On July 21, 2020, Video Game Entertainment and News Network, aka VENN, debuted a splashy new trailer — complete with an original electro-pop theme song called “Wildfire” — to promote its impending launch.
“Gaming is everything,” says the narrator over the thump of the music. “Our adventures. Our stories. Our wins. Our losses. Our passion. Our community. And we're building a home to celebrate what we love the most.”
The video shows off the new company’s lavish studio space in Playa Vista, Los Angeles and features footage of numerous, gigantic video walls being installed. There are glimpses of the network’s young, diverse cast of influencer hosts — including Jimmy Wong, who appeared in 2020’s Mulan, and Sasha Grey, a former adult film actress — interspersed with shots of stadiums filled with screaming esports fans. VENN, the high-production-value video makes clear, would be the 24/7 home for gaming, entertainment, and music content.
The presentation fit with the grand ambitions of co-founders Ben Kusin and Ariel Horn, both of whom have years of experience in the gaming industry. For six years, Horn served as the head of broadcast and esports content at Riot Games. (After being embroiled for years over allegations of gender-based discrimination, Riot in December agreed to a $100 million settlement.) This was after nearly a decade in marketing and production at NBC.
Kusin is the son of Gary Kusin, a co-founder of Babbage’s — the company that would become the dominant force in gaming retail, GameStop. Kusin worked in marketing at Electronic Arts and Vivendi Games and started up several businesses with his brother Eric, including a poke restaurant chain in Texas and an odor-eliminating clothing wipe company, Reviver, which was featured on Shark Tank. (The product was marketed as “breath mints for clothes.”)
“We think streamers, casters, content creators, these are the new celebrities,” Kusin told TechCrunch in September 2019, when VENN was first announced. “What MTV TRL used to be back in the day, if that were to launch today, what would it look like? This culture would be seen through the lens of gaming.”
The plan was to cast a wide net with its content. VENN would ultimately livestream primarily on Twitch, with its shows also distributed on the Roku Channel, Xumo, DistroTV, and others. From there, it repackaged its content for other platforms such as YouTube. “It’s going to be everywhere,” Kusin told the Hollywood Reporter in April 2020. “We’re calling it a universal network — that means anywhere that consumers are consuming content.” (The author of the THR article would go on to work at VENN a month after its publication.)
Kusin and Horn were eager to get VENN off the ground, initially announcing its launch would move several months ahead, to July 2020, to take advantage of people stuck inside due to the pandemic. At the time, there were also rumors of the potential return of G4, a TV network from the early aughts that produced similar programming — the previous “MTV of video games.”
However, Horn and Kusin tell Input that news of G4’s return did not affect the trajectory of VENN in any way. “We always said if either or both of us succeeded, it would be good for games and the industry,” Kusin says in an email. G4 eventually relaunched more than a year later, in November 2021.
VENN’s July launch date was subsequently delayed till August. Initially, the company was going to begin with studios on each coast — one in Los Angeles and the other in New York — but the East Coast plans were put on hold due to COVID-19, and the New York studio was ultimately scrapped. (Horn tells Input that plans for the studio in New York were only in the preliminary stages, and no construction had been conducted before the idea was nixed.)
VENN was an exciting proposition for many of the people hired to bring it into being. “When I got the job I thought to myself, ‘This is the best day of my adult life,’” a former producer tells Input.
That producer, and the rest of the more than 100 employees who were hired, likely didn’t imagine that within months of VENN launching, nearly all of them would be out of a job, and that almost one year to the day of that flashy trailer’s debut, the company would enlist an accounting firm to help look for an acquisition.
“To describe VENN in one word: a nightmare.”
Over the last year, Input has interviewed more than a dozen former employees, nearly all under the condition of anonymity for fear of affecting future career opportunities. (Some sources were working at VENN at the time they were interviewed, but all have since been let go or left of their own volition.) Throughout the conversations, one point is made again and again: Despite its attempt to be the future of games media, they claim VENN was the most mismanaged company that any of them had ever worked at.
It’s a business, they say, that failed to understand its product and audience, with leadership that created a brutal work environment for employees. As one former worker wrote in an anonymous feedback form the company issued after a round of layoffs in late 2020, VENN is “extremely wicked, shockingly evil, and vile” — a hyperbolic evaluation invoking a judge’s description of some of the murders committed by serial killer Ted Bundy.
Sources describe VENN as a business that was too slow to act on complaints against some of its most hostile employees and pushed its staff into working overly long hours and taking on responsibilities outside the scope of their original roles.
“To describe VENN in one word: a nightmare,” a disgruntled former staffer says. “The heads of the company, they have no business ever again running any kind of production. They are in way over their heads. I’ve never seen a bigger shitshow. A boys’ club culture. Top to bottom, a complete, colossal failure.”
While these stories may read as upsettingly familiar, given issues plaguing decades-old gaming institutions — such as the alleged harassment and discrimination at Activision Blizzard — VENN was a new venture that could have been something different. Something better.
In fact, multiple sources say that the promise of a truly diverse and inclusive environment for its employees was explicitly made to them when interviewing to work at the company. They would all be disappointed.
VENN wasn’t short on money — to begin with, at least. VENN’s co-CEOs Kusin and Horn raised $43 million dollars across two rounds of funding and told staff soon after launch that the company had cash to last through the end of 2021. It also received two Paycheck Protection Program loans as part of the federal government’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, totaling more than $2 million.
Despite this influx of cash, the money was not seen by a good number of the employees. “I was making significantly less in this role than I would have in the same position at a different company, but I believed in VENN, and I wanted it to succeed,” says one of the former women producers.
During conversations with sources about compensation, a pattern emerges. Women who worked at VENN consistently say they felt they were underpaid. Multiple sources say that one of the only woman executive producers (EPs) at the company, Carol Patrick, was making less than one of the male producers.
“I’m very critical of myself for spending as much as we did.”
An employee in the know explains that Patrick’s salary was based on the money the company had to offer at the time of her hiring, which was before the launch, and that contracted positions potentially made more money because they did not include additional benefits such as healthcare. (When asked by Input about employee salaries, Horn declined to comment.)
Several of the men Input spoke to, however, feel like they were not only well-compensated, but in some cases, handsomely rewarded. “I was being paid more than I ever had for my position,” says a former male staffer.
Employees frequently mention staff bloat, and screenshots Input received of messages sent by Horn from early 2021 say that costs for running VENN were unsustainable. The impact of the quickly growing operations cost was corroborated publicly by Horn himself in a July 2021 interview with Dot Esports. “I’m very critical of myself for spending as much as we did,” said Horn, explaining how the company quickly succumbed to financial woes. Horn confirms to Input that staffing costs were one of the biggest factors behind VENN’s monetary issues.
Another big expense was the 6,000-square-foot production facility — a sixth of which was covered in LED walls — that the company built at its rented space at Vista Studios.
VENN had hired construction manager James Lee to design and build the studios. Lee, according to his LinkedIn page, is a former director of Gensler, an architectural firm that has done work for Sony, Time Warner, the NFL Network, and Riot Games — the last company being co-CEO Horn’s previous employer. Lee’s LinkedIn page lists him as the senior vice president of real estate and facilities at VENN. (Lee declined to comment for this story.)
According to a former employee who had access to salary sheets, Lee earned a “significant six-figure salary — in the top five salaries at VENN” until at least spring 2021. “He has rarely attended a leadership meeting,” that ex-employee says.
Lee, according to Horn, “has had an unbelievably illustrious career.” Horn continues, “There were a lot of reasons why he was selected, and he continued to expand his role as needed, working with us on COVID protocols. He was pretty continuously busy.” One of the few times employees did see Lee was when he would walk around the studio with a six-foot stick to maintain proper social distancing.
“The majority of this company is built on, ‘Oh, I’m just going to hire my friend,’ which leaves room for a lot of bias,” says the former employee with access to salary information. “I think there was just never anyone there to question the ways in which things were being done, because they were all inclined to agree with one another.’”
Indeed, a lot of the men in high-ranking positions at VENN had overlapped at employers such as Activision Blizzard, Viacom, and Riot Games. The company Dream Lab Consulting, which VENN brought on to handle its human resources, was run by two former Riot employees, one of whom was an acquaintance of Horn’s.
Despite the fact that VENN spent a large portion of its money on its L.A. studio, less than nine months after launch, employees learned it was shut down and production was being moved. To where? Nobody knew, at first.
“One day, we showed up for work, and the company had moved without telling us,” one former employee says. “The studio was just gone. And for a while, they wouldn’t even tell us where they had moved to.” Another source says that their first glimpse of the new office was when a video-conference tour of the space was offered to interested employees during an all-hands meeting.
The entire company, it turns out, had relocated to Burbank, to a much smaller production facility. Multiple sources agree that the company should have started in a smaller space to begin with.
Horn says he’s puzzled over confusion regarding the move. “I’m not sure why they were unaware,” he says. “There was a discussion before we moved, and as far as I was aware, there were tours through the space. There was, at least from my perspective, a lot of communication on what we were going to do within the bounds of what we could talk about.” Kusin echoes those sentiments.
“We were pretending that we were going to be MTV, but we didn’t realize the audience we wanted to talk to thought MTV was the stupidest thing ever created.”
While VENN was burning through its funds, it was failing to gain an audience, thanks in part to its passive marketing. Multiple sources say the company was relying in part on its influencer hosts and high production values to sell the content. “Across the board, there was no viewership because there was no strategy,” says one former producer, “The marketing was so bad. Industry contacts I had that were very established and I had been working with for years told me, ‘We have no interest in VENN. We have no idea what it is.’”
Another former staffer provides further context: “They didn’t understand their distribution from the start. They didn’t know where views were going to come from and how to build on the views they did get. There was a lot of focus on short-term gain. Success doesn’t come in the short term when you’re talking about Twitch or YouTube, and that was always the focus. It betrayed a lack of media understanding.”
Charlie Kreisa was initially brought on as a creative consultant at VENN and would eventually oversee post-production. “We were pretending that we were going to be MTV,” he says, “but we didn’t realize the audience we wanted to talk to thought MTV was the stupidest thing ever created. The tensions were raised because we all felt we were failing as a company in general, and we all turned on each other. No one was aligned, and that is what ultimately led to VENN’s downfall.”
Horn says the problem with VENN’s marketing was twofold. The first issue was that companies were mostly interested in advertising on “connected TV,” meaning products that enable viewers to stream content (such as Roku or Apple TV), and that this was not where viewers were actually engaging with VENN. The second problem he cites is in line with what Input heard from its former employees — the talent VENN hired was not able to bring viewers over to its channels, a big assumption the company's executives had made going into launch.
Despite these issues, in the network’s early weeks, VENN’s programming somehow enjoyed live viewership in the thousands. However, when looking at additional engagement metrics, the view count didn’t make any sense to staff, leading them to suspect VENN had been paying for viewbots.
During one broadcast in the network’s first couple of weeks, gaming insider Rod Breslau, known by the Twitter handle @Slasher, unexpectedly dropped into VENN’s Twitch chat and made a joke about the number of real viewers. When management caught wind of this, there was a panic, and after an all-hands meeting, the viewership began to drop dramatically. “Our views went from 20,000 a show to like 100 people overnight,” says one former employee.
In 2018, Kotaku spoke with streamers and found Twitch was possibly boosting views on users’ streams. This potentially was being done by embedding those streams into pages on a site that Twitch owned at the time, Gamepedia. The embedded videos would autoplay, and be muted, so a visitor to Gamepedia would likely not have been aware of it. Still, their page visit could have counted toward the streamer in the video’s view count.
Twitch no longer owns Gamepedia, but outlets have reported that there are still methods the company could be using to inflate viewership. A possible indicator of inorganic views is large spikes in view count happening all at once at a specific time. A former employee remembers in VENN’s early days that its Twitch streams would have a couple of hundred viewers to start, and then the moment the clock struck the hour, that number would jump into the thousands.
Horn says that all methods of boosting viewership were handled by Twitch directly. “What I consider marketing is bringing potential audiences to awareness about something and then converting them into fans,” he says. “Twitch has a number of different services that essentially do that.”
Breslau, someone who has known Horn personally for many years, was aware of the VENN project in the earliest days of its planning, and says he made it clear to the co-CEO even then that it was doomed to fail. He pointed out that relying on high-production values to sell content missed the mark of what drew viewers, and subsequently money, to services like Twitch.
Culture of crunch
Issues at VENN also were clear to some staff before any programming ever went live. “We were trying to build the plane while it was already in the air,” says one former employee who joined the summer before VENN’s launch. Another former staffer, who worked on VENN’s news show The Download, says, “It was impossible to make what they were asking of us with the time and staff size that we had.”
As a result, a culture of crunch developed at the company, with many employees working more than 12 hour days during and after VENN’s launch. “It was a hell of a load,” one former employee says. Some staffers were forced to take on an overwhelming amount of responsibilities. There were writers who were expected to host shows, assistants doing the same work as their senior counterparts, producers doubling as journalists.
Sources claim that when they saw a fellow employee bring up their workload to Kreisa, an executive producer and de facto head of post production, Kreisa told them, “Well, if you want another job, you can go get one.”
Kreisa confirmed as much when Input reached out to him. “We were bound under this ethos of doing everything together so VENN could have a chance at success,” he says. “If that means you have to do more than just your job title, that is what has been required at every network I’ve been at.”
To make matters worse, all of this was occurring during the pandemic. Initially there was a COVID compliance officer on site, and the staff felt relatively comfortable. Everyone was tested regularly, both with PCR tests and rapid antigen tests. That compliance officer eventually left the company at the end of their contract, and while another individual from VENN took over the officer’s duties, some employees felt that safety checks started to slip.
“I was exposed to someone that tested positive, and I was never notified, and that person was talent, so they weren’t wearing a mask or a face shield,” says one former employee. When this employee raised concerns with management, the higher-ups simply inquired whether the employee had been exposed for more than 15 minutes and then failed to offer them a COVID test.
Horn claims that VENN was consistently in accordance with CDC guidelines. “We never reduced our overall COVID compliance,” he says, while confirming that VENN’s initial external compliance officer left. “We trained some of our staff with official compliance ‘schooling,’ if you will, to fulfill those deputized roles. We never decreased our focus on testing or compliance. We followed the guidelines that were given to us.”
One staff member who contracted COVID, Zeus Ayter, was at the time the supervising producer for The Download. A week after testing positive, he tried to make his way into the studio despite not having taken a follow-up COVID test. (Ayter describes these allegations as “inaccurate,” but declined to comment further.) To many, he personified all of the issues at VENN.
Former staff members claim that Ayter often pushed them, as one of them puts it, “beyond human limits,” micromanaging both in the studio and over Slack.
“He’s a nightmare to work with,” says one former staffer who frequently worked with Ayter. “People have told me they’d rather be unemployed than work with him.” Another former employee who worked under Ayter says, “The way that Zeus treated a lot of the producers, especially early on, was unacceptable. The way that he would berate them was unacceptable. In an environment that wasn’t as fast-paced and as high stakes as VENN, he would have been fired immediately.”
A number of allegations, corroborated by numerous sources who worked for and around Ayter, were raised against the supervising producer. He de-prioritized or took the women producers’ names off of segment rundowns — a database of credits for each piece of content viewable to EPs and management — and replaced them with his own. One of the women producers was told, in front of her coworkers, not to speak in Zoom meetings and to mute her mic, allegedly owing to a personal distaste Ayter had for her.
“We hired quickly, and then we fired quickly.”
Numerous employees made complaints against Ayter to higher-ups, but it was only when, toward the end of 2020, a staff member broke down in tears and confronted a vice president about Ayter’s behavior that management was finally forced to do something about it. Ayter was reprimanded for his rudeness over communications channels while running the live show, and he received a negative performance review that fall.
Around the time VENN pivoted to short-form programming, management decided to split The Download team into two, with Ayter put in charge of a new show dedicated to esports. Multiple sources say that leadership was incredibly fond of Ayter, frequently praising him for many accomplishments that he played little to no role in. “They loved Zeus,” says a former employee who worked under the supervising producer.
All the while, VENN was shedding employees. “We hired quickly, and then we fired quickly,” as one employee puts it. There were two major layoffs occurring within the first few months, with the first letting go a majority of the team on the network’s flagship show, VENN Arcade Live (VAL), which was focused on gameplay.
Drew Ohlmeyer, the son of renowned television executive Don Ohlmeyer, was the executive producer of VAL. Before the network was even on the air, early hires had warned management not go near Ohlmeyer based on his reputation. Once he joined the company, there were alleged immediate issues. He was described by a former employee as “demanding and dismissive.”
Within a month or so of VENN’s launch, Ohlmeyer was moved to another production, but he was laid off by the end of 2020. Horn tells Input that the only reason VENN cut VAL was due to it performing poorly with focus groups when the company needed to rapidly cut costs.
“I had known Drew for a while, and never had a chance to work with him. I did some background investigating before offering him the role,” Horn says when asked about being warned by employees to not hire Ohlymeyer. “I got a variety of different feedback, both really positive, and some yellow flags. I felt like we had done sufficient legwork there, and had confronted him and let him know that this feedback existed.”
When Input probed further about issues with Ohlymeyer during his time at VENN, Horn says, “We gave feedback to multiple teammates about what may have been the norm in most television production scenarios was not going to be acceptable for us at VENN. So yes, we had conversations like that with Drew and other teammates.”
In an email conversation with Input, Ohlymeyer counters that claim. “Once in production, I don’t recall any specific feedback from management on any issues relating to personnel concerns. If anyone had such concerns, they were never communicated to me. That’s why the decision to cancel VAL came as such a complete shock. There was no indication from above that VAL had problems or was running out of time. That’s why we were completely floored when the show was canceled."
Ohlmeyer also vehemently disagrees with the negative characterizations of how he operated in the workplace. “I am confident my management style created and maintained a healthy professional environment aimed at meeting the requirements of a very demanding production schedule,” he writes.
“I made a conscious and sustained effort to check on my team members to ensure they felt comfortable and empowered to share their perspectives,” he adds. “I was the one who suggested reducing VAL to three days per week (from five) and to a one-hour format (from two hours). At the time I stated that such a workflow reduction would greatly improve the well-being of our team, which turned out to be the case.”
“It felt like I was being pitted against my colleagues to see who could create the better-performing content.”
When VAL was shut down, a few of its remaining staffers were absorbed by The Download, which increased the workload and output of that team. The one-hour show was increased to 90 minutes, and, in order to get the new version of The Download up and running, management went back on its promise of time off for employees.
The Download was not the only part of the company experiencing issues. “It felt very much like I was in competition with my coworkers,” says a former employee who worked in a different part of VENN. “It felt like I was being pitted against my colleagues to see who could create the better-performing content. That was what bothered me the most about working at VENN.”
It was around that time that employees were told VENN would be pivoting to short-form content for YouTube, as the company’s original business plan — which relied on distribution partners to showcase the channel’s high-quality content — was a huge cash drain. This news emerged during an all-hands meeting some time before Thanksgiving. During this same meeting, which was led by a member of management, the question of layoffs was raised, and while the possibility was mentioned, employees were told more news would be coming after the break.
To hopefully gain some clarity, one employee reached out to another member of management and asked them what was going on. The member of management was caught off guard. “I was like, ‘Are you fucking kidding me?’” recalls the employee. “‘You are basically right below the CEOs of this company. How do you not know what’s going on?’”
The staff went into Thanksgiving break with no additional information, and when they came back, management confirmed that layoffs — of around half the staff — and a pivot to short-form would occur a month later, to coincide with the end-of-year holiday break.
Amid this shift, many employees’ roles drastically changed, compounding their frustrations. And for several Input spoke with, their jobs became less creative and far more mundane. They had just gone from launching a live television network to producing prerecorded short videos for YouTube.
Carol Patrick, the underpaid executive producer in charge of The Download, was, for many employees Input spoke to, a champion at VENN who made things as bearable for the team as possible. But in mid-December 2020, medical issues Patrick has lived with for most of her life flared up to the point of sending her to the emergency room for the first time in 20 years. Upon hearing about the stress of her job, her cardiologist urged her to immediately take two weeks off from work.
After being back at work for around two weeks at the start of 2021, new, unrealistic daily deadlines pushed Patrick to resign. With no executive producer, a power vacuum formed, and one of the show’s hosts, Jimmy Wong, saw an opportunity to lead The Download. While some praised Wong’s creative talents, many on the team felt that he would frequently overextend his reach. “There was a morale kill that he’d bring to everything,” says a former staff member.
Wong gained fame on YouTube in the early 2010s, partially in thanks to his elder brother Freddie Wong. Freddie was the cofounder of the once-popular YouTube channel RocketJump, which put out action-oriented short films that Jimmy Wong sometimes produced and starred in. Jimmy went on to play the character of Ling in Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan and to voice one of the main characters in Sony Pictures Animation’s film Wish Dragon. Wong was initially brought on as a creative consultant at VENN, but was moved into a hosting role when the plans for a New York studio were shut down and additional talent was required in L.A.
According to sources, Wong reached out to them over the weekend following Patrick’s departure to let them know that he would be taking over as EP of The Download, leaving the team bewildered that not only was a decision to replace Patrick made so quickly, but that it was coming directly from Wong himself. When the staff raised their concerns to Dustin D’Addato, the vice president overseeing the team, they were assured that there had been no conversations about making Wong EP and that he would be spoken to about his actions.
However, by the end of the week, a solution was announced at an all-hands meeting: Instead of one EP, The Download would be led by a committee, including a production EP and two creative EPs, one of which was Wong. “They were throwing EP titles everywhere, because they wanted to keep people around,” says a source familiar with the management structure. “I thought it was a joke.”
Reached by Input, Wong disputes the characterization of how he came to power. “I did inform people that I took on this role, because it had been conveyed to me that the higher-ups, the C-suite, was on board,” he says. “I was being open and transparent because I didn't want to overstep any boundaries. There was a gap there, and they said, ‘We need someone to shoulder the burden.’”
With frustrations growing among the staff, one employee took it upon herself in early 2021 to post an open letter to the company’s Slack. The letter, a copy of which Input has obtained, specifically addressed the false promises that many of the female employees at VENN felt they had been subject to in their short time working there.
The letter pointed out that while VENN had hired a diverse pool of on-screen talent, “behind the camera it looks like any other company from a bygone era: overwhelmingly Euro-American ethnicities, overwhelmingly male.” The letter went on to say that its author, during the hiring process, was asked to provide “nerd credentials” in one of her job interviews — a request that this employee said was not made of her male counterparts.
In addition, the letter delved into how the team behind The Download — the show that had among the largest number of women employees — was consistently given less support than other groups, and it mentioned how many of the already small pool of women employees had left the company.
“Those that can personally speak to those extremely negative experiences? I believe them.”
“I didn’t experience any of what was brought up in that letter myself, but those that can personally speak to those extremely negative experiences? I believe them. One hundred percent. I saw that happening to them,” says a former male employee. Input reached out to the author of the open letter, but she did not respond for comment.
When asked about whether he had heard about the “nerd credentials” comments at that employee’s hiring interview during that time, Horn says he had not, claiming further that he could not recollect ever hearing that. When Input pointed out the fact that this was a phrase that was used verbatim in the employee’s letter — which Horn had been provided a copy of before it was posted to the company Slack — he replies, “I remember the letter for sure, but I haven’t read it in [many] months. I haven’t gone back and read it before talking to you.”
The letter was prefaced with a message from VENN’s new diversity, equity, and inclusivity (DEI) specialist, hired through the third-party firm Dream Lab Consulting (founded and run by two former Riot employees), who was approached by the employee with it before it was posted to Slack.
The foreword outlined several goals the specialist hoped to achieve, such as standardizing the hiring process and diversifying the leadership team, in order to eliminate bias at the company. The DEI specialist had initial conversations with team members to get a lay of the land, and helped facilitate complaints raised to human resources. One person's name was mentioned a few times: Jeff Jacobs.
Originally a contractor, Jacobs was eventually brought on as executive vice president and general manager at VENN in October 2020. Every employee Input spoke to agrees that Jacobs has an “old school New York management” way of speaking, and would frequently drop offensive remarks around the office. According to multiple sources, he once said, in regard to the leadership-to-employee ratio at VENN, that there were “too many chiefs and not enough Indians.”
When reached for comment, Jacobs responds, “While I don’t recall an exact instance I used that phrase, it sounds like something I could’ve said. It’s an antiquated phrase I no longer use.”
Jacobs was also the focus of an allegation of sexual harassment at the company. One employee who streamed to a personal Twitch reported to Dream Lab that Jacobs sent a message over Slack that he “liked watching her late at night.” The employee made an official complaint with Dream Lab over the remark.
When asked about what actions were taken in light of the allegations against Jeff Jacobs, Horn says, “I did a lot of coaching with Jeff, and saw good growth from him. He was addressed when we received any feedback.” Horn declined to confirm specific comments that Jacobs made while at VENN.
“Letting a staff member or talent know they did a good job and whether or not their performance was enjoyable to view while live gaming on our air was a part of my role and responsibility in giving creative notes, compliments, critiques when necessary,” says Jacobs regarding the alleged comment.
Horn explains that the speed at which management got VENN up and running impeded their ability to hire more diversely.
“There was one instance in which a staff member mentioned something to [HR],” he continues. “After meeting with them and my superiors and offering up the online conversation and them seeing similar comments made by me to multiple other staff members, all in the same professional manner, I was absolved of any wrongdoing.”
Around the time before this allegation was raised, a key member of Dream Lab — KC Hicks, an acquaintance of Horn’s from Riot Games and a founder of Dream Lab itself — stepped down. According to sources, Hicks told others he was frustrated by the continuing issues at VENN and felt that the company’s management kept insisting on using him as an intermediary between themselves and the new DEI specialist.
Hicks stepped away from the company he co-founded, reportedly equating working with VENN to being in a toxic relationship with someone who you wish would change, but is incapable of doing so. Horn denies that Hicks resigned from Dream Lab, saying he merely stepped away from working at VENN. A source in the know claims that Hicks completely left Dream Lab. (Hicks could not be reached for comment.)
With Hicks out, management’s dismissive attitude toward its DEI specialist only worsened. The DEI specialist ultimately left, feeling that they too could not affect positive change at the company.
When asked by Input about diversity, Horn explains that the speed at which members of management got VENN up and running impeded their ability to hire more diversely, so they brought on mostly people whom they had connections to already.
“Generally speaking, there’s definitely a flow in the gaming industry in terms of the types of candidates getting roles, and to move in the other direction is kind of like walking against the current a little bit,” Horn says. “I think we did a good job with our on-air talent. Equal parts male and female, with diverse, ethnic backgrounds. In leadership, our head of operations was a woman.”
In the leadup to mid-June 2021’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), for which VENN was listed as an official partner, the company had rolling furloughs, letting go of almost all of the rest of its staff.
This included Zeus Ayter, who very quickly found a position at Riot Games. Despite having previously run the company’s broadcast division, Horn claims that he had no hand in Ayter getting a job at Riot. “The people who hired him know me,” he says. “But I didn’t recommend him. I only talked to him briefly after he got that role.”
A skeleton crew saw VENN through E3, with each employee forced to take a pay cut of anywhere from 15 to 35 percent, on top of being given additional responsibilities previously handled by their now-gone colleagues.
VENN is now looking for a buyer, with all remaining employees, according to Horn, focused entirely on “strategically marketing assets.” Horn wished to finalize an acquisition by September of last year, but so far, no such deal has been made. Horn declines to reveal to Input the companies VENN is in talks with regarding an acquisition, but says “that process has continued to go on, and we’re having good discussions.”
“Even though G4 has a lot more going for it than VENN, it is going to run into the exact same problems.”
VENN might have issues finding new investors at the moment, given G4’s November 2021 relaunch. Meanwhile, some are dubious about G4’s odds. “I feel like G4 is in the same boat as VENN,” says industry insider Breslau. “They have the added advantage of being owned by Comcast, and those resources. But the whole premise of what these two do is pretty much the same. It is a blip compared to top streamers.
“Even though G4 has a lot more going for it than VENN,” he continues, “it is going to run into the exact same problems. I do not see a future for them.”
VENN is essentially nonexistent online. It hasn’t updated any of its social media pages since August, nor has it posted content to any of its YouTube channels since last summer. In fact, if you try to access VENN’s website, you get an error message saying that it is an inactive domain. Unless Venn finds a buyer that wishes to spin production back up, all of this is unlikely to change.
VENN was meant to usher in a new era of games media. Instead, the foundations allegedly were similar to those of the old one: sexism, manipulation, and mismanagement. In other words, the same allegations and accusations that have plagued company after company after company after company.
“This is an opportunity that is born from chaos,” Kusin told the Hollywood Reporter about VENN’s rushed launch to capitalize on the pandemic. VENN was not only born from chaos, but its short life was defined and ended by it, too.