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BTS label Big Hit Entertainment inks broad partnership with streaming tech company Kiswe

The town of New Providence, N.J. may seem like an unlikely home for a company that’s just inked a new deal with Big Hit Entertainment (the label behind the global K-pop supergroup BTS) and raised tens of millions of dollars from some of the largest venture capital firms in the United States, but Kiswe Mobile is proof that valuable startups can come from anywhere.

Founded in 2013 and led by chief executive, Mike Schabel, Kiswe Mobile is now extending its relationship with Big Hit from a one-time show in early December to an agreement that will extend well beyond the next BTS gig in what the two companies described as a “global partnership”.

Schabel declined to disclose any terms of the partnership agreement but said that it was more than a simple business contract between the two entities.

For the past seven years Kiswe has worked with some of the biggest sports and entertainment leagues in the U.S., including the National Basketball Association, Major League Soccer and the Professional Golf Association on streaming live events. In recent years the company has added eSports  to its roster — and live events including that December BTS show.

Founded by former President of Bell Labs, Jeong Kim, along with Wim Sweldens and Jimmy Lynn back in 2013, Kiswe Mobile offers a streaming service that has four different components that live entertainment needs to get back on track in the post-COVID era of social distancing.

The company’s technology offers a central production system for concert producers to process video and audio,  multi-camera and interactive viewing options for fans watching the show to communicate with the live performers and each other, and presenting it exclusively by either geo-location or through ticketing.

“This MOU opens the possibility for diversified innovation in the global market by combining Big Hit’s content planning know-how and Kiswe’s technology, said Big Hit chief executive Lenzo Yoon, in a statement.

Behind all of this technology are a number of high profile investors including New Enterprise Associates, the multi-billion venture capital firm based outside of Balitmore. Other investors include Revolution, the Washington, DC-based investment firm founded by Steve Case; Ted Leonsis, a co-founder of Revolution and the founder of Monumental Sports Group, and company founder Jeong Kim.

The company has raised well over $20 million in financing since its launch in 2013, but Schabel declined to disclose the total amount the company raised.

The Big Hit deal is meant to serve a precursor to the launch of a new BTS Concert and convention called “BANG BANG CON The Live” later this month.

That show is, itself, a prelude to more interactive events from Big Hit’s roster of talent powered by Kiswe Mobile.

Technologies like Kiswe’s are arriving at a time when live events need them the most. The recent Travis Scott Fortnite experience, and Marshmello’s earlier turn behind the virtual wheels of steel in Epic Games’ breakout hit are among a number of new technologies that are looking to bring at least some of the magic of shared experiences and entertainment to fans that are hungry for it.

Several startups are taking this moment to push interactive live experiences for audiences. They include the virtual concert design and distribution platform, WaveXR; the interactive streaming service, Caffeine, and development firms like Zoan, which created a virtual concert experience for Helsinki’s May Day celebrations that brought a crowd of 1 million.

Kiswe’s deal with Big Hit arguably taps into the biggest, and most rabid fo the music industry’s fanbases by reaching the members of the BTS Army.

As Schabel acknowledged in a statement, “Kiswe’s relationship with Big Hit Entertainment expands our huge global sports and media footprint into the music sector and allows Kiswe and Big Hit to explore new ventures in the industry.”

Fox Sports to broadcast the full season of NASCAR’s virtual race series

Esports racing, helped by record-setting viewership, is hitting the big time.

Fox Sports said Tuesday it will broadcast the rest of the eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series, following Sunday’s virtual race that was watched by 903,000 viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research.

While those numbers are far below the millions of viewers who watch NASCAR’s official races — the last one at Phoenix Raceway reached 4.6 million — it still hit a number of firsts that Fox Sports found notable enough to commit to broadcasting the virtual racing series for the remainder of the season, beginning March 29.

The races will be simulcast on the FOX broadcast network, Fox Sports iRacing and the FOX Sports app. Races will be available in Canada through FOX Sports Racing.

Virtual racing, which lets competitors race using a system that includes a computer, steering wheel and pedals, has been around for years. But it’s garnered more attention as the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, has prompted sports organizers to cancel or postpone live events, including the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament, NBA, NHL and MLB seasons as well as Formula 1 and NASCAR racing series.

Classic. @JimmieJohnson checks in live with @JeffGordonWeb during the #ProInvitationalSeries and says he needs to “learn different cars” for his 2021 schedule. 👀

(And Jeff helps him notice a bit of damage 😂) pic.twitter.com/5gFgl1f0e3

— FOX: NASCAR (@NASCARONFOX) March 22, 2020

NASCAR ran its first virtual race in the series on Sunday in lieu of its planned race at the Homestead-Miami Speedway, which was canceled due to COVID-19. Not only was it the most watched esports event in U.S. television history, it was Sunday’s most-watched sports telecast on cable television that day.

50 seconds of #ProInvitationalSeries virtual engines. CRANK IT UP! pic.twitter.com/wyG1JhFkPQ

— FOX: NASCAR (@NASCARONFOX) March 22, 2020

“This rapid-fire collaboration between FOX Sports, NASCAR and iRacing obviously has resonated with race fans, gamers and television viewers across the country in a very positive way,” Brad Zager, FOX Sports executive producer said in a statement. “We have learned so much in a relatively short period of time, and we are excited to expand coverage of this brand-new NASCAR esports series to an even wider audience.”

Granted, there aren’t any live sports to watch in this COVID-19 era. Still, it bodes well for the future of esports, perhaps even after the COVID-19 pandemic ends.

“The response on social media to last Sunday’s race has been incredible,” said four-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon, who is announcer for Fox NASCAR. “We were able to broadcast a virtual race that was exciting and entertaining. It brought a little bit of ‘normalcy’ back to the weekend, and I can’t wait to call the action Sunday at Texas.”

You can see what the virtual racing looks like here in this clip from Fox Sports.

NASCAR isn’t the only racing series to turn to esports. Formula 1 announced last week that it would host an esports series, the F1 Esports Virtual Grand Prix series, with a number of current F1 drivers alongside a number of other stars.

The virtual Formula 1 races will use Codemaster’s official Formula 1 2019 PC game and fans can follow along on YouTube, Twitch and Facebook, as well as on F1.com. The races will be about half as long as regular races, with 28 laps. The first race took place March 22. The first-ever virtual round of the Nürburgring Endurance Series kicked off on March 21.

LA tech industry mourns Kobe Bryant

The Los Angeles startup community is joining the rest of the world in mourning the death of NBA superstar, entrepreneur and investor Kobe Bryant who was killed in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, Calif., shortly before 10 a.m. on Sunday.

Reports indicate that Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna Maria-Onore Bryant, and seven other passengers were on board a helicopter traveling to Bryant’s basketball training facility Mamba Academy. There were no survivors.

The 41 year-old NBA All-Star, Olympic medalist, Oscar winner and father of four was most famous for his achievements on the basketball court, but had established himself as an entrepreneur and investor whose reach extended far beyond the Los Angeles area that he called home.

“Kobe was loved in Los Angeles,” wrote Mark Suster, managing partner of the Los Angeles-based venture capital firm Upfront Ventures, in a private message to TechCrunch. “He not only played at the peak of his sport but everything he did was quality from film, to books to philanthropy. It’s truly a sad day in LA.”

Bryant launched his venture career with partner and serial entrepreneur Jeff Stibel back in 2013, according to Crunchbase. The pair made a mix of early- and late-stage investments in Los Angeles-based companies like LegalZoom, Scopely, Art of Sport, The Honest Company, RingDNA, FocusMotion, DyshApp and Represent.

Last year, the investment firm expanded with a $1.7 billion investment vehicle that was launched in partnership with the private equity fund, Permira, according to a report in USA Today.

“We are mourning this terrible loss and still searching for the words,” wrote Mattias Metternich, co-founder of Bryant’s grooming startup, Art of Sport, in an email. “As a founding partner to [Art of Sport] he was woven into the very fabric of our company and its vision and DNA. As a mentor we drew on his wisdom, passion and drive everyday… In the short term our thoughts and hearts are with him, Gianna and his surviving family.”

Jessica Alba, the co-founder of The Honest Company, took to Twitter earlier in the day to share her own reaction to the news. And Scopely’s official Twitter account shared a reaction, as well.

An all-time legend, and our friend and supporter. Our thoughts are with all of the families affected by the tragic accident today. You will be missed, @kobebryant. pic.twitter.com/FzhNl5ndau

Scopely (@scopely) January 26, 2020

During his time with the Los Angeles Lakers, the MVP and 18-time All-Star set records and helped architect runs to five national championships. Together with Shaquille O’Neal, Bryant helped make the Lakers the dominant team in the NBA in the early 2000s.

“Kobe was the rare combination of God-given talent on-and-off the court with a competitive athlete mindset that was unrivaled to the point it was called the ‘mamba mentality’. Whatever he put his focus turned into excellence, whether it was an NBA championship, an Oscar, entering the VC game or — most importantly — fatherhood,” wrote Upfront Ventures general partner Kobie Fuller. “This loss is shocking and puts into perspective how precious our moments on this earth really are. My heart goes out to the Bryant family during this incredibly difficult time.”

While Bryant’s sports career was storied, and his post-sports career in media and investing successful, his legacy is complicated by a sexual assault allegation in 2003, which was later settled and for which Bryant apologized, but did not admit guilt.

Apple’s China stance makes for strange political alliances, as AOC and Ted Cruz slam the company

In a rare instance of bipartisanship overcoming the rancorous discord that’s been the hallmark of the U.S. Congress, senators and sepresentatives issued a scathing rebuke to Apple for its decision to take down an app at the request of the Chinese government.

Signed by Senators Ron Wyden, Tom Cotton, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Congressional Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Mike Gallagher and Tom Malinowski, the letter was written to “express… strong concern about Apple’s censorship of apps, including a prominent app used by protestors in Hong Kong, at the request of the Chinese government.”

Tim Cook gets a letter from @RonWyden @SenTomCotton @marcorubio @AOC @tedcruz @RepGallagher & @Malinowski re: China censorship. pic.twitter.com/dJlEAlheMX

— Jessica Smith (@JessicaASmith8) October 18, 2019

In 2019, it seems the only things that can unite America’s clashing political factions are the decisions made by companies in one of its most powerful industries.

At the heart of the dispute is Apple’s decision to take down an app called HKMaps that was being used by citizens of the island territory to track police activity.

For several months protestors have been clashing with police in the tiny territory over what they see as the undue influence being exerted by China’s government in Beijing over the governance of Hong Kong. Citizens of the former British protectorate have enjoyed special privileges and rights not afforded to mainland Chinese citizens since the United Kingdom returned sovereignty over the region to China on July 1, 1997.

“Apple’s decision last week to accommodate the Chinese government by taking down HKMaps is deeply concerning,” the authors of the letter wrote. “We urge you in the strongest terms to reverse course, to demonstrate that Apple puts values above market access, and to stand with the brave men and women fighting for basic rights and dignity in Hong Kong.”

Apple has long positioned itself as a defender of human rights (including privacy and free speech)… in the United States. Abroad, the company’s record is not quite as spotless, especially when it comes to pressure from China, which is one of the company’s largest markets outside of the U.S.

Back in 2017, Apple capitulated to a request from the Chinese government that it remove all virtual private networking apps from the App Store. Those applications allowed Chinese users to circumvent the “Great Firewall” of China, which limits access to information to only that which is approved by the Chinese government and its censors.

Over 1,100 applications have been taken down by Apple at the request of the Chinese government, according to the organization GreatFire (whose data was cited in the Congressional letter). They include VPNs, and applications made for oppressed communities inside China’s borders (like Uighurs and Tibetans).

Apple isn’t the only company that’s come under fire from the Chinese government as part of their overall response to the unrest in Hong Kong. The National Basketball Association and the gaming company Blizzard have had their own run-ins resulting in self-censorship as a result of various public positions from employees or individuals affiliated with the sports franchises or gaming communities these companies represent.

However, Apple is the largest of these companies, and therefore the biggest target. The company’s stance indicates a willingness to accede to pressure in markets that it considers strategically important no matter how it positions itself at home.

The question is what will happen should regulators in the U.S. stop writing letters and start making legislative demands of their own.