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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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Cloud9 adds the MAJKL Valorant roster to create Cloud9 White as its first women’s esports team

Cloud9 has brought on the all-women MAJKL Valorant squad to become its first women’s esports team.

Moving forward the team of Alexis “alexis” Guarrasi, Annie “Annie” Roberts, Jasmine “Jazzyk1ns” Manankil, Katsumi, and Melanie “meL”Capone will compete as Cloud9 White in competition for Riot Games’ Valorant league.

The new team is sponsored by AT&T.

As MAJKL, the team has already won first place in the FTW Summer Showdown tournament — a part of the Valorant Ignition Series. That $25,000 prize put the team as the sixth highest paid team on the competitive circuit.

“What stood out to me about MAJKL is that they had to work hard to perfect their play, find each other, and then compete as a unit,” said Gaylen Malone, Senior General Manager of Cloud9, in a statement. “They are a talented group of women who came together with the goal of being the best at the game and were committed to doing what it took to get there, and watching their improvement over just the past few months has been incredible.”

Competitive esports should be one place where women and men can compete on equal footing, but the league is still subject to the same problems that beset other competitive events. Few women are members of the elite teams in eSports. Competitors like FaZe Clan (which is sponsored by TechCrunch’s parent company’s parent company, Verizon) only has one girl on their Fortnite roster.

“Our goal is to not only provide value to gamers with AT&T’s products and services, but to also contribute to real, meaningful change in the industry by giving this powerhouse team and other talented women what they need to succeed,” said Shiz Suzuki, associate vice president, sponsorships & experiential marketing, AT&T, in a statement. “We can’t wait to tell their stories and see the best of the best represent Cloud9 and AT&T on some of the world’s largest stages.”

Female gamers experience the same kind of harassment and unequal treatment that women in other sports are subjected to.

“A lot of female gamers get driven away, and they don’t want to be seen as gamers,” Madison “Maddiesuun” Mann told the online publication ShondaLand. “I remember in high school, I was pretty insecure about it. I didn’t tell anybody I played video games until I graduated — it’s just that weird insecurity.”

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Microsoft’s new Flight Simulator was worth the wait

It’s been 14 years since the launch of Flight Simulator X, which long seemed like it would be the final release in the long-running series. When the company announced it would re-launch the franchise just over a year ago, using a new graphics engine and satellite data from Bing Maps, it sure created a lot of hype among both old fans and those who had never played the older version but were drawn to the next-gen graphics the company showed off in its trailer. The good news is, the new Microsoft Flight Simulator was worth the wait and, starting August 18, you’ll be able to see for yourself.

Pricing starts at $59.99 for the standard version of Flight Simulator on both the Microsoft Store and Steam. If you want access to more planes and hand-crafted airports, you will need to buy either the $89.99 deluxe version or, for even more of those, the $119.99 premium version. You can find the details of which airports and planes are included in each version here.

Rest assured, though, especially if this is your first outing in Flight Simulator, with the base version you can still land at the same 36,000 airports as the others, and there are more than enough planes to keep you occupied — you’ll just miss out on a few extras (and if you really want to, you can buy upgrades to the more premium versions later).

The cheapest way to give the game a spin is to subscribe to the Xbox Game Pass for a month, because the standard edition is now part of Microsoft’s subscription program, and if you’re a new subscriber, the first month only costs $1.

I already dove pretty deeply into the beta a few weeks ago, but Microsoft provided me with an early review copy of the final release of the premium version, so it’s worth taking a second look at what you’ll get.

The first thing everybody I showed the new sim to told me was how beautiful it looks. That’s true for the scenery, which includes a mix of cities reconstructed in every detail thanks to the photogrammetry data in Bing Maps and those Microsoft partner Blackshark.ai reconstructed from the 2D maps (for more on how that works, here is our interview with Blackshark). What makes this work is not just the realistic cities and towns, but also that they feel pretty alive, with traffic zipping down highways and local streets and street lights and even the windows of houses lighting up at night.

And then there’s the weather model. Flight Simulator features the prettiest clouds you’ve ever seen in a game. Rain clouds in the distance look just like in real life. Wind acts realistically on your plane. If you fly in winter, snow covers the ground — and you can play around with all of those settings in real time without having to reload the game with every change.

Image Credits: TechCrunch

But since Microsoft and Asobo Studios decided to almost build a digital twin of our planet in Flight Simulator — and because the only way to do that is to use machine learning instead of placing every object by hand — you’ll still find plenty of oddness in the world, too. I had hoped that the team would fix more of these between the beta and final release, but I haven’t seen a lot of changes here. That means you’ll find bridges that look more like dams, roads that go under water and a few misplaced buildings and trees — there are so many trees where they don’t belong.

The way I look at this is that Flight Simulator is still a work in progress, and that hasn’t changed in the final release. I’m okay with that because even when there are mistakes, the cities and towns still usually look better than in any paid add-on for other flight simulators. Because a lot of this data is streamed from the Azure cloud and the team will continue to tweak its algorithms, I also expect that we’ll see fewer and fewer of these issues over time. Early on, I got hung up on this, but after a while, I realized that it doesn’t take away from enjoying the game — but it’s something to be aware of.

One area where I really hoped Microsoft would have improved the game, though, is air traffic control. This was always an area where Microsoft (and to be fair, all of its competitors) struggled. This was a problem during the alpha and beta, and it still is, which is really a shame, but what we have now just doesn’t feel very realistic.

Air traffic controllers don’t use standard phraseology (no real-life controller will ever tell you that he will contact you next when you leave his airspace, for example), don’t hand you off from tower to departure and constantly tell everybody to go around. I’m pretty sure I’ve done more go-arounds in three days with the final version of Flight Simulator than during the entire training for my pilot’s license. That feels like something that could be easily improved in the next update because, maybe even more so than the occasional graphics hiccup, it breaks the immersion for those looking for a simulator experience.

I also just wish that the controllers would call airlines by their real names. Microsoft has partnered with FlightAware to show real-life flights in the game, which depart and land on time, but somehow there are no liveries for them (except for the occasional stray United plane, which hints that we’ll see more of these over time) and only a limited set of models. Again, that’s something we’ll probably see more of in future updates.

Speaking of those flight models, Microsoft tweaked some of them a bit since the beta and, while I’ve never been in the cockpit of a 787, the single-engine Cessnas that I’ve flown still behave like I would expect them to in the sim (though I find the rudder is still pretty twitchy and needs some tweaking). I can’t vouch for the other aircraft in the game, but I expect real live pilots will find they are similarly realistic.

I still found some bugs with the flight instruments here and there and the GPS systems sometimes won’t let me activate a course, for example. I also wish the simulation of the G1000 and G3X glass cockpits would go just a little bit further. I can’t help but wonder if Microsoft and Asobo specifically held back here a bit to leave more room for add-on developers.

Image Credits: Microsoft

Performance hasn’t really changed since the beta, but I’m typically getting around 40 frames per second with the 2070 Super and i7-9700K, even when barely skimming over the roofs of cities like Barcelona or Berlin.

The only time I’ve seen real dips down into the 20s is when flying low over some of the hand-crafted airports like Frankfurt, and even then, after turning around and flying over the airport again, those numbers shot back up to the 40s.

You’ll notice that I used the words “simulator” and “game” interchangeably in this post. That’s because I think, in many ways, Flight Simulator is what you want it to be. There are plenty of game elements here, with flight training, landing challenges and bush-flying exercises. And in this age of COVID-19, there’s also something about it that just feels very relaxing when you’re flying around the planet low and slow, looking at the gorgeous scenery and forgetting about everything else for a while. I do worry, though, that most casual players will get bored after a short time.

For simmers, the new Flight Simulator is a godsend and provides a great basis for their hobby for years to come, especially given that Microsoft will continue to update it and because a lot of companies will develop all kinds of add-ons for it — and thanks to the inherent flaws in the game, there’s still room for somebody to not just build additional aircraft but also handcrafted versions of smaller airports, for example.

As I said in my preview, Flight Simulator is a technical marvel. Is it perfect? No. But I can forgive those imperfections because it does so much right.

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‘Fallout Shelter’ joins Tesla arcade in latest software update

Nearly a year ago, Todd Howard, the director of Bethesda Games, said that the company’s “Fallout Shelter” game would be coming to Tesla displays. It arrived, via the 2020.20 software update, this week, which was first noted at driver’s platform Teslascope.

Fallout Shelter is the latest — and one of the more modern games — to join Tesla’s Arcade, an in-car feature that lets drivers play video games while the vehicle is parked. It joins 2048, Atari’s Super Breakout, Cuphead, Stardew Valley, Missile Command, Asteroids, Lunar Lander and Centipede. The arcade also includes a newly improved (meaning more difficult) backgammon game as well as chess.

The 2020.20 software update that adds the game, along with a few other improvements, hasn’t reached all Tesla vehicles yet, including the Model 3 in this reporter’s driveway (that vehicle has the prior 2020.16.2.1 update, which includes improvements to backgammon and a redesigned Tesla Toybox).

However, YouTube channel host JuliansRandomProject was one of the lucky few who did receive it and released a video that provides a look at Fallout and how it works in the vehicle. Roadshow also discovered and shared the JuliansRandomProject video, which is embedded below.

[embedded content]

Fallout Shelter is just one of the newer features in the software update. Some functionality was added to the steering wheel so owners can use the toggle controls to play, pause and skip video playback in Theater Mode, the feature that lets owners stream Netflix and other video (while in park).

Tesla also improved Trax, which lets you record songs. Trax now includes a piano roll view that allows you to edit and fine tune notes in a track.

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All product creators can learn something from Jackbox Games’ user experiences

During this period of shelter-in-place, people have had to seek out new forms of entertainment and social interaction. Many have turned to a niche party series made by a company best known for an irreverent trivia game in the ’90s called “You Don’t Know Jack.”

Since 2014, the annual release of the Jackbox Party Pack has delivered 4-5 casual party games that run on desktop, mobile and consoles that can be played in groups as small as two and as large as 10. In a clever twist, players use smartphones as controllers, which is perfect for typing in prompts, selecting options, making drawings, etc.

The games are tons of fun and perfect for playing with friends over video conference, and their popularity has skyrocketed, as indicated by Google Trends. I polled my own Twitter following and found that nearly half of folks had played in the last month, though a full third hadn’t heard of Jackbox at all.

How do these games work?

There are more than 20 unique games across Jackbox Party Packs 1-6, too many to explain — but here are three of the most popular:

  • Fibbage: A twist on the traditional trivia game, players are asked to invent an answer to a question of obscure knowledge (e.g. “a Swedish man who works as a dishwasher receives disability benefits due to his unusual addiction to ____.”) Then all the invented answers are mixed in with the truth and players must select the real answer while avoiding fakes. You earn points for guessing correctly and for tricking other players (the answer is “heavy metal”).

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Where FaZe Clan sees the future of gaming and entertainment

Lee Trink has spent nearly his entire career in the entertainment business. The former president of Capitol Records is now the head of FaZe Clan, an esports juggernaut that is one of the most recognizable names in the wildly popular phenomenon of competitive gaming.

Trink sees FaZe Clan as the voice of a new generation of consumers who are finding their voice and their identity through gaming — and it’s a voice that’s increasingly speaking volumes in the entertainment industry through a clutch of competitive esports teams, a clothing and lifestyle brand and a network of creators who feed the appetites of millions of young gamers.

As the company struggles with a lawsuit brought by one of its most famous players, Trink is looking to the future — and setting his sights on new markets and new games as he consolidates FaZe Clan’s role as the voice of a new generation.

“The teams and social media output that we create is all marketing,” he says. “It’s not that we have an overall marketing strategy that we then populate with all of these opportunities. We’re not maximizing all of our brands.”

Source: TechCrunch