From TV films to viral videos, in-game experiential activations to celeb collabs, over the years marketers have endeavored to find ingenious ways of capturing the joy of gaming beyond just showing gameplay.
Then there’s the rise in in-game advertising, led by Fornite with significant partnerships with Travis Scott and more recently with the NBA, while Burger King made headlines for its stunt that saw Stevenage FC become the most played team on EA Sports’s Fifa video game series.
As part of The Drum’s latest deep dive, we tasked a few top creatives with telling us all about their favorite ever gaming ads.
Nils Leonard, co-founder, Uncommon
The recent addition of Kiyan Prince to Fifa 21 by Engine is all you need to showcase the power and depth of gaming to make a difference. Before this, Travis dropping into Fortnite to reach millions globally in one moment also showed the world what gaming can really be about.
Both of these experiences reached more people and spoke more powerfully to the power of gaming than any advert ever could. Before gaming was a thing, early Playstation work told the world that gaming was an alternative choice, something dark, new and powerful. These were excellent films that many in the industry refer to, but soon after these gaming advertising then started to follow the Hollywood model, mirroring the content you would play. The argument being that no one would cut an ad for a movie that wasn’t made of the movie itself.
We are due more here though. Gaming isn’t Hollywood 2, it is its own thing, and will continue to change and morph. Gaming isn’t even one category anymore. There are those that play alone to get lost, those that play with millions, those that play to make money and Roblox has shown us that creating the games is as popular as playing them now. The truth is that there won’t be ads for gaming, just different ideas for different entertainment experiences.
Adam Kerj, chief creative officer for the Nordics, Accenture Interactive
There has been a lot of great work in this category, from Assassin´s Creed 'Odyssey' My Life as an NPC, Wendy´s Keep Fortnite Fresh on Twitch, to Bjorn Borg´s Pride parade patch in GTA. Wendy´s is brilliant in every way, but all of these examples transcend cultural space and platforms, reaching a skeptical adblocking audience that doesn’t want to be reached. Brilliant!
However, the one that stands the test of time is Playstation’s ‘Double Life’. Remember the year 1999? Directed by Frank Budgen, it's perfection in every frame. Great storytelling, craftsmanship, dialogue, casting, directing, look. Great everything.
Even to this day, I hear people quote lines from this 60-second spot. No, there´s no hack or patch. No, it's not shoppable and no, you can't customize your avatar. It might be more than 20 years old but it's still one of the most captivating spots ever made.
Xander Lee, creative director, BBH Singapore
I’m a massive fan of K/DA for League of Legends (the world’s most-played PC game and most-viewed eSport). For the uninitiated, K/DA is a virtual K-Pop band made up of several well-loved characters from League, a game that has absolutely nothing to do with being in a Blackpink-style supergroup.
K/DA feels light years away from what most people would consider advertising. It’s not a 60-second TVC, or a 6-second bumper, or a billboard. It’s a breakthrough into a whole new fast-growing global fandom - K-Pop. Riot Games rewrote the playbook for an existing piece of their IP. In doing so, they’ve created a highly valuable brand asset that they continue to invest in, with incredibly positive results. Just last year they added a guest artist to the band, a virtual influencer called Seraphine.
Wayne Deakin, executive creative director, EMEA, Huge
To be direct - forget ads in gaming it's not how the audience thinks now. Earning credibility by doing stuff is way more important to Gen Z. Take the great work by Gucci when it launched a virtual collection with Roblox called The Gucci Garden Experience - I hear it sold more pieces than all the physical stores in a day. But if you are going to ask me to pick an ad - I would say the launch of Halo 3. It’s part ad, part long-form content and part social stunt.
A good gaming ad depends on the audience. I have worked with Playstation, Xbox and even Mini-games for WeChat on some cool stuff - and within those platforms, it's down to the game title and its community. Understanding the community and not getting in the way of them by hijacking or leveraging them is the key. Credibility and authenticity are vital and it’s why so many ads by agencies for games don't hit the mark because they aren’t part of that community or really understand what drives them.
Pedro Rosa and Roberto Kilciaukas, group creative directors, Grey London
Gaming ads can’t be boring or forced. They should be fun, smart, talked about and shared just like players share the games they love among themselves – such as ‘Your Mom Hates Dead Space 2’ by FCB San Francisco. The name is pretty much self-explanatory, but to launch the super violent title, the agency tapped into a classic human insight: if moms hate something, that alone automatically makes it look cool for their teenage children – no matter what that is.
To bring the thought to life, fake focus groups within a conservative American community were organized, exposing unaware ordinary moms to the most impactful and disturbing footage the game had to offer. The result is a content series of hilarious real reactions, endorsing the game’s launch to the audience. The idea went viral 10 years ago and is timeless, so much so it could easily become a Netflix series tomorrow.
VJ Anand, head of creative APAC, VaynerMedia
There have been tons of amazing campaigns for games over the decades. I remember early on there was the console wars between PS and Xbox. Those ads were crazy, as everyone trying to outdo each other was fun to watch. My favorite one was the Sony ‘Double Life’ film by TBWA\London. I loved the insight into how gamers had a double life and an escape from their daily lives and jobs. Solid insight and a memorable film.
Then came the amazing game ads. The one I can remember blowing my mind was ’Giantology’ for Sony, this hoax campaign in the early 2000s for the game Shadow of the Colossus where giants were spotted all around the world.
And then back to this decade, I love what Fortnite did with Travis Scott. The Astronomical concert was amazing. I think collaborations and getting passion points to collide is so, so smart. Travis and the team at Fortnite combined to create an unforgettable experience for the fans and gamers.
Darrin Patey, vice-president, creative technology, No Fixed Address
Game studios are uniquely well-positioned to do what everybody’s trying to do these days – engage authentically with their consumers within their natural habitats. Epic creating the Fortnite concert series last year is a perfect example of this. It had this open-world platform, it had a bajillion users and it had the means to connect them all.
Outside of integrations like this, within the games themselves publishers have leaned into another of gaming’s key tenets in their marketing over the last decade and a half – narrative storytelling. For me, the ad that best represented gaming’s move into mass culture was the Gears of War ’Mad World’ trailer by McCann Erickson San Francisco.
By launching a new gleefully violent AAA franchise like Gears of War with a minute-long cinematic trailer set to a nihilistic emo hit, Microsoft helped the world at large see that gaming was continuing to evolve into a serious art form.
Michael Kleinman, associate creative director, Droga5
It might be a stretch to call it an ad, but at the time Halo’s ‘Remember Reach’ was groundbreaking in so many ways. It was a website where users could remotely control a real-world robotic arm to plot a point of light. Those 54,000 points of light culminated in a stunning memorial to fallen soldiers. It’s a work of art.
It was the first time I could recall a gaming ad activation that made a significant emotional connection (beyond the excitement of gameplay or cinematic style immersion). Oh, and Crash Bandicoot yelling at people in a Nintendo parking lot.
Matt Roberts, business director, Publicis•Poke
It’s hard to choose a favorite, but I think Trevor Beattie and James Sinclair’s ‘Double Life’ monologue or Chris Cunningham’s arresting ‘Mental Wealth’ ads for the original PlayStation – both redefined the category and gave an identity to millions of gamers.
This championing position was later celebrated again by Sony in the #4theplayers campaign for the PS4 launch in 2013, with a film you can watch over and over and still find something new in it every time.
Ads that blend the incredible realism and immersion possible in modern games with the fun, laughter and sociability created are the ones that often stand out. In other words, ads that blend the real and the virtual in humorous ways always work for me. Rupert Sanders’s ‘There’s a Soldier In All Of Us’ film for Call of Duty Black Ops with Kobe Bryant and Jimmy Kimmel is a brilliant example and delivers a sheer punch-the-air moment at the climax.
Sanket Audhi, creative director, Dentsu Webchutney
It’s really hard to keep Burger King out of the news and marketing decks. Creating a campaign in association with Stevenage FC, Burger King and its ad agency David managed to hit the efficient video game marketing nail on the head. By sponsoring a relatively unknown football club, Burger King figured it could get its logo displayed in Fifa, the footballing game worshipped by millions of people worldwide.
It followed this up by asking gamers to take up the ‘Stevenage Challenge’, which would require them to sign the top stars from the world of football to their team and score goals with them to win free food. A simple idea that cost them close to nothing, it saw the likes of Ronaldo and Messi donning the Burger King logo and managed to turn one of the smallest teams IRL into the biggest team online.
Two years later, Stevenage has become the most played team in the Fifa video game series, with an increase in its replica shirt sales by 300%.
Kunal Parkar, associate creative director, Scarecrow M&C Saatchi
It’s the Fifa 18 ’El Tornado’ commercial. El Tornado is a skill move that has never been attempted in a game – yet. The commercial features a young kid performing the move in Fifa 18 for the first time and the clip goes on to become an internet sensation. From influencers to brands to football stars, it takes the world by storm. It’s a favorite because it focuses on how skills and ideas flow from a video game into real life and become a part of it.
Anything that borrows from real life threatens to become a part of popular culture and pumps up the adrenaline. Gamers mostly don’t like to leave their seat, but a good gaming ad can be anything that makes them jump out of it with excitement, while at the same time injecting the fear of missing out on the best experience.
Sam Richardson, creative director, 20ten
Gaming is distinct from other forms of entertainment because you’re an active, rather than a passive, participant. You assume the role of the hero.
For me, the ’Halo 3: Believe’ ad by TwoFifteenMcCann is a beautifully created diorama. This, combined with the moving piano score and the hopeful ending, make it the perfect gaming ad. Games are notorious for their meta-campaigns, sending gamers off searching for clues and building a narrative around the game. The ’Believe’ ad was part of a master campaign lasting around 12 minutes.
The campaign tapped into the existing knowledge of the Halo games and established Master Chief as the one hero we could believe in. The best gaming ads take inspiration from the target market’s passion for the game, as opposed to trying to appeal to a general uninterested audience. Immersing your story in the game’s universe and celebrating how you feel while playing is usually the most effective way to communicate the experience.
Richard Morgan, creative director, Wunderman Thompson
A difficult choice to make, but I’d have to go with TwoFifteenMcCann’s ’Halo 3: Believe’, a 60-second fly-through of humanity’s last stand. It’s an intricately created battlefield diorama set in the future after the opposing alien species, the Covenant, is about to be overthrown all thanks to Master Chief (you, the gamer). It’s emotional and damn smart.
This Jake and Dinos Chapman-esque hellscape is unlike anything else that’s gone before it in gaming advertising. It’s lush and cinematic, but melancholy and powerful. It makes a fantasy world feel truly believable through the raw and real emotion of the fallen soldiers.
Nowadays there’s a game out there for everyone – and with that, its very own community. Today’s games create their own subcultures, fueled and fed online through platforms such as Twitch, YouTube and Discord.
Our next challenge is garnering real credibility within these subcultures, with work including VMLY&R’s Wendy’s x Fortnite tie-up and McCann London’s brilliant Rough Guide to Xbox.
Amit Saikia and Baneet Chandhok, Sideways
Amit: There is one ad that will always have a special place in my heart – Sony Playstation’s ’Long Live Play’. It just brings to life the many iconic characters I have known and played over the years.
Baneet: There are two ads in particular that are stuck in my head after a literal decade. The Xbox 360 launch really made a mark because it was the launch of a new generation console, and also because of the sheer absurdity of people jumping 10 feet into the air and behaving like pro gymnasts. And Playstation ‘Move’, which stuck with me because of the sheer relatability of immersion. A game is nothing but a story you take part in. It gives us a chance to influence the story, for good or evil, and transports us to another world. The last few seconds of this ad are every gamer’s face when interrupted and brought back to earth.