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Media Innovation Round-Up: Lovin’ esports, BT Sport Hype Mode, Batman hits podcasts

Once a month, Marek Wrobel, Havas Media Group's head of media futures will guide readers through the best shiny, new tech in the sector. He'll look closely at the trials and tribulations of the pioneers and spotlight where marketers should be paying attention.

McDonald’s has announced a partnership with esports team FaZe Clan

Marek Wrobel vigilantly tracks emerging media tech for Havas Media Group. For The Drum, in the Media Innovation Round-Up, Wrobel explores ‘new and shiny’ tech and its role in the ever-evolving marketing mix.

Get hyped for alternative broadcast

BT Sport has added an alternative viewing experience to its app called ‘Hype’, which includes a range of graphics. Is this a sign of things to come?

They look cool (if a bit silly). The reactions on Twitter range from Hype Mode being great to it being the worst thing to happen to football since the European Super League.

Wherever you sit on this spectrum, chances are that there will be more experiments like this one, as it’s all part of the bigger trend for creating alternative broadcast experiences. The main goal is to attract and engage younger audiences who spend more and more time gaming and expect similar levels of interactivity across other mediums.

BT Sport is far from the only broadcaster testing this approach – just this year, across the pond, ESPN worked with Disney on a similar initiative for the NBA game, while NFL partnered with Nickelodeon. However, alternative broadcast experiences are not only for sport – during the 2019 Billboard Music Awards viewers were able to see not one but five Madonnas dancing on stage.

All of these experiences have one thing in common – they leverage broadcast AR, which is a type of augmented reality that adds a digital layer on top of TV content rather than on what we see through smartphone cameras. Actually, this is just one way in which AR can help transform the TV watching experience. Broadcasters can enhance their content with broadcast AR, elevate it by providing extra AR content and encourage audiences to watch their programs by leveraging AR marketing. Since we have covered broadcast AR, now let’s focus on AR content and AR marketing.

To elevate the TV watching experience, broadcasters can use the second screen and create AR experiences for live events, in the same way that Nickelodeon enabled viewers to cover their living rooms in their infamous green slime during the Kids’ Choice event. Broadcasters are also toying with the idea of creating bespoke AR content to accompany their shows – Bloomberg reported last year that Apple may integrate augmented reality into its TV streaming service. Lastly, broadcasters can create AR experiences hosted in standalone apps, with my absolute favorite being the BBC Civilisations app created as a companion to the BBC Two program of the same name.

Podcasts and TV working together

HBO Max will create its own exclusive podcasts, with Batman: The Audio Adventures being the first.

I always say that podcasts are A.C.E. They offer easy access for audiences, all kinds of content, and can easily form a part of a bigger entertainment ecosystem as they play well with other channels. When it comes to the symbiotic relationship between podcast and TV content, historically it has manifested in two ways. First of all, recently podcasts have become sources of inspiration for creating new IPs such as Netflix’s Song Exploder, Amazon Prime Video’s Homecoming and Bravo’s Dirty John – all based on popular podcasts.

Secondly, companion podcasts play a supporting role for existing IPs by providing extra content. And now we can see that podcasts will be used to extend IPs.

HBO Max is not alone in this pursuit. Netflix has recently hired the former head of content for Apple Podcasts to head up its own podcast operations, which indicates that podcasts will play a more prominent role in their offering. Similarly, back in April Apple TV+ announced an original content production unit working on scripted podcasts. As you can see, the relationship between the podcast space and TV content only seems to be getting closer.

However, during research, I started to wonder, “What about social audio?” What makes social audio different to podcasts is the fact that it is live, interactive and topical – all three making it into a potentially powerful tool for broadcasters. I can easily see social audio used to create a new type of audio-driven fan experience during which people can discuss an episode they’ve just watched, and get access to talent or exclusive content. And all of this can happen live just after the relevant piece of television has aired – making it even more powerful for traditional broadcasters showing programs according to a set TV schedule.

(Brands) play to win

McDonald’s has announced a partnership with esports team FaZe Clan to produce dynamic content focused on diversity and inclusion in gaming. How can brands leverage esports in their comms – and is it worth it?

To answer this question let’s take a closer look at the three main elements of the esports ecosystem. First of all, like traditional sports, esports are organized around players, teams and leagues. Once a player becomes a part of the team, often he or she goes to live in a ‘gaming house’, training up to 14 hours per day. And while being an esports player can be lucrative, due to how intense competing is – both physically and mentally – the average esports career lasts just four to five years. At the core of esports are tournaments.

These can offer massive events, with a prize pool of millions of dollars and attendance in the tens of thousands. While the scale of these events in the UK is smaller compared to those in Asian countries, based on a report from 2019 from the association for UK interactive entertainment, esports generated £115m for the UK economy and supported 1200 jobs. And lastly, there are fans, or as they are often called, ‘esports enthusiasts’. They can engage with their passion both online and in the real world.

Brands will be happy to hear that they have opportunities to get involved across all these areas – whether through partnering with teams or leagues, sponsoring tournaments, or working to enhance experiences for esports enthusiasts. And it can be a worthwhile endeavor as esports is growing in popularity in the UK, with a recent YouGov report putting the number of Brits actively engaging with esports at 4 million and awareness of esports at 37% of the UK population. It’s worth noting that there is room to grow, as our level of engagement with esports is below most European countries.

Additionally, lockdown actually had a positive impact on esports viewership in the UK, and TV broadcasters are getting involved, making esports content easier to find and engage with. On top of that, based on the previously-cited report from YouGov, esports enthusiasts are very open, even eager, to see brands involved in the space – more so than, for example, football fans.

Making VR work

Facebook has launched the test of a new virtual-reality remote work app called Horizon Workrooms. Will adding a VR spin to hybrid work finally help this technology break into the mainstream?

I strongly believe that the marketing community has been harsh when it comes to virtual reality. I know that hype is partly to blame, but I also think it reflects our rather unfortunate need to judge new technologies through the lens of those we are familiar with. This in turn often leads to expectations that are impossible to meet. That is why VR was expected to become the new TV or new cinema... but VR is VR.

So, let’s see where VR is at... even despite all these adverse conditions. In terms of adoption, the latest data from Ofcom puts it at 9% of UK households, however Foresight Factory reported that 26% of Brits will own a VR headset by 2025. What is helping drive this growth is the constant evolution of the VR hardware ecosystem.

Historically there were four ways to experience VR – handheld headsets such as Google Cardboard, smartphone headsets such as Samsung’s Gear VR, wireless headsets and tethered headsets created for gaming. Now all smartphone-based VR platforms have been discontinued. And, while Google Cardboard is still around, I see it as a double-edged sword for VR. Yes, it made it more accessible, but the experience has always been sub-optimal, which, in my opinion, has had a detrimental impact on VR as a whole.

Thankfully wireless headsets – especially those coming from Oculus – are changing the game, offering superior experiences at a more and more accessible cost. Lastly, tethered headsets remain relatively popular, albeit among a niche, gaming-focused audience. And then there is content, which for a long time has been VR’s Achilles’ heel. While gaming is the biggest content category and will remain so for the foreseeable future, we now see more and more examples of content outside of pure gaming – whether it’s the ability to watch TV and movies in VR environments, sport coverage from the likes of Sky Sports, or interesting VR activations created by musicians, festivals, theaters and museums.

What is often ignored is VR’s potential beyond pure B2C play. Over the years, there have been loads of interesting examples of VR used for training, education and collaboration. I genuinely wouldn’t be surprised if these less sexy, B2B areas will be responsible for driving the broader adoption of virtual reality, especially in the post-pandemic world in which our work is hybrid, and we are – hopefully – more conscious about business travel and its impact, as well as suffering from Zoom fatigue. In addition, using VR in our schools, universities and workplaces will make more people aware of it – beyond good ol’ Google Cardboard – and more familiar with its potential. This could have a ripple effect on it moving slowly but surely to our living rooms, and (who knows) our media plans.

And if you liked what you read, check out my last column.

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