Last year, the COVID-19 pandemic forced consumers across the world to exchange the physical for the virtual, facilitating an expansion of the gaming audience that was already well underway.
As video games move toward the center of culture and the gaming audience continues to widen, marketers have adapted on the fly, eschewing outdated misconceptions about gamers to create interactive advertisements that introduce brands to gamers while augmenting their gaming (or spectating) experiences.
At last week’s Digiday Media Buying Summit (DMBS), Digiday spoke to Dario Raciti, managing director of Omnicom’s gaming and esports group Zero Code, to learn how he and his colleagues are building seamless activations in the gaming space — without transforming video games into elaborate commercials.
Zero Code’s Mission: How to connect brands with gamers without alienating the gaming audience
In the past, some marketers have been nervous about getting involved in gaming due to the perception that gamers are less open to brand involvement than other consumers. Though this is still the case for certain titles or types of games, Raciti said, there are increasing opportunities for brands to activate naturally in the gaming space.
“There are other opportunities in gaming, such as esports, gaming, influencers, et cetera, that make it more flexible for brands to jump in, support that community, bring value to what they’re seeing or experiencing,” Raciti said. “And that is definitely accepted by the audience, just the same way I go on Twitch and give my subscriptions to people.”
While in-game integration is still a relatively sensitive subject, Raciti said, there are now many opportunities for brands to activate in-game in realistic ways. “Cars are a perfect example of an endemic product that can live in car-racing games in different ways, whether it’s parts or the auto manufacturers themselves,” he said. “I mean, we’ve seen auto manufacturers actually previewing their cars in games.”
Many of the newer and more organic opportunities for brands to enter gaming have come via the growth of esports, according Raciti. “Brands in the past were like, ‘hey, I really can’t get into, let’s say, Madden, because I’m not an official NFL sponsor,” he said. “But now, I have this esports league that allows me to have events, allows me to be logos on jerseys, maybe have some presence at the event itself. So that makes the opportunity a lot more flexible.”
Furthermore, Raciti said, the esports and influencer worlds are converging; brands that work with the biggest esports orgs are also gaining access to content creators reaching far beyond the competitive gaming scene. Brands partnering with esports teams are buying access to “a mix of both — not specifically esports, the competitive side, but also the content creators that come along with the teams, that are part of those organizations.”
It no longer makes sense to simply divide gamers into the categories of ‘casual’ and ‘core,’ according to Raciti. “There are multiple different audiences. Folks like IGN have studies that have six to eight different segments that go from the very casual audience that only plays free-to-play mobile games to the very core audiences,” he said.
“You can take a brand and say, ‘all right, within those six segments, which is the one that’s most appropriate for me to match with, what does that profile look like?'” Raciti said. “What is the motivation? What is the age group? What is the platform that they play on?”
- Ads should create new content instead of rehashing the old
Raciti made this point using a racing game as an example. “There was a manufacturer that had a bunch of cars in there, but there were specific models that were not in the game title,” he said. “And all of a sudden, the manufacturer comes in, sponsors those four new cars and gives them away for free. That’s value that the consumer would have to pay $5 or whatever to be able to download, but now they’re free, because the manufacturer comes in and offers them to their audience.”
- Don’t lose sight of the fact that many consumers treat gaming primarily as a social outlet
“That’s a different way of using gaming: as a motivator for me to stay connected with my friends,” Raciti said. “And we saw a lot of that happening during COVID, right? A lot of people are getting connected with their friends through playing games, and gameplay has skyrocketed over the last couple of years. And so there are different motivators.”
As esports organizations continue to pick up talent in the creator and influencer realms, Raciti anticipates that larger teams such as 100 Thieves and FaZe Clan will “transcend esports.” “Those have become more like cultural organizations, where they have music artists involved, they have athletes involved, et cetera,” he said. “So it becomes bigger than just esports, and esports is just kind of the grounding element.”
This trajectory goes hand-in-hand with the increasing amount of attention paid to competitive gaming as fan-favorite titles such as Call of Duty and Overwatch develop robust esports scenes. “Anybody that buys Call of Duty and plays Warzone, for example — that’s broader than esports,” he said. “There are stats that show at least 25% of the gaming audience nowadays are following in some way, shape or form esports.”