This is what being cool was like in the1980s: You’re the first kid on the block – well, one of the first anywhere – to play Mario and Duck Hunt; kids from around the neighborhood watch you.
And this is what it’s like in 2020: You have you own channel; kids from around the world watch you.
Ben Kusin has been that first one. “I became really cool – as cool as a 1st-grader can be,” he joked.
Now he’s working with people from that second one. This month, he and Ariel Horn launched VENN (shown here with Chrissy Costanza). That stands for Videogame Entertainment News Network; it’s online (www.venn.tv) and beyond.
“We will be the first 24/7 network on Twitch, on YouTube, on Facebook, on Twitter,” Horn said.
All of those words would have perplexed the soon-to-be-cool Kusin, when he was 7 or so.
His father and a Harvard Business School classmate had started a Dallas store called Babbage’s. It had a good investor (Ross Perot) and a good concept – selling Ataris and Commodores and such.
“I remember when he brought home this new thing called Nintendo and asked me to try it out,” Kusin recalled by phone. “I invited all my friends over and we started playing and playing.”
Its games, Mario and Duck Hunt, were vastly superior to Kusin’s first favorite, Pong. By 1991, two-thirds of Babbage’s sales were videogames. Changing its name to GameStop, the business has grown to 5,500 stores, 14,000 full-time employees (plus more part-timers) and $6.5 billion in annual sales.
Now social platforms are booming, Horn told the Television Critics Association. It’s “this crazy sort of revolution …. The gamers are now creating this content by themselves.”
The results are startling, Kusin said. Young gamers “are just literally doing things in their bedrooms (and) amassing massive audiences. We have one talent who literally pulls something like a 27,000-average-minute audience on Twitch.”
The numbers pile up. Worldwide, Kusin claimed, “300 million people watch gaming video content every single day on YouTube. It’s staggering.”
Such trends are boosted by the pandemic, Horn said. “Everyone’s socially isolated and at home.The statistics (show) an unprecedented amount of videogames..”
But don’t imagine this as just a bunch of lonely guys in their moms’ basements. “There’s a community around this …. It’s the interactivity of the video world,” Kusin said.
So VENN is filled with hip-looking people. Prime examples are Costanza, who hosts “Guest House” and Sasha Grey (once a porn star) and Dumbfounded (a rapper), both brainy talkshow hosts.
On VENN, people play games or talk about games. “We cover every single game launch,” Kusin said. “If a new game is hot on Monday or Tuesday, it will be on our air on Wednesday.”
There’s also music and a get-together feeling … except that the pandemic has limited togetherness. Plans for a second studio, in New York, are on hold, trimming the amount of new programming in half. At the main studio, in Los Angeles, Kusin said: “We have a COVID-compliance officer who literally walks around with a … six-foot stick. He actually painted it yellow.”
Kusin had previously launched other things. In 2014, he and his brother Eric were on “Shark Tank,” pitching Reviver Clothing Swipes. They also started a Dallas restaurant.
(It’s possible that “Shark Tank” is mostly just about getting a product noticed. They did get a $150,000 investment from the show … but already had $2 million from their dad. Kusin ducked discussing that directly, but granted: “For any business, it’s hard to argue against exposure.”)
Now Eric is running those; Ben has been working in gaming and pitched his idea for a new network.
Someone told him he’d just heard a similar pitch from someone else, Kusin said. The suggestion: “Two people who don’t even know each other should do it together.”
The other guy was Horn, who spent a decade at NBC Sports, then helped produce the “League of Legends” mega-game and more. Combined, they know a lot about live production … and about games that have gone far beyond Pong, Mario and Duck Hunt.