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Exclusive Q&A with Phil Hubner Chief Business Development Officer at Challengermode

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Reading Time: 8 minutes

 

Retired players become media commentators, or selectors, or coaches, or the sports administrators. That is the trend in most sports.

What about esports? What do esports players do once they retire?

We have with us here Phil Hubner, the Chief Business Development Officer at Challengermode, who was a successful esports player too.

He talks about his esports playing days, his struggles to build a career, his company and the career options available of esports players in the industry.

Q. We shall begin with your esports career. How did your attention turn to esports and how it developed?

A. Like a lot of people in the industry, my introduction to gaming and esports began at a very young age. My first memory of gaming was in 1996. I was 4 years old, sitting in my 21 year old uncle’s lap, watching a screen light up with flash rockets, lasers and machine guns in Quake. And then playing my first ever casual match against my brother and my uncle’s best friend.

By 2005 I’d spent almost all of my free time playing video games, with the whole of 2004 spent perfecting my craft in DotA. That meant watching videos of the best players in the game, spending my days on IRC networks chatting with some of the top players and getting tips and tricks from them. I was part of the professional German esports organization “mousesports” which accounted for my first real experience with esports. There I managed the team’s scrimmage and tournament schedule and substituted as a player on the roster; primarily in practice matches.

A short 4 years later, Heroes of Newerth was released – the first real successor and stand-alone version of DotA. I spent my days playing at a top level, there didn’t seem to be much of a chance of making a living from esports in either game. Teams weren’t very supportive, there were no actual salaries being paid out, and the prize money wasn’t enough to sustain competitors unless they won every single tournament that ran. This was the point I decided that playing, whilst an important part of my free time, wasn’t going to be the career choice for me. I wanted to do something bigger, more impactful, and most importantly something that would allow me to pursue a full-time, paying career within this industry.

Q. Could you narrate your transition from an esports player to an industry professional? What are the challenges that you faced?

A. The first step towards making a career outside of being a player involved turning my industry knowledge into a stint in journalism. In 2010 I wrote an email to the up-and-coming esports publication ESFIWorld (now sadly defunct), arguing they should consider reporting on MOBA games like Heroes of Newerth and League of Legends. The CEO welcomed the idea and I joined the team there as a Content Director – an unpaid position – whilst finishing high school.

In 2011 I covered my first industry events – “The International”, and CeBIT, where the Intel Extreme Masters World Championship took place. I threw myself into these events, striking up conversations with the tournament operators, commentators, hosts, players and more. I recorded interviews, wrote articles, and attended after-parties – producing over 130 content pieces in a span of just 5 days. But this still fell short of “making a living” in esports. Like many people who want to turn their passion into their career, the main challenge was finding a role that could support me financially. In 2011 I was still a broke student with hardly enough money to buy food at these events. One night, our hotel room got cancelled, forcing us to go back to the hostel we had stayed the night before, who allowed us to sleep on the floor in their storage room – not the best example of a successful esports career!

But this experience did allow me to make a name for myself within the European esports industry. I wasn’t famous by any means, but I knew people. One of these people was Michal Blicharz (as of my writing this the VP of Pro Gaming at ESL Gaming) who was the man with the plan on the Intel Extreme Masters. I asked whether there were any openings for internships or junior positions within their company. Within a week I got an offer, quit school and in March 2012 – exactly a year after my first ever live esports event – I attended my first event as an intern under Michal, where I would soon become a Junior Product Manager. With a paying role under my belt, the main challenge became embedding myself fully in the rapidly growing and constantly changing industry, an industry at the forefront of digital marketing.

Moving away from the editorial side of the esports industry – In 2015 I started working with Ben Goldhaber at the time Content Director at Twitch, handling content marketing for Twitch in Europe and managing their mighty social media accounts with millions of followers. I moved to London, and shortly after pitched a new role and department to the current VP of Marketing at Twitch: International Marketing. Following this I saw many opportunities in both the rising esports industry, and the newly discovered land of opportunities that was influencer marketing – managing half a dozen streamers and influencers. This led me to my first role in Business Development in helping build up the Italian esports organization QLASH.

Q. Let’s now move to your career at Challengermode. What exactly does Challengermode offer and what’s your role as Chief Business Development Officer?

A. Challengermode is an esports platform with a big focus on the grassroots levels of competitive gaming, and a vision to make esports as accessible as possible. In effect, that means we build technology that makes playing in and offering esports competitions seamless. I joined Challengermode in 2017 as Head of Business Development, where I was largely responsible for onboarding the very first partners at the company, as well as devising the company’s partnerships and business strategy. I came to this after working in a wider variety of positions around esports, from marketing and communications to product management to business development and strategy. In my current role as CBDO I draw on a lot of that experience to translate greater accessibility in esports into greater value for stakeholders all across the esports ecosystem. I also manage two key departments within the company that deal with acquiring and then supporting partners such as game developers, tournament organizers, esports teams and brands.

Q. A number of young people become esports wizards. Could you tell us the career options available to them once they hit the esports peak and start the downhill journey?

A. I wouldn’t call it a downhill journey. I think it’s more of a natural evolution to go from player to industry professional. Hopefully my previous answer goes some way to highlighting the breadth of roles that are available in the industry away from the bright lights of being a competitor!

My experiences may be a few years old now, but if you look at the esports industry today, there are a few obvious steps one can take after putting down the mouse and keyboard (or controller) and wanting to fulfill a role within the industry with the background of being a professional player. There are many living examples of players that have turned to commentary and analysis for example. Using their in-depth knowledge of their game to dissect other players’ performances.

Another route that many have gone is to become a coach. Much like in traditional sports – years and years of playing will have honed your understanding of the game, problems for individual players to overcome and will have given you a keen read on other teams, their strategies, and their weaknesses. Similarly though, this is only the correct path for the few players that in their playing careers tend to be actively engaged in strategy and tactical choices.

For those with a more entrepreneurial nature, a common trend you’ll see is the formation of a new esports team or a company within esports that solves a problem they may have uncovered during their days as a player. You’ll find many, many such examples dating all the way back even to some of the oldest esports organizations such as SK Gaming or Ninjas in Pyjamas, but even more so in newcomers such as TSM, G2 Esports or 100 Thieves.

If none of those are the right way to go, luckily the rise of Twitch and the continued success of YouTube have provided any retiring player with an outlet and opportunity to continue their careers even beyond their competitive days. For many viewers, there’s little more entertaining (and educational) than watching players who play at the top level of their game. What’s better than getting an opportunity to directly engage with, chat, and ask questions to a retired star player?

Q. From a personal point of view, what are the advantages an esports player looking for a career in the gaming industry has, compared to a non-player?

A. Put simply – industry knowledge. Esports is still a very young industry and every year more companies enter the sector than there is talent available to staff them. Professional players, retired or not, will have some of the keenest eyes when it comes to authentically speaking to the esports audience. It’s not just an audience for them after all, it will have been their life for the past few years. This means there will always be in-roads for these individuals when looking to move into the business of esports.

Many of them however will experience a heavy reality check when starting this next step of their journey: while they may have a keen understanding of the audience, they might not have many skills directly applicable to their new roles. Be these in marketing, operations, recruiting or what have you. There’s good news though: their diligence, discipline and ability to become the best at something will easily translate into other fields outside of the games they played for so long. Besides from the industry knowledge, the soft skills are easily transferable.

Q. Again from a personal perspective, is the industry welcoming enough to the esports players? Any comments on that?

A. Whenever a professional player retires, that person should be seen as a top candidate not necessarily to join your executive team and lead the charge, but at the very least someone that will no doubt be a fast learner and someone that can intently focus on whatever is put in front of them. It is up to the universities, colleges and companies in the space to provide these paths for these players; but likewise up to these players to identify and accept where they stand within a professional context, how applicable their skills are, and where they may be lacking.

I have no doubt that anybody capable of being the best out of millions of players in any given game will likewise be capable of being the best at many other jobs and tasks thrown at them; that they will learn them quickly and learn how to excel at them, and if we do a good enough job at telling the stories of former professional players and their careers, we can give hope and inspiration to current and future pro players, whilst reassuring companies that former professional players are likely to be top-tier hires if provided the right guidance and opportunity.

Q. What are the potential roles and positions in the gaming industry that particularly suit esports players?

A. Using some of the roles I mentioned previously as examples, commentators and analyst roles lend themselves well to the kind of esports competitors that are naturally charismatic and have an ability to speak concisely. Players choosing to go down this path are often at the mercy of the audience. When it comes to coach roles oftentimes this is a natural fit for team captains, those who have been on the frontline in leadership positions before have an understanding of what different team members need and how to handle group dynamics.

Many retired players have found ways into game balance and later game design teams either for the very same games that they were once competitive in, or for new games in the same, unexplored genre. After all, who understands MOBAs better than someone who has played one for tens of thousands of hours?

Ultimately what roles in the games industry that suit esports players depends greatly on the player themselves. What skills they have and what interests them. There are myriad roles out there for players with a solid industry knowledge base to get involved across art, design, marketing, communications, business, finance etc. It all comes down to what they want to do.

Q. Finally, as someone who has experienced it from both ends of the spectrum – as a player and then as an industry professional – what are the changes you would like to have in the esports vertical in the future?

A. What may be missing today is a safety net catching and training those players that don’t fall into the categories I’ve mentioned above. Those that aren’t as entrepreneurial or self-driven, and those that maybe want to step one further step away from the game itself than a role as a commentator, analyst, coach or game designer would allow them to. I’d like to see more organisations taking responsibility for the futures of their current talent. Not just for the sake of the competitors themselves, but for the sake of the industry as a whole.

 

Interviews

Q&A with Lana Meisak, VP, Business Development and Marketing, Gismart

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Q&A with Lana Meisak, VP, Business Development and Marketing, Gismart
Reading Time: 5 minutes

Give us a quick overview of your entrance into the games industry and what made you decide to join it?

Before entering the gaming space, Gismart had earned a name as a top music entertainment app developer for an array of popular gamified music products such as Beat Maker Go, Piano Crush and many others. Looking for ways to grow and diversify our company portfolio, in 2019, we decided to add another business vertical and established an internal studio called Flime by Gismart. We dived deep into the development and publishing of mobile lightweight games, focusing on trendy hyper-casual genres and instant games for social platforms. The hyper-casual market was on the rise, not that saturated yet, so we saw it as a good opportunity to utilize our expertise in hypothesis testing which is crucial for this genre. Besides, we appreciated the simplicity of its mechanics and relevantly quick production so we had more room for trial and error. Within two years, we released a couple of dozen games for mobile and social platforms with many of them reaching the top gaming charts (ex. Cool Goal!, Body Race, Foil Turning 3D, etc.) and generating over 450 million downloads overall. Working in the hyper-casual market,  the team built effective processes in a very short time, as well as tested a large number of hypotheses. In 2021 we made our next step moving towards the casual genre and decided to explore puzzle games. It is a busy and challenging market with some strong competition. However, we have had success with our first game Cross Logic and are now actively working on new titles. We consider puzzle games to be a better investment in the long run. We also recently established a new business related to blockchain gaming projects and NFTs.

What does your role as VP of Business Development and Marketing at Gismart entail?

I focus on sourcing, negotiating and executing strategic partnerships across Gismart business verticals mainly related to product branding and marketing. I also build and develop long term and quality relationships and lead communications at Gismart. My role includes mobile product marketing and monetization, app distribution partner management (Apple App Store, Google Play, Facebook Instant Games, Snap Gaming, TikTok Gaming), product branding, PR and HR branding. Some of my proudest milestones include nurturing flagship partnerships between Gismart and household name entertainment brands such as UMPG, Sony/ATV and Warner Chappell, as well as the collaboration between The Chainsmokers and Gismart’s hit Beat Maker Go music app.

Women remain largely underrepresented in the global games industry. How does Gismart approach this, and what advice would you give to women who want to work in the industry?

It is an issue especially if we talk about senior ranks of companies. I am glad that this subject is constantly raised in the media as it helps the change to happen faster. I believe there are two things to fight – stereotypes and company practices. However,  speaking of the Gismart gender ratio it is very balanced. The ratio between males and females is 1:1.

Gismart is perhaps best known as a publisher of mobile games. What’s the recipe for a hit mobile game in 2022? 

I can’t give a recipe but I can say how we approach building high-potential products at Gismart. We have an expert R&D team to explore global trends and conduct in-depth marketing research. Understanding the niche to find a gap for something fresh and exciting for users is an important task.  After making sure that the game concept is relevant, we move on to creating a basic game prototype and perform a market test to understand the metrics. There are three key factors that most likely indicate that a game has a high potential – low CPI, high LTV and product scalability. The data-driven approach is what we stand by. Gismart has several analytical tools for in-depth market research, quick idea tests, and advanced product analytics that help us make a final decision.

How did Apple’s changes to marketing on iOS in 2021 affect Gismart?

Similarly to the rest of the market, we have been affected by the changes related to IDFA. This has significantly affected the traffic buying on iOS, and it has certainly become more difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of advertising campaigns. It also made it harder and more expensive to run product tests on Facebook. On the positive side, these changes forced us to delve into other purchasing channels, and change and improve approaches to testing new product ideas. We also definitely go for more technological experiments on the marketing side related to user acquisition through web traffic.

Many of your games are available on social media sites such as Snap and Facebook. Why do social networking apps want gaming content in general?

Social platforms have an undeniably huge audience and games are a new form of communication. We saw an opportunity for growth in this business and some of our team members who are now leading Flime by Gismart had the experience of building one of the first games for Facebook. Today we have over ten social platform games available on Facebook and Snapchat. Color Galaxy on Snap Games became one of the most successful games on the platform quickly after its launch and after two years still holding its position.

In general, social platforms see games as one of the instruments to entertain and retain the audience, increasing the time they spend on the platform. Besides retention, having quality games provides the platform with other benefits, such as improved user experience, new forms of communication and interaction between users, and, of course, additional monetization for social platforms.

Gismart also makes and publishes wider entertainment apps such as music and wellness. Why did the company decide to diversify its focus from mobile games?

We started with entertainment music apps. Alex, one of the company founders’ is a self-taught guitar player and the first Gismart app was a guitar app.  After the successful launch of the first product, our portfolio of music entertainment apps has grown to over 15 different apps over time. Then came our expansion to games. Wellness, as well as the pet care vertical with flagship product Woofz, was established about a year ago. Both businesses are relatively new but already established their name on the market and have a substantial number of users. All of the verticals operate as independent businesses and Gismart provides them with consulting and mentorship, all kinds of resources and tools and infrastructure. So in a way, today Gismart operates as some sort of business incubator with some of the verticals having already outgrown the startup stage.

Last question – what can we expect to see from Gismart and from yourself during the remainder of 2022?

Gismart has very exciting and challenging plans across all verticals. Speaking of casual games, we’ll continue expanding our portfolio of HTML5 games on Facebook Instant and Snap Games. We also plan to introduce our mini-games on new major social platforms. Also, we plan to soft-launch our new blockchain project.

Speaking of apps, we will continue to upgrade and develop our products in music entertainment. We are working on expanding our music partners’ circle to bring more unique, fresh music to the table. As for wellness and pet care verticals – the focus is on product and working on features to enrich the user experience and facilitate product growth. We hope to see a few new products earning their spot on the top chart.

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Interviews

Exclusive Q&A with Aleksey Ulanov, Lead Designer at BGaming

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Exclusive Q&A with Aleksey Ulanov, Lead Designer at BGaming
Reading Time: 4 minutes

 

Thank you for taking the time to answer some questions. Before we jump into the more specific questions, could you please introduce BGaming to our readers?

BGaming is a creative and fast-growing iGaming content provider, as we love to say, converting gambling into gaming. The studio revealed itself to the world with its variety of thrilling online casino games and became the pioneer in supporting cryptocurrencies. 

Our fundamental value is that the Player and Player’s choice always come first. For this reason, we constantly analyze and study player needs and preferences to make unique and attractive products. 

 

What types of games does BGaming’s portfolio include?

Today BGaming’s portfolio includes more than 80 products such as video slots, video poker, lottery, table games, card and casual games with HD graphics, quality sound design, and a clear user interface for every device. 

Since we strive to expand our network of crypto projects and pass over a successful experience of crypto casinos to fiat ones, we also draw particular attention to our portfolio of Fast (casual) games.

 

With so many games out there, what differentiates BGaming from the rest of iGaming content providers?

I would say everything begins with the team. BGaming’s team includes professionals with 20+ years in the iGaming sphere, which bring vast improvement to work on each stage of game development. Thanks to team experience, we became the pioneer in supporting cryptocurrencies, the first major provider to introduce the Provable Fairness feature in online slots, and have found a perfect balance between ideal visuals and maths, along with rich gameplay and surprising features.

BGaming is a frontrunner in Brand exclusive slots production. We collaborate with casinos as true partners, striving to be flexible and provide their players with the best experiences. We offer a variety of customization packs for casino operators starting from a light touch, through deep customization, and up to an exclusive slot or crash game. 

As I highlighted before, our fundamental value is that the Player and Player’s choice always come first. Such a player-driven approach is another essential feature of BGaming.

 

What are the key guidelines that you follow when designing a new game?

There is a saying in slot development, “The art is what attracts the players, but it is the math that keeps them.” 

I’m all too familiar with an excellent math model that suffers if the art does not attract new customers. Our design team puts a lot of effort into characters’ creation, pays attention to details, constantly experiments with the graphics, and implements the best practices to make our games eye-catching.

Since we’ve been creating games for a long time now, we are armed with deep knowledge of the sphere and extensive analytical data. We use it to find valuable insights and better navigate which math, mechanics, sound, and of course, graphics hold the potential to become a hit. These insights and tendencies provide the basis for further experiments in design.

For example, our hit character Elvis the Frog was fueled by such an experiment. We aimed to create a brightly-painted character that could support dynamic gameplay, share the festive atmosphere, be associated with luck, and could be easily recognized. As a result, our Elvis Frog in Vegas appeared and became the best support to the game’s captivating math and mechanics.

The game was a blast and Elvis the Frog, who knows how to have a good time and brings luck, became extremely popular.

 

Is there any room for variety in gambling games? What do you do to avoid producing repetitive games? Slots for example all work following the same basic mechanics. Is it possible to keep the experience fresh?

A player is a king in iGaming. Some players value variety, while others stick to particular math, mechanics, or design.

Most content providers are balancing fresh experiences and classic, well-loved features and characters. Learning from complementary spheres, such as game development and crypto space, works well in our case.

We have a successful case in our portfolio, the pack of Fast g

ames. This genre of games came from the crypto casinos. Clear rules, rapid results, and simple graphics are the features that unite these games. Our fast games package includes five games now: multiplayer crash Space XY, Plinko XY, Rocket Dice XY, Heads&Tails XY and Minesweeper XY. The games are much different from what we used to see among classic slots. But we notice the success of these games at crypto casinos and want to pass it over to fiat ones. 

Analytics helps us understand the gaming space changes, highlight trendsetters in math, mechanics, and art, and keep the experience not only fresh but, first of all, relevant.

 

Could you tell us a bit more about current trends? What makes a game successful nowadays?

We analyze players’ preferences from release to release and see that it’s always a good idea to allow players to choose extra bonuses. 

The Player’s interest in the game can be increased if the game’s mechanics offers features that provide rapid results or multiply the winning chances.

Among particular audiences, if we talk about crypto gamers migrating to fiat casinos, there is a tendency to simplify mechanics and art. But at the same time, this audience brings high standards for transparency in game results and freedom to choose game currency.

Unfortunately, or maybe, fortunately, there’s no “one size fits all” solution to make a game successful. Great space for action and experiments, though! 

 

Finally, without sharing too much information, tell us about what we can expect in the future from BGaming!

For the new releases, we are working on upgrading the package of Fast games in our portfolio. This year it will grow to at least ten games, including new games Keno, Limbo, and Mines. Also, BGaming works to expand its portfolio with a Wheels, BlackJack and Dice Battle towards the end of the year. 

A new version of our big hit Lucky Lady Moon enhanced with popular MEGAWAYS™ mechanics launches this July. The slot will be fitted with thrilling features, including Free Spins with the Wheel of Fortune, Refilling reels and Wild symbols with x2 multiplier.

To sum it up, BGaming is on the way to strengthening its positions and presence in the European  and LATAM regions, which means a lot of great things ahead! 

 

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Interviews

Making a lasting mark in a new territory

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Making a lasting mark in a new territory
Reading Time: 4 minutes

 

We talk to Michael Bauer, CFO/CGO at Greentube, to discover the key elements to a successful entry into a new market.

What has to be taken into consideration before entering a new market?

Michael Bauer: The first aspect to consider is whether or not our games already have traction in a particular region, this can be in either social casino, or the land-based environment. If we see that this is indeed the case, then the decision-making process is a much easier one as clearly, this is a positive sign as to our potential within that jurisdiction.

Secondly, we have to take into consideration the market itself. How big is it, what is the overall population, how does that break down into demographic groups and what is the average income? All of these questions are pertinent. We also have to look at how the market is shaped by regulation, for example is it reasonable from a taxation perspective and in terms of products and content, or are there any major restrictions in place? All of these factors are in play when we are deciding whether or not a market is attractive to us.

By way of examples, looking at the Czech Republic and German markets, they have heavy restrictions in place on the product. Germany has a €1 limit on stakes and five seconds between spins, while in the Czech Republic, you also have maximum win limits. This can make products less attractive for players and from a supplier perspective an amended product, which is less scalable and attractive.

How important is it to utilise local expertise within a market?

It is usually very important, because markets are all different to one another in certain respects and this means a one-size-fits-all approach cannot be successfully rolled out across multiple jurisdictions. This is true for both suppliers and operators, and arguably even more crucial for the latter. Operators must have a detailed knowledge of local marketing networks, compliance aspects of regulation and local player tastes and preferences. Local expertise is an integral part of the growth journey towards being an important player in a market, there is the potential for an operator to buy their way to success through marketing, but it is a costly approach.

Are the current conditions in Germany an illustration of potential difficulties of entering a new territory?

Germany is the best current example of potential difficulties when entering a new market due to regulation. It is the first regulated market I have seen that has created an environment that is particularly unattractive for players, causing channelisation rates which are only around 20%. In addition, the regulators have struggled to issue licences. As things stand at present, what the regulation is creating does not lead to the desired outcome – the channelisation of the player base into a safe, regulated environment.

Is there an expectation for both operators and suppliers to enter every regulated region?

To a certain extent, yes. Our bigger, global customers are asking us to join them when entering new markets. We experienced this in both Argentina and Ontario, as well as other smaller regions. The issue here is that a market may not necessarily be attractive enough for us as we have too many other opportunities to tackle at the same time. When we are dealing with a smaller jurisdiction, the cost of entry and resources may be better funnelled towards the bigger openings.

Certain operators may seek to launch games on as global a basis, but this is a trend that is becoming less prevalent, which is down to different regulations and operators utilising various platforms in certain regions.

How long does it take to know whether you have been successful in a market? How is that success measured?

When a new region opens up and the regulations in place are crafted carefully, such as in the Netherlands for example, operators who gain a licence are able to ramp up quickly. We have also seen in Switzerland that markets can become very interesting, very quickly. Our measure of success is market share, where we receive feedback from operators on the success of our games. The other aspect is the GGR we are generating in a region and the number of players we are reaching. It may be that a certain jurisdiction has a weak currency, or low local purchasing power, but where there are many people playing our games. Colombia is an example of this, where the currency is not as strong as the European markets we operate in for example but we have a large player base, and can also be regarded as a success. Germany is a less than ideal example, because players are leaving the regulated market, and we cannot supply the black market.

Do you have any particular examples of successful or non-successful market entries?

The starting point of a successful entry for us is usually predicated on being first to market. We achieved that in Switzerland and the Netherlands, where on day one of regulation our games were available to play. In itself, this is a success because it’s normally very tricky to be that fast. Secondly, after a certain time you look at how big your market share is. Switzerland, the Netherlands, Poland and also Norway are good examples here, as we quickly gained market share through the latter with state-owned Monopoly holder Norsk Tipping. You also have high hopes of certain jurisdictions that don’t come to fruition, which despite best intentions and plenty of hard work can be out of our hands due to regulations requiring amendments of games and stakes.

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