Get access to Protocol
Discord is objectively great. I'm on 28 different Discord servers spanning just about every aspect of my gamer life in addition to Protocol's new server. As a personal (non-enterprise) platform for integrated text, voice and video communication with preselected affinity groups, I can't think of anything better. Discord's user base is surging — it now counts more than 100 million monthly users — and its engagement metrics are fabulous.
But if Discord is so great, why hasn't anyone bought it yet?
A couple years ago — long before the company's valuation reached $3.5 billion — I heard from relevant people that Discord was being pitched to the tech and gaming giants. No one was biting. I shelved the thought until a few weeks ago, when I saw a Discord job posting for a new corporate controller. Among the duties: "Prepare the company for public company accounting and reporting standards."
A year ago it would have been crazy to suggest that a money-losing or, at best, marginally profitable chat platform go public, but obviously things have changed. The public markets seem hungry for exposure to gaming and online community. A single job listing doesn't mean that Discord is planning to go public (having your books ready for the SEC is a good idea, regardless), but again it raises the question: In a world where many of the biggest companies are spending billions to stake out leadership in gaming and online community, why hasn't Discord been snapped up?
After all, one can make a strong strategic case that the powerful, persistent layer of social engagement emerging on Discord could add immense value to the ecosystems being developed by Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and others.
So I asked some people close to those companies and Discord their opinions. Based on those conversations, here are a few overlapping and speculative hypotheses about why no one has made Discord an offer it can't refuse. Yet.
Content moderation is hard
Here's Discord's basic pitch to consumers: In minutes or less, anyone can easily set up a private server where you and your friends can immediately start chatting (text, voice, video), sharing links and files and basically doing your own thing. There is very little, if any, "public commons" on Discord. Instead, you flit among various privately administered servers with vastly different tones and sorts of content. As you can probably imagine, there are all kinds of risqué and political Discord servers out there.
The whole world can see how much political heat Facebook and Twitter take no matter how they censor users, and none of these other companies is rushing to join them in that regard.
"But didn't Microsoft just try to buy TikTok?" you might ask. "Wouldn't that have come with similar content issues?" Not quite. TikTok is essentially a public platform without the myriad warrens of privately run subcommunities that fill Discord (more than 13 million servers active per week). While Discord has rules as a practical matter, it is selling users a sense of private community, which means those users can post pornography and other sorts of content that are off-limits on a quasi-public platform like TikTok. (Twitch is also public.)
Considering the potentially objectionable content on Discord and how that might make the company less attractive to potential buyers, the obvious counterpoint is Reddit. Reddit is largely a public platform and is packed with all kinds of extremely edgy content, yet seems to almost entirely escape scrutiny. That's partly because Reddit's corporate parent, Advance Publications (which also controls Condé Nast), is a low-profile private company without a political lightning rod attached to its headquarters.
As a matter of core strategy, Discord would seem to be more attractive to Facebook than to any other company on the planet. Facebook's goal is to be the social glue of the world, and here's this startup that's becoming the extremely sticky social glue for one of the world's fastest-growing demographics. Meanwhile, Facebook is investing heavily in gaming.
"Facebook would love to buy Discord for $10 billion, but they can't," one person told me. "It's politically impossible, and they know it." They're right. Facebook absorbing the next hot online communication platform simply cannot happen these days. Amazon and Google could also face political headwinds to a Discord deal, though weaker than Facebook's.
Of course some gamers might flee Discord if Big Tech bought it at all, but Discord's whole marketing strategy at the moment is to expand beyond the game world.
Discord looks too familiar
As put, a traditional business development analysis that did not comprehend Discord's cultural and ease-of-use special sauce could conclude that Discord simply replicates existing products
If you're Microsoft, "Don't we already have Teams?" If you're Amazon, "Don't we already have Chime?" If you're Google, "Don't we already have Meet?" And what about Slack and Zoom?
On paper, Discord does what all these other services do. The fact that in many ways Discord just does them better might not come across in certain contexts.
It's just too expensive
As usual, it probably just comes down to the money. Discord, its founders and its investors would presumably want significantly more for the company than this summer's $3.5 billion valuation.
Meanwhile, Discord does not appear to be wildly profitable. That's partly by design. The company relies mostly on optional premium subscriptions (the majority of features are available free) and has eschewed potentially more lucrative opportunities to sell ads or user data. Doing so increases trust with users, which drives ears and eyeballs on the service.
Among the deals and valuations mentioned to me in comparison were Twitch (sold to Amazon for $970 million), Lucasfilm (sold to Disney for $4.05 billion) and ZeniMax/Bethesda (sold to Microsoft for $7.5 billion). In that company, Discord seems pricey to many in the gaming and tech worlds.
But Discord doesn't want to be in that company. Discord appears to believe it should be valued like a social media company like TikTok, not as a content or distribution company. That is to say: for a lot more money and judged on user engagement and growth, not profitability.
It's true that Discord is more a communication platform than a social network. There is little discoverability or curation. You don't go there to be shown something new or to engage with the public. You go on Discord to communicate with people you already share interests with. Yes, you can meet new people on Discord, but that's not the core of the platform.
No matter who the company hires for the corporate controller job, one bellwether for the company will be the coming Roblox IPO. Even though the services are different, they could appear related to public investors just trying to get in on online gaming.
In the meantime, I'll keep chatting on Discord.
- Amazon is good at so many things. Why is it bad at games? - Protocol ›
- Microsoft's Xbox launch lineup shows how it wants to change the ... ›
- Microsoft and Sony head into Round 4 of the console battle. Who ... ›
- Flight Simulator should make Amazon, Google nervous - Protocol ›
- How Discord (somewhat accidentally) invented the future of the internet - Protocol ›
Seth Schiesel ( @SethSchiesel) is a contributing editor for Protocol focused on the business of video games and adjacent industries. He is a former editorial writer for The Boston Globe, entrepreneur and business reporter, technology writer and video game critic for The New York Times.