Gaming as a Cultural Force

How gaming and esports achieved mainstream popularity, and what marketers need to do in response

Richard Yao
Nov 15, 2018 · 12 min read
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Overwatch League Finals brought thousands in the gaming community together. Credit: Overwatch League

ake no mistake, video games have gained enough cultural significance throughout the past decade or so, thanks in part to the rapid growth of the esports industry. Throughout the past few decades, video games have matured with the millennial generation, become a cultural touchstone, and extended their relevance way beyond the early years. Not to mention Gen Z, and every generation that follows, will grow up as digital natives with an intrinsic relationship with digital gaming.

Sure, parents today can still forbid their children from playing video games for various reasons, but that’d be like barring kids from watching TV at home in the 1960s for the irrational fear of TV corrupting young minds and turning kids into unproductive couch potatoes. Sooner or later, those kids still grew up to become TV watchers, for there’s simply no escaping a dominant medium and cultural force, however vilified and misunderstood by the previous generations it may be.

In fact, it would be rather reductive to dismiss the booming video game industry and its growing cultural significance as mere side effects of the so-called “arrested development” or “extended adolescence” of young people today, for doing that would be failing to take into account the various socio-economic and technological forces that had come together to create the gamer culture that exists worldwide today.

Legitimization Through Media-tization

Digital technology has long had a role in changing how kids play in modern times. From digital pets to Alexa bedtime stories, the impact of digitization on playtime is clear for all to see. Granted, each generation grows up with their unique set of toys and games that form an integral part of childhood memories. But sooner or later, we outgrew the Barbie dolls and toy trains and “silly” games, and move on to the grown-up hobbies and leisure activities. That is, until video games gradually replaced real-life games and sports and became destigmatized as a pastime and, for some, a legitimate career choice.

What sets the video games of today apart from the games of yore (which include non-digital games and toys, arcade video games of the 80s, as well as early console and PC games of the 90s) is the way the industry monetizes itself. Instead of a product-oriented, sales-based business model employed by most previous game-makers and toy brands, today’s video game industry is now very much a service-oriented media economy that thrives on user-generated content and the attention it aggregates from a global online community.

Live-streaming may be the best thing that has ever happened to video games, especially the massively multiplayer online (MMO) games, for it has been instrumental in turning what used to be a solitary leisure activity into a billion-dollar media business. Twitch, the Amazon-owned live-streaming platform of choice for gamers from all over the world, now has one million viewers watching others play video games on its platform at any given time. There is no conventional sport that could claim that kind of around-the-clock viewership. And if you think it’s odd that people would choose to watch someone play a video game instead of playing it themselves, then watching Saturday Night Football on TV or attending any sports event in person would also seem like an odd pastime by the same logic.

By sharing their experiences of playing video games online, the players become the content producers and promoters of said games. In other words, thanks to platforms like Twitch or YouTube, the consumption of video games becomes the creation of gaming content as a form of entertainment to be consumed by the gaming community and, increasingly, a larger audience. The snake has eaten its own tail, and somehow gotten bigger in the process.

Transformed into a media economy, the gaming industry has adopted the best parts of the media sectors that come before: it franchises the popular titles like movies, prioritizes long-term engagement like TV, and enjoys high replayability like music. Unlike those media sectors, however, the gaming industry is inherently digital and therefore understands how attention works in the digital age. Sure, new revenue streams like downloadable content (DLC) and in-app purchase (IAP) has greatly contributed to the continuous revenue growth for game publishers. and now mobile games consistently make up a major part of the app economy. But selling games alone is not enough make gaming a cultural phenomenon — the rise of livestreams is prerequisite for gaming to break out of its geeky niche and grow into a media force.

If the rise of livestreaming made gaming an amateur sport, then the rise of competitive gaming, also known as esports, is what pushed gaming into the professional realm. Esports, by its namesake, is modeled after traditional sports, with leagues at varying levels and tournament events in sold-out arenas. The sports market in North America is projected to reach $73.5 billion by 2019, with revenue derived from media rights deals being its largest value driver. While gaming is nowhere near that level of revenue — the gaming industry in North America will hit an estimated revenue of $32.7 billion this year — the rise of esports will similarly keep driving more attention and advertising dollars to the gaming sector.

According to data from Newzoo, the global esports audience will reach 380 million in 2018, which consists of 165 million of so-called “esports enthusiasts” and 215 million “occasional viewers”. What’s more, this audience is expected to increase by nearly 50% to reach 557 million by 2021. The audience demo still skews male and young, but it is also becoming more diverse. According to a recent report by Nielsen Games, new esports fans skew less male and are less likely to be millennials than fans who have followed esports longer than the past year. So if you still think gaming and esports are just pastimes for bored teenagers and unemployed young adults living in mom’s basement, think again.

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Crossover Cultural Impact

As gaming grows into a robust media segment thanks to the rise of live streaming and esports, it has started to exert its cultural influence on a wide-ranging variety of domains previously untouched by video games. And through these crossover references and collaborations, gaming integrates itself deeper into our mainstream culture and becomes further recognized and legitimized as something beyond a juvenile pastime.

To begin with, the sports industry has been quick to embrace gaming and esports. Part of that may be an audience overlap between the two industries, both popular among young men. Many star athletes also happen to be video game lovers themselves, as do the majority of their audiences. Players across various sports are showing off their best Fortnite dance moves to celebrate their wins, and some professional athletes now have their own Twitch channels.

Sports media have also jumped on board. In July, ESPN paid a hefty sum to secure the broadcast rights of the Overwatch League, one of the hottest esports titles worldwide at the moment. Warner Media has also been dabbling in esports programming with its Eleague lineup on TBS, as have NBC and BBC, all with the end goal being to reach new, younger audiences. Some sports publications, including ESPN and Minute Media, now have channels dedicated to covering esports news.

With the attention that esports have been getting, it is no wonder that many major sports league owners, including those of the Patriots, Rams, Mets, Flyers, and Cavaliers, are all investing in esports leagues and, sometimes, even funding their own teams. Over the last year, a number of NBA teams have invested millions of dollars into the League of Legends Championship Series following regulatory changes that made the investment more attractive to investors.

In addition, survival instinct also plays a part in esports being subsumed into the sports industry. At a time when 52% of Gen Z males ages 13 to 21 now spend more time following nontraditional sports than traditional sports, it is imperative for the traditional sports industry to find ways to jump on the bandwagon so as to keep their audience and explore new revenue streams. Plus, there is enough overlap between management of traditional sports and esports teams that gives traditional club owners a headstart in that regard, making it an easy investment target for sports industry.

Boosted by the funding and crossover influence with mainstream sports, gaming has quickly spread to other facets of the entertainment industries as well. Hip-hop and rap artists often share a similar audience demo as the gaming and sports industry, which is why chart-topping stars like Drake and Post Malone are regularly joining livestreams of popular gaming influencers or even hosting their own streams to engage with their fans and, perhaps, reach new ones. Complex Media, popular among the sports and hip-hop crowds, just launched a gaming show where a DJ plays against other musicians and athletes while talking about music and more.

Drake playing Fortnite exemplifies gaming’s mainstream crossover appeal

The top game streamers are becoming mini-celebrities in their own rights, as influencers often do nowadays, and mainstream media is starting to treat them as such. For example, look no further than the recent collaboration between Ellen DeGeneres and top Fortnite streamer Ninja. He went on her talk show to teach her how to play the game, and she reciprocated by making a surprise cameo on one of his live streams.

Gaming’s growing influence is also evident in other entertainment content. For example, hoping to connect with young audiences today, Hollywood has repeatedly tried its hand at making big-budget visual spectacles based on popular video games, often to underwhelming results. Part of that may just be remake fatigue, although there is something to be said about the inherent difficulty of transporting an interactive experience into a cinematic one. Interestingly, it is actually the movies that are not based on video game IPs, yet are clearly influenced by the visual styles and narrative mechanism of video games — movies like Scott Pilgrim Vs The World, Hardcore Henry, and most recently, Overlord, — that are getting more positive reception.

With gaming now so deeply intertwined with every aspect of mainstream media, cultural institutions that used to turn their noses up at video games are also starting to take notice. Colleges are starting to form their own esports teams and offering scholarships for esports athletes. According to the National Association of Collegiate eSports, the number of post-secondary institutions offering esports scholarships has grown by 480% in the last year. As a result, some U.S. high schools have started to offer gaming-related programs and forming school-sponsored esports leagues.

The jury may still be out on whether video games can be considered a form of art, but some museums have already put on gaming-themed exhibitions to examine their cultural impact, and there is no doubt that video games have contributed significantly to modern artistic culture. In addition, companies like McDonald’s and pharma giant AstraZeneca are using video games for employee training while the U.S. Army taps esports for recruitment. Some streamers are starting to use game-streaming as a platform to discuss real-life matters such as politics and climate change.

Perhaps the most profound cultural impact of gaming, however, is its growing influence on our everyday life. The gamification of our life is already underway in tandem with digitization of our world: we obsess over our Uber or Lyft ratings as riders, we compete with friends on who is getting the most step count, we track biometric data during sleep in hope of improving our performance at sleeping, and some even start to see life itself as a video game, — a series of tasks to be completed in order to advance the plot of self-actualization — all of which are results of a fundamental transposition of game mechanics onto the real world.

Such a prevalent gamification of everyday life may also be impacting our cognitive abilities. According to linguistic theories, our understanding of the world are subtly shaped by the “conceptual metaphors” that we unknowingly use in everyday language. For example, we tend to think of a debate as a war. In a debate, we defend our positions, attack our opponent, and hopefully win the argument. Under this war metaphor, the antagonistic nature of debates is inordinately amplified while its collaborative side of exchanging ideas and mutual understanding gets downplayed. As the influence of gaming permeates our everyday life and enters our collective unconsciousness as a conceptual metaphor, we will need to be careful about which parts of real life get amplified while others get downplayed.

At the end of the day, all cultural movements are fundamentally about the people that join them. Gaming and esports have formed a vast global community that began online, but are now manifesting in the physical world as tens of thousands come together to fill stadiums for esports tournaments and conferences like TwitchCon. Gaming has given millions a community where they can feel a sense of belonging, and as it continues to grow as a formidable cultural force, more people will start to feel its impact.

Brands Come To Play

In short, gaming is not a youthful fad, but a growing zeitgeist to be reckoned with. It is a generational media adoption that most people simply don’t outgrow. In fact, 43% of U.S. gamers are now age 35 and older, and the average age of a gamer is now 35, pointing to a growing disposable income as the audience demo matures. Brands that fail to understand that would be missing out on an increasingly valuable media channel and cultural touchstone. Advertisers are always chasing after the shiny new things, yet gaming and esports present a complex landscape that may seem confounding to marketers who are more used to traditional media.

The golden rule for brand marketers looking to effectively tap into the gaming and esports audience is to lean into the gaming culture and forge authentic connections with the community. Esports, with its predominantly digital distribution, offers marketers a chance to reach an audience that is increasingly comprised of cord-cutters and cord-nevers. 38% of U.S. esports fans do not spend money on pay TV, according to Nielsen data. In other words, this is a tech-savvy audience that is adamantly shunning traditional ads.

This means that traditional ads don’t work as well on them. Instead, working directly with popular game influencers and sponsoring esports teams and events could be a far better way to effectively reach those audiences. The gaming community is not a monolith, but one that can be further divided into many more sub-groups based on the games audiences are into. In fact, a Newzoo survey found that 70% of fans only watch one of these franchises while 42% of these esports viewers don’t play the game they watch.

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Hershey’s recently worked directly with Fortnite star Ninja to promote its new release

Therefore, understanding individual games in terms of players and viewers is crucial for brand marketers. Not all popular games are necessarily suitable for marketing, and brand safety should also be of concern for brands looking into the space. Working with influencers and agencies that understand the ecosystem, with its various platforms and popular titles, and those that are connected to each community is a good tactic to ensure success.

In addition, the rise of gaming also presents an opportunity for brands to rethink the design of their marketing campaigns and customer experience. Chasing the smash hit of Pokemon Go, several entertainment brands have come out with similar AR games in the past year or so to promote their popular IPs. But even before that, the popularity of casual mobile games have inspired brands to gamify their brand interactions. For example, Coca-Cola ran a successful interactive campaign in Hong Kong that rewarded people with discounts and prizes if they run a branded app and shake their phones when they see a TV ad for coke.

Moreover, some content owners are already actively exploring video games as a new channel to cross-promote their IPs. Marvel’s Spider-Man, a well-received PlayStation game developed by Insomniac Games and released in September, will no doubt further boost the franchise’s longevity for Sony. Amazon has streamed show pilots on Twitch to generate buzz and even created an interactive Twitch board game to promote Prime series The Grand Tour.

Lastly, brands would be smart to recognize gaming as part of the mainstream culture and take releases of popular games and major esports events into account when planning media buys and other non-digital campaigns. The biggest mistake that many brand marketers make is regarding gaming and esports as a purely online category that would only affect their digital campaigns, when in fact,, its cultural impact has reached far beyond the internet and thus creating powerful cultural moments, both online and offline, that brands can and should capitalize on.

IPG Media Lab

The media futures agency of IPG Mediabrands

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