L.A.-based digital avatar company Genies has a plan to monetize the metaverse.
The startup announced Monday it has closed a $65 million Series B fundraise. Genies, which got its start building cartoon-like online avatars for celebrities, recently opened its platform up to anyone who wants to create their own digital "fantasy version" of themselves.
Chief executive Akash Nigam previously told dot.LA that his company, which does not publicize its financials but has now raised over $110 million, hopes to earn "99.9%" of its revenues from the digital goods economy. The new funding will be used to further build out that ambition.
The round was led by BOND, whose general partner Mary Meeker publishes a widely read annual report on internet trends. NEA, Breyer Capital, Tull Investment Group, NetEase, Dapper Labs, and Coinbase Ventures also participated.
The digital goods available for purchase will come directly from Genies and in partnership with celebrities. They will continue using their avatars to promote milestones like new albums and song releases, and can now commemorate those milestones with "special edition" digital items they can sell to fans.
Later this year, users will also be able to purchase and trade tokenized digital goods – that is, digital swag whose ownership and uniqueness is verifiable with an NFT, or nonfungible token. That's the outcome of Genies' recently announced partnership with Dapper Labs, the company that operates two of the most popular NFT exchanges, NBA Top Shot and CryptoKitties.
Genies is expanding into a digital goods marketplace where fans can buy digital items from creators and celebrities.
Genies launched in 2017 and quickly established itself as the go-to provider of cartoonish avatars for celebrities, with initial ambitions to operate as a digital avatar talent agency. It has worked with thousands of celebrities, primarily musicians, including Justin Bieber, Jennifer Lopez, Shawn Mendes (who is also an investor) and Rihanna. The company recently announced a partnership with Warner Music Group, which plans to use Genies' avatars and latest features for its roster of artists.
In late 2020, it partnered with Gucci and Facebook-owned Giphy to let those companies' digital users build avatars on their apps. This was a key step in Genies' ongoing expansion beyond celebrities. The company plans to grow its software development kit to incorporate the same functionality into other third-party platforms.
In addition to taking a cut of digital-good sales on its own platform, Genies also aims to make money through its integrations with other apps by capitalizing on its association with celebrities. Genies' outlines its pitch to other platforms in three steps: celebrities create digital goods on your platform; users buy those goods for their avatar; you get a cut. Genies also says it can help design the digital goods and analyze user data to guide design decisions.
With its new funding, new app and expanding SDK integrations, Genies hopes to enable users to bring their avatars anywhere on the web, and monetize the customization of those avatars. The company is building out its executive suite to oversee that vision.
It'll be competing with Snap-owned Bitmoji, among others.
"Genies has opened the door to a new type of virtual self-expression that is changing the way we interact with one another online – starting with celebrities and moving to all of us," said Meeker in a statement. "Using your Genie avatar, you can be anyone you want to be in the way you want, communicating across the vast digital landscape. We're excited for our partnership, and look forward to helping Genies grow the metaverse, one avatar at a time."
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The gaming industry is poised for further growth, even after lockdowns ease, but insiders expect its future will look far different as companies add more social and interactive features and expand their worlds beyond a single platform.
That was the consensus from a panel at dot.LA's recent summit, where four heavy hitters from L.A.'s gaming industry traded thoughts on what they're preparing for. Panelists included Ophir Lupu, head of video games at talent agency UTA; Lisa Anderson, SVP of studio operations at Jam City; Rob Ricca, VP of corporate development at Scopely; and Gregory Milken, managing partner at March Capital, where he focuses on gaming investments.
Here are four key takeaways:
Gaming Less About Winning, More About Partnering
Already, games like Fortnite and Animal Crossing are providing users with virtual experiences that one would be hard-pressed to call a "game." Fortnite has hosted virtual concerts attended by millions, while Animal Crossing has provided a virtual venue for weddings, graduations and funerals.
"What's come to the fore in the pandemic is really that gaming is social," said Milken.
More than that, Anderson noted that COVID has underscored players desire to find meaningful connections through their consoles and apps. As a result, Jam City is exploring ways for players to find their friends more easily and join social groups, whether with IRL friends or ones they meet online.
Similarly, Ricca noted that many players of Scopely's "Star Trek Fleet Command" have turned the game's "Alliances" feature into "their core experience in the game," opting to partner up with others to game on an ongoing basis rather than linking up with an ad hoc group or going it alone.
As to how this trend will shape Milken's investment strategy, he said he'll be looking to place bets on cooperative gameplay experiences in the future.
Gaming Will Be Everywhere
As Anderson put it, "the ultimate goal is that players can experience their favorite game on the device of their preference. Looking to other mediums (like streaming services), consumers can already do this (PC, TV, Mobile, tablet, etc.) and it feels like gaming is a natural extension of that conceit."
This sort of "cross-play" already exists to an extent, but the industry is evolving further away from the closed ecosystems that rely on a single console. That reality won't fly with younger generations, who've grown up with a more open ecosystem that has shaped their expectations.
"They will expect all game environments to be open for all of their friends and other players to join and experience rich social interaction with each other, regardless of where they are physically located and the number of other players they want to interact with," Ricca said.
Lupu surmised that as more game-streaming services come on the market to rival incumbents like Playstation Now or Google Stadia – which give console and PC gamers near-instant access to titles without requiring downloads – the industry may see large platforms build better access for players to move across different platforms and interact.
As a hypothetical example, Lupu said: "You could imagine how Amazon's new streaming game service Luna could connect with Twitch and allow viewers to 'jump in' or somehow interact with their favorite streamers playing games. (Same with Stadia and YouTube, etc.)."
Esports Will See More Cooperation and, Possibly, Consolidation
For all the hype that esports generates, it's a rather small business, generating just north of $1 billion per year – a fraction of the $150 billion-plus gaming market. Its function often appears to be more of a marketing tool than anything, whether for the game titles themselves or for teams that leverage their roster's followings to sell other items like merchandise.
Unlike a traditional sport, games have an owner – Riot Games owns League of Legends, for instance, but nobody owns soccer. This potentially weighs the scales of influence in favor of game developers and publishers, and away from esports teams. But as the teams grow more famous and build more brand equity of their own, their leverage will continue to grow.
This leads Milken to conclude: "I think we'll see further development between teams that operate and game developers and publishers and thinking about how they jointly work together to create value."
Fans Mix with Celebrities in the Metaverse
Although it's still anyone's guess what will be the ultimate version of the metaverse – a parallel virtual world, kind of like a more immersive version of the internet – what appears unambiguous is that the metaverse offers a unique opportunity for IRL stars to engage with their fans.
"It creates incredible touch points for non-gaming clients – certainly mostly in the music space," said Lupu. "It provides a really unique and interesting opportunity for talent of all types to interact with their fans." Expect these to continue, in other words.
But such interactions won't be exclusively between fans and stars. Milken said he sees the metaverse introducing a new level to in-game interactivity that is an increasingly important component of what gaming offers consumers.
"The metaverse as a hangout place, where you're experiencing things together, is really interesting to me," he said.
When asked to place their bets on what consumers are most likely to see in the industry, the panelists unanimously chose the concert of the metaverse, agreeing that in their various lines of business it is a future that has to be taken seriously. That nobody has much idea of what exactly it will entail suggests that the metaverse will emerge over a prolonged period, with a series of incremental changes that eventually transform gaming. See you there.
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- L.A.-based Genies is expanding beyond creating and managing avatars for celebrities; consumers can now create their own avatars on partner platforms that use Genies' software development kit.
- Initial partners are Gucci and Giphy, with more expected in the coming months.
- Genies' pivot is an effort to capitalize on the 'digital goods economy' and the ascendance of the metaverse.
Justin Bieber made Crocs cool again earlier this month, when he partnered with the footwear company, known more for function than fashion, to release a limited edition pair that reportedly sold out in 90 minutes.
Imagine now that those shoes were meant to be worn not on human feet, but on the pixels of a consumer's digital avatar.
This is the vision of L.A.-based Genies, which announced Tuesday it is now integrating its avatar-creation technology into other companies' digital platforms via an updated software development kit (SDK).
To Genies chief executive Akash Nigam, the goal is to create new marketplaces where users can design their own avatars and adorn them with purchased digital goods.
Genies' two initial SDK partners are luxury fashion brand Gucci and Giphy, a visual tool and resource owned by Facebook that allows users to find, create and share short, looping videos.
Luxury fashion brand Gucci is one of one of Genies' initial SDK partners.Courtesy Genies
To date, Genies has worked primarily with celebrities. The company runs an agency to deploy the avatars it has created for over 2,000 celebs, including musicians Shawn Mendes, Rihanna and Justin Bieber. Clients have employed their avatars for tasks like announcing newly released songs and albums on their social media accounts, as well as to endorse brands. A company representative said the avatars have been deployed "thousands of times" and have generated "millions" of dollars.
Genies is now allowing consumers to build their own avatars for the first time. And, by integrating with other platforms, the company is doubling down on digital goods.
"Our big bet is on the digital goods economy," Nigam told dot.LA. "If it works well, we'd want it to be 99.9% [of our revenues]."
Those who are skeptical that anybody would want to purchase a digital umbrella, spacesuit or pair of sandals may want to look at "Fortnite," Epic Games' increasingly popular virtual world where people go both to play games and to socialize. Although Fortnite is free to play, in 2018 and 2019 it generated over $1 billion from in-game purchases of cosmetic upgrades to players' virtual characters – on mobile platforms alone. Fortnite is also available on computers and gaming consoles, which also generate substantial revenue from selling digital-goods.
Gucci, for its part, has increasingly turned to tech as a useful complement to high-end fashion in the 21st century. It has previously partnered with Genies to tap the company's celebrity avatar agency, used augmented reality (AR) to allow potential buyers to "try before they buy" and already begun developing items exclusively for digital use.
Genies CEO Akash Nigam.
Courtesy of Genies
It's a natural partner for Genies' SDK, which will allow users of Gucci's digital platform to "attire their avatars in the latest Gucci apparel...while adding a revenue generator through the sale of digital goods," according to a statement from Genies.
Genies' SDK relies primarily on a revenue split, with Genies and the hosting platform each taking a portion of the transaction income.
More partnerships are in the works.
"We've been having tons of conversations with other large partners that we will make public over the coming months," Nigam said, adding that Genies plans to encourage its celebrity network to sell digital goods on these partner platforms. In those cases, the celebrity (and/or their rights holders) will earn a percentage, too.
In advance of today's announcement, Genies has been growing its technical team. At the start of the pandemic, Nigam said the company had 16 employees in Los Angeles. It now has 50, 40 of whom are technical workers. Another 15 or so work outside of L.A., he said.
The team has been working on upgrading the look of Genies' avatars. As of today, those characters can be deployed in 3D, affording 360-degree views and allowing them to live in AR and VR worlds. They are also more expressive, with more detailed physiognomy.
Genies has raised $38.8 million to date. The company would not disclose its valuation nor share whether it is profitable.
Today begins its transition from focusing on tastemakers to preparing for a new age of virtual characters running around digital worlds.
"Over time, these SDK partnerships will create a digital identity ecosystem where consumers can transport their avatar from platform to platform," the company said in a statement.
"Avatars are a prerequisite for the metaverse," Nigam said, referring to the parallel virtual world some expect will combine of gaming, social networking and ecommerce, and which some have described as the next iteration of the internet.
It remains to be seen, of course, whether metaverse avatars will opt to wear Crocs.
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