Google commits to China and e-sports; VR steals CES show again

Google made a sizable investment last week which failed to cause much of stir, leading a $120 million series D round in mobile gaming firm Chushou. The significance lies not just in Google upping its presence in e-sports but making in-roads into China – two technology trends expected to be rife throughout 2018.

Early announcements seeping out of CES in Las Vegas this week support the growth potential of the gaming market, with multiple product unveilings and updates in both gaming software and hardware, although virtual and augmented reality technologies, as expected, are taking center stage. Most notably, Facebook has tapped Chinese smartphone manufacturer Xiaomi to develop its new Oculus Go VR headset exclusively for the Chinese market.

Breaking China has been a rough ride for almost every non-Chinese technology company, with Google’s search engine being blocked in the country for the past six years and counting, while Facebook has been blocked in China since 2009. That makes two outlawed internet monoliths that have kicked off 2018 by forging deals in the gaming sector as a way of reaching into China.

Chushou marks only Google’s second investment in a Chinese start-up company and gaming is not an area Google has pursued with much ambition outside of YouTube, so spending an estimated $76.8 million for an undisclosed stake could be the beginning of much bigger projects paving the way to riches in China. Google’s other Chinese investment lies in artificial intelligence firm Mobvoi, as part of a $75 million funding round back in 2015.

Chushou is much like Amazon’s live streaming platform Twitch, providing a platform for gaming fanatics to tune in and watch other gamers and even make contributions. The advent of platforms such as Twitch and Chushou have transformed online gaming into a full-time job, but the key difference is that Twitch is focused on PC and console games, whereas Chushou is in the mobile gaming space – reflecting the contrasting Western and Asian markets. Popular mobile games such as Tencent’s Honor of Kings and Onmyoji are some of the most viewed on Chushou, representing a lucrative market expected to reach 490 million smartphone users next year.

Chushou claims to have picked up 90 million viewers with a user base of over 8 million since being founded in August 2015, with 250,000 unique users live streaming their gaming activities every day. In comparison, Twitch claims 15 million daily active viewers and 2 million unique creators broadcasting every month. Twitch has evolved beyond a gaming platform, however, having incorporated more TV and music content, including a surprisingly successful cooking show hosting a number of amateur chefs cooking live online.

Only last month Twitch was finally made available on Alexa, allowing Twitch users on Alexa devices to track their favorite creators and receive notifications when a live stream begins, as well as discover games and channels.

Facebook has also pledged its commitment to investing in the e-sports market to better compete with YouTube and Twitch, working in collaboration with US games publisher Blizzard Entertainment.

Frank Lin, Google’s principal of corporate development in north Asia, said, “Chushou has built an impressive platform, with a dedicated and quickly growing base of content creators and consumers, and smart expansion plans. We’re excited to be supporting Chushou through this investment to help them execute those plans, bringing great mobile gaming content to more people around the world.”

The hype around e-sports remains overshadowed by VR experiences, which are well and truly pegged as the future crown jewels of the gaming industry. Network capacity and headset hardware costs are probably the two factors hindering the growth of the VR market most of all, with the latter receiving a lot of attention at CES this week.

A new product from Zeiss looks interesting, a VR headset designed to bridge the gap between gaming PCs and smartphones, by connecting the two and allowing more gaming possibilities through the VR app from gaming distribution platform Steam, which has 300,000 users. A smartphone is slid into the Zeiss VR One headset and then connected via USB to a VR-ready PC, with two wireless 3DoF (degrees of freedom) controllers linked via Bluetooth Low Energy.

This is a nice idea, but the problem still remains that a high-end gaming PC is required to connect to your smartphone, meaning the product is still targeting a niche market. However, the price point is compelling, retailing at just $129.

Meanwhile, Analogix Semiconductor has announced that its line of VR and AR display controllers, the SlimPort ANX753x, has been integrated into VR head mounted displays including the Microsoft Windows 10 Mixed Reality Headsets. It can deliver up to 120 frames per second using DisplayPort 1.4 input, 16-DSI lanes per device, and support for HDCP 2.2/1.4 high-bandwidth digital content protection. Used in USB-C and non-USB-C applications, the ANX753x is part of a suite of VR products claiming to enhance overall transmission performance of video, data and power between the VR source and the headset.

Gradual improvements such as this, positioned as a sort of middle man, could play a particularly important role in helping the VR industry to spread its wings.