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Learning Video Games Sports & Fitness

EA’s Ciaran McCarthy on the intersection between gaming, sports and culture


By Webb Wright, NY Reporter

July 2, 2024 | 7 min read

As part of The Drum’s Sports & Fitness Focus, we talk to Ciaran McCarthy about his belief that video games can serve as a first point of entry into a lifelong love for sports.


Electronic Arts (EA) makes some of the most popular sports-based video games in the world. / Adobe Stock

Since the earliest days of his marketing career, Ciaran McCarthy knew he wanted to work with a brand that directly and positively impacted people’s lives. It felt like the cosmos had extended its hand to him, therefore, when Electronic Arts (EA) – the publisher behind some of the world’s most popular sports-based video games – reached out to him online in 2019, ultimately leading to an offer for him to run the company’s creative marketing efforts.

Contrary to some pervasive stereotypes, McCarthy believes that gaming can be a rich social experience that, in the case of EA’s titles, can inspire players to engage with sports in reality. Maintaining that “entryway” element, he says, is a central part of his role at EA and also of the company’s mission at large.

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McCarthy – who was also a judge for The Drum Awards for Marketing – has had a globe-spanning career. Originally from Dublin, Ireland, he held positions in Sydney, London and New York before finally landing with EA in San Francisco.

The Drum recently spoke with McCarthy to find out more about his professional journey, as well as some of the joys and challenges that come with marketing in the sports gaming world.

How did you arrive at EA?

I’d always been drawn to sports and I remember when the Nike+ FuelBand won the Grand Prix at Cannes Lions [in 2012]; seeing that as a young creative made me think, firstly, that I want to work with those people and, secondly, that I want to do that type of work – work that connected product and creativity.

So, I decided to leave Ireland for Australia. That was an incredible, strange time for the industry. Facebook was just emerging and ’Entertainment’ had just been introduced as an [award] category at Cannes.

I started moving towards the more entertainment-style agencies … But there was always a part of me that felt that the connection of creativity to product was never really going to be achieved the way I wanted it to if I stayed in an agency. I had a lot of friends and colleagues who’d gone to work in-house, at Apple, Google and others, which sounded interesting, but I always felt that if I was going to dedicate myself fully to a brand, it’s got to be something I’m truly passionate about.

Then, EA reached out on LinkedIn. It flew me to California and asked if I would come in to lead the creative department at EA, which I was never going to say no to. That was five years ago … I pinch myself a lot.

The marketing industry (and the world) has changed dramatically since you first touched down in California in 2019. What’s been the biggest unexpected challenge you’ve had to wrestle with during your time at EA?

The challenge is connected to the opportunity.

A lot of brands talk about becoming part of culture, whereas EA is culture for many people … our games are their first entryway into sports. That’s an incredible privilege and it’s an incredibly important lever for our marketing.

The challenge lies in the increasing demand for live service; the live service model is essentially the [only] model. That model requires constant content and conversations and when you layer that on top of a game that is so deeply connected with and driven by culture, you now have to essentially pivot product and marketing at a speed that I’ve never seen before. So the biggest challenge is [a combination of] the speed of culture, the speed of live service and the speed of people’s attention. We need to keep up with all of that while remaining authentic and keeping our brand on track.

Gamers are a famously passionate demographic. As a marketer, how do you ensure that your work aligns with the expectations of this particularly engaged audience?

We talk a lot internally about the balance between our core, very vocal [audience members] who have expectations for our games and the hundreds of millions of players who might not identify as ’gamers’ but who love [one particular game] franchise and buy it every year … You don’t want to swing too far in either direction.

We have direct relationships with the most influential members of our [core audience] and we’ll often share work with them [before it’s released] – they help us refocus our efforts. But we also need to consider the large audience who isn’t as engaged. You don’t want it to become so inside baseball that you can’t grow beyond that core audience.

You mentioned that EA games are a gateway to playing sports for some people. What do you think about the challenge of celebrating physical activity via a medium that users engage with from the couch?

Our mission and everything that drives what we do is to grow the love of sports, both inside and outside of [video games]. There’s data showing that playing our games is actually driving participation in sports IRL, which is great…

Also, if you watched two 16-year-olds play FC, it wouldn’t be as stationary as you’d think – they’re also talking, they’re also interacting. Are they having a [gaming] experience at its core? Yes, but they’re also having a connected experience with their friends. And for many of them, their passion grows and it becomes their entryway to sports.

Learning Video Games Sports & Fitness

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