All to Play For: How can companies tap into the massive online games market?

Even before the widespread lockdown due to the coronavirus, online gaming had billions of users worldwide. Now this form of entertainment has, literally, gone viral. How can businesses serve this huge market and step up to its opportunities?

  • Lockdowns during COVID-19 crisis see online games boom
  • 75 percent increase in video traffic in the  U.S. as users flock to the digital space

In the vigorous battle for the world’s attention, the main player in the game is, increasingly, gaming itself. This entertainment phenomenon acts as social network, creative playground, competitive arena, spectator sport and audiovisual treat – often all rolled into one. Today’s most popular online games, such as Minecraft and Fortnite, and platforms such as Roblox, offer a mix of pleasures that other media can’t match.

And with the lockdown necessitated by the spread of the new coronavirus, even more people are logging in to play away the long hours spent indoors. According to the “Economist,” amid the COVID-19 crisis, traffic in video games has gone up by some 75% in the U.S. alone since restrictions were introduced.

$150 billion

Worth of gaming worldwide

100 million +

Number of gamers worldwide

1 in 3

Proportion of gamers who are women

Now mainly free to play, this generation of digital hangouts has already redefined the entertainment market. Hardly an old-stager itself, Netflix summed up the changing power balance in its 2018 earnings report, stating: “We compete with (and lose to) Fortnite more than HBO.”

In the past decade, “the mobile revolution has created the biggest market for gaming that has ever existed,” says Tokyo-based game-industry consultant Serkan Toto of Kantan Games. Gaming studios that were unknown a few years ago “literally reach billions of people worldwide today.”

Yet, adds Toto, until recently, “gaming has been a widely ignored field by businesses, despite being a $150-billion concern worldwide … The vast majority of companies are either very slow or reluctant when it comes to learning about the games market and what kind of opportunities it can hold for them.” 

Gaming’s expanding demographic

It’s a long time ago now since gaming’s early days of the 1980s and 1990s when it was seen as a niche interest, mainly for young males of limited spending power. Business diffidence then was understandable. Not so now, when technology has been radically transformed, along with gaming’s demographic. Many of that original generation of millennial gamers are now middle-aged “über-consumers,” enthusiastic buyers of high-end products, and parents of children even more tech-savvy than themselves. Surveys have shown, too, that an increasing proportion of gamers, perhaps as many as one in three, are now women.

But although businesses must find a way to engage with this rapidly expanding market, it may not be enough to do so simply through traditional models of advertising or sponsorship. To build a relationship with gaming, companies also need to find a way to be part of the stories it tells and the sense of community it can create.

The stated mission, for example, of Roblox – an innovative digital space where users create, develop, share and sometimes profit from an ever-increasing multitude of their own games – is “to bring the world together through play.” This free-to-play platform, which has in recent years increased its number of users to more than 100 million, comes complete with its own currency (dovetailing with real money) and game-related items created by users, such as models, audio and clothing, that can be advertised and bought as in-app purchases. In a quick reaction to the corona crisis, Roblox has also introduced a set of free Roblox Education initiatives to help students learn remotely, including webinars for teachers and how-to guides for kids to make a game on the site. They also posted advice on how to host a “Roblox birthday party,” complete with video-conference invitation and – of course – games.

An effective way forward for companies may be simply to create their own games. This is an approach now favored by Netflix, which launched the Stranger Things 3 game to coincide with the latest season of the TV series, and by KFC, whose new dating game (featuring a youthful Colonel Sanders) recently went viral in the U.S. 

This interactivity is a means for brands to bring gamers, already familiar with virtual and augmented reality, into spaces that also function as virtual showrooms for their products. Even luxury brands now use mobile games to engage with customers, as Hermès did in 2018 with its H-pitchhh, inspired by the company’s equestrian heritage.

Thrilling new identities in the virtual world

Will Bedingfield, a lifelong gamer and regular contributor to Wired magazine, has evocatively described in his articles how virtual environments can become part of a person’s identity. As a child, he writes, video games “were the space where I banished, at least temporarily, the chaos my learning difficulty wrought on my school and social life … where I felt effective.” It’s a sensation gaming still gives him.

Although many of its competitions are currently on hold during the corona crisis, esports are a further dimension for gaming, and another creative challenge for businesses. The multi-player leagues and professional tournaments organized by the likes of ESL (the world’s largest esports company) attract hundreds of millions of viewers through online streaming platforms, as well as huge crowds at live events across the globe. 

An opportunity for straightforward sponsorship deals, as in Red Bull’s partnership with Riot Games for the latter’s League of Legends tournaments, esports can also involve a more embedded role for brands. In May 2018, DHL announced its partnership with the ESL One series, handling shipping and logistics for tournaments in several continents. (ESL CEO Ralf Reichert explains how he made ESL a success in an exclusive interview with Delivered.) As a further element of this arrangement, the DHL-branded vehicle EffiBOT now features as an undaunted in-game courier in the Dota 2 game – a character who has proved so popular that, when DHL’s logo appeared on the big screen at ESL One Birmingham in 2018, the crowd started cheering. It was a response that lived up to the declared aim of Arjan Sissing, DHL Head of Corporate Brand Marketing at DPDHL, to “create unique moments that bring people together” and to connect brand with audience “on an emotional level.”

For companies looking to link with gaming, perhaps this shared storytelling and ongoing identification is key. But, whichever way they go about it, businesses now “are essentially guaranteed to tap more aggressively into games and esports,” says Serkan Toto. “The reason is very simple: scale. Gaming as a business has ballooned, and no other media offers this kind of reach.” — GP Newington

Published: April 2020

Images: Wolfgang Rattay, Reuters; Roblox, iStock