Welcome to the Metaverse, where audience fragmentation reigns
Photo: Victor Rodriguez
In Ernest Cline’s dystopian novel Ready Player One, the metaverse unfurls as a virtual universe where choice over identity and experience are boundless. Such is the seamless experience of Cline’s ‘Oasis’ that it competes, and wins, when pitted against conventional reality. Wade Watts, the protagonist, would much rather spend all his waking hours plugged into the metaverse than contending with a world pushed to the brink by disease, famine, and climate change. Of course, Cline has leant on the scales somewhat by making the real world so unpalatable. Yet, his vision goes a long way to capturing the potential freedoms the metaverse could yield once it is fully realised.
And with that comes the rub. Much of science fiction imagines the metaverse in a fully formed state. The barriers posed by data centre capacity, personal computing power, network penetration, and interoperability constraints are already problems of the past in these fictional worlds. They also tend to depict a scenario where much of the market dislocation has already occurred. In Ready Player One, Oasis founder James Halliday has won out against his rivals to become the pre-eminent tech mogul commanding the kind of gargantuan wealth that accompanies market dominance.
Virtual walled gardens
This endgame is but a speck on the horizon for the entertainment companies of today that are beginning their metaverse journey. At present, the market leaders are ill-defined, and the technology is unproven. The only certainties appear to be the direction of travel and the upheaval to the entertainment ecosystem that it will bring. As a result, the metaverse is emerging less as a holistic proposition and more as a swarm of siloed worlds that will fragment audiences beyond the disruption heralded by streaming and social media.
The recent push by Warner Bros. Discovery Sports into the metaverse is a case in point. By teaming up with the metaverse developer Infinite Reality, the company has forged a virtual world to encompass the UCI Track Champions League. While not as visually sophisticated as a video game metaverse like Fortnite, the pair have created a compelling offer for targeting and nurturing fandom. Within the confines of a giant futuristic track helmet, fans can use their avatar to watch live race feeds, choose between camera angles during a race, and even visit a dedicated area for documentaries. Plans are also afoot to introduce a gaming element, where fans can virtually compete against their favourite riders and each other. Such is Warner Bros. Discovery’s excitement that four metaverse sporting experiences are being developed.
Defending against digital disruption
From a defensive standpoint, there is plenty of logic here. With the experience being offered across desktop and smartphone, there is an opportunity for Warner Bros. Discovery to increase engagement by narrowing the distance between athletes and their fans. The universe also gives Warner Bros. Discovery the chance to control the shift of their current pay-tv customers to a new digital reality without losing them to rivals. Essentially, they are using the metaverse to create a type of digital theme park, where a hyper fandom experience tries to persuade users from ever leaving.
If all entertainment companies take this approach for their intellectual property, then there will be an extension of the disruptive behaviours that have swept the industry in recent years. The splintering of entertainment beyond radio, television, and printed media, towards streaming, digital downloads, and social media has caused audiences to fragment with them. The entertainment funnels are not few, but many. Audiences cherry-pick entertainment based on their niche interests and favourite creators, rather than sit and be served through the TV programming schedule. This time around, however, it will also be the streaming and social media companies that are threatened by the dislocation.
The question is whether this is truly in the spirit of what science fiction writers envisaged when they conjured up their metaverse. Regardless of how compelling each metaverse becomes, they may only seek to extend the problems confronting SVOD services, where the walled gardens around their content have led to a frustrating, confusing, and completely overwhelming user experience. The solution is interoperability: a problem SVOD services have yet to solve in the streaming age. Ultimately, the metaverse is likely to become a noisy, sporadic, and messy place that entertainment will have to navigate before it bares any resemblance to the seamless (if dystopian) experience of Cline’s Oasis.