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VENN Launch First Impressions: Grey Area, Dare Package, and Looking For Gains

On August 5th, 2020, within the hellish ruckus of apocalypse, VENN launched its 24/7 live network. Geared towards gaming, streaming, Esports, and entertainment audiences, VENN broadcasts original programming from its studios in Los Angeles, with plans to stream from New York next year. VENN’s big feature push is its live frictionless broadcasts across multiple platforms, including; Twitch, YouTube, Facebook, VIZIO & Samsung TV’s, STIRR, and XUMO. I’m all about the accessibility, but what caught my attention was VENN’s impressive line-up of highly diverse talent and fitting hosts for the network’s respective shows. 

The roster includes; Father of chaotic Twitch reality television, Austin, as host of Dare Package. Creative technologist, The Sushi Dragon, helming his self-titled show, and pop-culture veteran Emma Fyffe as a co-host on The Download.  

The standout on the network is Grey Area, a real-ass talk show discussing relatable life conundrums from career pursuits to sex and dating, hosted by multifaceted creatives, Sasha Grey and Jon “Dumbfoundead” Park. Grey and Park make a much appreciated, harmonious pairing as both are innovators of industry who’ve excelled in several creative spaces, where they’ve been the outsider.  

Sasha Grey brought an attitude and coolness factor to the adult film industry that has extended beyond porn and into all of her other mediums, championing body autonomy and self-love. (Self-love pun is nonnegotiable. Leave me alone). It’s perhaps a tired observation, but Grey breaking into the mainstream with such an undeniable and outspoken presence as a musician, writer, actor, and personality played a significant role in dismantling several negative assumptions surrounding adult film stars and legitimizing the career path. Sasha Grey comes through with boundless wisdom.  

Dumbfoundead is an OG. Understand, this man’s musical output has been consistent and prolific since his teens. His lyrics share a nuanced processing of current events, immigration, and traversing the entertainment industry. You all really need to put way, way more respect on this man’s career and what he’s done for young Asian kids’ confidence. Park is a pioneering figure in the online independent artist space. He’s been pivotal in the inception of Knocksteady and 88Rising. Park has also showcased immense creative range as a writer, actor, and host — the latter proving especially true in his podcast Fun With Dumb, where he interviews diverse creatives. 

Grey Area focuses on one core topic per episode, with Grey, Park, and a guest sharing anecdotes and advice. Guests are varied in their wealth of life experience, from Chef Roy Choi to stand-up legend, Russell Peters. The show is conversational, featuring polls and Discord callers. It does a great job approaching its extensive viewer interaction and subject matter from a grounded, inclusive, and supportive space. The first few episodes had their fair share of expected production awkwardness. There are moments where jokes don’t seem to land among the hosts — but you can hear staff way off in the studio laughing. Other minor technical hiccups and lagging are quickly soothed as the show progresses. Ultimately, the show maintains a fun, engaging atmosphere. 

Austin’s Dare Package, the show I was most intrigued by, seems to have had the rockiest start. Each week, eight contestants receive a “drop” filled with a mix of Fear Factoresque and goofy YouTuber challenges. Most of the show’s contestants are regulars from the Austinverse, having appeared previously on his other Twitch shows; this means viewers are coming to the show already rooting for specific contestants. The built-in investment makes viewers a tad less tolerant when their favorite players get eliminated in ways they perceive as unfair or due to a structural kink within the show’s format. Some viewers felt that the show’s dares were arranged in an anti-climatic order, with the grosser undertakings frontloaded in the episode. Others felt the show’s pacing was bogged down while explaining the game’s rules. 

Dare Package is an ambitious concept for a live show and will likely take a few more episodes to get itself together. The show still has some great moments of banter between contestants, as is expected from Austin’s work. Given his other shows, The Royale Podcast and Love or Host, Austin is uniquely qualified to host a gameshow dealing with a large cast of contestants.

Looking For Gains is a live workout/talk show hybrid, hosted by gaming and fitness YouTube personality, Cash. As those of you who’ve seen my physical form know, I am an absolute weapon. My body was ready. Looking For Gains is made up of workout segments, which include members of the audience on-screen in “The Sweatbox,” and interview segments where the guest shares their personal fitness journey. This show had the least amount of unintentionally uncomfortable moments, and the highest energy — indubitably carried by Cash’s natural, charismatic on-screen presence. Looking For Gains is a welcome addition to my motivational content consumption. 

The Sushi Dragon Show & The Sushi Dragon After Party are a glitchy, glorious, bizarre mess reminiscent of some older Adult Swim / now-defunct Super Deluxe programming. It is visually overwhelming and eccentric — a playful off-beat showcase of creative technology in the entertainment space. 

VENN Arcade Live is a variety gaming and pop-culture show. Very G4’s Attack of the Show!, but with a more likable cast. There are news updates, in-studio games, interviews, and live musical performances. Recent acts include The Wallows and Cyn. Arcade Live, along with the rest of VENN’s programming, boasts insanely cool guest line-ups.

I had some concerns VENN Arcade Live and The Download would overlap in format, but The Download takes a panel approach, with more deep-dive discussions of various news topics. Arcade Live and The Download seem to serve as VENN’s safety shows. They’re the standard pop-culture and variety formats. 

Guest House, hosted by musician Chrissy Costanza, is the truest to the Twitch streaming experience. Costanza primarily plays games while chatting to guests, creating various crafts, and occasionally reacting to other content. Wholesome, homey vibes.

VENN’s programming is lively and current but is still in its infancy, broadcasting live for little over a month. It remains to be seen if VENN’s current programming proves dramatically superior to their non-live contemporaries. Is VENN’s The Download a more substantial show than RoosterTeeth’s Inside Gaming, for example? Dumbfoundead’s Fun With Dumb podcast still maintains more intimate, enriching conversations with callers than Grey Area, though this is a product of time constraints. Will this initial catalog achieve the network’s larger goals? VENN certainly sparks confidence, in that they’ve identified the top hosting talent in the space, and there’s a clear interest in more elaborate projects like Dare Package. Not to mention, VENN’s back-end is crazy. 

The network is founded and funded by entertainment industry goliaths. According to crunchbase, and news sources like TechCrunch, and Forbes, VENN’s raised $17million in seed funding from Esports investment group aXiomatic Gaming (holdings in Team Liquid, Niantic, and Epic Games), and co-founders of Riot Games, Twitch, and Blizzard Entertainment.

VENN is co-founded by Ariel Horn and Ben Kusin, both entrepreneurial forces in entertainment. Horn is a four-time Emmy Award-winning global executive producer. Before VENN, Horn was the strategic marketing/promotion manager at NBC Sports and worked with Olympics. Horn is the founder and executive producer of The Horn Corp, which helmed BlizzCon for Blizzard Entertainment and was a pioneering figure in League of Legends Esports broadcasting, and is presently a senior strategic advisor to Dominion China League of Legends Esports. 

Co-founder, Ben Kusin, has a family lineage rooted in the gaming industry. His father, Gary Kusin, co-founded videogame retailer Babbage’s in 1984, which later became GameStop. He’s also served as CEO and President of FedEx Kinko’s and EA (Electronic Arts). Before co-founding VENN, Ben Kusin worked as a brand marketer for EA and as the Global Director of New Media & Strategic Alliances for Vivendi Universal Games (Later, Activision Blizzard). Ben Kusin has an eclectic portfolio outside of games, including an apparel company, Stylehaüs, and restaurant, Malibu Poke. 

VENN has the resources and the right people to build something unique and genuinely post-cable, geared towards gaming and Esports audiences, and where they intersect with the various lifestyle beats. VENN plans to integrate existing gaming/entertainment IPs to elevate those respective brands’ franchise value and accessibility while expanding its current programming. 

Watch VENN here.

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