The DeanBeat: The narrative of the underdog in the gaming industry

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Our GamesBeat Summit 2016 event is approaching on May 3-4, and I am the head cheerleader and organizer of it. It’s going to call out stories about the “underdogs” of gaming and the lessons that we can extract from them. It’s only our second GamesBeat Summit event, and I’m looking forward to the talks, stories, and conversations that will come out of it.

As I noted last week, GamesBeat itself is an underdog. We’re a small publication, with an internal editorial staff of four. But we tell good stories, and we try to have a big and influential voice. We can identify with underdogs. And we are still here because you are still here. You’re reading us, and looking for guidance in an industry which continues to break the rules.

Games were once a $25 billion console game industry. But now games have spread out and become a $90 billion business, and we try to cover every piece of it from the right level of elevation. That $90 billion exists because the underdogs — companies like Supercell, Machine Zone, and King — seized the opportunities of smartphones and tablets to become the leaders of the mobile-first movement in games.

Games are everywhere, and everything is a game. Games have gone global. Games find their way onto every new platform, whether it’s mobile, virtual reality, or augmented reality. Platforms that support games are more successful. We have seen so many changes. Fifteen years ago, what sane person would have predicted that a 100-person mobile game company would arise in Siberia? That shows that the gaming world is flat and that good game developers can come from anywhere.

I’ve covered the game industry for 25 years, and I once saw the founder of Blizzard Entertainment as underdogs. Now the company is a goliath, as it’s half of Activision Blizzard. But Activision Blizzard is an underdog when you look at entertainment giants like Disney and Time Warner. Being an underdog is a state of mind.

Robbie Bach, the former chief Xbox officer, knows this well. He was one of the lords of Microsoft, the mightiest company in software, back in 2001, yet his team was clearly the underdog when it came to competing with Sony and Nintendo. They grabbed a foothold in the market, lost billions, and finally solidified their gains in the second and third generations of the console wars. Bach left Microsoft in 2010, and he wrote a book, Xbox Revisited, reflecting on the lessons of that time. In it, he was able to reveal things — like a long resignation letter he wrote after a disastrous first revelation of the original Xbox — that he couldn’t talk about earlier. We’ll see if we can find some wisdom and lessons from Bach, just as the game industry prepares to jump off into another new platform.

Other speakers, Neil Young of N3twork and Rami Ismail of Vlambeer, will be able to talk about carving out a niche in a world filled with competition. Noah Falstein, the chief game designer at Google, will be able to talk about the lessons for VR in the clash between story and gameplay in years past.

Our team’s individual rankings show we are among the top journalists in the world for social reach in games journalism, as measured by influencer marketing platform Traackr. We can puff ourselves up and make ourselves seem bigger than we are and punch above our weight. Game companies do this too. Little Oculus was once the underdog, and now it has the weight of Facebook behind it. Virtual reality is sucking in all of the investments, and mobile game companies now seem like yesterday’s favorites. But can VR be considered a juggernaut so soon after its unlikely launch?

Sometimes underdogs lose and go away, but their stories are always inspiring and instructive. I stole the theme from Malcolm Gladwell’s book, David and Goliath, which is a collection of stories about what we learn when ordinary people confront giants. It is about people who find an outsized challenge and are forced to respond. They ask themselves smart questions like, “What rules do I play by?” Certainly, they learn not to play by the rules that favor Goliath.

Gladwell declared that much of what we find valuable in this world arises from these lopsided conflicts. The act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty. These tend to be stories that everybody thinks they know, but we often get them wrong, perceiving a strength as a weakness and a weakness as a strength. Giants are not who we think they are. And the fact that you are, or you were, an underdog can change how people think about themselves and the world. Being an underdog can make possible what was once unthinkable.

I’ll let you try to guess the underdog stories of our other speakers, including Jeri Ellsworth, cofounder of Cast AR; Owen Mahoney, CEO of Nexon; Tim Merel, Founder & CEO, Eyetouch Reality and Digi-Capital; Amy Jo Kim, mentor at Maven Ventures; Sam Barlow, executive creative director at Interlude and creator of Her Story; Don Daglow, CEO of 4thRing; Kathy Astromoff, vice president of game developer success at Twitch; John Riccitiello, CEO of Unity; and Mihai Pohontu, vice president of emerging platforms at a little company called Samsung.

These people are all movers and shakers of gaming. But they’ve all got underdog stories to tell. I want to make sure that we hear their stories and learn their lessons, so that the game industry can more easily embrace new platforms like virtual reality, esports, and augmented reality.

Of course, not everybody is going to sympathize with the underdogs, particularly those who fail and disappear from view. But I think we can make just about any speaker fit into this narrative of David and Goliath. That’s our story, and we’re sticking to it. We hope you’ll join us at GamesBeat Summit.

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