A few weeks ago, Facebook quietly launched a new in-app game, hidden inside its Messenger app. It's a simple, but addictive basketball game, where you flick a basketball into a hoop using your fingertip or thumb. To play, someone needs to message you the basketball emoji. The game is visually appealing, and playful: each time you score a basket it shows you an encouraging emoji, like a thumbs-up, smiley face or trophy.
Here’s the thing, though: upstart social networking app Peach did it first. The app, which launched in January, rolled out a very similar game, Peachball, back on Feb. 4. To play, you type the command “play” in the Peach window. The ball switches every few shots to a different round emoji, like a bowling ball, baseball, or even smiley face. It has a colorful background that also changes every few shots, while Facebook’s is a white, bare background. It can be played alone and posted to your profile, whereas Facebook’s game has to be played within a message, against one person. But apart from these minor differences, the two games look nearly identical. (See the video above for a demo comparison.)
If you suspect Facebook (FB) saw Peach’s game and promptly made its own—imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, after all—then one way to interpret the move is as a sign that Facebook might eventually buy Peach. The app is small; it certainly has nowhere near Facebook’s 1.5 billion monthly active users, though it won’t share its user numbers. But it cleverly combines elements of many other apps and mobile games, and could hypothetically interest Facebook as a cheap acquisition. Peach’s founder, Dom Hofmann, is the founder of Vine, and successfully sold that app to Twitter.
Facebook had no comment about Peach or about the new basketball game in Messenger. It announced the game quietly, with a wink, by taking a status update from David Marcus, an employee who works on Messenger, and re-sharing it to the main Messenger page, which has 46,000 fans (small, in the Facebook world). Marcus’s post said, “Playing basketball. Hint, hint.”
Peach, unsurprisingly, was happy to comment. “We're glad,” a spokesperson says, “if Peachball could spur a giant like Facebook to advance the phone-sports-you-play-with-your-finger genre, even if their version looks… familiar. And less fun. I guess we can chalk it up to March Madness and the heat of competition?” No doubt Peach is eager for some notice. After briefly cracking the Top 10 free apps in the App Store when it launched, it sank to No. 120, and it’s now out of the top 140.
The basketball game is not Facebook’s first foray into hidden games inside of Messenger, and likely won’t be its last: Type @fbchess into a conversation with someone and it launches a chess game that requires commands for each move—far more elaborate than the basketball game. Google (GOOGL), as well, has put out hidden games for years, across many of its platforms: on Google.com (inside of doodles), on the Google Maps mobile app (like a Pokemon game in 2014), and on YouTube, which it owns.
Another way to look at Facebook’s new in-app game, whether or not it is Peach-inspired is as a small incentive to spur downloads of its Messenger app, which has had its critics. A CNET article aptly summarized the resentment many users felt when the app launched in 2014, and suddenly you were forced to download a second app to read a message: “Uh, no. Why should I install a second app just so I can trade the occasional message with a Facebook friend?” Users were so annoyed that multiple tech outlets ran stories about how to get around the app, and send messages without downloading it. Perhaps Facebook is adding little bells and whistles as a treat to those who give in.
Meanwhile, the usage lines between Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and other social platforms continue to blur. All of them are going big on live content; many of them are reportedly interested in bidding to stream live NFL games. Facebook launched a real-time sports-chat feature, creeping onto Twitter’s territory; Peach launched a chat feature, a la Snapchat. They are all amping up around the idea of the right now. So, expect to see more in-app games on all of these platforms. The ability to challenge a friend on the fly, on your phone, in an ongoing game, is not unrelated to this trend, and it’s something many users love. (Think of Words With Friends.) For Facebook, creating a simplistic, bare-bones basketball game is low-cost, high-reward. It has nothing to lose.
For an upstart like Peach, the stakes are higher: will Peachball be enough to motivate doubters to download yet another social networking app? Why not try it out and see—my high score on Peachball is 18. On Facebook Messenger basketball, it’s 26.
Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering sports business and technology.