appeal to the novice gamer who wants to become the next Ninja, it remains to be seen if there is any interest - from friends or fans alike - in watching anything less than the best compete (no different than it is in pro sports).
Signing big-name talent and mainstream personalities is a strategy as old as the hills within the content game. While one can't blame Facebook for going down that road -“all of these platforms lean on marketing and influencers to get people to take a look at them” - there's certainly no guarantee that bringing in the likes of Ronda Rousey and Steve Aoki is going to change viewer behaviors. Microsoft is paying Ninja between $20 million to $30 million annually and according to reports Mixer’s audience is “barely growing.”
If there’s a reason to believe Facebook will climb from 3rd in minutes consumed to surpass YouTube Gaming or Twitch it’s that “roughly 1/3 of their 2.5 billion users worldwide are already watching gaming content and they have a huge amount of data on those individuals.” Richardson explained with that kind of reach and knowledge (along with all of the social elements that they have at their disposal) it’s “reasonable to conclude a standalone experience as well as a more concerted marketing effort would enable them to earn back more of those minutes and reclaim market share.”
Facebook’s “core business is all about capturing deeper engagement” (think: more data collection) and stepping up their efforts in the gaming arena should help the company fight erosion within the Gen-Z demographic (among their biggest concerns), but Richardson thinks FB's increased commitment to gaming is at least partially driven by the anticipated rise of social VR. "Gaming is one of the big canaries in the VR coal mine and remember, the company spent $2 billion on the purchase of Oculus VR back in 2014. They're playing the long game."
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