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Could gaming soon replace or even become the dominant social media? Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg’s already enthralled by the metaverse, and there have been few stranger things than Netflix’s big push into gaming. David Tinson, chief marketing officer of Electonic Arts, explains how top-tier gaming’s shift to always-on, events-driven engagement is seeing the medium solidify as a gathering place for friends – and whether it could threaten the social media status quo.

During the pandemic EA, one of the world’s largest gaming companies responsible for titles including Fifa, Madden, The Sims and Battlefield, had half a billion people playing its titles in 2020.

As the real world was closed off, more gamers than ever logged in to hang out with friends, socialize and relax. The notion of competition, high scores and conflict seemed so distant. Gaming was noticeably, and increasingly, used as the context for friends and family groups to gather. Pre-lockdown an IRL visit to a coffee shop might have sufficed. But were new habits built that could make the social media giants nervous? Anzu’s Itamar Benedy wrote as much for Warc. 

EA’s chief marketing officer David Tinson says: “Some of today’s players play to win, but winning isn’t everything. The reasons that people play games are as diverse as our players themselves. Many are looking for social connections. Some seek emotional immersion as they explore other worlds. Others come to our platforms to create their own worlds and shape their own experiences.” 

Our social interactions were creeping into the digital space for years, and even the consumption of sports and entertainment is moving from linear to interactive. This trend “was accelerated by the pandemic,” he says. And gaming has an inherent advantage in catering to these social interactions as the crafters of digital worlds and engaging experiences. It’s evolving to fully embrace this trend. This includes building up a mix of esports, regular multiplayer events and downloadable content to keep things fresh on a weekly basis. 

It’s easier to roll these out now. The games console, as beloved as it is, is a huge hurdle of accessibility (with a fairly prohibitive cost – especially in the developing world). In the last few years, a flood of new ways to play have appeared. They are generally more likely to work cross-platform, knitting together friend groups and communities across different hardware – which, in turn, makes those userbases even bigger. 

Tinson says: “The industry continues to expand to new platforms, from subscriptions to cloud gaming – on their HD console, on Steam, Nintendo Switch, mobile, Stadia and more. That platform expansion is shaping how we do business today.” 

One example is the integration of EA Play with Microsoft Game Pass. Basically, subscribers of the Xbox product can dip in and out of a huge library of games as they please, especially EA’s output. Any EA game is available at their fingertips. EA’s support added momentum to Microsoft’s supposed Netflix of Gaming model – a launch that suddenly saw Xbox transcend hardware into streaming software also usable on PCs and other devices. 

It “accelerated our subscription business”, opening up millions of new players active in its service across Xbox, PlayStation, Steam and EA clients, according to Tinson. Marketers need not be told the value of accumulating hundreds of millions of gamer log-ins and suddenly understanding how they interact and consume the product – data unavailable from physical media a mere decade ago. 

Subscriptions, free-to-play models and ever-changing live services have fundamentally transformed how people engage with their favorite content. That’s obviously led to great business model diversification and overall business transformation for us.” 

Marketing 

But with the popularity of the space comes saturation. Attempting to solve this was EA Play Live, an event throughout the month of July that kicked off marketing campaigns for Battlefield 2042 and Fifa 21’s ‘Inspiring the Next Generation’. 

Four Spotlight events in as many weeks led up to a main show teasing new titles and unpacking the graft of developers. From the main show, four of the top 10 trending videos on YouTube were from EA Play Live. Over a seven-day period, its trailers generated a combined 31m views. The Battlefield campaign alone cumulatively generated more than 210m views across all channels, which Tinson’s calling “record viewership levels”. It saw “Battlefield 2042 being the most talked-about game in our industry that month”. 

Meanwhile, Fifa 21’s marketing campaign celebrating the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities in football received the Channel 4 – Diversity in Advertising Award in the UK. It “drove incredible post-holiday awareness of the brand” and, perhaps less importantly, secured The Drum’s Ad of the Day.

 
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To keep building these logged-in users and hit its revenue ambitions, tens of millions of views need to be inserted into the top of its marketing funnel on a regular basis – something the industry’s absolutely capable of – and it is attention social media would struggle to gather were they to launch a new feature or product.  

Metaverse 

It’s the word of the moment, metaverse. Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg has showed his intent to become a metaverse business, it is the focus of recently-released movie Space Jam 2, and Fortnite is trying to solidify its role as the builder of the ‘verse, with a stunning Arianna Grande gig earlier this week.

Tinson says in Fifa, Apex Legends and The Sims 4 people are using games as a center point in how they connect, communicate and interact. This mindset’s also shaping new titles. Battlefield is going to include Battlefield Portal, “a community-driven platform within Battlefield 2042 that will let players create and find fantastic experiences”. It’s not all war – players can also chill out and build the warzones. We know from the huge success of Minecraft in digital and Lego IRL that creativity and gaming can work hand-in-hand.  

It’s gaming’s role to usher this creativity into lobbies, enabling people to do the things they simply couldn’t elsewhere. Live services are becoming increasingly important to maintaining that deep connection and communication among our growing community of players. And this has never been more true for our younger generation of players, who never knew a world without social media.

“For 80% of these younger fans who use social media daily, they are constantly connected, living in and adding to culture through social platforms and third spaces. I’m even noticing this at home with my sons, who I find are looking to content such as EA Sports for opportunities to connect with friends. They’re in a deeply-engaged group who want to interact with our content in real life, online and in-game.” 

Brand partnerships

The buzz around the space is real, and now a good number of brands have had a shot at or at least inquired about an integration with titles such as Fortnite or even an esports team. “Brands need to approach the gaming space in an authentic way. Players are a smart, deeply passionate and connected group, so when brands enter the space there needs to be trust and that trust is built through authenticity.” 

EA’s role here is to provide players with “the most interactive and innovative experiences possible”. For EA Sports, that means licensing teams and commercial partners.

”Fans being able to compete as their favorite soccer or football team in Fifa and Madden is an unbelievable engagement tool and has also helped us expand our reach to traditional sports fans.” And as these partnerships have bled into the real world, EA Sports in turn is a partner of the NFL and Premier League. 

The next step is in entwining the real-world events (match day, big player moves, finals and more) into live events and gameplay in the game. What happens IRL can drive momentum in the game, and vice-versa.  

What goes up must come down? 

Tinson calls 2020 a “transformative” year.  Both Fifa and Apex Legends accumulated more than 100 million players across all platforms. 

As video games move toward an engagement model more on par with what Facebook or Snapchat would report, it’s clear that social media is right to feel threatened by gaming. Even Snap is putting its money where its mouth is with Snap Games – that’s claiming over more than 200 million players

“Tens of millions of new players joined in the last year, and are building social connections ... which helped drive a record year for Electronic Arts.” He claims “more than half a billion players” are coming together through the social networks formed in and around its games.

It could be apples/orange comparisons, but Twitter’s patting itself on the back for accumulating 330 million monthly active users. Snap’s just breached half a billion, and Instagram’s is around double that. In gaming, we are reaching the point where the scale is there. And time spent with the product is much longer. Other games publishers are seeing this too. Epic’s Fortnite reportedly boasts 350 million player accounts, 80 million of which are active on a monthly basis.

The social connections gamers built in gaming during the pandemic are not “fleeting”. Tinson doesn’t see it as “something that will go away”. That’s why the company is expanding the portfolio into baseball, Formula 1 and once more golf. The goal is to create the definitive property for each sport and be the place where the fans gather. 

But gaming was once a disposable form of entertainment. You’d buy a game, hopefully complete it, and then move on to a new title. The industry’s in a period of transition now, perhaps encapsulated by Fifa rival Pro Evolution Soccer changing its name to eFootball and going free to play or Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed becoming a live service game spanning multiple locations and stories. While the games get longer-lived, products like Xbox Games Pass enable players to jump between titles as they please at low cost, which could erode loyalty. 

Developers are still working out how to keep people coming back to engage with the same game. Failing that, the goal is to keep them within the same beloved series (hence why we see so many sequels). At the very least, EA would like players to bounce between games in its stable via EA Play.

Tinson concludes: “Our leadership in sports, success building blockbuster franchises, and growth of live services including mobile are accelerating our business, and how people play our games today and beyond.” 

Earlier this year The Drum ran a gaming deep-dive, an array of features exploring how game trailers get made, how ad products are being built to fund gaming, and how the metaverse is being built. Check it out here.