Gaming — as an entertainment medium, a cultural phenomenon, a means of monetization and more — is on the cusp of its next evolution, thanks to the pandemic, the metaverse, blockchain technology and more, argues Activision Blizzard Media and esports executive Jonathan Stringfield.
If marketers in the early days of the pandemic treated the seemingly sudden spike in gaming as a temporary curiosity, some two years on, it has shifted from being an oddity to a regular part of everyday life for consumers. Gaming has been able to fill an important role during this time by enabling deeper connections between friends and family members, virtually. It should therefore be of little surprise that the latter half of 2021 was consumed by the possibilities afforded by virtual worlds (the metaverse and mechanisms for virtual ownership spurred on by NFTs and other emerging technologies) and will have significant bearing on the trajectory of gaming in 2022.
For gaming to become ubiquitous it must not only be a form of media enjoyed by a majority of consumers, but also become a more normalized activity. As we continue to adjust to our new normal, part of that normal will be how we weave gaming into our lives, and how it influences popular culture — ranging from how we market to consumers to the means by which we communicate years to come. Marketers, business leaders and technologists looking to master the next big thing in 2022 can find a number of starting points based directly within the gaming ecosystem.
Much of the discussion about gaming in 2022 is going to have the odd effect of ignoring gaming entirely.
The concept of the “metaverse” became one of the hottest topics in the marketing and technology landscape in late 2021, due in part to Facebook rebranding to Meta as part of a significant redirection in strategy towards the idea of the metaverse. One can find no shortage of conflicting definitions or theories about what the metaverse will entail, though a common refrain is that the metaverse will be an internet that users traverse via virtual, 3D worlds.
So began a confusing discourse where marketers and technologists who had not paid much attention to gaming were surprised to find that many of the newest concepts and ideas concerning the metaverse — including its look and feel — have been part of the gaming ecosystem for some time. The 50-year legacy of virtual worlds in gaming has been all but absent in ongoing discussions of the metaverse, and yet one of the most tangible short-term effects of interest around the metaverse in 2022 will be the number of non-gaming organizations now interested in building worlds like those that have existed in gaming for quite some time.
While all the metaverse truly represents at this time is an idea, it is an idea with strong roots in gaming — origins that are in danger of being overlooked. Those with serious aspirations to understand or build the metaverse in 2022 have the opportunity to start their journey in the multiple “metaverses” that currently exist in the gaming ecosystem, lest they otherwise merely tread the virtual footsteps of the gamers that came before them.
Blockchain gaming gets real(istic)
Hand-in-hand with discussions surrounding the metaverse, applications of blockchain technology in the form of NFTs and blockchain-based gaming had the simultaneous effect of injecting new words and phrases into our collective lexicon.
There is some underlying logic to these associations, with the right perspective: the metaverse is largely described as a decentralized series of virtual worlds complete with virtual goods that (as noted above) cribs heavily from the world of gaming. Utilization of decentralized blockchain technology to broaden thinking around virtual ownership — certified by NFTs — and how this impacts domains that have a long history of virtual goods ownership like gaming (via blockchain games) are a natural evolution of this broader discussion.
For today's gamers, current applications of blockchain don’t allow for much that can’t already be done — or has been done — in gaming. Not unlike the rise of mobile gaming, it’s possible that blockchain games could further expand the umbrella of gaming by drawing in a new class of game players — those enticed by the potential to “play to earn,” where real-world value can be extracted via in-game efforts. However, blockchain-based games generally lack the accessibility that fueled the growth of mobile games.
The most meaningful conversations in 2022 about blockchain gaming must therefore fall along one of two paths: those concerned with making blockchain game elements more meaningful to existing game players; or those regarding easing the onboarding of “gamers waiting to happen” into blockchain games. One of the most promising applications to decentralized technology is one where a little understanding about gaming audiences or the larger gaming ecosystem can go a long way to enriching the quality and success of such conversations.
Throughout 2021, major esports and gaming organizations demonstrated mainstream legitimacy via blue-chip collaborations (such as 100 Thieves and Gucci), partnerships (such as FaZe Clan and McDonald's) and new investment rounds and occasionally lofty billion-dollar IPO aspirations. If a potential billion-dollar valuation against an esports organization seems far-fetched, it may be because you’ve missed the point: it’s not entirely about the esports.
Esports and professional gaming more generally have drawn parallels to traditional sports because they are commercialized forms of competitive entertainment. However, it’s important to understand that the world of competitive gaming is very different from traditional sports - one need not look further than the fact that esports only truly found its footing in online streaming after years of mixed attempts to fit the format to traditional television. Similarly, in lieu of the usual revenue levers in traditional sports, gaming organizations have become content marketing machines with a unique value proposition of delivering a difficult to reach audience (young gaming enthusiasts) in a way that is authentic.
In 2022 we’ll continue to see a regular beat of partnerships between legacy brands tapping the broader esports organization based in large part to their market appeal. In this sense gaming is not the sole focus of these partnerships, but rather the cultural context around a broader messaging strategy. The commercial future of esports has long been divorced from relying solely on prize purses, and the most successful entities in competitive gaming will take the form of a new breed of content organization whose gaming acumen is matched only by marketing savvy.
The hybridization of gaming
The ongoing pandemic focused a great deal of discussion on gaming, as home-bound consumers intensified their usage of all forms of media. Initial questions as to whether this level of interest would be temporary were offset by the continued growth of gaming some two years on, inclusive of ongoing growth in mobile gaming in a world where consumers were decidedly less mobile. This trend partially demonstrates that “mobile” gaming is less about the opportunity to game on the go than to provide a convenient platform to access gaming content more generally.
The distinction between "casual"/mobile and “traditional” gaming will continue to blur in 2022. Cloud gaming services allow for graphically-intensive game experiences formerly relegated to consoles to be played anywhere, made all the more possible by ongoing adoption of 5G to take these experiences on the go (or in homes where legacy infrastructure could not support high speed internet). Even formerly cumbersome game experiences such as PC or VR gaming are going more mobile via devices such as Steam Deck, a mobile gaming PC device shipping in 2022, or Oculus Go, Meta's self-contained VR computer, respectively.
The result is that gaming will continue to transcend specific devices or binary playstyles to hybrid experiences that blend aspects of “casual” and “traditional” gaming. As technological and logistical hurdles for gaming across all types of gaming experiences continue to lower, the depth and breadth of the gaming audience will continue down the path towards broader and deeper adoption in 2022.
From ubiquitous to influential
2022 is positioned to be one of the most exciting years in gaming, but one which will require significantly more nuance in the hottest topics of 2021. The shift in the esports industry towards using gaming as a cultural backdrop speaks to a broader, underlying influence of gaming across emerging topics such as the metaverse or blockchain. Meanwhile, gaming in general has never had deeper content more readily and conveniently available to consumers via increased portability and flexibility around where games can be fit into consumers lives.
In this sense, 2022 is a year where gaming leaps from being merely a media category towards having broad cultural influence. Those who have spent time to understand the gaming ecosystem will be at a strategic advantage around this shift, those who have not may be served an important wake-up call. For years it’s been a common refrain that gaming is for everyone, and everyone is a gamer - this becomes all the more true as gaming touches more aspects of our lives beyond just game play.
Jonathan Stringfield, PhD is vice-president of global business marketing, measurement and insights at Activision Blizzard Media and Esports.