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Metaverse

Masayoshi Son to bet $170 mn on Naver metaverse platform

Naver Z to expand global market presence; Softbank to invest in other promising metaverse platforms

By Oct 24, 2021 (Gmt+09:00)

Softbank Group founder Masayoshi Son
Softbank Group founder Masayoshi Son

Softbank Group founder Masayoshi Son is slated to bet $170 million on Naver Corp.’s metaverse platform. The investment is expected to help Naver expand business in the market where global major players such as Roblox Corp., Facebook Inc. and Google fiercely compete.

Softbank Vision Fund 2 plans to invest 200 billion won ($170 million) along with South Korean venture capital firms in Naver Z Corp., the operator of South Korea's metaverse platform Zepeto, according to investment banking sources.

Naver Z is in the final stages of talks with investors for the money, the sources said. Softbank Vision Fund 2 accounted for the majority of the investment, while three or four local venture capital firms were reportedly seeking participation. Softbank initially aimed the investment alone, but other investors joined it due to Zepeto’s popularity. A Naver official declined to comment.

TO EXPAND GLOBAL MARKET

Zepeto attracted 240 million users, including the largest overseas customer base for South Korea’s internet service except for online games. The app allows users to play games, communicate with others through 3D avatars, as well as make money through the production of fashion items and other content.

The app has become a popular playground for teens and twentysomethings, with teenagers making up 80% of its users. K-pop girl groups Blackpink and TWICE create their content on the app to communicate with fans around the world. Non-Koreans make up about 90% of its users.

Zepeto needs to focus on further expansion in the global market since it is a latecomer with a launch in 2018. Its larger competitor Roblox started the business in 2006.

“A paradigm shift to the era of the metaverse is taking place like the mobile transition period,” said an information technology industry source. “A company that dominates this market first will become an industry leader like Google, Facebook and Apple.”

Competition in the global metaverse sector is intensifying. Facebook decided to invest $50 million and prepares to change the company’s name related to the metaverse. Roblox acquired Guilded Inc., an operator of a platform to connect gaming communities, while Epic Games, the developer of the hit game Fortnite, completed a $1 billion round of funding for the business.
K-pop girl group Blackpink avatars created by Zepeto
K-pop girl group Blackpink avatars created by Zepeto

JAPAN FIRST

Zepeto’s growth potential in the global market was limited given its heavy reliance on China as users in the country account for 70% of the total.

With the latest investment, Zepeto plans to expand its business to Japan, the US and Europe.

Japan is a market where Zepeto is expected to quickly increase its market shares, given close cooperation between Naver and Softbank. They are operating Line and Yahoo Japan together through a joint venture Z Holdings.

Naver and Softbank are expected to jointly develop a metaverse platform through Zepeto, making it easier to expand the business in Japan supported by Line and Yahoo Japan, analysts said.

SOFTBANK’S START OF INVESTMENT IN METAVERSE PLATFORMS

Softbank is expected to challenge global major metaverse platform companies such as Roblox by investments in other promising metaverse platform operators, starting from Zepeto.

In 2014-2015, Softbank formed a pan-Asia alliance against Uber Technologies Inc. with investments in Asian mobility startups such as DiDi Chuxing in China and Grab in Southeast Asia. Uber failed to expand market shares in Asia and withdrew its business from some countries in the region.

“This is Softbank’s first major investment in a metaverse platform,” said another IT industry source, referring to the investment in Zepeto. “Even after Zepeto, Softbank will ramp up its influence by investing in various platforms. Zepeto will be able to use them as strong allies in fighting in the global market.”

TO UPGRADE SERVICES

Naver Z, which posted an operating loss of 18.8 billion won last year, is expected to upgrade various services with the fund raised from Softbank.

The operator of Zepeto is likely to step up efforts to establish its own economic ecosystem based on non-fungible tokens (NFTs). NFTs are unique digital assets that cannot be reproduced, altered or counterfeited as they are deployed on a decentralized blockchain. Since NFT technology is applied to Zepeto’s services such as content transactions, Naver invested in a blockchain startup Superblock in August.
Masayoshi Son to bet 0 mn on Naver metaverse platform

Naver Z is also expected to upgrade its service for users’ game development to be released later this year. The service benchmarks Roblox that became popular as it allows users to develop and sell games. Facebook acquired Unit 2 Games for such a service.

Softbank’s investment is set to help Naver Z increase content for Zepeto. It has been expanding content with an investment of 17 billion won from HYBE Co., JYP Entertainment Inc. and YG Entertainment Inc.

“Naver Z will be able to accelerate the establishment of ecosystem and content expansion through acquisition and investment in startups with the cash,” said an IT industry source.

Write to Min-Ki Koo and Chae-Yeon Kim at kook@hankyung.com

Jongwoo Cheon edited this article.
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