Genies has raised $3 million from Bandai Namco and is opening an office in Tokyo as part of an Asia expansion for its 3D avatar business.
The investment and expansion comes just a month after the company launched a product expansion, extending its focus for its 3D avatars from celebrities to everyday consumers.
With the investment, Genies has appointed Yasuo Miyakawa, CEO of Bandai Namco Entertainment, as a member of the Genies KK directors. That creates some pretty strong ties with a major Japanese video game company which makes games such as Pac-Man, Soulcalibur, and Tekken.
“A year ago, we started to build a lot of traction in Asia,” said Allison Sturges, director of Asia operations for Genies, in an interview with GamesBeat. “We really wanted to make our second home or headquarters in Asia. With this announcement, our official Genies KK is opening an office in Tokyo. And we’re announcing Bandai Namco as an investor.”
The Los Angeles company started out creating cartoon-like 2D avatars that celebrities can use to make online social media appearances or commercials without actually being present. This has enabled many celebrities to continue making money during the pandemic even when they can’t travel to physical locations.
Then the company rolled out its 3D avatars and a software development kit so companies like Giphy and Gucci can integrate the SDK into their apps to let consumers create Genie avatars that can wear their merchandise.
A vision for the metaverse
Over time, Genies will expand its SDK partnerships, creating a digital identity ecosystem where consumers can transport their avatar from platform to platform. It’s kind of a mini-version of the metaverse, the universe of virtual worlds that are all interconnected, like in novels such as Snow Crash and Ready Player One. We are holding an event on January 27 that is focused on the metaverse.
“We share a vision around the metaverse around digital identities,” Sturges said. “And we are building that together. Especially with the pandemic, we’ve seen so many requests inbound to work with us, whether it’s through our SDK or with our celebrity talent. The metaverse is definitely something we’re talking about with them and they’re very passionate about it.”
Akash Nigam, Jake Adams, and Evan Rosenbaum cofounded the company in 2017, and Genies released its first avatars a couple of years ago. In 2019, Genies managed to sign up celebrities by offering to save them time and help them earn more money. Usage exploded this year as celebrities and everyone else had to go into lockdown.
Asked why Bandai Namco invested in Genies, Miyakawa said in an email to GamesBeat, “Recent advancements in augmented reality, virtual reality, 5G and other technologies have allowed consumers more opportunities to gather together in digital spaces. The metaverse, what we call these 3D virtual spaces built online, is also growing, and we believe it will only continue doing so from here on out.”
He added, “In the metaverse, as well as in other virtual spaces and with video streaming, participants need avatars. Avatar technology is a field expected to see further and further growth as we move into the future, and Genies is a company that has proven itself in this field, signing contracts with a wide range of celebrities.”
The 2D avatars mostly had big heads with tiny bodies. But the 3D avatars have a more realistic look, and you can see they are wearing things like necklaces, watches, or belts.
Miyakawa joins Shigeo Maruyama (former CEO of Sony Music Entertainment K.K and former Chairman of Sony Computer Entertainment), Shigehiro Nishi (On The Line chairman), John Possman (Tower 6 Ventures president), and Akash Nigam as newly appointed Genies KK directors.
Genies works with thousands of celebrities like Shawn Mendes, J.Lo, Offset, Rihanna, DJ Khaled, Justin Bieber, Cardi B, and J Balvin.
Why Bandai Namco is investing
In the past year, Genies built traction in Asia, including signings, and collaborations with the celebrities Namie Amuro, Miyavi, and Daniel Wu. It hired Peter Loehr (former head of CAA China and CEO of Legendary East) and Possman to support the expansion.
Miyakawa said, “We believed that when brought together, the avatar market expertise and celebrity network built by Genies and our own experience with game and character IP (intellectual property) would bolster both sides with excellent synergy, so we met with CEO Akash and the members of Genies in January this year. A major deciding factor in our investment came from this meeting, and seeing firsthand how the group of young professionals were pushing forward, tackling new challenges head-on.”
I asked if this alliance would be useful for Bandai Namco in games or outside of games, as the company is a giant in both games and the toy world.
Miyakawa replied, “Bandai Namco has amassed experience and insight in its primary business of the production, distribution, and sales of mobile and consumer video games. This experience is not limited only to games, however, and expands to include know-how on leveraging and fostering the characters of its intellectual property. Pulling back even further, the larger Bandai Namco group covers a truly wide range of the entertainment sector, including toys and much more.”
He added, “By combining Genies’ expertise in avatar technology, its celebrity network, and the fan-base it has drawn in along with our own strengths, we believe we can put our character IP to use, turning them into avatars and digital goods such as skins, as well as produce figurines, creating a new digital and physical fusion to further expand the avatar market. Our hope is that by pairing the strengths of both of our companies, we can spread the appeal of these avatars to the wider world.”
Besides investing in Genies, Bandai Namco invested in the sports market last year by acquiring management rights for the Japanese professional men’s basketball team, the Shimane Susanoo Magic. The company also acquired Canada-based Reflector Entertainment in September.
Sturges said that Genies has other strategic investors but it is not disclosing them yet.
Japan has a strong following for fan clubs of all kinds, Sturge said. Japan has embraced VTubers, or virtual YouTubers who are computer-generated entertainers, Sturges said.
“VTubers are a massive thing out there, but what excites me is the potential for us there,” she said.
Regarding the metaverse, Sturges said, “He’s really passionate about what we can do together within this metaverse world, bringing digital identity to their gaming properties or other social platforms. They also have experience bringing IP to the physical world of toys.”