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The promise and challenge of Roblox’s future in China

In a much-anticipated move, California-based gaming firm Roblox filed to go public last week. One aspect driving the future growth of the children- and community-focused gaming platform is its China entry, which it fleshes out in detail for the first time in its IPO prospectus.

Like all gaming companies entering China, Roblox must work with a local publishing and operations partner. And like Riot Games, Supercell, Epic Games, Activision Blizzard, Ubisoft, Nintendo and many more, Roblox chose Tencent, the world’s largest gaming firm by revenue, according to Newzoo.

The partnership, which began in 2019, revolves around a joint venture in which Roblox holds a 51% controlling stake and a Tencent affiliate called Songhua owns a 49% interest. The prospectus notes that Tencent currently intends to publish and operate a localized version of the Roblox Platform (罗布乐思), which allows people to create games and play those programmed by others.

User-generated content is in part what makes Roblox popular amongst young gamers, but that social aspect almost certainly makes its China entry trickier. It’s widely understood that the Chinese government is asserting more control over what gets published on the internet, and in recent times its scrutiny over gaming content has heightened. Industry veteran Wenfeng Yang went as far as speculating that games with user-generated content will “never made [their] path to China,” citing the example of Animal Crossing.

Roblox says it believes it’s “uniquely positioned” to grow its penetration in China but its “performance will be dependent on” Tencent’s ability to clear regulatory hurdles. It’s unclear what measures Roblox will take to prevent its user-generated content from running afoul of the Chinese authorities, whose appetite for what is permitted can be volatile. Tencent itself has been in the crosshairs of regulators over allegedly “addictive” and “harmful” gaming content. It also remains to be seen how Roblox ensures its user experience won’t be compromised by whatever censorship system that gets implemented.

Roblox chose Tencent as its Chinese partner. / Image: Roblox

At the most basic level, Roblox claims it works to ensure user safety through measures designed “to enforce real-world laws,” including text-filtering, content moderation, automated systems to identify behaviors in violation of platform policies, and a review team. The company expresses in its filing optimism about getting China’s regulatory greenlight:

While Tencent is still working to obtain the required regulatory license to publish and operate Luobulesi [Roblox’s local name] in China, we believe the regulatory requirements specific to China will be met. In the meantime, Luobu is working towards creating a robust developer community in China.”

The company is rightfully optimistic. China is the world’s largest gaming market and Tencent has a proven history of converting its social network users into gamers. Roblox’s marketing focus on encouraging “creativity” might also sit well with Beijing’s call for tech companies to “do good,” an order Tencent has answered. Roblox’s Chinese website suggests it’s touting part of its business as a learning and STEM tool and shows it’s seeking collaborations with local schools and educators.

Nonetheless, the involvement of Tencent is the elephant in the room in times of uncertain U.S.-China relations. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. or CFIUS, which is chaired by the Treasury Department, was inquiring about data practices by Tencent-backed gaming studios in the U.S. including Epic and Riot, Bloomberg reported in September.

Roblox isn’t exempt. It notes in the prospectus that CFIUS has “made inquiries to us with respect to Tencent’s equity investment in us and involvement in the China JV.” It further warns that it “cannot predict what effect any further inquiry by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. into our relationship with Tencent or changes in China-U.S. relations overall may have on our ability to effectively support the China JV or on the operations or success of the China JV.”

The other obstacle faced by all foreign companies entering China is local clones. Reworld, backed by prominent Chinese venture firms such as Northern Light Venture Capital and Joy Capital, is one. The game is unabashed about its origin. In a Reddit post responding to the accusation of it being “a ripoff of Roblox,” Reworld pays its tribute to Roblox and admits its product is “built on the shoulders of Roblox,” while claiming “it did not take any code from Roblox Studio.”

The Beijing-based startup behind Reworld has so far raised more than $50 million and had about 100 developers working on Reworld’s editing tool and 50 other operational staff, its co-founder said in a June interview. In comparison, Roblox had 38 employees in China by September, 38 of whom were in product and engineering functions. It’s actively hiring in China.

Roblox cannot comment for the story as it’s in the IPO quiet period.

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The race to be China’s top fintech platform: Ant vs Tencent

As Ant Group seizes the world’s attention with its record initial public offering, which was abruptly called off by Beijing, investors and analysts are revisiting the fintech interests of Tencent, Ant’s arch rival in China.

It’s somewhat complicated to do this, not least because they are sprawled across a number of Tencent properties and, unlike Ant, don’t go by a single brand or operational structure — at least, not one that is obvious to the outside world.

However, when you tease out Tencent’s fintech activity across its wider footprint — from direct operations like WeChat Pay through to its sizeable strategic investments and third-party marketplaces — you have something comparable in size to Ant, and in some services even bigger.

Hidden business

Ant refuted the comparison with Tencent or anyone else. In a reply to China’s securities regulator in September, the Jack Ma-controlled, Alibaba-backed fintech giant said it is “not comparable” to WeChat Pay, the fintech tool inside WeChat, Tencent’s flagship messenger.

“In the space of digital payments and merchant service, there are many players around the world, including Tencent’s WeChat Pay. But the payments services offered by these companies are different from our digital payments and merchant services. They are not comparable. In terms of digital finance, our way of working with and serving financial institutions, as well as our revenue model, are novel and do not have a counterpart,” the company noted in a somewhat hubristic reply.

There’s no denying that Ant is a pioneer in expanding financial inclusion in China, where millions remain outside the formal banking system. But Tencent has played catch-up in digital finance and made major headway, especially in electronic payments.

Both companies ventured into fintech by first offering consumers a way to pay digitally, though the brands “Alipay” and “WeChat Pay” fail to reflect the breadth of services touted by the platforms today. Alipay, Ant’s flagship app, is now a comprehensive marketplace selling Ant’s in-house products and myriad third-party ones like micro-loans and insurance. The app, like WeChat Pay, also facilitates a growing list of public services, letting users see their taxes, pay utility bills, book a hospital visit and more.

Screenshots of the Alipay app. Source: iOS App Store 

Tencent, on the other hand, embeds its financial services inside the payment features of WeChat (WeChat Pay) and the giant’s other popular chat app, QQ. It has thus been historically difficult to make out how much Tencent earns from fintech, something the giant doesn’t disclose in its earnings reports. This is reflective of Tencent’s “horse racing” internal competition, in which departments and teams often rival fiercely against each other rather than actively collaborate.

Screenshots of WeChat Pay inside Tencent’s WeChat messenger

As such, we have pulled together estimates of Tencent’s fintech businesses ourselves using a mix of quarterly reports and third-party research — a mark of how un-transparent some of this really is — but it begs some interesting questions. Will (should?) Tencent at some point follow in Alibaba’s footsteps to bring its own fintech operations under one umbrella?

User number

In terms of user size, the rivals are going neck and neck.

The Alipay app recorded 711 monthly active users and 80 million monthly merchants in June. Among its 1 billion annual users, 729 million had transacted in at least one “financial service” through the platform. As in the PayPal-eBay relationship, Alipay benefits tremendously by being the default payments processor for Alibaba marketplaces like Taobao.

As of 2019, more than 800 million users and 50 million merchants used WeChat to pay monthly, a big chunk of the 1.2 billion active user base of the messenger. It’s unclear how many people tried Tencent’s other fintech products, though the firm did say about 200 million people used its wealth management service in 2019.

Revenue

Ant reported a total of 121 billion yuan or $17 billion in revenue last year, nearly doubling its sum from 2017 and putting it on par with PayPal at $17.8 billion.

In 2019, Tencent generated 101 billion yuan of revenue from its “fintech and business services. The segment mainly consisted of fintech and cloud products, industry analysts told TechCrunch. With its cloud unit finishing the year at 17 billion yuan in revenue, we can venture to estimate that Tencent’s fintech products earned roughly or no more than 84 billion yuan ($12 billion), from the period — paled by Ant’s figure, but not bad for a relative latecomer.

The sheer size of the fintech giants has made them highly attractive targets of regulation. Increasingly, Ant is downplaying its “financial” angle and billing itself as a “technology” ally for traditional institutions rather than a challenger. These days, Alipay relies less on selling proprietary financial products and bills itself as an intermediary helping state banks, wealth managers and insurers to reach customers. In return for facilitating the process, Ant charges administrative fees from transactions on the platform.

Now, let’s turn to the rivals’ four main business focuses: payments, microloans, wealth management and insurance.

Ant vs. Tencent’s fintech businesses. Sources for the figures are companies’ quarterly reports, third-party research and TechCrunch estimates.

Digital payments

In the year ended June, Alipay processed a whopping 118 trillion yuan in payment transactions in China. That’s about $17 trillion and dwarfs the $172 billion that PayPal handled in 2019.

Tencent doesn’t disclose its payments transaction volume, but data from third-party research firms offer a hint of its scale. The industry consensus is that the two collectively control over 90% of China’s trillion-dollar electronic payments market where Alipay enjoys a slight lead.

Alipay processed 55.4% of China’s third-party payments transactions in the first quarter of 2020, according to market research firm iResearch, while another researcher Analysys said the firm’s share was 48.44% in the period. In comparison, Tenpay (the brand assigned to the company-wide infrastructure that powers WeChat Pay and the less-significant QQ Wallet, yet another name to confuse people) trailed behind at 38.8%, per iResearch data, and 34% according to Analysys.

At the end of the day, the two services have distinct user scenarios. The fact that WeChat Pay lies inside a messenger makes it a tool for social, often small, payments, such as splitting bills and exchanging lucky money, a custom in China. Alipay, on the other hand, is associated with online shopping.

That’s changing as Tencent tries to increase its ticket size through alliances. It’s tied WeChat Pay to portfolio e-commerce companies like JD.com, Pinduoduo and Meituan — all Alibaba’s competitors.

Third-party payments were once an incredibly profitable business. Platforms used to be able to hold customer reserve funds from which they generated handsome interests. That lucrative scheme came to a stop when Chinese regulators demanded non-bank payments providers to place 100% of customer deposit funds under a centralized, interest-free account last year. What’s left for payment processors to earn are limited fees charged from merchants.

Payments still account for the bulk of Ant’s revenues — 43%, or a total of 51.9 billion yuan ($7.6 billion) in 2019, but the percentage was down from 55% in 2017, a sign of the giant’s diversifying business.

Microlending

Ant has become the go-to lender for shoppers and small businesses in a country where millions aren’t qualified for bank-issued credit cards. The firm had worked with about 100 banks, doling out 1.7 trillion yuan ($250 billion) of consumer loans and 400 billion yuan ($58 billion) of small business loans in the year ended June. That amounted to 41.9 billion yuan or 34.7% of Ant’s annual revenue.

The size of Tencent’s loan business is harder to gauge. What we do know is that Weilidai, the microloan product sold through WeChat, had issued an aggregate of 3.7 trillion yuan ($540 billion) to 28 million customers between its launch in 2015 and 2019, according to a report from WeBank, the Tencent-backed private bank that provides the WeChat-based loan.

Wealth management

As of June, Ant had 4.1 trillion yuan ($600 billion) assets under management, making it one of the world’s biggest money-market funds. Working with 170 partner asset managers, the segment brought in about 17 billion yuan or 14% of total revenue in 2019.

Tencent said its wealth management platform accumulated assets of over 600 billion yuan in 2018 and grew by 50% year-over-year in 2019. That should put its AUM in 2019 at around 900 billion yuan ($131 billion).

Insurance

Last but not least, both giants have made big pushes into consumer insurance. Besides featuring third-party plans, Alipay introduced a new way to insure customers: mutual aid. The novel scheme, which is not regulated as an insurance product in China, is free to sign up and does not charge any premium or upfront payment. Users pay small monthly fees that are pooled to pay for claims of critical illnesses.

Insurance premiums and mutual aid contributions on Ant’s platform reached 52 billion yuan, or $7.6 billion, in the year ended June. Working with about 90 partner insurers in China, the segment contributed nearly 9 billion yuan, or 7.4%, of the firm’s annual revenue. More than 570 million Alipay users participated in at least one insurance program in the year ended June.

Tencent, on the other hand, taps partners in its relatively uncharted territory. Its insurance strategy includes in-house platform WeSure that works like a middleman between insurers and consumers, and Tencent-backed Waterdrop, which provides both traditional insurances and a rival to Ant’s mutual aid product Xianghubao.

In the first half of 2020, WeSure, Tencent’s main insurance operation that sells through WeChat, paid out a total of 290 million yuan ($42.4 million), it announced. The unit does not disclose its amount of premiums or revenues, but we can find clues in other figures. Twenty-five million people used WeShare services in 2019 and the average premium amount per user was over 1,000 yuan ($151). That is, WeShare generated no more than 25 billion yuan, or $3.78 billion, in premium that year because the user figure also accounts for a good number of premium-free users.

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Moving forward, it remains unclear whether Tencent will restructure its fintech operations in a more cohesive and collaborative way. As they expand, will investors and regulators demand that? And what opportunities are there for others to compete in a space dominated by two huge players?

One thing is for sure: Tencent will need to tread more carefully on regulatory issues. Ant’s achievement is a win for entrepreneurs looking to “disrupt” China’s financial sector, but its halted IPO, which is tied to regulatory issues and reportedly Jack Ma’s hubris, also sounds an alarm to contenders that policymaking in China can be capricious.

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Tencent claims record 100M daily users on mobile game Honor of Kings

At its five-year anniversary gala graced by celebrities, esports stars and orchestras, Tencent’s mobile game Honor of Kings said it has crossed 100 million daily active users. The title has not only broken user records but generated other unprecedented accomplishments along the way.

For one, it consistently ranks among the top-grossing mobile games worldwide, jostling with PUBG Mobile made by another Tencent studio Lightspeed & Quantum — gaming has long been the cash cow for Tencent, better known for its WeChat messenger. The brain behind Honor of Kings is TiMi Studios, which ramped up hiring in the U.S. this year to further global expansion.

The game is credited for popularizing the multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) category in China using clever designs like short sessions, friendly controls, esports integration, and social networking leverage, as games analyst Daniel Ahmad pointed out. The title has an unusually high female player base — around 50% — for a genre dominated by males.

Though not always seen as an original creator, Tencent pioneers monetization models for mobile games and can be Western studios’ sought-after partner. To name one, it helped develop the mobile version of Activision’s Call of Duty, which surpassed 250 million downloads in June.

Controversy has also arisen amid Honor of Kings’ fervor. A state newspaper chastised it for hooking young users and misrepresenting historical events. Tencent has since tightened age verification checks for players, now standard practice in China’s gaming industry.

TiMi unveiled its milestone at a time when Riot Games is testing a mobile version of League of Legends, widely seen as the desktop blockbuster that had inspired Honor of Kings in the first place. The overseas edition of Honor of Kings, called Arena of Valor, has had limited success outside Asia. It now comes the time for Riot, fully acquired by Tencent in 2015, to test its own interpretation, Wild Rift.

As part of the announcement, TiMi also revealed that it’s capitalizing on Honor of Kings for IP derivative works, including two new games in unspecified new genres, an anime, and a TV series.

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Fab founder Jason Goldberg is back with Moxie, a new live-streaming fitness marketplace

Amid a pandemic that has closed down fitness centers worldwide, a spate of companies has muscled their way into the booming at-home fitness market.

In just the last two weeks, three-year-old Future, which promises at-home customers access to elite training, closed on $24 million in Series B funding; and Playbook, a nearly five-year-old fitness platform that helps personal trainers stream and charge for their content, raised $9.3 million in Series A funding.

Now, serial entrepreneur Jason Goldberg — who has founded a number of venture-backed startups — is taking the wraps off another live-streaming platform and marketplace. Called Moxie, it connects fitness instructors of all stripes with existing and new students, then enables them to stream classes on a subscription basis — and to keep 85 percent of the revenue for themselves.

Well, according to Goldberg, it’s all far more sophisticated than that. Indeed, Moxie’s 45 employees were working on a very different company until COVID-19 took hold in Europe and the U.S., following its initial outbreak in China. (Moxie is based in Berlin.) After some soul-searching, the team pivoted completely to fitness, and they’ve been testing and tweaking Moxie ever since.

It’s a compelling proposition, even while other startup founders are also chasing after it. A year ago, fitness instructors spent 90 percent of their time in studio settings, but they now spend 90 percent of their time teaching online, which means they need really solid tools to do their jobs well.

While earlier in the pandemic, many of them turned to Zoom, emailing students links and taking payments via Venmo, it was a janky experience for everyone involved.

With Moxie, an instructor, says Goldberg, can broadcast live and recorded classes; access playlists that Moxie has already licensed through third parties (and whose volume Moxie’s technology can dampen when an instructor is talking); and access internal customer relationship management tools that make it easy to track and communicate with students and automatically collect payment from them.

The benefits are resonating, according to Goldberg. He says that largely by finding and pitching instructors on Instagram, Moxie has already attracted more than 2,000 instructors of yoga, pilates, and barre-centered classes among others, and that they are now teaching more than 6,500 classes for a range of prices that the instructors can set themselves.

Classes on average apparently range in price from $5 to $10, and Goldberg says that over the last four weeks, customers have been spending an average of $60 on the platform per month. (Moxie uses Stripe for payments and AWS to store and stream video.)

Investors like Howard Morgan, Geoff Prentice, Allen Morgan who’ve backed Goldberg time and again like the idea, clearly. Along with Tencent, they’ve provided Moxie with $2.1 million in seed funding, and Goldberg suggests he’ll be ready for more capital soon.

Whether new investors will need to be convinced that Moxie is “the one,” given Goldberg’s history, remains to be seen.

As longtime industry watchers might know, Goldberg launched his career as a startup founder long ago with Jobster, a recruiting platform that raised about $50 million before laying off half its staff and selling for undisclosed terms to a site called Recruiting.com.

Goldberg then founded a news aggregation service Social Median, which was was later acquired by a German LinkedIn competitor called XING for undisclosed terms; Fabulis, a social network for the LGBT community that pivoted to become a daily-deals site (and later shut down after spending $1 million in seed funding); and, most famously, Fab .com, a design-focused e-commerce site that was valued at $900 million by its investors at one point but later went out of business.

Undeterred, in late 2016, Goldberg launched a messaging app called Pepo that enabled anyone to create and join live messaging communities and that raised around $3 million from investors, including Tencent. It was a newer iteration of Pepo that Goldberg and his team decided to abandon in March for Moxie.

Certainly, his various endeavors underscore that Goldberg has no shortage of — dare we say it — moxie.  To many investors, that’s the most crucial ingredient in growing a nascent company. In any case, Goldberg doesn’t seem worried about the fitness startup’s prospects. “We have no shortage of people who want to invest in Moxie,” he told us during a call yesterday.

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Tencent leads $100M Series B funding round into China-based esport provider VSPN

Further confirmation that the esports market is booming amid the pandemic comes today with the news that esports ‘total solutions provider’ VSPN (Versus Programming Network) has raised what it describes as ‘close to’ $100 million in a Series B funding round, led by Tencent Holdings . Other investors that participated in the round include Tiantu Capital, SIG (Susquehanna International Group), and Kuaishou. The funding round will go towards improving esports products and its ecosystem in China and across Asia.

Founded in 2016 and headquartered in Shanghai, VSPN was one of the early pioneers in esports tournament organization and content creation out of Asia. It has since expanded into other businesses including offline venue operation.

In a statement, Dino Ying, CEO of VSPN (see also our exclusive interview) said: “We are delighted to announce this latest round of funding. Thanks to policies supporting Shanghai as the global center for esports, and with Beijing, Chengdu, and Xi’an expressing confidence in the development of esports, VSPN has grown rapidly in recent years. After this funding round, we look forward to building an esports research institute, an esports culture park, and further expanding globally. VSPN has a long-term vision and is dedicated to the sustainable development of the global esports ecosystem.”

Dino Ying, VSPN CEO

Mars Hou, general manager of Tencent Esports, commented: “VSPN’s long-term company vision and leading position in esports production are vital for Tencent to optimize the layout of the esports industry’s development.”

We had a hint that Tencent might invest in VSPN when, in March this year, Mark Ren, COO of Tencent Holdings, made a public statement that Tencent would provide more high-quality esports competitions in conjunction with tournament organizers like VSPN.

As we observed in August, Tencent, already the world’s biggest games publisher, that it would consolidate Douyu and Huya, the previously competing live-streaming sites focused on video games.

In other words, Tencent’s investment into VSPN shows it is once again doubling-down on the esports market.

This Series B funding round comes four years after VSPN’s 2016 Series A funding round, which was led by Focus Media Network, joined by China Jianteng Sports Industry Fund, Guangdian Capital, and Averest Capital.

Now, VSPN has become the principal tournament organizer and broadcaster for PUBG MOBILE international competitions, and China’s top competitions for Honor of Kings, PUBG, Peacekeeper Elite, CrossFire, FIFA, QQ Speed, and Clash Royale. This will tally-up 12,000 hours of original content. The company has partnered with over 70% of China’s esports tournaments.

In March, another huge esports player, ESL, joined forces with Tencent to become a part of the PUBG Mobile esports circuit for 2020.

In addition to its core esports tournament and content production business, VSPN has branded esports venues in Chengdu, Xi’an, and Shanghai. In May, VSPN launched its first overseas venue, V. SPACE in Seoul, South Korea.

And even offline events are coming back. VSPN hosted the first large-scale esport event with offline audiences in August this year. And the LOL S10 event will open 6,000 tickets. However, all tournaments will operate under strict COVID-19 prevention measures and approval processes by the Chinese government, and not all esports events are allowing offline audiences. In the main, only high-level ones are approved.

VSPN said it will continue to focus on building an esports short-form video ecosystem, improving the quality of esports content creation, and reaching more users via different channels. VSPN currently houses more than 1,000 employees in five business divisions.

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