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2 September 2021

Netflix games arrives with bang and a whimper

US video streaming companies are pulling off the gaming gloves, in a bid to peel eyeballs away from consoles and PCs. Reed Hastings has famously said in the past that sleep and gaming are Netflix’s two greatest adversaries, and with the latter becoming a reality for the SVoD darling, that just leaves the sleep dilemma to solve.

But first Netflix must make an impact in gaming, as it enters the space with trepidation from consumers, industry voices, and even itself. Poland is the first market to be graced with a couple of Netflix games, in a launch which smacks of angst and confusion.

Available only on Android mobile devices at present, the two titles – Stranger Things 1984 and Stranger Things 3 – build on the company’s only previous foray into gaming based on the popular sci-fi show which came a few years ago, which is hardly the exciting streaming expansion many expected.

Existing Netflix subscribers can access the video games free of charge, and naturally they stick to the Netflix mantra of an experience free of ads and also bereft of in-app purchases. Rather than being streamed from within the Netflix mobile app, users have to leave the Netflix environment altogether and download apps separately from the Google Play Store, which is an immediate barrier to entry for many consumers. Of course, downloading titles will ensure a smoother experience, which is what Netflix requires for a strong start.

Fittingly, Netflix has partnered with Poland’s largest cellular network operator, called Play Communications, to promote the gaming venture. However, the release materials do not make it clear if only Play subscribers can gain access, of which there are more than 15 million users. It is reminiscent of Netflix’s successful strategy of partnering with mobile as well as pay TV operators to expand its content to set tops and handsets with discounted subscriptions.

Partnering a telco is fine for peddling mobile games, but if Netflix is serious about a gaming strategy outside of the basic handset experience, then it needs some strong hardware partners.

It comes as fuboTV has added a so-called predictive gaming feature to its line-up, to coincide with the Latin American qualification stages of the 2022 Qatar World Cup soccer tournament. Using a remote control, the main game is minimized while the FanView UI shows off stats, while a raft of free to play games for iOS and Android devices has also been added.

Testing both free games and the FanView feature through June, fuboTV claims viewers stayed for up to 37% longer than those who did not engage with these features. During a webinar last week, we heard that those interacting with free to play games on fuboTV watched 33% more content than the average viewer, so rolling in engagement data from the FanView tests has apparently already bumped this up by 4%.

The gamification of video streaming platforms is a trend driven by a need to attract younger audiences. For fuboTV, the sports-first streaming platform fears an epidemic of younger generations falling out of love with live sports, as it experiments with interactive features to bridge the gap between streaming a game on fuboTV and streaming on something like Twitch.

For Netflix, its gamification gamble is a little different. It doesn’t need to, in the same way that fuboTV does (212 million global subscribers compared to 680,000), but there is a strong desire at Netflix to diversify and experiment, without bending the knee to an ad-supported tier. That is a difficult ask, and we are tempted to say that Netflix’s plans for a games licensing business could prove more fruitful than its direct to consumer gaming direction, which is a side hustle spurred on by the success of Netflix licensing its original movies and TV series to third-party content and service providers.