Brands are looking for safe and effective digital spaces to operate in with Facebook and Google taking hits recently, TV supposedly fragmenting and the effectiveness of social and influencers constantly under scrutiny. In this backdrop, Bidstack believes some of the best real estate out there remains untapped – and it is in gaming.
Not long ago, London-based Bidstack touted itself as the “eBay of digital out of home” advertising. It created a marketplace where brands could issue real time bids for digital out of home sites. Amid heavy competition it opted to instead lean into a new opportunity in the rich world of gaming. The real time bidding tech required less coercion to work in gaming that one might expect. As a result, Bidstack pivoted to help games developers on PC and console to realise the potential of - and monetise - their in-game ad inventory.
Speaking to The Drum, George Osborn, the newly installed head of content at Bidstack, said: "We pivoted from out of home advertising to being a virtual in-game native advertising company." The move he said, was a "natural" one as the group was already working with Football Manager developer Sports Interactive. The fruits of that partnership were recently revealed. Geo-targetted ads were placed in virtual stadium hoardings in Football Manager for an NHS mental health and wellbeing campaign called MindMate. During matches, billboards informed players they 'are not alone'. The ads were clickable and led users to a resource to receive support and advice.
This campaign served as a proof of concept for Bidstack, showing what a games native ad marketplace could be. Sports titles like Fifa, Rocket League and Football Manager are naturally imbued with untapped advertising opportunities across ads, hoardings and livery. Similarly, open world games like Grand Theft Auto, and WatchDogs 2 boast a fair share of integration opportunities that could theoretically be put out to tender. It may be the case that we are about to see an advertising landrush in the world of premium gaming.
Bidstack is open about the fact is is still building its offering but it envisions a network where brands select their desired audience via the game. Native ads could theoretically span from Middle Earth, to Los Santos, to Mars. Advertisers may select a football game like Football Manager, or they may want to get in front of driving enthusiasts with a title like Euro Truck Simulator. At present, Bidstack is keeping its cards close to its chest. Other than Football Manager, it is yet to announce the titles that will rely upon its network in the coming years.
It is looking to emulate the best aspects of mobile games advertising, like the ability for small publishers to monetise their titles and the availability of ad inventory brands can utilise. But elevating the product above mobile is the fact that the work is not reliant on granular or intrusive data to guide ads. The company knows who is engaged with each game, and where they are. Ad buys will be driven by common sense - not intrusive data. Furthermore, the offering is a step above mobile's tendency to wallpaper ineffective display ads throughout free-to-play game ecosystems.
Osborn said: "We don't offer hyper-targeting, that's fine, advertisers are worried about GDPR and user privacy. But, we know the demographics of Football Manager, we know that is played most by 18-36 year olds, principally men. We know they are roughly interested in what football fans are interested in too."
"If you know which games your brand demographic aligns with, then you don't actually need to target people."
So what does this mean for the games market?
Top developers may like not relying on a marketing teams to hunt for brand integrations. Indie studios are unlikely to have these marketing capabilities in the first place. Zo both will be able to monetise their titles indefinitely beyond RRP, partnerships and the often reviled DLC and lootbox techniques.
Osborn said: "I think it is just really important that an option like this exists right now. In the games industry, the revenue dynamics are changing. we have the practises on mobile, free-to-play and games as a service. You can generate revenue from multiple streams over the course of a player's lifecycle.
"Instead of them relying solely on making all of the money upfront on a release, if the game can retain players, we can provide ads that fit naturally with that audience in the context of the game without annoying players. It seems to be a win-win for everyone."
Of course, brands have not always been the quickest to immerse themselves in gaming culture. Deep in these communities are toxic elements like Gamergate, and those complaining that games like Battlefield One contain women. These are fringe elements however.
These is another issue. Gaming is interactive. Players can interact with brands in a space they control – and that may throw up some brand safety issues or dangerous juxtapositions.
To rely on a lazy example, in an open world game like Grand Theft Auto, just visualise a clip in which a street's worth of pedestrians are mowed down in front of an Audi ad. This sort of feedback encapsulates some of the brand trepidition around entering the space.
Osborn said: "One of the things scaring brands off is, 'How much can you control that player interaction?'. Advertisers are wary of player agency. But the flipside is that there is a sense of ownership that advertisers can tap into that you don't get elsewhere. Rocket League does it brilliantly, you can buy WWE stickers for your cars and profile. The brand is visible because the player associates with it." This activity is especially heightening when eSports players adopt this branding.
He added: "It is about seeing gaming as a new frontier, there are challenges and a huge amount of opportunity."
With an impending World Cup on the horizon, Osborn suggested brands that play in football consider a advertising to gaming audience – a quality one unlike those delivered across mobile app ecosystems.
He concluded: "You want to be where your audience is. The younger audience is spending more time within video games. We know the average fan spends 15/20% of their day in Football Manager, so if you are an advertiser who has always pinned your strategy on broadcast, there is a strong chance that those people will also be playing a video game instead of, or during the broadcast. They may also be watching that game online.
He concluded: "Will they consider the virtual equivalent to TV and billboards?"