At its recent F8 annual developer event in San Jose, California, Facebook doubled down on its gaming initiatives, announcing the progress it has made with Instant Games, Gameroom, and Gaming Video. That’s all part of its vision to become the place where people play, watch, and share games.
The numbers it shared show that Facebook remains a massive platform for gamers. It said that gamers had played Instant Games 1.5 billion times in the past 90 days, and that there are now more than 800 million people playing games on Facebook or playing while logged into Facebook, up 23 percent from 650 million a year ago.
Now Facebook is going after esports and the gamers who create things and then stream to audiences. I spoke about the trends in making esports and game videos more social with Guy Cross, strategic partnerships for the Americas, and Stephen Ellis, strategic partnership manager, both at Facebook. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
GamesBeat: Tell us what you do.
Guy Cross: We’ve been doing announcements and releasing products around video for a while, for the past year. This is to provide some foundational context about how we see the ecosystem evolving, how we see us playing a role in it and where we’re going.
I’ve been at Facebook about seven years. I’ve been on the games team almost the entire time. Prior to that I worked on video partnerships with TV and film companies. I’ve worked on video on and off for some time.
Stephen Ellis: I’ve been at Facebook about a year, working alongside Guy’s team, focused on gaming video. Before that I have a background in esports. I played professionally. I captained two of the most prominent western teams for about four years and competed in world championships for League of Legends. I’m not anywhere near as good as I was, though, so don’t hold me accountable for 1v1 or anything. [laughs]
GamesBeat: So gaming video is big?
Cross: Obviously gaming video is already a big experience in the industry. 665 million people watching gaming video of various types around the world. It’s fueled by a bigger gamer community, though, who aren’t just players. They’re content creators. Their content is consumed voraciously.
Video is becoming more central to our partnership work, and so given the trends and the importance of video to our community and our partners, we set out to learn the space. It was, at first, a pretty foreign area for us. We wanted to make sure we spent time learning. We spent a good deal of our team talking with leaders, partners, augmenting our team with some experts from the industry, talking to our community.
Basically there are three principal lessons we learned along the way. These have become the guiding principles for our platform strategy. It’s all around thinking about and serving the individual constituencies that make up the ecosystem. We need to make video easier for people, and make it more rewarding. We think success is going to be determined by how well we facilitate community – for gamers, for esports organizations, for everyone in the mix.
Gaming video is very different from other forms of video entertainment. It grew up on the internet. That’s important, because real time interactivity was baked into the experience from the start. That changes the dynamic and the relationship between the people who make the videos and the people who consume them. But that same rich interactivity and the rampant growth that digitally native led to also introduced a lot of complexity. There are so many different people and groups – what we call constituencies – that are all broadcasting, playing, and interacting for different reasons. Likewise, if you’re a viewer, trying to piece together all the gaming content and social experiences across all the available platforms today—it’s hard to do that in a satisfying way.
We were wrestling with how we can make a more cohesive experience, improve the community around video. We realized that coming at this with a one-size-fits-all approach wouldn’t work. We started to break things into different constituencies.
GamesBeat: How do you look at all games?
Ellis: This is a framework, based on the concept of a pyramid, which helps us address different motivations and needs, all the different constituencies in the ecosystem. As Guy was saying, we couldn’t take a one-size approach, because it wouldn’t work.
At the very top here you have esports. There’s a common misconception within the gaming industry that gaming video is all about esports. It’s not. There are other constituencies. You’ve seen a lot of buzz around esports in the last few years, of course – it represents about 14-31 percent of live gaming consumption across platforms – but there are all these other constituencies to address. Developers are making trailer drops and things like that, or making community-based content to interact with their players.
Cross: More and more, their videos are being used outside of gameplay to connect and engage with their communities. It’s a powerful form of storytelling, and also a very powerful marketing tool. Their goals are, in many cases—when they think about marketing they’re trying to get people to install and play and buy their games. Video can be an important vehicle to do that. And then there’s also the entertainment side.
At Facebook we’re trying to enlighten the executive ranks about how big this is and could be in the future. We’ve embarked on this set of field trips – we take executives to esports events and other gaming community events to get them excited, get them to understand this is bigger than they might have originally thought. It’s centered on community.
You heard a lot about community in Mark’s keynote. We’re excited about this on the game team. We’ve been talking about community for a while, ways we can improve the Facebook experience – pages, groups, Messenger, events – for our gaming community. Now the whole company’s getting behind this. It’s helping put a lot more support behind what we’re doing. It’s aligned with what they want. It’s a fun time for games right now.
Ellis: Talking about entertainment, as I was saying, it’s not just about esports. There’s a massive constituency of creators – we call them entertainers – people who just go live for a living. We’ve been working a creator that goes by StoneMountain64 to shape the future of gaming video on Facebook. I’m not even a fan of the games he plays all the time, but he makes them really funny, if you tune in and watch. People like him need different things. They need us to help them grow an audience and provide interactivity tools.
These guys can’t just go and get a drink of water and leave their audience. The audience can just disappear. It’s a genuine concern. I used to do this in my downtime as a professional player. I’d stream back when I was at home in Scotland. There are all these challenges and intricacies that you don’t think about at first. You think it’s all rosy when you’re just sitting there playing video games and talking to people, but it’s not. We need to be cognizant of the challenges. That’s one of the lessons we learned as we’re building the future of game video.
GB: Is it possible to hand your stream over to someone else when you need a break from it?
Ellis: We’ve just started working with entertainers, and we’re getting all sorts of feedback. Every week we’re learning new things. That’s going to help us build. If that’s something they feel strongly about, we’ll listen to that.
Cross: We’re also trying to provide more monetization forms. If you have to take a break, what better way to use that than to make some money from it? We’ve been testing the ability for our partners to insert mid-reel ad breaks in their video, including live streams of their games. That gives them a way to step away, monetize, and come back. Hopefully with our targeting the ads are much more relevant.
The last part is something we feel especially excited by, because it’s an area where we’re clearly the leader. That’s the friends tier. Most platforms don’t think about this layer, but we think it’s incredibly important. People love to share the games they play. They want validation and feedback. They need sharing to be easy. They need control of privacy and the ability to manage their audience flexibly. They need their sharing and their consumption experiences to be consistent and available across all the platforms they play on, and that their friends enjoy content on.
We’ve been doing this for 10 years, as you know. Video presents its own unique challenges. We’ve made a lot of updates to our products to handle video, especially live video. We’re well on the way there, but with lots of work still to do. This is an area where we’ve already got our sharing tools on PC, console, web.
Ellis: We started with our Blizzard partnership last year, which was really exciting. It was a ground-breaking new social integration, where people could stream directly from the game client to people on Facebook. They had an audience already, which was really cool.
We’ve built on that. We announced at CES that we’re working with Nvidia to empower people in more than 400 games, so they can go live at the push of a button. It’s part of GeForce Experience, the software layer.
Cross: One important point about the friends layer, it’s not just the people you’re friends with on Facebook. It’s the people you’re connected to through Facebook groups related to games. A huge number of gaming groups on Facebook and the activity within them is related to games. We’re working on making it easy to share to specific groups when you’re live streaming or uploading your VOD highlights or whatever. When we say “friends,” we mean more than just friends. We mean everyone you’re connected to through groups.
There are about a billion people in groups right now, and a lot of that activity is around games. We haven’t yet served them as a community. You’ve followed Facebook and gaming for a while, I’m sure. I’ve been there a while. One thing I’m excited by, we’re finally thinking about the people who use Facebook to play with each other as a community we’re trying to support. Being able to share their groups and manage a group is critical there.
I mentioned updating our share tools to handle video, and live video in particular. One thing we need to do is create a way for people to share through our API. If you’re broadcasting from XSplit, say, we need to let you specify which groups you want to share to and manage the privacy and make it flexible. One day you may stream to yourself as you practice. Another time you might go public because you’re trying to start a business. Another time you might stream all day long to a hardcore set of your Facebook connections. We want to provide something flexible over time so you can change all that.
That’s what we’re announcing here: the ability to do just that. We feel that’s just the start of what we mean by taking these assets we have – pages, groups, Messenger, events, the social graph – and starting to update them so they can handle video and gaming communities much more thoughtfully.
Ellis: It’s early days. It’s not even just early days for us. We think it’s early days for gaming video overall. Every day we come in we’re excited, because we’re shaping the future of gaming video. We’re working with partners in esports. We have a long-standing relationship with developers. We’re working with guys like StoneMountain. As they work and collaborate with us, we’ll build the future of gaming video with them.
Cross: In the full presentation we explain how we’re building products. We give illustration of all the products that exist today – ad breaks, the control dialogs, all the desktop broadcasting tools.
GB: That’s a good match for what Twitch has been doing. Are you getting into the same feature set they have?
Ellis: The feedback from entertainers is that interactivity is incredibly important. We wanted to make that a lot easier for them.
GB: If there’s a feature set to match on competitive fronts, what about something like gifting from fans to entertainers? Is that happening?
Cross: We can’t comment on what’s in the works too much, but let’s just say that the interactivity we have today is just the start. We have reactions and commenting. We have ad breaks, which is a form of interaction. You’re interacting in some way with the entertainer by sticking through the commercial breaks and helping them generate revenue. But we’re definitely paying close attention to what’s happening. We’re also thinking about what we can do that’s different.
I’m excited by the innovation. I feel like Facebook coming into the market has lit a fire. It’s bringing attention to the fact that there’s a lot still to do here. We’re thinking very creatively and broadly about all the different forms of interactivity. What’s cool here—as you know, the gaming industry is the vanguard when it comes to taking advantage of new tech. Facebook obviously has big plans for video. We feel like we can help inform what we should be doing more broadly with video by leading with games.
We’re more aggressive about that than other teams inside Facebook. But the good news is we’re getting pretty good traction. The company is starting to realize that gaming is already doing these kinds of advanced interactions and people are building a business around it.
GB: Beam and Microsoft were talking about their very low-latency solution, so chat could keep up with the stream.
Cross: We have a partnership with Microsoft that ties to the whole Xbox and Windows 10 platforms. We have what you can call our SDK integrated into PC, mobile, and their console. We’ve been talking with them for some time and we’re impressed with what Beam has started doing and what they’re planning to do.
Where Facebook might be able to help is with things like scale – making this more available and more scalable. We’re used to dealing with a global audience, very large audiences. Hats off to them, because they’re doing some amazing stuff. I’m excited by how we can partner with those guys.
Ellis: If you’re an entertainer in someplace like the U.K., you want to make sure you’re interacting with your audience in real time. That’s one of the unique things about live game streaming that sets it apart from other forms of entertainment. I remember riffing with my fans all the time. They’d comment and go crazy about something, and I’d engage with that idea and say something, and the chat would go wild. That real time interactivity differentiates us from other forms of entertainment.
Cross: There are plenty of ways to improve the standard tech, whether it’s latency or video quality. The part we’re excited about—it needs to be good, but it doesn’t have to be amazing. It’s no value to me if I have low latency, but there’s no one engaging with my content. If my content is lost in a sea of other content, or there’s no community there, it doesn’t matter. I’ll deal with a couple of seconds of latency if I get great feedback, if I can feel like this is my community, if I get that validation I’m looking for.
We all have to figure this out. It’s still relatively new. There are some awesome examples of feature sets that are valuable and that are working, but it’s just the start. We have a lot of opportunities to make it better.
GB: Gifting seems to be something the Chinese are doing a lot with now.
Ellis: When I was an entertainer, in the past—trying to differentiate yourself from other entertainers is important. You want to stand out from the crowd. That all starts with interactivity, how you express and brand yourself as an entertainer. We know there’s a lot more we can do there to help people express themselves in different ways. We’re beginning to work on that. Desktop broadcasting is one of the early indications of the work we’re doing there, helping improve the interactivity between both the entertainer and the viewer. That’s the critical part of what can make us unique.
Cross: That’s one of the things that makes StoneMountain stick for me. He plays a lot of Battlefield One. He’ll do this shtick where he’s the commanding officer in a platoon, and he talks to his other platoon mates like he’s a drill sergeant.
Ellis: I captained professional teams before, but I think playing a game with him would be way more intense. “Guy on your six! Guy on your six!”
Cross: “Drop and give me 30!” [laughs] I’ve played a bit of Battlefield. I’m not a huge fan. But I’ll watch him.
Ellis: He calls it “squad up.” It’s part of his brand. He squads up. Allowing them to express themselves differently—there are thousands of entertainers out there. How do you stand out from the crowd?
Cross: The way we work on platforms is we try and build dialogs. The self-contained Facebook elements, you can call those into a game to do what you want to do, like sharing a video with desktop broadcasting. But we’ll also typically provide an API for the more advanced developers and the more creative ones, people who are ahead of us in how they’re thinking about interactivity and making things more creative in the content production or consumption experience.
As I mentioned, we’re just now launching this group API. We have this shared dialog with desktop broadcasting. We’re going to expand on those. Interactivity is one of the key things we’re trying to solve for. We’ll do that with a dialog for the masses approach, and then an API for the real creative leaders in the space.
Last week we announced with the 76ers that they’re coming in to stream. They have Team Dignitas, the first major North American sports franchise to acquire an esports team. They’ll be streaming on the platform. We’re looking at each tier as little mini-beats, around the creation side and around the viewing experience. We’ll have quite a few this year coming up.