Fifa, product placement and the future of ads in video games

Fifa 19 virtually recreates physical stadium ad space for virtual audiences

Against the backdrop of a tumultuous year in the video game industry, the Fifa franchise has been consistently stoic in its success. There are big opportunities for marketers to speak to a burgeoning fanbase that is passionately devoted to the game. However, are marketers fully embracing the advertising formats gaming has to offer?

Last week, Fifa revealed it had drawn 45 million unique players across all consoles over the past 12 months, with parent firm EA publishing a solid earnings report on the back of the success.

The average gamer spends six hours a week on their hobby. 60% claim it eats into their sleep and 11% admit they’ve taken sick days from work to play. Half of young male gamers, meanwhile, would quit their job if they stood a chance of becoming a pro gamer according to research from Limelight Networks.

Fifa 18 sold a record 24m copies in the year since its launch. The series from EA Sports began in 1993 and is older than many of those who play it, and, to date, has sold over 260m units across the franchise. Its consistent long-term success has been described as “anomalous” in gaming by Tim Lion, who was until recently head of digital at Call of Duty publisher Activision Blizzard.

“It is largely an adjunct to football fandom and a visceral way to extend the experience of watching or playing football with your mates,” he says. “It is inherently social, parentally acceptable (no guns), an ideal opportunity for ads and enjoys strong in-game monetization due to its close association with fantasy football.”

Fifa has replicated the aggressive commercialization of the footballing body’s cash-cow in the virtual realm. To bundle 30 leagues, 700 teams, 102 stadiums and upwards of 14,000 players, EA has to amplify every official partner and sponsor of said licensees to offset the cost of what is one of the world’s most expensive licensed entertainment products.

Brand value

The Vanarama National League, the plucky fifth tier of English football, is petitioning for inclusion in Fifa 2020 – an ambition that reflects the commercial value of being included in the title.

Daryl West, head of social media and sponsorship at the vehicle-leasing sponsor Vanarama, says the clubs would get global exposure if EA were to buy the rights.

On the off-chance EA decided to include their modest but well-attended stadiums, those clubs would draw revenue from in-game dynamic advertising. In turn, the clubs (and their partners) would greatly increase their digital and social footprints, attracting commercial opportunities and supporters.

“The value of in-game ads lies with the frequency with which users will see your brand,” says West. “When you combine your brand with a culturally relevant channel, it’s often a success.”

Illustrating the power of the platform by pointing to the many up-and-coming artists who became household names simply from featuring on the series’ soundtracks, West says: “In-game partners are ‘always on’ in a highly engaged global environment – this is hard to achieve on any other channel without an infinite budget."

In-game ads

But while Fifa’s advertising platform amplifies the official partners of each included league and club to offset licensing costs, which in turn restricts its advertising opportunities, Sega and Sports Interactive’s Football Manager franchise is actively selling native in-stadium ads through London startup Bidstack. Its bidding platform, created to service digital out-of-home formats, now serves programmatic, native ads to billboards, panels and hoardings on console and PC games.

“We are the ClearChannel of video games,” says founder James Draper. “Games are landlords, and we are the media owner.”

Sports titles such as Football Manager and Dirt Rally 2.0 are currently on the books, and Vodafone, Domino’s, Volkswagen, Audi, the NHS and 188Bet are among the brands to have tried the channel.

“Running a Football Manager ad is cheaper than running an in-stadium ad in the real world, but you can still get the same brand uplift,” says Draper. Football Manager’s in-stadium ads are integrated, clickable and don’t obstruct gameplay. Plus gamers expect ads in these spaces, which arguably make the game seem more realistic.

Draper enthuses about this “net new media”, but admits work is being done to improve “verification and trackability” to attract more agencies and publishers.

“This real estate allows agencies to be creative again in digital. There is a demand – particularly with the explosion of eSports – but we have to do the boring stuff first. It has to be easier for media buyers to report on.”

eSports

In-game ads are no longer talking to gamers on a one-to-one basis, with eSports opening placements up to large-scale audiences.

John Clarke, global brand and marcomms officer at eSports organizer Gfinity, tells The Drum that eSports helps increase the lifetime value of the consumer and the lifespan of a game. “They drive microtransactions, like skins that enhance performance or offer personalization.”

There is, however, some debate around this.

Street Fighter V previously came under fire for incentivizing players with in-game currency to use ad-branded character skins – absurdly, brands could bid for space on Indian fighter Dhalsim’s skull necklace.

Elsewhere, the inclusion of a Mercedes in Mario Kart 8 and the Batmobile in Rocket League fared better, and a live set from DJ Marshmello in Fortnite went down a treat with mass audiences, swelling his YouTube following.

Clarke, however, believes that brands have to do more than just ‘badge’ on games to succeed.

“GenZ gamers have little or no time for brands that do not add value to their experience, so bringing something special is key. Brands need to take the time to understand gaming culture and find the right entry point.”

Looking at the football simulation, he says: “Fifa’s competitive scene continues to grow – there is an ecosystem in place that fuels conversation and debate around it. Competitive gaming helps to grow the digital monetization, and as more people compete and watch the content to support it, we can expect the digital transactions to continue increasing.”

“eSports is not a trend or a fad, it is a direct consequence of the digitization trend. It is part of a cultural revolution, a wave that is growing in size and scale every day. Miss it and business will suffer.”

Evolving in-game ads

EA is restricted as to which brands it works with in Fifa, but has the freedom to shape how it works with them.

Fifa 18 saw the franchise’s first effort to weave a narrative into the game with its story-based Journey mode. Players starred as football starlet Alex Hunter and aimed to progress him from the bench of a modest club to join the sport’s elite. On the way, Hunter navigated the media, built a social media following and, inevitably, attracted sponsor deals from Fifa partners such as Adidas and Coca-Cola.

One of Coca-Cola’s World Cup 2018 spots blurred the lines between influencing, sponsorship, content and gaming with what it claimed was the “first ad within a video game to be launched on real-world platforms”.

In the game, Hunter won a Coca-Cola sponsorship and starred in an ad called ‘Uplifted Alex’. This signalled the success of the young footballer in the game; in the real world, Coca-Cola ran the ad using Hunter as a digital influencer.

Mercado McCann teamed with Coke’s gaming team and, explains executive creative director Diego Tuya, started working on natural, real experiences. “It was a genuine moment; we always aim for organic ideas rather than ones where you can see the strings. Alex is great and is now part of Coke’s history as the brand’s first-ever virtual ambassador.”

Rhian Mason, content strategy director at IPG Mediabrands UK, adds: “It was a smart reciprocal relationship. Coca-Cola seamlessly integrated into the character’s narrative.

"The product placement doesn’t impinge on the experience. If anything, it makes it feel more realistic and truer to life – who wouldn’t want to experience fame and a real-life endorsement deal?”

Is advertising the answer?

With mobile gaming accounting for 51% of all gaming revenue in 2018, EA has in recent years looked to the ‘loot box’ monetization model of free-to-play mobile games.

Somewhat controversially it has been encouraging players of two of its biggest money-makers, Fifa and Madden NFL, to participate in Ultimate Team mode, where they spend money on in-game digital ‘packs’ of randomized footballers, reminiscent of Panini stickers. The best players appear infrequently, so gamers invest significant sums in their teams, and the currency and packs are lost each time a new game is released.

Revenue from Ultimate Team alone made up to 50% of EA’s live services revenue over the last year, or $1.1bn. Governments have been scrutinizing these highly profitable ‘loot box’ mechanics.

However, with Belgium banning them in January having likened them to gambling mechanics in a game targeted at children other nations may follow. And should this lucrative earner be canned, EA could be forced to focus even more on in-game ads

This feature originally appeared in The Drum’s Future of Media issue. You can buy the full magazine here.

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