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Just over a year ago, Covid-19 shut school doors, closed down workplaces, and made in-person socialization temporarily obsolete. Billions of people from every walk of life were suddenly forced to stay inside for extended periods of time. But despite social isolation, many people found a way to stay connected. They grabbed on to a lifeline of sorts, something that allowed them to meet and interact with without putting themselves and others at risk.

Gaming.

Video games have been around for decades, but the past year has shown us a new side to this popular pastime. Rather than just a way to blow off steam and disconnect from the world, video games have transformed into highly social, collaborative experiences. We could call them the new “discos,” as it's inside the games, rather than inside the dance halls, where young people are meeting and building relationships. Covid-19 revealed and accelerated this reality, and it's clear that it's not slowing down any time soon.

Where the gamers are

Long before the coronavirus pandemic, gamers represented a huge chunk of the population, particularly in the younger age brackets. Currently estimated at 3 billion, the gaming community is global, growing, and connected. Since March 2020, 28 million new gamers signed on in the US, 8.6 million gamers in the UK, 9.4 million in South Korea, and 6.5 million gamers in Germany.

And it's not just the scale of gaming that has changed, it's also the way gamers are playing. Currently, multiplayer games, such as the ever-popular Fortnite, with over 15 million concurrent players, and PUBG, which peaked at over 3.2 million players in January 2018, are the most popular and growing kinds of games. Unable to meet friends in person due to quarantine directives, many turned to gaming as a way to keep in touch and meet new people. They are forming pods, clans, and communities inside games. This in turn has led to an unprecedented number of curated in-game social events, and an overall increased social focus in gaming in general.

 

In May 2020, musician Travis Scott held a concert inside Fortnite, garnering 45.8 million views. Later in the year, Lil Nas X performed inside the game Roblox with over 33 million views.

A meeting inside Red Dead Redemption
A meeting inside Red Dead Redemption
 
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And it doesn’t stop at concerts. Companies and freelancers are holding meetings inside Red Dead Online, and a couple even held a wedding inside Animal Crossing amidst coronavirus social distancing directives. Esports, now a major international phenomenon, has viewership primed to surpass that of traditional sports. League of Legends World Championship 2020 gathered over 3.8 million viewers and Call of Duty League 2020 Finals had more than 331 thousand people at their peak point.

Clearly, the virtual world is becoming more real than ever before.

Where the brands are

Brand advertisers understand that in order to reach the people, they need to go directly to the people. Games are no longer just about playing and making it to the next level, they’re about hanging out, meeting friends, chatting, and relaxing. To top it off, gaming has become more sophisticated than ever before. With life-like experiences, unreal graphics, and ultra-customizable avatars, the gaming world is allowing players to truly live out their fantasies in hyper-realistic ways. This presents new, colossal opportunities for advertisers who want to reach their audiences directly.

Unreal Engine 5 demoed on PlayStation 5
Unreal Engine 5 demoed on PlayStation 5
 
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The math is simple:

increase in gaming audience + advancement of gaming technology = unprecedented opportunities for brand advertisers.

Marketers have already begun to leverage the endless possibilities of gaming, such as blended in-game advertising, where ads are integrated directly into the gameplay in non-invasive ways, influencer streams, concerts, and custom brand experiences inside games. Last year, the world-famous chicken eatery KFC partnered with Animal Crossing to give away free real-life chicken inside a special in-game restaurant. In NBA 2K21, gamers will have at least 23 real-life clothing brands to choose from when outfitting their players.

In a Covid-19 world and beyond, the potential for brands in gaming is really just heating up. Gaming is taking its rightful place in society, no longer considered a thing of teenage geeks and dark internet cafes. While more and more gamers sign on and for longer periods of time, gaming will continue to serve as an increasingly central part of gamers’ social lives.

The potential is endless, and the time is ripe. Brands, who naturally want to be present where their audiences are, will need to go in-game to make the most impact. The only question is, are they ready to push their creativity and make the move?