Welcome to 2019, where the eSports industry is worth a cool $1.65 billion, celebrity video gamers earn $500,000 a month live-streaming Fortnite to hundreds of thousands of viewers, and more of us are playing video games than ever before. Ian Hsieh asks: Will the marketing revolution be gamified?

Ah, the video gamer. That bespectacled, basement-dwelling man child that spends all waking – and sleeping – hours hunched in front of his multiple monitors, smashing buttons on a keyboard and mouse, pausing for only the briefest of moments to quaff a luminescent energy drink. After all, why sleep when you can game amiright?

In 2019, this image of the typical gamer is a laughable stereotype; thanks to the proliferation of smartphones housing more computing power than ever, video games are everywhere. Angry Birds, Candy Crush, Pokémon Go – if you’ve ever played one of these addictive titles (and you probably have) then, well, you’re a gamer. Whether you’d like to admit it or not. And if you haven’t, that might be about to change. 

In fact, a new study by Versus Systems and the Management of Enterprise in Media, Entertainment & Sports (MEMES) Center – at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management – shows that 50% of people have played a video game in the past week. And 41% have played a game in the past 24 hours. 

For the MEMES Center and Versus, the study suggests that advertisers and marketers may be underestimating how large and diverse the gaming audience today really is. Everyday people are turning to their mobiles, tablets and consoles for a slice of gaming pie. But why is this audience growing so rapidly, and what can brands learn from our newfound proclivity for video games?

Feeling good, feeling great

“Video games scratch certain psychological itches in ways they don’t normally get scratched in real life,” says Jamie Madigan, a psychology PhD and founder of the Psychology of Video Games website. More specifically, it’s about feedback. “If you’re an adult working or a student in school, you don’t necessarily get feedback about what you’re doing; you don’t get a sense of accomplishment or mastery all that well. But video games – they’re engineered to give you immediate feedback about how well you’re doing, and they’re designed to make you feel like you’re progressing.”

That’s not all video games can do. They can make you feel wanted, to a certain extent. “Games do a really good job of making us feel important to other people,” says Madigan. “Whether it’s in the context of a narrative (you saved those villagers from the bandits), or the context of real other people (you carried your team to victory in that match), the role that you played mattered, so you feel an interpersonal relationship with people that may or may not be present in real life, or may take a lot more work and time to develop in context outside of games.” 

And then there’s the notion of escape. With our lives becoming increasingly stressful, quality downtime has never been more important. Some choose to read, some hang out with friends, some play sports. For others, gaming is increasingly their go-to – an accessible, flexible way to get completely lost in the narrative of a Red Dead Redemption 2 single-player campaign, or the challenge of a competitive match of Call of Duty with friends online. According to Madigan, these are all “recovery activities” – downtime that “serves as a really useful buffer against stressful times, helping us to recover and go into work or school the next day feeling rejuvenated.” 

Video games serve as a really useful buffer against stressful times, helping us to recover and go into work or school the next day feeling rejuvenated.

Jamie Madigan, the Psychology of Video Games

Me love you long time

Brands have had a relationship with video games right from the start. Take, for example, Ralston’s Nintendo Cereal System – a breakfast cereal that was introduced in 1988 and featured two of the most popular video games of the time plastered all over its multi-colored box: Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda. Its strapline: “Two cereals in one! Wow!”

Alas, things have come a long way since the heady days of Nintendo Cereal System. And while gaming has remained a predominantly male-centric activity up until recently (now, 45% of all gamers in the US are women according to Statista), brands like Mountain Dew have tapped into young gaming audiences with a limited edition variant called Game Fuel. First introduced in 2007 in partnership with Microsoft’s Halo 3 launch, Game Fuel would return to promote several high profile titles, including Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 in 2011 and Titanfall 2 in 2016 – giving gamers codes that unlocked extra in-game content and the chance to win consoles. 

But it wasn’t until a few years ago that the world of video games had marketers the world over champing at the bit to get in on the action. Otherwise known as competitive gaming – in which teams compete in massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) like League of Legends – eSports is now the world’s fastest growing sport. Technology consulting firm Activate estimates that more than 250 million people watch eSports, with a projected 70 million fans watching a single eSports final by 2020. 

With an estimated global revenue of $1.65 billion by 2020, it’s no wonder Samsung, Red Bull, Coca-Cola and Yahoo have all tossed their hats in the eSports ring – sponsoring athletes, creating eSports news shows, starting up eSports platforms where games, players and stats can be reviewed, much like any other traditional sport.   

Then there’s someone like Richard Tyler Blevins, a competitive gamer who rose to fame after streaming gaming sessions of the now cult game Fortnite on Twitch. He has over 17 million subscribers on YouTube, earns over $500,000 per month streaming Fortnite (breaking the Twitch record for a single individual stream after he hosted a game with Drake, Travis Scott and American footballer JuJu Smith-Schuster), and partnered with Red Bull eSports for its Red Bull Rise Till Dawn challenge last year. 

One thing’s clear – thanks to a potent mix of connectivity afforded by online technology, the cultural phenomenon of games like Fortnite and sheer accessibility (meaning anyone can become a superstar like Blevins), audiences are officially gaga for gaming. And brands are more than ready to continue playing in the gaming arena. 

Gamification 2.0

Think of gamification – a term that’s been around in marketing for the past decade or so – and you’ll most likely think of something like My Starbucks Rewards: a loyalty program that uses classic gamification techniques to incentivize purchases. Members earn ‘stars’ with every purchase, and feel like they’re making progress towards a certain goal (getting free drinks with a certain amount of ‘stars’). Which, of course, harks back to what Madigan says about accomplishment. 

For Eric Cruz, Executive Creative Director of AKQA Shanghai, our increasing predilection for video gaming is an opportunity for brands to eschew the usual gamification bumpf – and a chance to explore new possibilities afforded by technology. Back in November 2018, Cruz worked on Nike’s Never Done Shop – a 360˚ shop that challenged consumers to be more active. 

“It was based on a simple insight that sports in Shanghai started becoming a fashion trend, where people look the part but barely break sweat,” says Cruz. “Our challenge was to inspire Shanghai’s everyday athletes to become more dedicated. We wanted to motivate the youth of Shanghai to move – and keep moving – to show the true spirit behind Shanghai sport culture.” 

The 24/7 shop enabled young Shanghai dwellers to turn sport into a bona fide hobby. And with cross-category products, services and experiences up for purchase – from limited edition Stefan Janoski shoes to a four-week youth camp with Nike football coaches – there was no excuse for sports fans to not get involved. The only catch? Your money was no good; Nike wanted your sweat. “Sweat as currency” as Cruz describes it. 

“The Never Done Shop paves an easy user journey – we take away the barriers and complexities of technology, instead letting the athlete focus on their performance.”

Eric Cruz, Executive Creative Director, AKQA Shanghai

“Think of it as ‘sweat coins’”, says Cruz. “It uses Nike+ data tracking in the backend to measure your performance – calculating and tabulating your data, letting you know when you have achieved the ‘unlock’ and earned your keep. It paves an easy user journey so that we take away the barriers and complexities of technology, instead letting the athlete focus on their performance.”

The ‘Never Done’ campaign results speak for themselves. Over 40 million total campaign impressions. A 66% increase in WeChat followers. A 49% increase in new Nike+ members. It was gamification evolved, but, more importantly, it used the exact same mechanics as video games – competition, ranking, virtual participation and social sharing, all crossed over with real life.  

The future will be gamified

With gaming-focused social platform Twitch growing from strength to strength – in 2018 1,070,000 users watched a staggering 560 billion minutes of streaming content from 3.4 million unique broadcasters per month – it’s obivous that gamers are an ideal, deeply engaged audience for brands looking to expand their reach. Especially if their target consumer is Gen Z.  

“Twitch has mastered the art of delivering live, interactive, shared entertainment on a global scale with a creator-focused approach,” said Jane Weedon, Twitch’s Director of Business Development, to the Content Marketing Institute. “The result is a large and passionate fan community connected by chat behavior and emote-driven language native to Twitch.”

Brands like Old Spice are recognizing the power of Twitch and tapping into it. Its Nature Adventure, for example, gave users the power to control the fate of an individual unleased in the woods – in real time. And more recently, Nike eschewed the usual social networks, instead choosing Twitch to launch its latest Adapt innovation this month. 

“I you could buy a television with a video game console built in, and you could play any games you want, it would be the equivalent of the smartphone casual gaming revolution.”

Jamie Madigan, the Psychology of Video Games

“I think gaming as a brand platform will be a new medium,” says Cruz. “As we engage with immersive experiences, it will become inevitable for this to become a new medium to advertise in. It’s going to blur like never before: reality, immersive gaming, virtual worlds and everyday ‘existence’ will meld into one. So as we spend more time in the VR world, it will become our new reality.”

For Madigan, we’re nowhere near seeing the full potential of gaming as a medium for marketers. With the technology to make cloud gaming a real possibility (think of it as a Netflix for video games), the next gaming revolution could be imminent. “If you could buy a television that has a video game console built in – in the same way that many TVs have Netflix built in,” he says, “and you could just play any games you want without having to buy a $500 console, a $60 game and a $65 controller to play it, then that would open up a lot of doors. It would be the equivalent of the smartphone casual gaming revolution.”

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