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Sunday, March 3, 2024

Facebook Gaming Is Here—but Who Is It For?

For years, the words “Facebook” and “gaming” were more likely to evoke memories of an aunt’s dusty Words With Friends invitation than anything else. And for years, Facebook has been on a journey to change, or at least broaden, its stodgy reputation among gamers young and old with its game-streaming platform, virtual reality technology, and push into cloud gaming.

As part of that many-pronged adventure into the $120 billion games industry, Facebook launched its Facebook Gaming app today, where users can both pick back up that old Words With Friends game and watch their fifth or sixth-favorite Call of Duty streamer click heads. It’s an ambitious app aimed at helping you produce and interact with gaming content just as much as you consume it, yet in its early stages, doesn’t do any one thing well enough to feel competitive.

Facebook Gaming arrives earlier than originally planned for Android, as the company tries to catch the waves of bored quarantined users flocking to both games and gaming entertainment content, The New York Times reports. (It will release on iOS once Apple approves it.) When you first open the app, it asks you to select some of your favorite games, and then suggests some streamers to follow. It has a news feed tab displaying clips, videos, and posts from gaming groups like regular Facebook; a tab for playing popular Facebook games like OMG and Nametests; a tab for watching or discovering livestreams; and a tab for messages. Camera buttons sit on both the bottom right and top left of the main page for livestreaming yourself playing mobile games installed on your phone.

Facebook Gaming’s offerings alternate uncomfortably between products pitched to people who might watch esports on Twitch and those tilted to the more casual Words With Friends crowd. Both ride on the heels of previous Facebook products: For over a decade, Facebook has hosted casual games like FarmVille, and more recently launched a livestreaming service to compete with Amazon’s Twitch or YouTube’s “Gaming” section. There are better, more established streaming services out there, and it is just as easy to play Facebook games in the original Facebook app. Facebook Gaming gathers these two things together, but for whom?

Facebook has recently tried to attract tried and true gamers by signing exclusive streaming deals with noted celebrities and microcelebrities, from former Super Smash Bros. pro Gonzalo “Zero” Barrios to strategy game streamer Jeremy "Disguised Toast" Wang. They’ve drawn a little notoriety to the platform, pushing Facebook Gaming into the third-place spot in the livestreaming wars behind Twitch and YouTube. (In the first quarter of this year, Facebook’s game-streaming service received about a sixth as many hours watched as Twitch and half of YouTube’s “Gaming” section. That said, its hours watched quadrupled year over year in January.) Streams discovered through Facebook Gaming are typically not as polished or hype as those on Twitch, although there are a handful of well-promoted streamers whose pages and past videos are easy to navigate.

It is also incredibly easy to stream yourself playing mobile games on Facebook Gaming; four clicks, give or take. But who streams mobile games? It isn’t anywhere near as popular as streaming PC or console games. I went live on Facebook Gaming playing both Bubble Shooter (via the app) and Overwatch (via my gaming PC and the streaming software OBS). Two friends could not find me streaming Overwatch on Facebook Gaming, although surely it was the more interesting stream. Facebook says it's continuing to fine-tune the app's discoverability features.

What most excited me about the app was actually its news feed. I’d gleefully delete my Facebook profile if not for meme groups, and especially gaming meme groups, which I gulp down before bed like a warm mug of chamomile tea. A news feed dedicated entirely to gaming memes and gameplay clips is something I personally would fire up a separate app to consume—especially if I can easily hit a tab to heckle my friend streaming themselves playing Call of Duty’s Warzone. Right now, Facebook Gaming is light on this sort of #content. Although my favorite Animal Crossing: New Horizons meme group posts sometimes appear, and I’ve followed a lot of gaming groups, my news feed is mostly “crazy” Call of Duty clips and streamers I don’t know.

Facebook has spun out a lot of apps, with mixed results. Of course there’s Messenger, which for many has taken the place of SMS apps. But remember Notify? Facebook Deals? Facebook Camera? Me neither. Facebook has invested a lot into its push into games though, and has seen some success, in part, because of its cutesy offerings, deals with top streamers, and an enormous captive audience.

Although the gaming community is huge, and encompasses every type of person, products made for people who play games often succeed when they’re tailored to their specific habits. It’s unclear how a lowest-common-denominator platform can boost Facebook’s gaming presence, but in the meantime, I’ll be on the hunt for better meme groups.

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