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MKTG Insights: Can Sponsorship of the Virtual World Deliver Real Impact?

MKTG Insights: Can Sponsorship of the Virtual World Deliver Real Impact?

Sports video games are a multi-billion dollar business. And like all media platforms before it, when that sort of scale and success is reached, brands begin to pounce on the opportunity.  The IGA (in-game advertising) market is expected to grow to be an over $7 billion market by 2016. The two largest publishers of sports video games - Electronic Arts and 2K Sports have hundreds of brands signed up as "sponsors" for the teams and events occurring in the virtual worlds across their franchises. From rinkboard ads across arenas in EA's NHL franchise, to Madden game-players hearing their starting lineups "presented by Coors Light" when they begin a game, brand presence in the world of gaming is representative of the fact that marketers are searching for new mediums that are evolving with the consumption patterns of sport fans.

But can brand placement in a virtual world compete with real world sponsorship? For sponsors seeking a new frontier and access to a tech-savvy audience in the world of new media, the opportunity is real. 38% of sports video game players say they spend as much or more time playing a sports game as they do watching that same sport on TV during its season.Video games represent a DVR-proof environment where sports fan can engage with their favorite team or athlete in a way that injects them into the gameplay experience. There is powerful opportunity for brands who choose insert themselves into that dynamic.

In-game advertising works for a fundamental reason: it functions as a mechanism that makes the virtual world inside video games a more accurate simulation of real-life. Sports video games are always judged on how closely they replicate the real thing. How much does the version of Lebron James in NBA 2K14 look like the real King James? How accurate is a team's playbook in Madden? Because sponsorship has become such a firmly fixated part of the viewing experience, either in the arena or at home, a sports video game lacking in-arena branding would actually appear to be unrealistic.

Gamers have an expectation that the virtual worlds they play in will mimic real-life environments. Sponsorship plays a pivotal role in that authentication, and has been a natural evolution in an industry judged by its ability to mirror reality.

A Sought-After Audience:

For prospective brands evaluating the in-game advertising space, the value proposition is a combination of the gamer and the medium itself. MKTG breaks down where sponsors can capitalize on the opportunity of in-game advertising.

Tried and True Sponsorship Principles Apply to the Virtual World:

There are a variety of tactics that sponsors can use to execute their video game advertising strategy. Just as video games are a simulation of the real world, the principles of effective sponsorship can also be carried over to a gaming environment. Smart sponsors- just as they do in the real world - should go beyond simply purchasing "static" stadium signage inside an arena. Through integration that brings value-add to the user experience, sponsors can be featured in a way that offers further contextual awareness to their brand:

- Product placement ( A "select shoes" feature exists in the FIFA EA Sports franchise where gamers can filter through a variety of brands when they create a player")

- Branded Rewards (With the rise of live online gaming, brands can push rewards to successful gamers in real-time)

- Sponsored Segments (The Super Bowl MVP in the EA Sports Madden franchise is rewarded with a GMC truck )

- Real-time functionality (Sponsors can promote timely branded content to a hyper-targeted audience, and even gate content by geographic region)

Best Practice:

Two brands that has successfully found ways to move beyond static signage in their video game sponsorships are Sprite and Sprint. As official partners of the NBA and two brands with significant equity in the sport of basketball, Sprite and Sprint extended their investment in basketball to a partnership with the NBA 2K14 franchise. In "career mode" of the game - where gamers can create their own player - created players can earn endorsement opportunities with either brand and appear in commercial spots for the brand of their choosing. For Sprite and Sprint, the feature authenticates their position in basketball and creates an emotion connection with a gamer by branding a moment of accomplishment.

Beware of Gamer backlash:
While anti-sponsor sentiment can occur in any overtly branded environment, the gaming audience has been prone to express their disapproval of a sponsorship presence in gaming environments whenever in-game advertising appears to be unnatural. In Madden 2011, Old Spice - the official deodorant and body wash of the National Football League - sponsored a "Swagger" rating for players that appeared beside their various other rankings (passing, running, kicking, etc.) This sort of inorganic branded feature can retract from the overall gaming experience and actually hurt brand opinion.

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