It’s no secret that Netflix is interested in gaming and esports. CEO Reed Hastings said as much in 2019, when he cited “Fortnite,” not HBO, as the streaming service’s biggest threat. And yet, Netflix’s entry into the gaming industry has been relatively tentative. “We talked about video games for several years, writing up the pros and cons with the timing of entry,” said Hastings in the Q2 earnings interview released by the company last week.
So far, Netflix has published a smattering of original games, such as a “Stranger Things” video game adaptation of its hit show. However, these efforts were not quite developed in-house, with Netflix turning to outside studios to do much of the development. Furthermore, the company’s move into the gaming world has extended to experiments such as the 2018 interactive film “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch,” along with adaptions of popular games with shows like “The Witcher” and “Castlevania.”
Earlier this month (July 14), Netflix doubled down on its commitment to gaming by hiring Mike Verdu to head up its game-development department. Formerly vp of content at Facebook Reality Lab, where he oversaw the social network’s foray into virtual and augmented reality, Verdu reports to chief operating officer Greg Peters. Before joining Facebook, Verdu also worked as a producer and executive for companies such as EA, Zynga, TapZen and Kabam. “Mike is an exceptional leader,” said Colleen McCreary, CPO of Credit Karma and a former coworker of Verdu at EA and Zynga.
Verdu was unavailable to be interviewed for this story and Netflix declined to participate.
Hiring a longtime gaming executive with game-developer experience is a logical move for Netflix, whose long-term goals transcend streaming and non-interactive content. “They routinely point to not Disney+, or Hulu or whoever as their competitor — they’re pointing to ‘Fortnite,’ they’re pointing to gaming because they know consumer attention is a zero-sum game, and gaming is starting to take on a lot of that attention,” said Jonathan Stringfield, vp of global business marketing, measurement and insights at Activision Blizzard Media. “So they want to make sure that if they’re primarily brokering their business on consumer attention, that they’re in that mix — and again, that attention is now increasingly moving towards gaming.”
Verdu’s experiences at EA, in particular, make him well-prepared to develop original games for Netflix. According to his LinkedIn page, he spent two stints at the company: first from 2002–2009, as the manager and creative leader behind games such as “Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-Earth II,” and then from 2017–2018, as the head of EA Mobile.
“He’s going to create a stellar team for them,” said Gary Cox, senior art director at mobile game studio MobilityWare. Cox, a former art director for EA, worked closely with Verdu on titles such as “Lord of the Rings.” “When we worked together, he showed great care for everyone on the team. We all had tight deadlines, had a very high-quality bar to hit — and Mike was there side-by-side with us.”
In addition to Verdu’s background as a game developer, his mobile gaming experience is a boon for Netflix, whose push into gaming is motivated by the relative strength of gaming in the mobile attention economy. Past mobile game efforts from Netflix, such as 2017’s “Stranger Things: The Game,” have been released widely on iOS and Android app stores.
“Someone like myself, who’s grown up doing gaming, I don’t even have cable television or linear television anymore. If I’m consuming television, it’s OTT, it’s through Netflix,” Stringfield said. “So, already, my second screen is different. If I’m watching Netflix, secondarily, I’m not on social media — I’m playing a game. So we have the same type of behavior [as non-gaming consumers] in terms of second screening, but a new manifestation.”
Capturing a slice of the gaming market will be a difficult task for Netflix, as tech giants such as Google and Amazon have demonstrated in their own shaky efforts to enter the space. Though Netflix boasts strong brand recognition, both in the gaming world and in general, its thin backlist of original games is unlikely to entice core gamers. Fortunately for the streaming company, it owns a wealth of pre-existing intellectual properties that are ripe for game adaptations, including “The Umbrella Academy” and “Big Mouth.”
Regardless of the difficulty of his assignment, Verdu brings an unprecedented level of gaming experience to Netflix. Whether through the development of quality PC games, mobile titles or VR/AR technology, his skills are an asset to the company as it dives deeper into the gaming industry.
“He’s one of a few people in the games industry who can probably lead this kind of opportunity successfully,” McCreary said.