Ep. 66: Beyond TikTok: Bytedance’s Ambitions in Gaming and Education

In episode 66 of Tech Buzz China, co-hosts Rui Ma and Ying-Ying Lu talk about Bytedance’s forays into gaming and education — moves that have been well covered and are eagerly anticipated by Chinese media. Notably, in multiple interviews, CEO Zhang Yiming says that he only wants to go into fields where he feels he is better than the incumbent. While Zhang believes, and we agree, that edtech has a lot of room for improvement, we wonder if Bytedance’s moves in gaming could be more effective if it defended itself against Tencent. What do you think? Thanks to some of your feedback on Rui’s special Luckin episode, we have changed the format of this one. Listeners should expect more experiments coming up soon! A reminder to check out Tech Buzz’s new events series for investors (open to all), as well as our interactive Virtual Happy Hours with listeners like you! Both are free. Our next Happy Hour is titled “From FAANG to BAT,” and we’ve invited a product manager who went from working at a large tech company in Silicon Valley to the same role at a large tech company in China. Jason will be sharing his perspectives and personal experiences on Thursday, May 7, from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. PST / 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. EST. You can sign up at techbuzzchina.com/community! All past transcripts are viewable at pandaily.com and techbuzzchina.com. If you enjoy our work, please do let us know by leaving us an iTunes review, and by tweeting at us @techbuzzchina. We also read your emails, at rui@techbuzzchina.com and ying@techbuzzchina.com. As always, thank you for your support. We are grateful for our talented producers, Caiwei Chen and Kaiser Kuo, as well as SupChina production associate Jason MacRonald. Stay healthy, everyone! Like the podcasts at SupChina? Help us out by taking this brief survey.

Transcript

(Y: Ying-Ying Lu; R: Rui Ma )

[1:22] Y: Hey everyone! Some light housekeeping before we start. First of all, thanks everyone for taking the time to write us your feedback on our experimental episode on Luckin Coffee! We’re glad you liked it, and you’ll notice that we structured today’s episode a bit differently based on your reactions!

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Y: Third, don’t forget to check out our upcoming events! For investors, we have a webinar series that invites leading industry experts from China tech and beyond to answer your burning questions about what things look like at the ground level. Topics we’ve covered so far include covid19 impacts to luxury e-commerce and livestreaming. Is there anything else you’re dying to know more about? Send us your suggestions!

R: We’re also holding Virtual Happy Hours with the community every few weeks. These are free to attend and very interactive! We generally invite a speaker to present a topic, do some Q&A and then you get to mingle and meet other Tech Buzzers in smaller breakout rooms for deeper discussion. We did one on “How Chinese Apps Coped with COVID19” recently that was well attended, and our next one is titled “From FAANG to BAT” where we’ve invited a product manager who went from one of the big techcos in Silicon Valley to PM-ing in a China bigtechco. He’ll share his perspectives and personal experiences on Thursday, May 7, 6-7PM PST.

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[3:59] R: Hi everyone! We are TechBuzz China by Pandaily, powered by the Sinica Podcast Network by SupChina!

Y: We are a biweekly podcast focused on giving you a peek into what’s buzzing within the tech community in China.

R: We uncover and contextualize unique insights, perspectives and takeaways on headline tech news that don’t always make it into English language coverage. So you can be smarter about the world of China tech. TechBuzz China is a part of Pandaily.com, an English language site that tells you “everything about China’s innovation.” I’m one of your two co-hosts, Rui Ma.

Y: And I’m your other co-host, Ying-Ying Lu. We’d like to acknowledge our partners DealStreetAsia and SupChina, creator of the Sinica Podcast Network! In addition to Tech Buzz, you can also find Sinica which covers current affairs, and the Caixin-Sinica Business Brief from China’s leading business magazine.

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[5:30] R: OK everyone, we’ve done a few episodes now on Bytedance, the world’s most valuable startup, and even when we don’t dedicate an entire episode to it, it keeps on showing up.

Y: Yeah, our first episode dedicated to it was shortly after we started, Episode 9, when we covered Tencent and Bytedance’s lawsuits against each other. We were a very different show then, and we weren’t going into detail on each company yet.

R: But by November 2018, for Episode 28, we had already started doing comprehensive overviews of companies and sectors, covering founder stories, fundraising journeys, product pivots, and that is the episode you should go back and relisten to if you want to know how Bytedance got to where it is today, the world’s most valuable startup.

Y: Bytedance has done a lot of stuff in the year and a half since. Of course, short video app Tik Tok / Douyin remains a global phenomenon. It was the second most downloaded free app last year, across Apple and Android, and recently hit 400million DAU in China. Wallaroo apparently estimates that the global MAU is at 800mm. That’s in just its one app. It’s got a suite of others, including the original moneymaker, news app Toutiao.

R: It was rumored to have made $20Bn in revenues last year, and targeting up to $29Bn this year, although the company has since denied those numbers. If you ask me, those numbers do sound high, especially when compared with the $7Bn it supposedly made in the first half of 2019, but whatever it is, double digit billions seems all but certain, we just don’t know for certain what the leading digit is.

[7:24] Y: We’ll be doing several new episodes on Bytedance, but today’s focus is on its new growth areas. That’s right. Toutiao and Tik Tok are kind of old news at this point, so we wanted to talk about something that’s gotten a lot of exposure in Chinese media and has a lot of people very eagerly anticipating their next move.

R: We are, of course, as you can tell by the episode’s title, talking about Bytedance’s pushes into gaming and education. How important are these to the company? Well, gaming is Bytedance’s nemesis Tencent’s bread and butter, and as one of the most lucrative sectors in China tech, there is every reason for Bytedance to develop an ecosystem here, especially since any kind of partnership with Tencent is probably out of the question.

Y: As for education, of Bytedance’s ambitious hiring plans for the year, roughly a quarter, or 10,000 people, are for its education unit. And some of Zhang Yiming’s most trusted lieutenants and most prized acquired talents are working on it. So it’s pretty obvious how important this is. But first things first, let’s start with gaming.

Going into Gaming

[8:43] R: Let’s take the time to levelset a bit here, because everyone knows gaming is big but for the folks who don’t play games — fewer and fewer of you, I know — just how big the numbers are is always a surprise. So here we go, in 2019, gaming was estimated to have brought in $150Bn of revenues globally, with almost $70Bn, or 45% of it, attributable to mobile.

Y: Per gaming analytics firm Newzoo, the US and China are pretty much head to head, in part because of a slowdown in China last year due to harsher regulations in gaming approvals. We covered that particular issue in Tech Buzz Episode 19, one of the many we’ve done on Tencent and WeChat.

R: By another report, China mobile gaming alone was $18Bn last year, nearly double that of the US and growing quickly. Different folks have different numbers here, but whatever it is, China’s number is mostly driven by midcore games and esports games. The top 10 games in China in 2019, by revenue, were: 5 role playing games, 4 of them turn-based, and 1 action. There were also two racing games, and then one each in the strategy, MOBA — multiplayer online battle arena — and battle royale categories.

Y: Right. If you’re like me and hadn’t heard of these terms before, midcore means games that aren’t quite hardcore — that is, they don’t take up a ton of time, but they are still challenging, require skill, and put you in a competitive environment where you’re trying to outrank other players. And esports, well, esports games are games that have a professional competition element to it. Like League of Legends, or Fortnite, names you’ve probably heard of.

[10:37] R: If it’s not obvious to you by now from the headlines, the growth, and thus the money is in skill-based multiplayer games that have an esports angle. This is especially true in China where ad-supported hyper casual games haven’t been as strong as they have been elsewhere in the world. And anyway, even casual gamemakers like King, creators of Candy Crush, have been moving into midcore games, that’s just where the money is at.

Y: And when you couple that with esports, well, that’s when the game generates new content and monetization opportunities from within itself. It’s also how Tencent’s portfolio of games is now. Take League of Legends. A decade old, it still made $1.5Bn last year. And its mobile MOBA Honor of Kings? Well, that was another cool $1.6Bn for Tencent last year, and that could easily be a decade-long run too.

R: That’s not including Tencent’s battle royale’s hit, PUBG, or Game for Peace in China, which also was something like $1.5Bn last year. And all of these have esports associated with them of course. LOL has thrived for a decade, who knows how long more it can go? We’re still at the beginning stage of these things and have no idea how they will evolve with time. But what’s super obvious is that these are highly lucrative assets to create and own, so of course Bytedance wants in on the action.

Y: Bytedance seriously got into gaming in 2018. Some reports have it written as earlier, but it seems that they’re mixing up the acquisition of a calendaring app in 2015 that most of the early activity has taken place wunder for the actual gaming initiatives themselves. As far as we can tell, the company stopped updating this silly time management app, brought in a new head, and started working on games in earnest in 2018.

[12:40] R: Last fall, it published a casual music game called 音跃球球 and an autochess rip-off under the Art of War series that soared to the top of the appstores. Well, actually the music game began as a mini-game within Douyin in February 2019, available to Android users, and quickly became all the rage. The standalone-app, released in the fall has done exceedingly well, as has the autochess rip-off.

Y: Nerdy aside here: if you don’t know what autochess is, or auto battlers, as people have taken to calling it, you should Google it, as it’s been named by many people to be the best new genre since battle royales and is really new. Like 2019 new. It’s also got Chinese roots. It was created by Chinese developer Drodo Studios, who claimed that it was inspired by mahjong.

R: So there are two different things going on here, if it’s not obvious. One is this music game, which is hyper-casual and from the videos I saw, looks like you’re just this ball jumping from building to building in tempo to popular songs and 抖音神曲, music that’s been popularized on Douyin. Not that different from WeChat’s jumping game 跳一跳 that was mega-viral in 2018.

Y: Actually, it feels like Douyin is drawing from the exact same playbook. It’s not totally consistent across all reports, but it seems that the music game was developed in-house, by that revamped calendar app group we referred to earlier, and then published on Douyin. Of course, this required Douyin to put in the infrastructure inside of the game to support mini-games, just like how WeChat had to put in a Games section, and also decide on the monetization schemes as well.

R: Yup, the best way to launch the new functionality, which is really a new ecosystem, is to create a viral game yourself, demonstrate success — which is hopefully easy since you’re going to be the only game available to 400mm DAU — and then get others to sign on board. Well, so far they have. A main reason is that WeChat’s ecosystem is already crowded at over 2000 mini-games, it’s always much easier to be one of the first on a new platform, especially a large one such as Douyin.

[15:12] Y: Not just Douyin, Toutiao also supports mini-games. And if you are one of those developers to sign a sort of a first-launch agreement on Douyin, you can get up to 70% of the advertising proceeds, which is really good, given that WeChat began by charging 70%. In general, on Douyin, you’re probably looking at taking home 60%, unless you make a lot, in which case it goes down to 50%. This is, on the whole, a bit better than what you can get in the WeChat ecosystem currently.

R: Are mini-games big money makers? On the order of a League of Legends? No. Definitely not individually, although as a category of course it might become substantial. So why’s Bytedance going after them? Simple. Douyin and Toutiao are entertainment information apps and mini-games are a necessary party of a healthy entertainment ecosystem. We see with WeChat that at least 40% of its MAU also plays mini games. It’s a great way to keep your users engaged and it’s another type of lightweight content that fits into the overall Bytedance user behavior they’ve cultivated.

Y: It also increases int eractivity, which Bytedance has been ramping up on, but is still weaker than WeChat, of course. So that makes sense about mini-games. But that’s not going to get it to catch up to Tencent. Casual games are usually short-lived in their popularity, difficult to directly monetize, and also impossible to defend, since there’s no real core IP.

R: Right, which is why by all indications, it looks like they’re actually trying to build a sort of real gaming business. I mean, we’ve already explained how big gaming is in China. But it’s also huge for Bytedance itself. According to Gamewower, one-third of Bytedance’s advertising revenues came from gaming companies in 2018. And over half of new advertisers were gaming companies. And it’s been further speculated that MMOs take up a large chunk of these gaming advertising revenues.

[17:27] Y: Just due to sheer development time, it might still be casual games for a while for Bytedance, but the ambition for midcore and esports-like games is there. And the company is doing that through both quick hiring and acquisitions. On the acquisitions front, Last March Bytedance sank its teeth into Shanghai’s Mokun studio, as well as some folks in Hangzhou from Netease.

R: In December, they bought another gaming-related company in Beijing called Levelup.ai, which claims to use AI to make, play and test games. Chinese tech media does a pretty good job of keeping an eye on ownership changes, so they get reported pretty regularly. But these aren’t big acquisitions and there’s been a bunch of them so we won’t belabor them in detail.

Y: The point is, as of today, Bytedance already has over 1,000 employees in its gaming division, and is hiring aggressively. Not a large percentage of its existing 50,000 employees around the globe, but lots of gaming deals can be done externally too. And it will hire 1,000 more this year, doubling its headcount to 2,000. Riot Games, by the way, which makes League of Legends, is only about 2,500 folks or so.

R: And this is as much out of ambition as it is out of necessity. There’s a couple of factors at play here. Sure, there is the billions of dollars of revenue that games can bring, but there’s also the simple fact that Tencent, which owns such a large share of the market, does not want Bytedance to profit at all from its IP. In case you missed it, last spring, Tencent sued Bytedance’s Xigua video for having “unauthorized” livestreaming of its Honor of Kings.

Y: And gaming videos, even casual gaming, but definitely esports generated video, is a big business. You probably remember that we did a whole episode on this on esports livestreaming on Tech Buzz before where we covered the two public companies in this space, Huya and Douyu and their competitors. That was episode 43.

R: You do not want to give up control to this very important and growing category of content to Tencent. I mean, you can say what you want about Tencent’s other strategies, but in gaming it absolutely dominates. Sure, in China you still have Netease, but Tencent has global clout. And Tencent hates you, so you’ve really gotta forge your own path here.

[20:01] Y: So far, Bytedance has done alright. Aside from the two notable titles we mentioned earlier, apparently it also had a top-selling free-to-play mobile game in Japan last month. I’m sure that’s just the beginning. With its resources and traffic, I can’t imagine that it doesn’t find some level of success.

R: Somelevel of success is pretty much guaranteed, I agree. The real question is, this “Oasis Project,” which is its codename, apparently, is it a serious threat to Tencent? Not now of course, but what about five years? Personally, I’m cautiously optimistic, it seems really tough, since Tencent is as formidable a competitor as you get, but gaming … it’s so dynamic! What do you think?

Experiments in Education

Y: Like gaming, education is subject to heavy regulation by the government, but unlike gaming, the government is genuinely interested in growing domestic competencies in this space, unlike gaming, where it seems to be often conflicted about how much it wants to encourage the population to play without end. But like gaming, online education has gotten a huge boost from the epidemic, and it is also one of the main new areas of focus for Bytedance.

R: If we’re going by headcount, Bytedance is looking to hire more than 10,000 additional employees for this business unit, way more than planned for gaming. It was also mentioned specifically in CEO Zhang Yiming’s letter to employees last month on the company’s eighth anniversary, as a new core area of focus for him. And if that doesn’t make you think Bytedance is taking this business seriously, former head of Toutiao Chen Lin 陈林, one of the most respected people in the firm, has been named to be in charge.

[22:03] Y: Well, technically Chen Lin is in charge of all innovative new businesses, including education, but education is the only sector on which he’s written some public thoughts, so presumably, it is very important to him. On a personal level, he said that both his mother and uncle were teachers, and his own fate was changed by education, so there is a lot of intrinsic motivation there.

R: We’ve done an episode already on the Chinese K12 tutoring sector, that was episode 61, which sounds like it’s not that big, but is actually $64Bn, with the online component expecting to go to $53Bn in 3 years. Those were all stats from before the epidemic, by the way, so who knows what expectations are now. Likely even higher.

Y: Which might be the reason why Bytedance has also primarily focused on this segment, at least thus far. I mean, it’s also not that hard to come up with content or find teachers to teach K12, so there’s that. But they’ve launched at least 5 products in this space, with the earlier ones more focused on English learning.

R: One of the first was gogokid, launched in May 2018. It is basically the same as VIPKid’s flagship product, one-on-one private English tutoring with Chinese kids. There’s no doubt that there is a market here. But if you remember from our episode 47 on VIPKid, marketing costs for such products are astronomical and you really only have the few years early in a child’s school years when they aren’t overburdened by unending tests that you have a chance for them to spend time learning English. So it’s been an unprofitable model, at least thus far.

Y: While most of China edtech has become pretty bearish on the one-on-one model, maybe Bytedance has a chance because with so much traffic it’s gotta be able to reduce marketing costs greatly for its subsidiaries. That’s how optimists see it anyway. But the one-on-one real teacher model also requires hiring and retaining good talent, and that’s not an easy thing to do. And so far, at least, its teachers aren’t very happy. Glassdoor has a ton of complaints.

[24:32] R: And while we don’t exactly know how it’s doing, it’s safe to say it’s definitely not been a blockbuster. Lackluster, more like. Gogokid has been plagued by rumors of large scale job cuts, although for now, it survives. But gogokid isn’t the only copycat education product that Bytedance has launched. It’s also launched 大力学堂, which is the dual-teacher classroom teaching model that others like GSX and Youdao use, and some people put this self-learning app 好好学习 as a Bytedance education app too, but I think that’s really just primarily an audio content app, not edtech as most would define it.

Y: Aikid is some pre-recorded, AI-assisted English learning lessons, and it sounds something like a LingoChamp or 流利说 focused on kids. That’s a publicly listed company ticker LAIX on the NYSE so we can see that it’s not yet profitable. Again, SG&A is almost as much as revenues, so maybe again, with Bytedance taking care of customer acquisition, this model can survive, but even if it does, LingoChamp is just $160mm in market cap these days, that hardly seems worth the effort for Bytedance to go after.

R: Nope. Which makes their other products 瓜瓜龙 English and Math also pretty puzzling. I’m not sure actually it’s that fundamentally different from Aikid, as it also touts native English speaker lessons for the English learning portion, and then WeChat groups with Chinese teachers for after-class help.

Y: I totally agree that none of these things seem particularly original, which is why I think both Zhang Yiming and Chen Lin have been emphasizing that while they want to do something big in this sector, it might take some time. Meanwhile, I guess, they are just copying?

R: Well, there was one announced but as-of-yet unrealeased project that seems like it could be something wholly original. Louis Yang, one of the co-founders of musical.ly, which Bytedance acquired at the end of 2017 for up to $1Bn and took inspiration from to make Tik Tok, is working on an edtech hardware solution inside of Bytedance. That was confirmed last fall. The team working on it is the old Smartisan team that Bytedance also acquired. You know, the failed smartphone maker that we’ve referenced a few times? Anyway, the product was supposed to be released early this year but I imagine the epidemic delayed things by a lot. It’s supposed to be something like “a 24-hour AI study coach.” Or “study buddy.” In hardware form.

[27:24] Y: It’s a little redundant to say 24-hour AI don’t you think? Is there AI that’s not 24-hours? Anyway. At least Louis Yang– who’s a nice guy, by the way– is staying with his mission. Musical.ly, if everyone remembers, the predecessor of Tik Tok, was meant to be an education app. That’s right. It was originally called Cicada and meant to be for short-form education videos, because Louis was a huge fan of online education, but appalled at their low completion rates.

R: It only became musical.ly when it was clear that 3-minute education videos were never going to take off. Louis can rest happy now though that in its new life, musical.ly inspired Douyin has a ton of education content. But it seems like that’s still insufficient, and that his insight seems to be that there needs to be a hardware component to all of this to make it work. Whatever it is, Bytedance is touting this hardware’s “AI” capabilities.

Y: Bytedance is really, really committed to its status as an “AI” company. It’s really done very few things that aren’t “algorithmic,” which makes marketplace projects like gogokid stand out. But maybe that was a holdover from an earlier acquisition, which would personally make more sense to me. The rest of the projects are clearly AI-driven, and we can probably safely consider Louis’ hardware initiative as most indicative of Bytedance’s ambitions. Education and AI, but try something a bit different.

R: The question is how different can they get with their algorithmic strengths. Assuming you even believe their AI algorithms are that superior, that is, because I know plenty of people who would argue otherwise. But it’s not been proven that “better algorithms” is what students need. A lot of people are very skeptical that Bytedance has the DNA to succeed in this sector, which has traditionally been very reliant on recruiting and retaining talented teachers.

Y: Right. And there’s a lot of competition in a tightly regulated space. But the flipside is that none of the big players in the space have a tech-driven DNA. Not really. Not like Bytedance. I mean, a good number of them, like GSX’s CEO, still come from the New Oriental alumni network. That’s old school. And if you’re betting that AI will transform education, then, OK, Bytedance seems like it’s got a decent shot.

And In Conclusion

[30:10] R: So what has Bytedance been up to? Well, it’s expanding like crazy. The company is already massive at 60,000 employees but has a target of 100,000 employees globally by the end of the year. By the way, that would put it on par with Alibaba.

Y: Being so gargantuan, its every move is scrutinized heavily. And in the past few years, Chinese company ownership changes have become a lot more transparent, meaning that it’s pretty hard to hide acquisitions and investments, so we can get a good sense of how it’s been growing.

R: And two of its biggest new growth areas are gaming and education. In gaming, it’s both creating a casual mini-game ecosystem within its apps, as well as trying to get more complex IP creation going. The former has been public news since last year, and the latter is obvious if you look at their job ads and acquisition strategy. And it has to do this because of its antagonistic relationship with Tencent, the biggest gaming company in the world, and definitely the leader in China.

Y: The move into education is also quite natural, since it’s also one of the most lucrative sectors in China, but the competitive landscape is completely different. The competitors generally have offline roots and no or low tech DNA. Yes, they’re also all exploring AI as a core growth strategy, but I can’t imagine Bytedance doesn’t have an advantage in this area. The big question is, how much of edtech is tech, and how much of it is actually education.

R: So different pros and cons for each area for Bytedance. And even though I think education might be the easier opportunity, I’m actually more bullish on Bytedance in gaming. That’s because gaming is constantly evolving, and there is no fixed output that you expect from a gaming experience. Different people find different things fun, and technology and data and design really do drive the core innovations in gaming. These are things that by definition, Bytedance should excel at.

[32:25] Y: You’re saying that in comparison, education does have a fixed output. Yes the methods of delivering learning can differ, but there are certain fixed ways our brains seem to learn — we can’t all of sudden start downloading bits and bytes directly into our brain cells for example, at least not yet — and there are established ways to determine whether or not your learning was actually effective. Like, there are easy ways of testing your English fluency, for example.

R: Yeah so, are improvements in learning usually because of innovations in pedagogy, or technology? In any case, it seems to be a more bounded space to play in. Teaching someone something effectively is also much harder than entertaining them! If we believe Bytedance is a company that is just very effective at collecting, manipulating, and responding to data, then gaming seems a better use of its strengths than education.

Y: Right, but even if data is not the largest part of the education business, but it does play some part, and if you believe that you’re going to be much better than your competitors at it, then why not go for it? And don’t forget that gaming is much more at the whim of the government, who can’t seem to decide exactly how strictly it wants to police this space. If you’ll remember, there was a 9-month freeze in giving out new licenses in 2018 that wiped out a big chunk of value for Tencent. Either way, Bytedance is not making a decision betweengaming and education, it is going full steam ahead in both.

R: Yeah, I’ve watched a lot of Zhang Yiming interviews recently and one thing he says repeatedly is that he only wants to go into fields where he feels that he can do much better than the incumbent. He’s been pretty open about the fact that he thinks edtech has a lot of room for improvement. His moves in gaming, though, could be more inspired by defending himself against Tencent. What are your thoughts? Have you used any of the apps we talked about this episode? Did we say anything totally crazy you disagree with? Or even agree with? Let us know what you think!

[34:45] R: OK, that’s all for this week folks! Thanks for listening and don’t forget to write us that review for your free Extra Buzz subscription. Have any questions? Email us! We really enjoyed putting this together, and we are always open to any comments or suggestions. You can find us on twitter at thepandaily, at techbuzzchina, and my personal Twitter account is RUIMA.

Y: And my Twitter is spelled GINYGINY. Tech Buzz China by Pandaily is powered by the Sinica Podcast Network on SupChina. Pandaily.com is an English language site that tells you “everything about China’s innovation.” Our producers are Caiwei Chen and Kaiser Kuo. Thank you for listening!