What the rise of gaming means for brands

Accelerated by the appetite for new diversions in lockdown, gaming is morphing into a global entertainments phenomenon with profound implications for the marketing industry

There may be those naysayer brands that dismiss the fast-moving esports and gaming sector as a temporary fad among teenage boys, but shrewder heads believe its potential as a multi-demographic ad platform is only now becoming apparent.

With what the industry calls the “gaming ecosystem” rapidly migrating from computers and consoles to the ubiquitous smartphone, creating a meaningful brand presence among gamers, whether through in-app advertising, brand characters, sponsorship or shoppable content, is becoming increasingly important.

That’s the view of market intelligence house App Annie, which predicts global spending on mobile games alone could be close to £85 billion this year, making it 50 per cent larger than all other gaming categories combined. 

“Mobile advertising in general, much of it around games, kept the entire ad industry afloat in 2020 and so far in 2021. With the opportunity to return to the streaming of live events, the spend is likely to be far bigger still,” says Lexi Sydow, senior market insights manager at App Annie.

“Gaming may be a new habit that many have adopted in 2020, but with the development of more innovative marketing techniques, particularly in our view, in-game customisable avatars, it will become a catalyst for other new behaviours too. Smart brands are recognising that phones are mini mobile consoles and getting into this space right now.”

While hard-to-reach Gen-Z audiences adept at using ad-blocker technology are already in marketers’ sights, the breadth of game genres now on offer, from first-person shooters and arcade games to electronic scrabble or ludo, for example, makes gaming “inclusive and accessible”, she adds.

Bud Light, which recently launched Europe’s first on-pack beer and esports promotion in partnership with UK-based professional esports organisation Fnatic, was an early convert. 

Aided by branded character the Bud Knight, as much as three quarters of Bud Light’s total UK marketing spend was devoted to gaming and esports in 2020, up from 10 to 20 per cent in previous years.

Why gaming could be “as big as football”

“Esports and gaming aren’t a side hustle for us, we believe they are a genuine passion point for many consumers and have the capacity to become just as big as football and rugby one day,” says Lourenço Arriaga, marketing manager for Budweiser and Bud Light in the UK and Ireland.

“With consumer attention in COVID switching from TV and other traditional media to gaming and the live streaming of esports events on Twitch, I would advise other marketers with relevant brands to embrace the fact that this is a phenomenon which is here to stay,” he says. 

Launched in the midst of the pandemic last year, Dentsu’s esports and gaming arm DGame, whose clients include Kellogg’s and Cadbury, argues that the global gaming community, estimated to soar to more than three billion by 2023, is a new form of social media, offering multiple and profitable avenues for brand integration.

Gamers are a highly protective community and while they welcome brands into their world, they have no automatic right to be there unless they add real value

“Gaming attracts people looking for companionship, shared interests and, currently at least, an escape from lockdown. This adds up to an enormous opportunity for in and out-of-game sponsorship, in-app advertising, product placement and, ultimately, the development of original branded content,” says Peter Jacobs, client partner at DGame.

“By continuing to spend the bulk of their budgets on traditional TV ads, the many brands out there looking to appeal to 18 to 25s may not actually be talking to their target market without even realising it,” he adds.

Entering a highly fragmented market

Despite the UK already boasting more than 37 million regular gamers, split fairly equally between men and women, Jacobs notes that many brands remain reluctant to dive into what is still a highly fragmented market.

“Brands are at different stages in terms of their journey into gaming and esports, and while some are already fairly seasoned, others are first movers or very keen to take that first leap, but unsure of how to do it,” he says.

While Jacobs sees the sponsorship of live esports and music events as a natural and potentially lucrative entry point for newbie brands, particularly when attendance numbers return to pre-COVID levels, he agrees there are a number of obstacles in the path to gaming glory.

L’Oréal has openly declared an interest in developing gaming strategies, particularly for its female-leaning brands, yet the long-held perception that the sector remains predominantly male is proving hard to shift.

The complex world of intellectual property (IP) may well prove a bone of contention between games publishers and marketers as the latter seek to monetise their involvement further and this is an area in which IP lawyers may be the eventual victors.

But it’s the potential cultural clash between developers and brands that may prove the stickiest problem of all.

Understanding gamers

“Gamers are a highly protective community and while they welcome brands into their world, we have no automatic right to be there unless we add real value,” says Arriaga. “If a brand or ad appears out of context, it can quickly backfire on a marketer via comments on social media.”

While the immersive and interactive nature of gaming makes it highly receptive to brand messaging, App Annie’s Sydow advises marketers to “respect and understand gamers” to keep audiences on-side.

“It really matters if your in-app ad is horizontal or vertical and so does avoiding any interruption to the flow of play,” she says. “By collaborating with publishers and developers to create great ads that enhance rather than detract from the game, you can make an enormous impact.”

With developers willing to open their doors to innovative marketing at a far earlier stage, there is much to play for on this still-new platform. 

But whether it’s Bud Knight on an in-app bus shelter ad or an option for gamers to purchase Louis Vuitton fashion for their avatars, brands will need to know their place as the market matures.