Gaming: The Marketer’s Primer – The biggest niche brands can’t afford to miss
First published on WARC
An invaluable primer for marketers who want to understand gaming. Looks at the following areas – gamer motivation, the gaming landscape, gaming culture and reach, gamer archetypes, emerging trends, opportunities for brands and the dangers and pitfalls within gaming.
Why it matters
Many marketers have jumped on the hype bandwagon around emerging tech such as the metaverse or NFTs. Yet many are missing the opportunity presented by gaming, which is well established, extremely popular, and happening right now.
- Gaming is a sizeable and important genre – 35% of the planet are ‘gamers’ and 42% of Americans play games at least every week.
- There is an exciting culture and scene around gaming. Outside of the game itself, there is the metagame and the spectators. For brands, this offers the potential for paid and owned opportunities as ways to reach gamers.
- From ultra-casual to pro gamer, there are several different gamer archetypes; six gamer types and
- behaviours are profiled below.
- Understanding gamers, reflecting their values and interests and respecting their spaces are key to being welcomed into this world. There are several main spaces for brands in gaming such as in-game advertising, streamer partnerships and real-world stunts.
- Brands that are already involved with gaming, i.e. tech brands that make hardware or accessories or snacking and energy brands, have more options and permission to be more involved. That said, many other brands can have a relevant and appropriate role.
- Brands need to be aware of potential pitfalls such as toxic culture, gaming addiction and brand safety
Gaming is bigger than many marketers might think, with a far more diverse audience than the stereotype suggests. The fact that this needs to be said is surprising. For all the talk of data driven marketing, the hype around the metaverse and NFTs and the mantras of following fandom and communities, far too many brands and marketers are wilfully ignoring the biggest, most popular new entertainment form over the past decades. This isn’t to say that gaming is some miracle cure for brands, nor is it equally relevant for every brand. But if a brand can contemplate a metaverse strategy, or think about launching an NFT, they should first take a proper look at the gaming landscape and check they’re not missing out on the biggest party happening under their noses already, across the world and across demographics.
There are several potential reasons why this has happened, and if any of these resonate with you or your team, this piece will aim to overcome these issues:
- Low awareness and understanding of the landscape
- Lack of understanding or even fear of ‘the gamer audience’
- A negative stereotype around gamers and gamer culture
- A lack of awareness of the opportunities for brands
Gaming is quite an insular, passionate, deep hobby. The barriers to entry and to understanding can be quite high. Gamers are a savvy audience who are valuable but also unforgiving. Gaming has also evolved as an advertising-lite medium; while other content has often had an advertising model baked into it from early on, gaming has had it tacked on as an after-thought.
Ultimately, for marketers, ignoring gaming is like ignoring popular culture, or TV + movies, or music. It’s a genre of roughly equivalent size and importance. 35% of the planet are ‘gamers’ and 42% of Americans play games at least every week. So before you deep dive into speculative emerging new tech, it could be worth learning what is happening right now, in living rooms, on mobile phones and gaming chairs across the planet.
GAMERS GONNA GAME: What’s the appeal and motivation for gamers?
Gaming is generally a broad type of entertainment – however, that appeal can take many forms. In the same way that romance fans get something very different out of the cinema experience to horror, gaming is a broad church. So, the first mistake is to treat gaming or gamers as a monolithic thing. It is as diverse as any other artform. Opera and sludge metal are quite different. The same is true for gaming. Before we get into specific audiences and genres, there are some common appealing aspects or features of gaming that are worth knowing. A game is generally defined as a form of play but specifically with predetermined rules and win conditions. It’s why unstructured art or Lego is seen as play, but why a game of ‘tag’ or Monopoly is a game. Video games take these structured rules, win conditions and environments into a digital space. But the appeal of games and gaming is diverse.
The seven Gamer Motivations
These aren’t designed to be completely exhaustive – gamers take many things from the experience. But as an attempt to pull apart the different dimensions of gaming, this covers a lot of ground.
Games as challenge: one major motivation in gaming is like other sports or difficult disciplines – confronting and overcoming challenges is satisfying. In the same way one might want to get better at pool, football, knitting or running, the internal satisfaction of challenge and improvement is an integral feature of human life.
Example: Fortnite features a lot of skills that take a huge amount of time to master. In the game, you can build huge defensive structures and towers, using a complex set of commands to edit and build while getting shot at. Doing this well is an artform that takes skill and practice.
Games as competition: building on this, beyond self-actualisation, games also pit people against each other. The vast majority of games have a clear win condition and many allow for explicit competition. PvP (player vs. player) games pit one against another, in a direct form of competition. These can be individual or team sports, but the competition is clear. However, PvE (player vs. environment) games can still be competitive – competing to complete a game faster or better, or competing against the game itself to get to the next level.
Example: League of Legends (LoL) is a team sport, where finding a tiny edge makes a huge difference. LoL is perhaps the pinnacle of eSports, where top players can play to stadiums of thousands and win multi-million pound prizes. The 2022 League of Legends World Championship opening ceremony featured a performance by Lil Nas X with a surprise appearance of Mr Beast, with 3.2m tuning in just to see the opening ceremony.
Games as stories: most games have a narrative element. Sometimes this is peripheral, but often this is core to the experience. People play to be finish the story and also to be part of it. Interactive video (with Netflix concepts like Bandersnatch) were fleetingly popular. Gaming is like this, but all the time and by design. It has been used to tell huge immersive ongoing stories like with World of Warcraft, or to tell singular iconic stories like Final Fantasy 7. Most games include narrative, characters, beginnings, endings. Finding out what happens next keep you playing until the next level. Much like a cliffhanger or a page-turner in books and TV.
Example: The Monkey Island series is a decades long series, where you are the lovable pirate Guybrush Threepwood, and you need to solve puzzles to help him find treasure, rescue his fiance, or escape from various situations. A surprise new game was released this year, which was similar to the release of The Testaments by Margaret Atwood. A chance to revisit a world that has featured in gamers lives for 30+ years.
Games as sandboxes: many games allow you to explore, in an open-ended way. These are described as sandboxes due to similarity with real-world children’s sandpits. The only limit is your imagination. Open World games are designed to be big and immersive and let you get lots in following your own story or avenue. Builder or Sim games let you create a world, building cities, families, empires.
Example: Roblox allows creators to build their own games using the platform as a kind of virtual ‘Lego’. A lot of these games then allow for players to explore and play on their own and make their own games and stories. Similarly, Minecraft has the building blocks that allow people to create a multitude of their own experiences.
Games as social experiences: playing with others is a core part for many gamers. They connect, socialise and enjoy playing with each other. Most games, and consoles/platforms, include a way of connecting with your friends and seeing what they’re playing. Using voice chat (either in game or via Discord) allows for friends to chat naturally while playing together. This is also one of the drivers behind ‘in-game cosmetics’ – how you dress your avatar is an extension of your personal identity when you socialise in-game.
Example: Fortnite squads see you playing a duos or trios, need to learn to play well together, communicate and cooperate. When one player gets killed others can ‘revive’ them and they can share items and information. But Fortnite also creates experiences and spaces where friends can just hang out together – from CreatorExperiences to unique Events.
Games as distraction: a huge appeal of gaming is around compelling persuasive design – it is just satisfying or even addictive to do. There are a lot of interesting behavioural techniques used in game design. From random variable rewards (sometimes you get a reward, and how good that is varies), to gamification. Playing for five minutes, or five hours, can be a welcome distraction or mindful break from the real-world.
Example: Whether that’s matching games like Candy Crush, clicker or time-based resource mobile games like Clash of Clans, or just the enjoyment of wandering around and ‘messing about’ in an open world game like GTA or Red Dead Redemption, a lot of gaming can be joylessly aimless or mindlessly distracting.
Games as play: Perhaps one of the most obvious, but games also play a huge function as being playful. Lighthearted, fun, explorative, interactive. This semi-structured play is a virtual equivalent to many other play activities. Beyond this, roleplaying games are huge genre where you get to play at being a certain character or playing a certain role.
Example: Roblox games are often based on exploration and experimentation – each different world is a different space to play around. Whether it’s playing Squid Games style competitions, or whether it’s playing a car dealership simulator.
As you can see, there are a vast array of motivations and aspects of gaming. Each gamer finds their own enjoyment and their own motivation. But understanding these motivations is key to understanding the landscape and how brands could be part of the scene.
CHOOSE YOUR FIGHTER: A quick snapshot of the gaming landscape
At a very basic level, gaming (at least here) is defined to video games where people play against themselves or each other on a PC, a video game console or their mobile phone. From the early days of computing, different styles and types of games have emerged. From games of skill like Pong or Space Invaders, to narrative textbased games like Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.
Over the decades many different types of hardware for playing games have come and gone. PC games (and to a much lesser extent, Macs) have continued to evolve and are often considered the highest spec and most advanced way to play. People build expensive gaming rigs, with high powered graphics chips and expensive mouse and keyboard accessories. However, consoles really brought gaming to the masses – with the landscape currently dominated by XBox (owned by Microsoft) and PlayStation (owned by Sony) duking it out for supremacy. Nintendo has masterfully played their own game, creating lower powered but more imaginative, playful, portable or family friendly platforms carving out their own enormous niche.
The current line-up of mainstream ways to play are PC, Xbox Series, PlayStation 5 (although the 4 is still popular) and the Nintendo Switch.
In the past decade, mobile gaming has evolved enormously becoming a very credible part of the ecosystem. A vast number of people come into gaming via mobile – and those who might never consider themselves a gamer or buy a console still play on their phones. Some markets, especially where the cost of a dedicated console is prohibitive for many, see mobile gaming as a dominant and mainstream way to play.
On top of the hardware, we also need the software – a game to play. To borrow an analogy from movies, the hardware is the cinema chains and technologies like IMAX. The software is what they show. These are created by games developers or studios. EA and Activision/Blizzard/King are two of the major developers who own multiple games studios. But there are a plethora of different studios, from large, to small. ‘AAA’ Games (triple A) are the equivalent of blockbuster movies. They are the most expensive, most anticipated, most advertised games in the launch calendar. At the other end of the spectrum, Indie developers are independent mini studios who often create more experimental or unusual games. Games like Stardew Valley or Minecraft started out as indie developments but have gone on to become enormous sleeper hits.
Lastly, (without going into too much detail) there is then the key franchises and genres that it is useful to be familiar with. Here are the major genres, with a quick description of how they work and any key titles or franchises to be aware of.
- FPS (First Person Shooter) – a game where you play from the first-person perspective, usually with the objective to shoot the opposing enemies or players. Doom was one of the earliest of the genre, Call of Duty is one of the most successful
- Battle Royale – usually a variation on FPS, where a certain number of people drop into one world, or map, and it’s a fight to be the last player (or team) standing. Fortnite recently popularised the genre. Other examples include Apex Legends. PlayerUnknown Battlegrounds (PUBG) is another popular contender. Falls Guys is a popular non-FPS variant, where you battle others to survive an obstacle course.
- Massively Online Battle Arena (MOBA) – a very competitive genre that spun out of real-time strategy games. You play a role within a squad, and within a specific battleground you need to beat the opposing team. League of Legends is the dominant game in this space, although Defense of the Ancients (Dota 2) and a couple of others are also options.
- Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game (MMORPG) – the original massive online genre, there have been many hugely popular MMORPG games. Here thousands of players live and play within one world. They team up to complete quests, compete, and form Guilds. Usually, you play as one character that you level up and collect equipment for. Ultima Online pioneered the genre in the late 90s, Everquest and Runescape are both enduring and popular games. But World of Warcraft was the huge breakout hit – appearing in South Park, creating its own movie, and massively popularising the genre.
- Puzzle Games / Match 3 – this includes a wide range of puzzle games, although Match 3 tile-matching games are one of the most popular. Solving puzzles to progress, usually matching similar colours or icons. Candy Crush is one of the most famous examples of this.
- 4x – these are somewhat like very complex boardgames, with the 4x’s being an abbreviation of Explore, Expand, Exploit, Exterminate. This outlines the four main ways of winning or progressing in the game. They’re often played on grids, with your empire expanding and bumping into other players. Civilization I-VI is the most enduring example of this game.
- Simulators/Sims – these are games that simulate real-world things. These can be accurate simulators, such as Flight, Railroad or Farm simulators that replicate these complex areas, but also include playful simulators, like The Sims, Stardew Valley or Animal Crossing where an idealised version of reality offers a playful escape from reality.
- Sports Sims – a version of simulators, recreating sports games accurately. From soccer/football to American Football, to Golf, to racing, almost every human sport and hobby has been recreated as a simulator.
- Platformer – once one of the major genres, platformers usually involve some skill and puzzle challenges to get from one level to another – traditionally jumping ‘from platform to platform’. Mario and Sonic are the early classics of this genre.
- Roleplay / Action Roleplay Game (RPG) – two common components in an RPG game are a strong sense of story that unfolds, and characters that get stronger and develop new skills as it progresses. Finding new equipment, learning new skills, and accessing new parts of the game, allow you to roleplay your hero overcoming the challenges in front of them. There are many variations on how this might play out, but Final Fantasy, Legend of Zelda and Pokemon are all famous RPG examples.
- Open World – these are often a modern evolution of an RPG game, where instead of following one linear story, there are a great number of stories to explore around an open world environment. It still has character development and story but in a more exploratory way. Red Dead Redemption, or recent Grand Theft Auto games, are examples of this.
This long-list is by no means exhaustive. Many games cross-genres or defy genres. But this should give you a quick idea of how varied the world of gaming is, beyond the few most famous games out there.
Gaming culture and reach: THE GAME OUTSIDE THE GAME
That covers how games themselves are played. However, there is an exciting culture and scene around gaming.
Outside of the game itself, we have the metagame and the spectators. We also have the world and the scene that surrounds it. Whether you enjoy the dynamic of competitive Counterstrike, or you are immersed in the characters and story of Pokémon, it’s about more than just the game. It’s the world and players that surround it.
Gaming’s reach goes beyond the game to include the meta around the game (which is how the game is played – what are winning strategies. For example, in football, if everyone is playing 4-4-2, switching to 4-5-1 could be part of reading the meta), there is the spectacle of how the game is followed as a test of skill (like how those follow who is doing well in a specific sports league), then there is the scene – the fandom community, and the world-building side where people enjoy the expanded world around the game universe (such as people who enjoy Harry Potter fan-fiction, Marvel Spin-offs, or dressing up as Iron Man or cosplaying).
So alongside the console itself where gaming happens, there are several key media spaces to be aware of:
- Twitch and YouTube – streaming has become a media form in its own right. Often using OBS (Open Broadcasting Software) the ‘streamer within screen’ view and HUD (heads-up-display) with chat, emotes, and more, have become a huge behaviour popular amongst gamers.
- Superstar streamers – people like Pokimane, Dr Disrespect or KSI have built up followings like chatshow hosts and are famous not just for their gaming prowess but also their personality and brand.
- Gamer publishers – there are a whole ecosystem of publishers and news sites around gaming information – same as you get around any key other passion.
- Gamer wikis and information – there are lots of fan / gamer created information sources on how to play – each game has its own spaces for people to share information.
- Discord voice-chat and community – Discord’s entire origin is in gaming where the voicechat feature is how gamers communicate while gaming, but the forum function also allows gamers to connect outside of playing.
- eSports and gaming franchises – several major eSport games have seen the emergence of gaming bodies and official competitions and teams. Like FIFA or the NFL, they have interesting models of spotting, nurturing and monetising talent while competing to win at the most competitive genres.
For brands, all of these offer potential for paid and owned opportunities as ways to reach gamers. Discord is becoming an exciting and diverse space to build communities around many areas beyond gaming. eSport and gaming franchises take on a huge array of sponsorship and partnership opportunities, while Publishers, Twitch and YouTube offer conventional and unconventional media buys, while streamers offer a clear relationship similar to influencers.
Gamer archetypes: DON’T HATE THE PLAYER, HATE THE GAME
How people play varies hugely. Bartle identified some main gamer archetypes, which are often used as part of developing a game to ensure that a game either has some appeal to each archetype, or to build a game to specifically appeal to certain archetypes.
Each of these gamer psychologies maps onto different features and types of games. Killers want to beat other players, Socialisers want to connect with them. Achievers want to complete and beat the game, Explorers want to discover and enjoy it. These are also often co-dependent – it is impossible to socialise without other people to socialise with, and game worlds can be designed for exploration or for narrow achievement.
In an attempt to categorise and map some of the different gamer archetypes out there, here are profiles of six major gamer types and behaviours.
2. Creator Gamers
3. Solo Adventurers
4. Social Gamers
5. Niche and Indie
6. Pro Gamers
Ultra-casual generally don’t see themselves as ‘gamers’ but they actually make up a large proportion of the gamer landscape. They play casually, mostly on mobile phones or potentially on an accessible console like a Nintendo Switch. They tend to play puzzle games for distraction and satisfaction.
Creator Gamers love to build, experiment and play. They tend not to choose structured games, instead enjoying open-ended Simulator games or Sandbox games. Building their own stories and worlds in Minecraft, The Sims, or Roblox. They tend to be their own separate microcosm from the more competitive mainstream end of gaming.
Solo Adventurers tend to not play online games with other players, but get immersed in their own one-player adventure or strategy games. They like being able to play on their own schedules, without worrying about letting teammates down. However, they are often still dedicated and passionate gamers who love to get immersed in complex stories and difficult games. Often playing RPG, adventure or open world games, such as God of War, Red Dead Redemption or Monster Hunter.
Social Gamers are almost the opposite of Solo Adventurers. They play what their friends play and enjoy the experience of playing as a team. When they log onto their game, they see who else is on and what they’re playing. Showing off and playing around with others is a key motivation. Often they buy new skins or perfect new skills in order to show off to those they play with. Their friends group is often a mix of fully online friends, but also some people they may know in real-life as well. They would likely play Fortnite, Apex Legends, FIFA or Call of Duty: Warzone.
Niche and Indie Gamers embark further into a nerdier satisfaction from gaming. They play complex games with steep learning curves, or enjoy playing retro games. They love the lore, history and depth of gaming and consider themselves a font of all gaming knowledge. Potentially they eschew the more mainstream games. Whether they collect hard to find games like Radiant Silvergun, or dedicate hours to becoming proficient at superhard platformer Super Meat Boy, gaming is more than a pastime, it’s a passion.
Pro Gamers take their gaming seriously at a competitive level. Whether they are actually earning a living from it, or aspire to, they treat it like a sporting endeavour. They train, they practice, they ‘grind’1 their way up competitive ladders, they read extensive strategies and talk to others about how to find an edge. You can be competitive in almost any game, but the big money and serious competitiveness has centred around a few. League Of Legends is a dominant eSports game, along with CS:GO. Fortnite has a thriving competitive scene as well.
LEVELLING UP: New and emerging trends in gaming
Like all other categories, the world of gaming is always changing and evolving and it can be helpful for brands and marketers to understand the current big shifts occurring.
The Spectacle of Streaming – streaming stars are the celebrities of the gaming world
Viewing others playing games has become an artform in itself. Twitch and YouTube streamers become huge influencers of which games are successful and popular, but also popular ambassadors for a wide array of products and brands. The most successful have formed collectives, usually starting from the world of gaming but expanding out into other lifestyle areas and interests. KSI, Logan Paul, Faze Clan, Sidemen, Dr Disrespect and Mr Beast are all modern era superstars who have expanded out from gaming into many of spaces. From launching new products (Beast Burger, Prime Nutrition) to sponsorship deals (Dr Disrespects deal with Gillette, or Game Fuel drinks) or into entertainment (KSI and Logan Paul’s forays into the world of competitive boxing and wrestling.)
From Ownership to Access – no longer buying physical games, but buying digital access
Historically, game ownership was based on owning the physical hardware and software. Much like CDs and DVDs, you needed a games cartridge or CD to play a game, which you can then sell on second hand. Current games providers are making a similar shift to Amazon Prime, Netflix and Disney. Instead they now sell digital passes to games, but also introduce monthly recurring passes. This means that, like your iTunes library, you own digital versions of all the games you have purchased through either Xbox, Stream, PlayStation or Switch eStores, but also new value propositions where you can subscribe to get unlimited access to a long tail of old games.
Games still need to download to the console to play well (although pioneering new services have looked to disrupt this with fully cloud based streamed gaming, such as Google Stadia, which has now been shuttered), but it is much closer to the modern streamed content universe.
Emerging eSports Franchises and Fandom – building the FIFA/NFL of gaming
eSports turns competitive players into sports franchises, and we are seeing a lot of similar behaviours and dynamics that we have seen from conventional sports. From training camps, to transfers and signing bonuses, to sponsorship deals and franchises, to eSports betting markets and gambling.
All of this requires organisation, investment, prize pools, regulations and rules, and broadcasting rights. The games developers and publishers need to keep evolving and balancing the game to ensure that eSports players choose to play that specific title. Franchises sign new players and attract sponsorship and investment.
This emerging and complex ecosystem offers up a lot of complexity and opportunity. Games have tried to create relationships with eSport franchises, creating leagues and competitions that teams want to compete in – and will pay to be part of. However, we’ve seen some interesting alternative models as well such as with CS:GO where 10 key franchises have banded together to create the Flashpoint league that is owned and maintained by the players themselves.
Emerging franchises like Faze Clan, have a pool of players who range across Call of Duty, Fortnite, FIFA Online, Valorant, Super Smash Bros, PUBG, Rocket League and Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Siege. Valuations have placed it around the $750 mark with players competing across the globe and around 9 million subscribers on their YouTube channel.
Virtual Worlds and Transmedia Crossovers – more than just a metaverse
This is the first and only mention of the metaverse in this piece. Not because it’s not interesting, but because virtual worlds and transmedia experiences are an integral and enduring part of gaming separate to anything metaverse related. The metaverse gold-rush has co-opted a lot of what has been happening in gaming for decades.
The virtual worlds, sandboxes and spaces created in gaming are rich spaces. Similar to Tolkein’s Middle Earth, or Hogwarts, they are fictional spaces with breadth and depth. They have millions of people occupying them at any one time. So virtual spaces like Fortnite, Minecraft, Roblox or World of Warcraft are meaningful, interesting spaces to consider.
This has seen other franchises and characters appearing in them. Characters ranging from Marvel, to Rick and Morty, to Star Wars have appeared in Fortnite. Brands like Balenciaga, Gucci, Nike and Lacoste have built spaces in Minecraft and Roblox. But also car brands are ever present in racing games, the entire world of sports has been recreated in virtual games and spaces as well. Burger King leveraged this brilliantly when they sponsored real-world Stevenage FC, and then introduced the Stevenage challenge on FIFA, to win with the team (while conveniently wearing their sponsored strip in-game.)
In the same way that cinema cameos, music and fashion collabs and fan-fiction universes all blend together, gaming is a vibrant part of these transmedia virtual spaces.
Finding the Loot – new revenue models and ways for players to pay
While many blockbuster titles still command high retail prices, a new emerging era of ‘free-to-play’ games are emerging. These are all based on the ability to monetise other parts of the gaming experience. The most popular one is selling in-game items and cosmetics. Often through a ‘random variable reward’ mechanic called lootboxes, where you buy (or win) the gaming equivalent of lucky dip scratchcards to potentially win rare items. Fortnite has driven a boom in in-game cosmetic monetisation which has been emulated elsewhere, while other games, like Roblox, operate as marketplaces where they take a commission from games made by players.
These have, at times, been controversial. Done in the wrong way, they can be perceived as a cash-grab, as undermining core gameplay elements, introducing a ‘pay-to-win’ unfair playing field, or using disingenuous or dangerous gambling techniques to otherwise child-friendly gaming environments.
But done well, they open up new ways for more people to play and enjoy games. Aligned with the ‘ownership to access’ trend earlier, these new monetisation methods can make it easier for anyone to play and take part.
BRANDS ON A MISSION: What are the opportunities for brands in this space
Many brands have gotten involved in gaming, in a variety of different ways. In many ways, the media and creative opportunities within gaming mirror the non-gaming world. However, understanding gamers, reflecting their values and interests and respecting their spaces are key to being welcomed into this world.
Here is an outline of the main spaces for brands in gaming:
- In-game advertising: there is media space within games – whether that’s virtual billboards, product placement, or mobile in-game advertising formats that play an ad in order to unlock some bonus gaming content.
- In-game partnerships: many games also have ways for brands to turn up as partners providing skins and cosmetics – such as being a buyable item in Fortnite or a special edition that is accessed through a promotion.
- In-game stunts and experiences: creating something within the game – whether creating a branded space in Minecraft, or the Wendy’s Burger Wars takeover of Fortnite – games can be a canvas on which to play out an event or experience.
- Streamer partnerships: official partnerships with prolific or micro-streamers can again be a great way to get visibility for a brand. Streamers in particular have what they wear, drink and display behind them in their stream, which are all a good fit with certain brands and categories.
- Paid streamer and gamer media: Twitch and YouTube both have video advertising as an integral part of monetising their gamer content. Beyond this, display and video advertising, along with editorial partnerships on gamer publishers and media, is a great way to reach a gamer audience.
- Community build: creating value and connections amongst a community of gamers can create a rich and valuable way to connect with gamers over a long time.
- Real-world stunts and activations: pop-up gamer events, or stunts designed to appeal to gamers can be a smart way to connect with gamers. Whether it’s running a competition to win a certain real-world prize, or a small-scale immersive gaming activation as part of a wider partnership.
- eSports sponsorship: again, akin to real-world sports sponsorships, brands can get exposure and hospitality through an eSport sponsorship – of either a team/franchise, or an event or game.
The right approaches and tactics will vary, especially depending on what you, as a brand, can bring to the party.
Brands which have an existing involvement in gaming – for example, technology brands that make hardware or accessories, or snacking and energy brands that are already popular amongst gamers – clearly have more options and permission to be more involvement.
Fashion and lifestyle brands can also use it as a space to build associations and as a virtual canvas on which to bring their brand to life.
However, many other brands can have a relevant and appropriate role – whether it’s just an avenue to reach the audience, or a space to tell a brand story.
In order to do this well as a brand, it is key to understand yourself and what you bring to the party, but also understand the audience and the gaming culture you want to be part of. Building off a credible and relevant truth about the brand but tailoring it to the category is integral to being taken seriously by gamers.
A key potential strategy is to partner with creators and experts who get the scene – co-creating the content or taking on a streamer/influencer relationship can both get you access to an audience but also credibility and learnings from the scene.
It also requires great creative ideas and craft that understands the audience and the category, referencing, riffing off or playing with games in an appropriate (and not try-hard) way.
BEWARE THE DARK SIDE: Some of the dangers and pitfalls within gaming
This isn’t to say that gaming is a problem-free sunlit uplands. Gaming is closely entwined with internet culture and within that certain problematic and complex behaviours exist. Additionally, gaming features persuasive design and a huge amount of screentime, so that can lead to both gaming addiction and become an unhelpful force within family relationships. Lastly, the games themselves, much like movies, are often not especially brandsafe environments.
Toxic cultures and #Gamergate
A certain strand of gaming fandom overlaps with 4chan, incel culture, transgressive internet humour, stoner culture and memes. While gaming is far wider than the stereotype, it is also a hugely popular pastime amongst teenage boys.
As such, there can be a problem with trolling and abuse within gaming and streaming. Misogynistic or racist comments exist over voice chat in-game, and people can spam Twitch streamers chat sections.
#Gamergate was a flashpoint of this in 2014, in a backlash against feminism, progressivism and diversity within gaming, toxic and right-wing parts of the gaming community harassed female games journalists and developers online. There was a huge amount of online debate, conspiracy theories, doxing, abuse, banning and controversy. Gaming platforms and publishers needed to quickly respond to ensure gaming remained a safe space. It was a culture war between a toxic narrow segment of the gaming scene and the broader, evolving mainstream gaming culture.
Weird in-jokes quickly become memes and at times get out of control. Pogchamp is an emote that started when an amusing face made by a streamer called Gootecks, became a popular emote that was widely used across Twitch and other sites. But alt-right views from Gootecks combined with how the emote was being used led to it being banned by Twitch, causing its own minor drama within the gaming scene. The weirdness of this story highlights how complicated and intentionally impenetrable gaming can be.
This highlights the importance of understanding the landscape before engaging with it. There are toxic fandoms and complexity within many different genres and interests – this isn’t a reason to not engage with it, but brands shouldn’t be naïve.
Gaming is fun and, at times, addictive, often by design.
Persuasive design and random variable reward mechanics keep people gaming – this essentially means that the game is designed to ‘drop’ the items you need randomly and infrequently. Like the little buzz of scratching off a scratchcard, and occasionally winning small (and even more occasionally winning big), a lot of games are wired around similar mechanics.
Game worlds are also immersive. Playing a MMORPG like World of Warcraft requires a commitment of time to keep levelling up your character, but also participating in your guild. Staying competitive or playing seriously in any game requires hours of practice to keep up.
Games like Hearthstone, Fortnite, League of Legends and Diablo all have ‘ladders’ where you need to grind out wins or points in order to be at the top of the leaderboard.
Gaming addiction is a recognised condition, and in China there are such concerns about it that there are gaming addiction recovery clinics and government limits on the hours that people, especially children, can spend on online gaming.
But even outside of clinical addiction issues, there are many parents worried about their children’s screen-time. From age-inappropriate content, to grooming in online gaming communities, to micro-transactions, there are many things parents should rightly be aware of.
Conversely, there are many studies showing the positive impacts of gaming on mental health, on learning, and on development, means that the good easily outweighs the bad. In the same way there are many films you wouldn’t want your kids to see, or problematic YouTube content or chatrooms. Gaming is a part of our modern, digital lives with all the good and bad it brings.
Brand safety and violence
Lastly, just because it’s popular doesn’t mean it’s right for everyone’s brands. Alongside the above issues, which brands in gaming can become associated with, there are also more everyday concerns around game content and streamer behaviour.
A lot of games contain violence, or sexual content – whether cartoon or real – at different levels of graphic-ness. Again, much like other types of content, knowing this exists and doing research before doing a partnership is key. The violence in Fortnite is very cartoon and child-friendly, compared to something more realistic like CS:GO.
Additionally, a lot of streamers swear, flirt, talk about adult content, express political views and more. With prolific streamers creating multiple hours of content a day, you cannot predict or prevent everything that could happen. Like with any influencer relationship, assessing and agreeing the kind of content and partners you want to be associated with can be a critical way of getting what’s right for both brand and streamer in the relationship.
Platforms like YouTube and Twitch will allow you to buy advertising against different types of streams and games – with content being marked for different ages. However, this won’t be fool proof.
Many worried parents and censors have been concerned with the existence of violence in gaming, with it occasionally being blamed as part of a moral panic around real-world violence.
However, across many studies there is generally little to no link between violence in games and real-life violence. However, even taking that into account it may well not be the environment you want your brand to be associated with.
PRESS ‘START’ TO CONTINUE: Where to find out more about gaming?
If you’re interested in this space and think it could be relevant for your brand, then learning more and becoming part of the gaming community is essential.
Play, watch, read and explore. The best way to learn is by doing and being part of it. Mobile games are easily accessible, but also a lot of games will be playable through Steam or through web on your computer. Or invest in a console – either for yourself or for your agency, so that you can learn by doing.
Twitch and YouTube are full of streamers playing almost any game under the sun. So there is no excuse to be working on a Minecraft or Fortnite concept without having at least some knowledge of how the game works through watching it and reading about it.
Gaming publications and sites also have all the information you need. You can easily read about games, gamer culture and more.
It’s a huge category, ready for brands to step in. Just press ‘START’ to continue.
Footnotes 1. In gaming, ‘grinding’ is doing repetitive tasks to get better at something – whether it is levelling up a competitive ladder, to getting experience/resources for a hard to achieve goal in gaming.
Grinding is generally seen as a partly negative aspect but is a common feature of many games.
About the author Oliver Feldwick Oliver Feldwick is Head of Innovation at The&Partnership. ©