Gaming has become one of the most profitable entertainment spaces in recent years but brands in the region have yet to dig into it. Why?
Haven’t you heard? Since last September, French couture powerhouse Louis Vuitton has been designing outfits for Riot Games’ free-to-play video game League of Legends’ virtual characters. What’s more, Louis Vuitton is releasing capsule collections for those who want to wear in real life League of Legends-inspired apparel; the collections are even available on the brand’s official website. The fact that a major luxury fashion powerhouse is getting involved with the oft-decried video game industry tells you everything you need to know about the potential of gaming, and most importantly gamers, for brands.
Not that this phenomenon is completely new. Brands have been advertising in video games from the moment they launched: in 1978, Adventureland introduced the first in-game product placement – its own follow-up game Pirate Adventure; in 1992, Chupa Chups initiated the era of blatant in-game static advertising in Zool: Ninja of the Nth Dimension, while FIFA featured brands on billboards in its football video game series in 1994. And it’s not only brands that have played around that way: in 2008, the Obama presidential campaign had a billboard spot inside fast-paced racing game Burnout Paradise, targeting US young voters. Since, the trend has been going only stronger, further boosted by the adoption of mobile and the resulting explosion of mobile gaming. And today, video games could be, well, game-changers for brands savvy enough to consider innovative content strategies.
THE UNDERESTIMATED POTENTIAL OF CONTENT IN GAMING
Gaming has been changing the attitude of an entire generation towards content and how it can be consumed. Last October, Matthew Ball, former Head of Strategy at Amazon Studios, wrote about “the absurdity of the fact that Big Media content companies and distributors were spending unprecedented sums to increase their exposure to a segment of the media industry with declining value (video), even as another (video games) was grow- ing 15-25% per year.” As Ball explained further in January, gaming has immense potential for a number of reasons.
Firstly, in an ‘attention economy’ that used to be dominated by video (either on TV or online), gaming is now a fierce competitor. “It used to be ‘what to watch’ and now it’s ‘whether to watch’ and the answer is increasingly ‘No, I’m going to play a game’,” wrote Ball. Indeed, according to a 2019 global study by Limelight Networks, gamers spend an average of seven hours per week playing and this playtime has increased by 19.3% since 2018. What’s even more intriguing is that when gamers are not playing, they’re watching other people who are: the Limelight Networks study indicates that gamers aged 18-25 spend an average of four hours per week live streaming other players on platforms such as Twitch – that boasts about 15 million daily active users, no less.
Moreover, gaming is successfully replicating the attributes that made TV so attractive, from seamless ease of access to diversity and wealth of content, along with quality, easy discovery and variety of formats. And it is not compounded by the traditional limitations on content such as length, cost and lack of interaction – a fan can love a TV show or a movie but not really contribute to it. Because they operate based on the social connections between players, videogames offer the quintessential engaging experience that can be tracked and updated regularly based on users’ feedback, repeated ad infinitum and even customized – Fortnite, Roblox and Minecraft even allow players to create and monetize their own games, leveraging user-generated content creation in unique ways.
REGULAR PLACEMENT VS SMART PLACEMENT
Through video games, brands have the potential to reach an audience that is both tuned-in and in a laid-back entertainment mindset. They can promote their products through the cloak of in-game elements, which often results in increased brand awareness and word-of-mouth – provided the communication is congruent with the game in every way. This communication can take two forms: highly integrated product placements (creating exclusive content for the game like Louis Vuitton did) and peripheral product placements (billboards, road signs, sides of a box, etc.). According to a 2014 research by JAMK University of Applied Sciences titled ‘Product placement in video games,’ peripheral product placement is generally acceptable as it enhances the realism of the gaming experience, but its low level of interactivity with the player leads to very little recollection of the brand information. As Dustin Beck, VP of e-sports at Riot Games, told Advertising Age, “Our audience is very smart and partners struggle to understand how to activate in this industry. It’s not going to be a simple media buy.”
That’s where creativity comes into play, with closer partnerships leading to highly integrated product placements and engagement with players. For example, in 2018, Coca-Cola partnered with Nordcurrent: in its hit game Cooking Fever, the Lithuanian developer allowed players to access digital versions of Coca-Cola products (fountain machines, glasses, bottles, etc.) that could be upgraded throughout the game. Similarly, in 2007 and 2008, life simulation video game The Sims collaborated with Swedish brands H&M and Ikea, allowing players to dress up their characters in the latest H&M collection (and show it off on the virtual catwalk), and design their homes with furniture from Ikea’s latest catalog.
Most recently, VMLY&R won the Grand Prix at the 2019 Drum Social Buzz Awards with its ‘Keep Fortnite Fresh’ campaign for Wendy’s, the fast-food chain, famous for its never-frozen beef burgers, organically reached the adblock generation by piggybacking on the game’s ‘Food Fight’ mode, siding with Team Pizza against Team Burger and actively destroying all the burger freezers in the game. The stunt was watched for more than 1.5 million minutes; its Twitch livestream was viewed more than a quarter-million times, and mentions of Wendy’s increased by 119% across social platforms. Twitch even helped by creating a highlight reel of Wendy’s Fortnite freezers’ destruction spree, which was soon mimicked by thousands of gamers.
EARS TO THE GROUND
The world of video games revolves as much, if not more, around the communities it forms than around the actual game. Whether it’s on Facebook groups or livestreaming platforms such as Twitch, forums and discussions between gamers allow them to celebrate the characters and worlds they love with other real people who feel the same way. Game-centric influencers also have a lot of clout over these platforms’ users. There’s a lot that brands could tap into and in many different ways. Partnerships with influencers are now common: Shroud (aka Michael Grzesiek) has 6.7 million Twitch followers and sponsorship deals with Madrinas Coffee and Jinx; TimThe Tatman (aka Timothy John Betar) has 3.9 million Twitch followers and brand deals with Monster Energy, Intel and Hershey’s, and so on. Perhaps more creatively, in 2015, body care brand Old Spice held an event on Twitch called ‘Old Spice Nature Adventure,’ where users could control a ‘live human’ for three days through the platform. Even though the brand treated it as an experiment at the time, the reaction was highly positive.
Moreover, it’s not unusual to see a community reach out to a brand, as it happened in League of Legends when players asked Coca Cola to sponsor one of the characters that looked like the famous polar bear from the soda’s own commercial. The fact that Coca Cola never responded could be seen as a real missed opportunity that other organizations could learn from to strategically reach this audience.
WHAT ABOUT THE MIDDLE EAST?
Gaming in the MENA region, and the GCC in particular, holds many promises, even though brands do not seem to be paying attention yet. While speaking at Dubai event On.DXB last November, Tom Wijman, Senior Market Analyst at Newzoo, said the MENA gaming industry is home to 14% of the global population of gamers. It is currently worth $148.8 billion and is forecasted to grow by 12.1% between 2019 and 2022 – the fastest growth rate in the world. “The Middle East is the fastest-growing gaming market in the world; yet, unlike saturated Western markets, the region is still completely untapped. We have a huge opportunity in both the UAE and Saudi Arabia to give consumers something they really want,” James Magee, Co-founder and CEO at UAE-based Global Event Management (the company that organizes Insomnia, the UAE’s largest gaming festival), told Wamda last December.
As a result, some are already taking notice: Tencent Games, a Chinese-owned video game publisher, opened headquarters in the region last year to better tap the local gaming community; UAE-based W Ventures announced it will be investing $50 million, through its independent brand engagement partner RedPeg Middle East, to develop a regional online and offline gaming platform aiming to support the local e-sports ecosystem; Bahrain’s government plans to accelerate the growth of e-sports by partnering with the BLAST Pro Series CS: Go final.
Regional game developers and publishers like UAE-based development company and Beirut-based game studio Game Cook are not only aware of the potential for gaming in the Middle East, but also realize the importance of localizing culturally relevant and innovative content for the region: Dubzplay’s Style City is a fashion and lifestyle mobile game set in the city of Dubai; Game Cook’s Vindicta is the first VR first-person shooter game to be published by a Middle Eastern Studio.
Yet, very few brands are looking into the gaming potential in MENA; in 2018, Dell unveiled Ready to Game ME, an online gaming hub for the region’s enthusiasts, but there that’s about it so far…
At a time when, as a PwC report indicates, 40% of people are moving away from traditional media and consuming more streaming; and in a region that boasts a 300 million-strong gaming community, it might be time for marketeers to consider gaming as a serious avenue. The ones who do will have the first-mover advantage to grab the attention of an ever-growing audience. The question is, are they ready to play?
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