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‘Gaming is not a media channel’ and other lessons for brands wanting to play

The total numbers may be attractive, but brands need to go much deeper if they really want to be part of the scene says MediaCom’s Misha Sher as part of our deep dive into all things gaming.

Agency POVs on gaming usually start with some big numbers, such as the $175bn annual revenue of the gaming industry, or the 17bn hours watched on Twitch in 2020, or the 87% of all people who have played a game in the last month via one of their devices.

These numbers bombastically aim to create the impression of a single, unified media market, home to every type of audience demographic, which sits relatively untapped while the familiar channels of TV and print fade into obscurity.

But let’s instead start with a different big number: 1,181,019. That’s the number of individual video games available across the five major gaming platforms of PC, PlayStation, Xbox, Switch and mobile. The revenue and ‘time spent’ statistics that are intended to convey the idea of a single addressable audience are, in fact, spread thinly and relatively evenly across these different games and platforms.

Here’s a second number: 25. That’s approximately the percentage of games that currently have buyable media inventory available. The vast majority of those are on mobile, accessed via programmatic buying solutions with effective but functional display and video formats. Among the remainder are a handful of games that offer integrated branding opportunities through mechanics such as in-game signage, liveries on virtual vehicles or kits, or other in-game cosmetics.

While the number of such integrated opportunities is growing rapidly, brands looking to ‘get into gaming’ need to begin by understanding that the route in is not straightforward and does not generally come with the usual conveniences of standard media buying metrics such as reach and frequency.

Fortnite, with its much celebrated in-game crossover events, is notably unique as an environment where brands can, in theory, create virtual activations that have significant audiences. But it is most important to remember there is no straightforward buyable solution, and brands looking to utilize gaming platforms for marketing purposes will need to be proactive, accept a certain degree of risk and see the bigger picture of the wider gaming communication system.

Brands that have had success in this space have done exactly that. One of the great Brand/Fortnite case studies, Wendy’s, was done as an entirely unilateral social activation leveraging wider engagement on Twitch in lieu of an owned in-game event. The brands that have sought to leverage the Animal Crossing phenomenon of the last year have done so independently of Nintendo, forcing the publisher to step in with official guidelines after the fact. And one of the most audacious examples, Fifa and Burger King’s sponsorship of Stevenage, was a gamble that paid off admirably, with real-world activity translating into in-game visibility.

What these examples teach us is that gaming is not a media channel that willingly grants you access to its massive and highly engaged audience. This is a prize that needs to be hard earned. It is a cultural melting pot that for brands to successfully leverage will require a strategic vision, an innovative and credible angle, and a significant degree of bravery.

Point one to remember is that gaming is not esports or Twitch (each of which is distinct from gaming and from each other). Both have more accessible advertising offers that sit more in line with traditional sponsorship and online video. A pre-roll campaign on Twitch might be a perfectly sensible way to access a gaming audience, and while it can be quickly and easily organized by your OLV buying team, what you gain in accessibility you pay for in terms of loss of novelty and cut through.

Point two to remember is that gaming platforms are not media environments, either in terms of available inventory or audiences that are necessarily aware of or receptive to being advertised to. While gaming and marketing’s relationship is still in its early stages, an extra level of caution and respect when utilizing the growing list of nascent opportunities is advisable.

Which leads to the most important point, point three: to always add value to the experience. The most successful examples of brands entering gaming, either with native content or surrounding social activations, have won the community over by understanding the game they are playing in and offering something to the players. This is vital to ensure that your brand’s presence is welcome. Even brands that are active in the gaming space can get this wrong – and when they do, the gaming community can be swift and harsh in their judgement.

Get to level three and you will be ready to play.

Misha Sher is global head of sport, entertainment and culture at MediaCom.

For more on what the gaming sector’s pandemic-propelled popularity means for marketers, head to The Drum’s gaming hub.

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