Ever since video game graphics advanced to the point that brand logos were visible, brands have worked with developers as another platform for brand exposure. Even arcade games were classically branded through the years. In the modern age of games-as-a-service, in-game ads (IGA) have evolved into time-sensitive activations around product and media launches. Branded aspects of games have woven between virtual and physical activations with many brands finding multiple touchpoints around gaming partnerships.
What Options Are There for Game Partnerships?
- Product Placement
Product placement is the traditional form of an IGA. IGA’s started with arcade games highlighting future releases and quickly evolved to entirely branded cabinets, unskippable product placement in cutscenes and even overpowered items that help beat a game.
As video game graphics improved, IGA’s became fluid. In titles like GTA and Splinter Cell, phone brands quickly capitalised on the chance to turn in-game menus into mobile phone interfaces for brand exposure.
One of the most infamous examples of in-game product placement has to be Death Stranding’s Monster Energy placement. In a game built around gritty themes, the placement of Monster Energy on a table quickly became a meme in the community.
- In-Game Activations
In-game activations, which are more dynamic and interactive than traditional product placement, are a relatively new phenomenon. In-game activations typically include branded in-game character cosmetics like clothes or accessories (known as skins) and can be promoted in conjunction with in-game live events or even branded challenges for players to complete in order to earn those cosmetics.
Epic Games, the developer of Fortnite, ushered in a new age of branded content with its first in-game concert with Marshmello (DJ) as well as advertising major movie releases like Star Wars and The Avengers. They upped the game in April when Travis Scott, a well-known rapper and Nike brand ambassador held an even bigger virtual concert in Fortnite and created a free character skin of himself that could be redeemed through completing challenges in the game.
The rapper, whose most famous song includes the line “checks over stripes, that’s what I like” a nod to the competition between Nike and Adidas, wore virtual Nike shoes (the only branded item on him) in his concert which was viewed by 27.7 million unique players over the course of a weekend. Nike previously entered Fortnite in May of 2019 when the company’s Jordan Brand created unique skins for purchase in Fortnite as well as a Jordan-branded minigame.
Epic is the leader in this space because of the company’s control over the proprietary Unreal Engine, effectively the bones for many of the most popular games in the world. Epic leases the engine out to game studios but keeps some of the secrets or latest innovations in-house, with Travis Scott’s Fortnite concert and the seamless insertion of Nike is a prime example.
For now, they are one of the few developers that can mould games around brands but Fortnite’s success has already spawned copycats.
- Out of Game Merchandising
Video games are incredibly popular with their core communities. As such, when a brand creates products using game art, the response is often positive. For any brand that offers a consumer good, especially one that touches on fashion or style, game partnerships create unique opportunities.
In addition to the example of Louis Vuitton with League of Legends, there are also Nintendo’s Vans, Prada’s use of Final Fantasy and Mac Cosmetics with Honor of Kings. Fashion designers have even been known to draw from popular video games for runway looks.
- In-game advertising space
Some games are built to be realistic, and that realism comes with advertising space. Billboards, stadium signage and iconic logos surround us at all times and brands are making sure that presence is supported in the virtual world. Once sports simulation games (FIFA, NBA, NFL) began to expand into the world around the sport, the brands tied to leagues like the NFL began taking bigger roles in the Madden game franchise. Now all the same brands in an NFL stadium also appear in Madden.
In the present, IGA spend increases each year and in 2019 reached about ~$3B in total. Even in games without natural branding, developers are making room for it.
Developers like Riot Games and Epic Games are building out new opportunities for brands to fit in. Riot Games brought stadium signage in-game with the Summer Split in 2020. Brand partners like MasterCard and Honda were overlaid on the broadcast allowing for deeper integration of sponsored content and brand partners.
Why Should My Brand Use In-Game Ads?
The crucial question on every marketers mind. When comparing in-game ads to other ways of reaching the gaming audience, there are a few unique benefits to using IGA.
An event or a team sponsorship comes with a timeline. Contracts have to be re-upped to continue the activations. Depending on the type of game and nature of the partnership, most IGA’s have the capability to be permanent fixtures inside the game and the value of that sponsorship comes down to the player base and the lifespan of the game. There’s no guarantee any game will be successful but if a brand enters a game with staying power, that partnership will continue earning value year over year.
Video games that model real-life need brand partners because it adds to the realism of the game itself. Take Grand Theft Auto 5 for example, the game (with its notorious reputation) didn’t get many brands to actually enter the game itself. Instead, they created parodies of existing brands to get the real-world feel. One phone is branded with a pear and the name “Fruit.” Car brands logos generally resemble actual brands as well.
The player base then took it even further by creating mods (modifications to the game’s code) that changed the parody brands into real-life brands. Players can now download mods that change trucks in-game to Dr. Pepper or FedEx. They can change car brands into actual models or change billboards to advertise real products. Even in games that weren’t safe enough for product placement, people made sure they were still seeing ads because they’ve become a core part of the city experience — even in a video game.
- Interactivity and Creativity
Many ad formats are limited by nature. YouTube ads need to hook viewers in the first five seconds before they are skipped. TV broadcasts only offer a few options for timing. Online and print ads are often incredibly static. For a creative marketer, IGA can mean a lot of things. We will go over some examples in the case study section below but the ability to insert a brand through evolving code is one marketers should be excited about. Fortnite making Avengers villain Thanos an enemy for two weeks or athletic apparel brands dictating a career path in NBA 2K are great examples.
How Brands and Games Find Partnerships
MAC Cosmetics Brings Make Up to Honor of Kings Fans
As mobile game technology has advanced, mobile games have become the most popular worldwide, with a much more diverse audience than many console or PC-based games. MAC Cosmetics used the mobile game Honor of Kings to great success. The company started by releasing a line of lipsticks branded and inspired by characters in the game — the lipsticks received 14,000 preorders and were sold out within 24 hours.
After that successful activation, MAC Cosmetics expanded to other beauty products like eye-shadow and makeup. Video games, especially ones rooted in fantasy worlds, naturally have artwork and pleasing colour patterns. For MAC, the company was able to bring styles from Honor of Kings outside of the phone and into the real world.
Louis Vuitton Shakes Up How We Look at Modern Fashion Advertisement
Ahead of the 2019 League of Legends World Championship Finals in Paris, Louis Vuitton announced an all-encompassing partnership. The French fashion house created a bespoke carrying case for the final trophy but also expanded the partnership into fashion — both in-game and out.
Louis Vuitton had a leading designer created in-game branded skins that were available for players in the game. These skins showcased Louis Vuitton’s current take on fashion but in an entirely new way. Outside the game, Louis Vuitton also created League of Legends-inspired clothing for one of the company’s renowned fashion lines. In 2020, it’s complex partnerships like this which activate on a variety of levels that truly stand out.
Fortnite Becomes a Core Part of Movie Releases
Epic Games’ Fortnite is more than a popular battle royale title, it’s a hub for mainstream culture’s crossover with video games. Now the game has become a crucial part of the rollout of any fantasy-based Hollywood blockbuster. The Avengers have appeared in the game multiple times. Same with John Wick and Star Wars. One of the most famous examples of this crossover was Fortnite’s insertion of Avengers super-villain Thanos. For two weeks, a custom game-mode was created to centre around teaming up to defeat Thanos. Players who succeeded then had the chance to play as Thanos themselves. Epic changing the core of the game to create a branded activation is an example of the company’s unique abilities with the Unreal Engine.
This summer, as box offices have largely been shut down, Fortnite became a movie theatre. The game is hosting Christopher Nolan movie nights by airing movies like Batman Begins and The Prestige in-game. They also aired a first-look trailer for Nolan’s then-upcoming movie, Tenet. The possibilities in games are only limited by their platforms or developers. When looking at Epic Games, the company’s ability to work with the in-house Unreal Engine allows them to create branded partnerships that many other developers cannot.
Wendy’s Finds Creative Way to Use Gaming Without Partnership
Not every game ad begins with a gaming partnership. The open nature of gaming platforms allows creative brands increased opportunities. Wendy’s simply fired up a branded Twitch live stream, found an authentic and creative way to tie a marketing objective to a popular title, and used the company’s social media presence to drive viewers.
One of Wendy’s adventures into Fortnite (it’s always Fortnite) saw a character resembling Wendy herself go on a personal vendetta against every single freezer found in the game, in line with Wendy’s current ad campaign focused on “Fresh, Never Frozen Beef.”
Not every brand can drive ten thousand viewers with a single tweet but every brand can embrace gaming platforms in ways that drive positive results.