It is easier than ever for brands to advertise to gamers, but marketers must be willing to understand this nuanced – and occasionally prickly – audience, writes Alex Brownsell.

Let’s be clear: contrary to the perception of many advertisers, gaming is a mainstream pursuit.

Around 3.4 billion people globally play digital games, according to WARC Data. Gaming audiences are becoming older and more female, and are increasingly likely to play on mobile devices, rather than PCs or consoles.

Rather than a solitary pursuit, gaming is becoming more social. Users chat while running amok with virtual semi-automatic weapons on Call of Duty, and families congregate to watch one another indulge in the escapism of Nintendo’s Animal Crossing.

As we reveal in The WARC Guide to Marketing in the Gaming Ecosystem, it’s also easier than ever to advertise in and around games. Ad formats have become more standardised, and buying is increasingly automated via programmatic technology.

Yet not all is rosy in gaming’s garden. Many popular games are steeped in violence, and marketers must be clear-eyed in their approach to brand safety. Moreover, measurement remains something of a Wild West, making it harder for advertisers to be sure of the effectiveness of their investments.

Here are four key considerations for marketers looking to invest in gaming:

1. Gamers are more amendable to advertising than one might suspect

Digital games were already growing in popularity before the pandemic; the enforced downtime as a result of COVID-19 has supercharged that surge in consumption, as shown by the latest figures from Ipsos MORI’s GameTrack study.

Asia’s gaming industry offers particularly lucrative opportunities for brands, according to Michael Fegan and Jamie Lewin at Mana Partners Limited. However, market and channel complexity should not be under-estimated, as no single game rules supreme and audiences are fragmented across titles.

Understanding how to engage this notoriously protective (and occasionally prickly) audience segment is vital. A recent report by Kantar offered four rules for engaging gamers: ditching the stereotype of sweaty teenage boys; learning to speak their language; reflecting their values; and enhancing the experience.

Follow those rules and advertisers will find gamers surprisingly receptive to marketing messages.

2. Advertising in and around games is easier than ever

In the early days of video games, in-game advertising was a tricky business. Inventory was scarce, standards largely non-existent, and ads had to be baked into games by developers, removing the opportunity for tactical communications.

Today’s gaming ad market looks very different, writes Andy Sampson, global client lead at Wavemaker. Brands can now buy standard digital ad formats in and around games across devices, usually via programmatic technology. Data can be used to target audiences and tailor messaging.

Free-to-play games, which monetise via in-game transactions and advertising, offer an especially useful route to audiences in markets in Asia, where consumers are unable to afford expensive PC or console equipment, according to Yup.gg chief experience officer Tim Lindley.

Brands have found particular success with reward videos, which offer an in-game boost as an incentive for users to complete a video ad.

Of course, it is not easy to anticipate which game will achieve mainstream popularity. However, by learning from the success of hit games, advertisers can better predict which titles are likely to resonate with their target audiences, argues Riley Strand, creative strategy lead at Omelet.

3. Esports offers a gateway to Asia’s gamers

As hard as it is for many older consumers to understand the appeal of watching others play video games, esports is a mass-consumption form of entertainment and here to stay, with APAC leading the charge. India, for instance, is home to a burgeoning esports market, writes Nishant Patel, co-founder of ARK Gaming.

While esports failed to sizeably extend its audience during the pandemic, existing fans are consuming more content than ever. Brand investment in the medium is expected to defy the economic turbulence to reach $844m globally this year, WARC Data forecasts show.

Sponsorship opportunities abound, but marketers must be wary of the factors which differentiate the lean-back experience of esports from lean-in gaming.

Consumers’ desire to watch the best gamers in action has also underpinned the rise of live-streaming. The secret to a successful campaign on live-streaming platforms like Twitch and Facebook Gaming is to leverage the relationship between gamer and audience, according to MediaLink senior vice president Michael Burke.

4. Lessons can be learnt from gaming’s explosive growth

When US rapper Travis Scott drew a live audience of over 12 million for his in-game concert on Fortnite, it revealed the scale of influence gaming now holds over mainstream entertainment.

Fortnite exists in an optimal position, where co-branding is additive and authentic to the core gaming experience, argues Havas Media Group’s Funto Debo-Aina. Entertainment brands can find valuable opportunities to reach engaged audiences of all ages – an opportunity already taken by Disney to promote its Marvel Avengers and Star Wars franchises.

Many millions have been drawn to the sheer escapism of titles like Nintendo’s Animal Crossing: New Horizon. The game, which allows players to escape to a paradise island, provided the ideal platform for a campaign promoting holiday destination Sentosa to Singaporeans locked down during the country’s Circuit-Breaker COVID-19 quarantine.

Marketers can also learn much from games publishers themselves. These companies have honed performance marketing to a fine art to encourage mobile app downloads, and are masters of modelling customer lifetime vale, according to Snap’s Fintan Gillespie, the social app’s international head of gaming.

Gaming is even upending the idea of brand loyalty, writes Natasha van der Pas, a senior strategist at Wunderman Thompson. Brands including Starbucks, Shell and Disney are using mobile games to develop lasting relationships with customers – and Natasha will share more on this trend on a WARC Talks webinar taking place later this month.