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In-game ads, brand safety and selling skins: the biggest gaming stories of 2021

Replaying 2021 - the year gaming became a mainstream marketing channel

As part of our Best of 2021 series, The Drum’s journalists have been looking back at some of the biggest stories of the past 12 months. Here, we revisit our Gaming Deep Dive and remember some of the biggest gaming developments of the year.

2021 was the year that gaming entered the mainstream, a mere 40 years after Pac-Man first gobbled his way around the world. With a pandemic upswinging time spent gaming, brands finally saw it as a worthy channel to find audiences. There were some huge advances.

Several reports claim of the world’s 8 billion people, 3 billion are gamers. Use, frequency and platform vary, but it’s clear a huge amount of people play games. More people game than have a Facebook account. As an advertising medium, gaming is fragmented, sometimes by platform, sometimes publisher.

EA says it reaches more than half a billion players across all platforms and titles. Meanwhile, Epic’s Fortnite – a standout location for smart branded activations – sits at around 80 million active monthly users. The largest titles are small in comparison to the open web, but the opportunity differs. In-game advertising, product placement, branded activations and even IP partnerships have all been tried and tested this year and have accrued mainstream appeal.

For years, ad execs fantasized about placing real-world ads into fully-realized gaming worlds such as Grand Theft Auto. With programmatic buying platforms reaching maturity, now anything can be inventory, be it an in-game billboard, a bus stop, a bin shed, a mural, a generic shopfront or even a power-up (more here) – with the correct creative that is.

Samuel Huber, in-play ad platform Admix’s founder and chief executive, told me earlier this year that gaming is a “Sleeping Facebook” – that is if someone can join the dots between these disparate experiences into a single network. The in-game banners and interruptive videos we’re seeing primarily in mobile are what Huber describes as “gateway ads” until placements can get more contextual, useful and interactive.

Alex Ginn, director of sales at Adverty, says: “Contextual sensitivity is critical for in-game ads and this is a big problem within digital advertising. It’s important to focus on experiences rather than simply trying to shift products.” Ocean Outdoor recently partnered with Admix to help “take brands into the metaverse”. And more have adopted the media too. Getting the right fit will be the hard part.

To do this, top media agencies are forming teams – this year it stopped being a niche concern. Even the IAB is helping to create frameworks for gaming and esports to better measure effectiveness. It’s still early days from a measurement perspective – particularly if the ad formats we’re just getting a grip of are the tip of the iceberg of what’s to come.

What’s clear is that we’ll have to get used to it. A report compiled by Admix and Atomik Research quizzed 400 media buyers on both sides of the Atlantic and found that 93% intend to run in-game advertising by 2025. Clients in the UK were more likely to buy into it than those in the US.

But Essence’s Clare Chapman, while bullish on gaming, is careful. Much of the research focuses on whether gamers would prefer gaming in advertising to the likes of banner ads and TV interruptions. The addition of ads into gaming is additive, not a replacement and threatens to break immersion on our most immersive media if not properly handled. Console and PC gamers will still be protective of their medium, where they are less likely to see ads than mobile gamers. Chapman is using an “annoyance index” to ensure it’s not investing media that’s irritating gamers and thus creating a negative association with the brand. However, she sees virtual out-of-home placements as a natural addition to real life out-of-home campaigns (you can pretty much use the same creative assets).

At this stage, brands are late entrants. Many of the truly great firsts have been taken. Some of the longtime brands in gaming still struggle to activate. One potential misfire is Coke’s ’Real Magic’ spot that celebrated a ceasefire in an esports arena as if having digital avatars batter each other wasn’t just fun but also entirely the point. Influencers are positioning themselves as the gatekeepers of these communities instead. There may be some wisdom in consulting with them.

A standout and surprising sector into the space were fashion brands Gucci, Balenciaga, Louis Vuitton, Valentino and Marc Jacobs. This feature (one of our most-read of the year) explores what high fashion had to gain in grainy pixelated worlds. It’s clear that it takes decades of marketing to sell someone a $4,000 handbag. Why not start young in gaming? Plus, the profit margins on virtual clothing and NFTs are no doubt higher than quality physical garments. We Are Pi’s head of strategy Mark Lester pointed out: “Fortnite has already created a multi-billion-dollar industry in selling skins. This is just the beginning.”

Louis Vuitton has already launched a skins collection for Riot Games’ League of Legends, while Marc Jacobs, Valentino and Anna Sui have created exclusive collections for Animal Crossing.

From a creative perspective, it is inarguable that some of gaming’s greatest ads landed this year, be it Balenciaga’s 3D Fortnite billboards or Fifa’s Kiyan Prince resurrection.

It was the year when we started talking about brand safety in gaming. Stevan Randjelovic is director, brand safety and digital risk, at GroupM EMEA shared how the industry is measuring safety in that space. Did you know that some brands don’t want to appear in shooting or violent games? Some titles are ranking the brand safety of scenes or levels rather than whole games, like you’d rate a website by page rather than a domain. It’s unclear whether violence actually poses any brand safety danger – especially if the user (who understands it is not real) is actually choosing to commit the acts rather than passively view it.

It’s clear there are a lot of kinks to work out and a lot of foundations to build. But some of that Pac-Man generation are now gaming with their grandchildren. Almost half of them are women too. Most people game. Gamer isn’t an identifier beyond some basic technological competency. Their communities are as diverse as you could possibly imagine and differ greatly by title – which is where media planning comes into play.

A not-insignificant portion of gaming investment will be to chase the metaverse dime. Gaming contains the building blocks and the talent that will build the verse. This was a concept Wayne Deakin explored – urging advertisers to be wary about calling it a fad.

Finally, check out some of our favourite gaming ads here.

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