Gaming: time for marketers to hit the reset button

It’s been nearly 50 years since Atari’s Pong became the first commercial game to gain mass market attention. Since then, gaming has moved out of arcades, into the bedrooms of teenage boys and back out on to the streets at an extraordinary pace.

The phenomenon has come a long way since its birth as a ping-pong simulation. In August, anti-government protesters in Hong Kong relied on Pokémon Go to organise demonstrations without being caught by the police. Just as the Arab Spring became known as the Facebook Revolution, we may be witnessing the first-ever revolution powered by handheld games.

Gaming is arguably the most prominent disrupter of the entertainment sector. 2.5 billion users contribute to the $135bn industry worldwide, and the advent of mobile gaming in the last few years has led to an entirely new segment of gaming enthusiasts. According to the market research firm Newzoo, gaming is expected to be worth an impressive $180bn by 2021.

Pokémon Go launched in 2016 and has over 150 million users.

With the explosion of the gaming sector comes new ways for brands to use a cheat code and reach customers. But the uptake has been relatively slow, and it’s interesting to see how companies are now getting involved – at the risk of being left behind.

One route taken by brands to enter the industry is eSports. eSports (competitive online gaming) has taken the world by storm: international tournaments are attended by hundreds of thousands of fans and live streamed to millions more; the Fortnite World Cup in July 2019 had a prize pool of $30m; and the total eSports economy is set to be worth $1.49bn by 2020. In 2014, Amazon secured its spot in the eSports landscape by acquiring the video streaming platform Twitch for $970m.

As with any sport, tournaments provide key opportunities for high-profile sponsorship deals across events, teams and individual players. Such deals are driven by the FMCG sector, largely due to the relationship between snacking and gaming. Coca-Cola sponsors the League of Legends World Championship; Kellogg’s announced a three-year deal with Major League Soccer’s eSports initiative and Red Bull has been a partner of pro team Tempo Storm since 2017. Tech companies are also active in this landscape: Intel has proved itself to be ahead of the curve by sponsoring the world’s longest-running eSports tournament since 2006.

But so far, so familiar – sponsorship deals are nothing new. And these eSports deals are aimed at gaming’s traditional demographic of young men who now only reflect one portion of the industry’s diverse userbase.

16-year-old Kyle ‘Bugha’ Giersdorf won $3m at the Fortnite World Cup in New York. Photo credit: Fortnite

The rise of mobile gaming has created a new userbase of casual gamers who play short games on the move. Gone are the days of Snake and thanks to apps such as Candy Crush and Words With Friends, female gamers are in the majority in the UK and there are more over 45s playing games every day than kids and teenagers. For the first time, mobile game players are the same people in charge of the weekly family shop – and mainstream brands need to capitalise and develop innovative ways to use gaming to reach their customers.

“Disrupting the static formulations of business through technology has always been the way forward,” says Lucy Yeomans, founder and CEO at DREST

Adidas is one brand harnessing the power of gaming to sell to customers. Alongside sponsoring the eSports player Ninja, the sportswear giant is collaborating with Snapchat to sell products in-game. In the retro-style 8-bit game, named Baseball’s Next Level, virtual baseball stars don Adidas’ latest cleats. If users like what they see, they can purchase the $130 trousers for themselves without even leaving the game. This is the first time in Snapchat’s history that products have been available to buy in-app, and the move marks a shift towards a new way of thinking about the relationship between gaming and ecommerce.

One app reinventing how brands interact with gaming is DREST. Conceived by former Harper’s Bazaar editor in chief Lucy Yoemans, DREST allows fashion-enthusiastic players to dress virtual models in products from luxury fashion houses. The app has developed an in-game ecommerce channel, so players can purchase items from specially selected high-end brand partners, the first of which will be Gucci.

We caught up with Lucy, who explained how DREST is waving in a new era of gaming and ecommerce. “We are offering brands the unique opportunity to become part of gaming’s new space, in an immersive way driven by unique storytelling,” she tells me. “Disrupting the static formulations of business through technology has always been the way forward.”

DREST opens the door for luxury brands to access never-before-reached audiences, but the company is handpicking only the most suitable labels. “We are targeting a very specific selection of fashion based on the leaders in luxury – the aspirational super-brands that consumers desire – as well as the best of contemporary designers, emerging talent, the heroes of sustainability and the hottest new finds,” says Lucy.

The future looks bright for DREST: “Over 25% of total media time and 89% of mobile time is spent in-app. Women love mobile games – 63% of gamers are female – and are 79% more likely to make in-app purchases while playing mobile games than men. Add all of this up and what you have is women of all ages loving mobile app games, highly engaged when they play and far from shy about spending money while playing.” DREST demonstrates just how far the gaming industry has come, and the opportunity available to brands of every category and calibre.

It seems as though brands have barely scratched the surface of what’s possible in the gaming industry. As it stands, gaming is an untapped market and an underleveraged opportunity. But apps such as DREST prove that innovation and imagination will go a long way, and brands should not feel limited by the traditional view of gaming as a hobby for teenage boys.

What brands have you seen taking advantage of the gaming world? We’d love to hear from you.  | @TheMBSGroup