Technology companies are doubling down on gaming. Following its acquisition of game producer Activision Blizzard, Microsoft plans to ramp up its efforts to produce more titles. In a recent interview, its CEO, Satya Nadella, said: ‘If I look at it, the amount of time people allocate to gaming is going up and Gen Z are going to do more of that,’ he said. ‘The way games are made, the way the games are delivered, is changing radically.’
He’s right. Gaming engagement spiralled upwards during the pandemic, and there is little evidence that many felt the urge to put down their gamepads after the world returned to (the new) normal. By 2026 the sector could be worth £252.3bn ($321bn, €293bn), according to analysis by consultancy PwC.
There are few lifestyle industries that inspire more fervour. Even marketers from beauty and luxury would be grateful if their products inspired as much zeal as those of Nintendo or Electronic Arts. In 2024, smart companies will find ways to co-opt the fandom associated with gaming – and tap into the selling power of major franchises.
Who is gaming?
In recent decades it was widely accepted that gaming was a pastime predominantly enjoyed by single white males. It was also assumed that these people had poor employment prospects and an unfastidious approach to personal hygiene. These assumptions are a trap for brands. The growth of the industry has brought gaming to a wider, more aspirational audience.
This shift is evident in the narrowing gender gap in gaming. Research from the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) shows that in the US, women represent almost 46% of the cohort who game. And it isn’t exclusively young girls either. Those aged over 35 have increased by 36% in the past year, according to a study by Newzoo.
Diversity, however, is lagging behind. While audiences are still predominantly white, wider representation in the industry is low. In a poll of the UK gaming workforce by The University of Sheffield, 66% identified as white British, 24% as white other, 5% as Black and just 2% as Asian. Room for improvement also means scope for growth. A more inclusive industry would create a larger market, meaning more opportunities to connect with consumers.
The field is opening up for lifestyle brands to court consumers where they spend an increasing portion of their time: in-game. In the expansive landscape of titles, the strategy to emulate is that of Fortnite by Epic Games. While there are no official statistics on how many players it has, some estimates put the figure at 268–272m players joining every month. The Battle Royale-style shooter game has opted for an approach that would bewilder the most open-minded intellectual property lawyer. The game wraps up in a dizzying cross-section of franchises – think Imperial Stormtroopers from Star Wars clashing with anime characters – drawing on the fandom associated with each.
Meanwhile, Balenciaga, Ralph Lauren and the National Football League (NFL) have featured as ‘skins’ that have been purchasable in-game. It is clear that Fortnite plans to attract more brands to its platform in the coming years. A division of the game, Fortnite Creative, offers a raft of tools for brands to integrate and show up in the platform.
Brands are using new gaming releases to create irreverent campaigns that remind audiences of their product. First-person shooter title Call of Duty Modern Warfare III marks a departure for the franchise, where rather than pitting players against foes in historical theatres of war, they fight zombies instead. To coincide with the release, canned water brand Liquid Death created a campaign featuring a fictional movement in favour of zombie welfare – People for the Ethical Treatment of the Undead (PETU). The campaign video reasons that zombies can’t survive from brains that aren’t sufficiently hydrated. The initiative adroitly taps into the crossover between fans of both the gaming and the water brand.
Meanwhile, brands are using the metaverse to build worlds around their culture. In August 2023, skateboarding company Vans reached a major milestone with its campaign in Roblox, an open-world universe that enables users to make their own micro-games within it. Vans World has reportedly had 100m players since it was launched in 2021. The skateboarding game enables players to take to a digital skatepark in real time, completing missions or simply cruising around and popping kick-flips. The clever part is to do with the products themselves: in-game purchases can get players access to power-ups, but also to Vans sneakers and apparel.
Wider gaming eco-systems
Playing games has always been about community and conviviality. With gamers so engaged in social media, there are more cultural touchpoints for brands. The rise of Twitch, for instance, signifies a multiplying opportunity to connect with audiences. Some brands are already at it. Deutsche Telekom turned to the platform to market its MagentaMobil Young smartphone tariffs, which are aimed at anyone aged under 28. It created a game out of mundane, everyday situations, such as a road junction or a duck pond. Entrants had to guess what happened next.
Meanwhile, more game developers are offering tools that allow audiences to channel their own creativity. The RockStar Editor is a feature in Grand Theft Auto V for PC that allows players to record videos in the game, then edit and share them, thus dialling up the film-like qualities of that title. More creators are creating film edits of franchises such as Red Dead Redemption – the opportunities for brands to market to this trend are clear.
As the market gathers pace, the potential to connect with consumers through gaming culture will increase. Tech and digital brands will devote more effort to resonating with these communities. Lifestyle brands would do well to take note – and do the same.
Matt Hay is a consumer trends expert and the founder and CEO of Bulbshare, a technology platform that helps brands collaborate with millions of people everyday to build better products and services for the world.