Online gaming advertising opps largely untapped

At the top right of the TSN.ca Web site, nestled among updated sports scores, statistics, action photos and World Cup news, there's a small Flash ad taunting readers. 'Think you know hockey? Play TSN Trivia Break.'
After clicking to play, a cheesy guitar drones while the game loads, and an advertisement for Mr. Sub appears - almost like a commercial - featuring a product shot of the new salads from the sandwich store.
There are three rounds of trivia, each one bisected by another Mr. Sub ad asking hockey buffs if they are 'feeling hungry?' Once the game is completed and the score tallied, users can register to win a hockey jersey from their NHL team of choice.
TSN Trivia Break is not the average advergame.

At the top right of the TSN.ca Web site, nestled among updated sports scores, statistics, action photos and World Cup news, there’s a small Flash ad taunting readers. ‘Think you know hockey? Play TSN Trivia Break.’

After clicking to play, a cheesy guitar drones while the game loads, and an advertisement for Mr. Sub appears – almost like a commercial – featuring a product shot of the new salads from the sandwich store.

There are three rounds of trivia, each one bisected by another Mr. Sub ad asking hockey buffs if they are ‘feeling hungry?’ Once the game is completed and the score tallied, users can register to win a hockey jersey from their NHL team of choice.

TSN Trivia Break is not the average advergame. While most are simply sponsored by a marketer with its logo splashed all over the game, TSN’s actually advertises a new product and maintains the look and feel of Mr. Sub’s brand. And it’s garnering a lot of interest from sports fans.

Since it began five weeks ago, 52,000 unique visitors have played the game, and of that number, more than 30,000 have signed up for the contest. On average, users spend about 15 minutes playing and more than 100 trivia junkies have spent over two hours – the record so far is 568 minutes.

While advergaming is nothing new, there’s still untapped potential.

‘We’ve only put our toe in the water,’ says Steve Hulford, VP of sports products at TSN in Toronto.

‘We’re watching the trends. Real video game-makers are the ones that have interaction nailed down. (Advertising with online games) is a very exciting opportunity and we’re quite interested in it.’

Plenty of Web sites, from Bell to AOL, have used advergames and games are the preferred pastime for millions of netizens. According to Nielsen Netratings, online gaming sites attracted more than 28 million visitors in the U.S. in April. And while advergames and gaming sites like MSN Gaming Zone are a popular and well-advertised destination on the Web, another untapped niche is arising.

Online gaming communities, where PC users (usually tweens, teens and the 18-to-30 crowd) connect to play multi-player video games together on the Web, are extremely popular and largely untouched by marketers. Games like Ubi Soft Entertainment’s Ghost Recon and Sony’s Everquest attract thousand of players every day. Ubi Soft’s site announces the user numbers daily, often well over 4,000 players. That’s a lot of eyeballs that could be looking at ads.

‘I think there’s a substantial opportunity for marketers within the massive multi-player-type games,’ says Steve Keonig, senior analyst at Reston, Va.-based NPD Techworld. ‘It’s a persistent, immersive environment and a platform that is increasing in popularity almost daily.’

Keonig predicts within a year or perhaps two, these online games will unquestionably become very commercialized. ‘It’s a natural progression,’ he says, adding he estimates over 100,000 people are online every day playing. Games like Everquest, a role-playing game that takes players into a fantasy world where they fight evil with swords and magic, provide a significant chance to reach the coveted youth market.

‘Because so many people are going to be spending lots of time in these worlds – it’s akin to sitting in front of the television – we will begin to see partnerships,’ he says. ‘You’ll be able to go into a town’s general store, outfit a character with name brands and then click on a link where you can order a pizza from Domino’s.’

Aside from the direct business opportunity, Keonig adds that as the games become more reality-based, real-world brands will be needed to add to the game’s legitimacy.

‘Any mass market consumer product will have the chance [to get in the game]. Also, the people who play these games are technology-oriented and very Web-savvy so companies like Apple or Nintendo will be a perfect fit,’ he explains. ‘Even the golden arches will work because it will make the world look more realistic.’

Traditional console game-makers have taken notice of the popularity of online games. In August, Sony Computer Entertainment’s Playstation 2 will release a network adapter device, enabling users to connect via a high-speed connection to play its titles with other gamers online.

Despite the opportunity, some game-makers are a little hesitant to permit full sponsorship within their titles. San Francisco-based Ubi Soft Entertainment watches very carefully how it places ads in its games. It is, however, speaking with a large number of unnamed consumer products companies about how to fit in their messages, says Monika Madrid, Ubi Soft’s non-retail sales and licensing manager.

The company’s stance is if the advertising is appropriate, and if it fits in the storyline, then it will be approved. Context is essential, she says. But game development is becoming increasingly expensive (some analyst estimate that it costs up $1 million to develop a world-class game), so marketing sponsorship or ad placement will in the future help even out the costs. Taking advantage of those opportunities without cluttering a game with ads and while maintaining the game’s integrity, she says, is a delicate balance.

‘No developer would cheapen a game just for the sake of getting sponsorship. Our audience isn’t stupid,’ she says. ‘Most marketers want in-game placement and it doesn’t always work, so many have to walk away. They have to better understand how to integrate with the look and feel of a game and not be the look and feel.’

One of Ubi Soft’s most successful titles, ‘Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon,’ a first-person military-style shoot-up-the-bad-guys game, has up to 500 gamers playing online at any given time. There is a chance for marketers to sponsor the game, but because of the M-18 rating (similar to a restricted movie rating), most marketers won’t even approach the company. Due to the graphic nature of the game, Madrid says, most fear it could potentially damage a brand’s image even though Ghost Recon is one of the most popular titles on the Web. Ghost Recon does feature U.S. military canteen outfitter Camelbak in a product placement-style role on packs on the backs of soldiers.

‘The big money is still with offline console games, PC-based games just aren’t as popular with advertisers,’ says Ubi Soft’s brand manager, Sean McCann. ‘It’s more lucrative now for people to stay offline. There’s still a stigma attached to an M-18 game that has less nudity and violence than a PG-13 movie.

‘You also have to consider appropriateness. If you thought Generation X was savvy, Generation Y has been bleached of all naiveté. If there’s a Taco Bell in the game, for example, it had better be there for a reason. ‘

While game developers are concerned with legitimacy, often times clients are also very hesitant to spend their marketing dollars in a platform that is still in its infancy.

‘We have discussed with our clients advertising in video games, but there is reticence,’ says Jon Lax, president of the Toronto-based interactive agency, Modem Media, adding that the suggestion is normally dismissed rather quickly despite the fact that he is optimistic about it becoming a powerful vehicle for clients in the future.

‘It’s hard to quantify the value of a logo on the side of wall in a game or a sponsorship because there’s no measurement, no yardstick to prove it’s working. So when push comes to shove, they’d rather spend their budget elsewhere on a more traditional strategy that has proven effectiveness,’ he says.

Popular Web portal Sympatico.ca has experienced this dilemma. It launched its own Flash advergame called ‘Mosh Pit Mayhem’ a month ago. Just like TSN’s Trivia Break, the game is prominently positioned on the site’s main page, enticing younger visitors to play for a chance to win $1,000.

The site’s marketing brass wanted to engage the 18-to-34 hip-but-jaded, demographic with a game that features more mature, twentysomething characters dressed in the typical rave uniform (hoodies and baggy pants for the boys and tight, form-fitting tops and capris, plus lots of cutesy accessories for the girls). Designed in a colourful, comic-book style, players drudge through mud pits, mosh pits and bouncers to eventually make it to the stage to see the concert. But the only brand displayed in the entire game is sympatico.ca.

‘We don’t have any sponsors so far, it’s such a new idea,’ says Leslie Andrachuk, Sympatico’s director of national marketing, adding that the advergame does offer a branding opportunity and product integration for consumer goods like bottled water or music licensing.

And would Sympatico consider advertising its own brand in the online game platform? ‘That’s a very interesting question, and the answer is definitely ‘yes,” she replies. ‘It’s an innovative platform with lots of opportunity. We’re just starting to think about it.’