The mobile gaming scene in Southeast Asia is growing exponentially, thanks in large part to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and Singapore-headquartered game publisher Garena has a front row seat in one of the most active gaming regions in the world. Garena’s vice president, strategic partnerships Jason Ng speaks to WARC about the importance of localising engagement efforts with gamers and how brand partnerships with games are evolving.

This article is part of a Spotlight series on how brands can play better with Southeast Asia’s mobile gamers. Read more

Key insights

  • Garena’s efforts to engage new and existing users with fresh, creative and highly localised content have contributed to Free Fire being the most downloaded mobile game globally in 2020.
  • The relationship between brands and games is becoming increasingly symbiotic as advertisers recognise how effective games can be as a platform for providing unique exposure.
  • Southeast Asia is a highly diverse and digital-first region, offering brands immense potential to tap on users located in both the cities and suburbs.
WARC: What have been some key shifts observed, with regards to SEA’s gamer communities and their behaviours/preferences?

We have certainly seen an increased demand and need for online entertainment as many of our users continue to stay at home and look for new ways to socialise and play. It has also become increasingly clear that games have evolved to serve as social platforms for players to meet and spend time as they play remotely.

For example, we have introduced more social and community features into Free Fire, which is increasingly a place where our users hang out with their friends and together enjoy not just playing the game but also other game-related content – from music to esports and livestreams, with Free Fire-related content recorded over 72 billion view counts across YouTube globally in 2020.

In 2020, we launched a feature called Training Grounds which has been hugely popular among our users. This is an area within the game where players can meet and hang out socially. In Q3 2020, we observed that about one in four of our players spends time there every day. This and other social features continue to strengthen the network effect and stickiness of the game.

We also focused on producing more esports content which keeps our communities engaged and entertained while staying indoors. These include organising online-only esports tournaments – both professional and casual ones – to bring competitive action to both players and viewers from the comfort of their homes.

Despite challenging circumstances, we were able to organise the Free Fire Continental Series towards the end of 2020. It was a fully virtual series and comprised three regional tournaments held simultaneously: the Asia Series, the Americas Series and the Europe Middle East and Africa (EMEA) Series. Our aim was to provide players and viewers from around the world a taste of competitive esports action from their homes. We were very encouraged by the response to the tournament. At its peak, it achieved more than 2.5 million concurrent viewers for the Asia Series, 1.7 million for the Americas Series and approximately 300,000 for the EMEA Series.

Jason Ng, VP strategic partnerships, Garena

WARC: Can you share how Garena works and collaborates with various brands?

We believe there are numerous opportunities for strong and meaningful collaborations, and we think very deeply about what type of collaboration is most suitable for each potential partner. There is always that exciting potential to do something different and make a big impact with these activations. We assess each collaboration on a case-by-case basis because it is important that we understand the business needs and desired outcomes of brands to be able to successfully engage players.

The past couple of years have been particularly exciting for us as we partnered with several global IP holders to create highly memorable experiences for our users. Our efforts to engage new and existing users with fresh, creative and highly localised content have contributed to Free Fire being the most downloaded mobile game globally in 2020.

In May 2021, Free Fire partnered with Formula 1 team McLaren Racing. The crossover featured a thematic takeover in Free Fire with an in-game McLaren integration, complete with their signature cars in the Free Fire universe. In July, we also jointly organised a fan event in New York City, where the Free Fire community could enjoy a day of carnival games, gameplay, food, as well as the chance to customise their own Free Fire skateboards to match the in-game surfboards featured within the game.

In July 2020, we announced a partnership with Netflix for a special in-game crossover with its global hit show Money Heist. For this, we worked with Netflix to create a Money Heist-themed in-game takeover. This allowed users to enjoy a new game mode and the opportunity to purchase virtual skins modelled after the iconic outfits in the TV series.

Our partnership with Money Heist was injected with a local flavour in various markets across the world, in line with Free Fire’s focus on constantly creating locally relevant and exciting content for its communities. The highlights include:

  • Flying a “Plan Bermuda” blimp across Mexico City to delight fans in Mexico, reminding them of the iconic scene in the series where the Professor used a blimp to drop millions of euros above central Madrid.

  • We produced an exclusive Free Fire x Money Heist live action short film in Indonesia with local action star Joe Taslim. In just 48 hours after the film went live, it saw over thee million views.

  • Local graffiti artists in Brazil, Mexico and Argentina took to the streets and plastered specially-designed Free Fire x Money Heist artwork in key attractions.

  • In November 2020, we partnered with the Bangkok Metro Network (BMN) to transform Chatuchak Park MRT station into a “Free Fire World.” This was the first-ever train station takeover campaign in Thailand. The campaign was supported by a variety of out-of-home media innovations such as exhibits of Free Fire’s iconic red truck, air drop boxes and even players parachuting from the sky. The team also added a Free Fire spin to the planned takeover. This included customising the station announcement voiceover to have a distinct Free Fire feel, digital screens, dynamic light boxes and placement of QR codes in the station for players to find and win special in-game items.

WARC: What is your take on how game publishers in Southeast Asia have adapted to increasing advertiser interest and involvement as an additional revenue/marketing stream?

One trend I believe we will see more of is that of other media forms having more tie-ups with games. We have already seen popular music icons bringing their personalities and music to games — DJ Alok in Free Fire is one such example – and characters from comic books or movies have also made appearances in games.

We have observed the relationship between brands and games becoming increasingly symbiotic. Over the past few years, advertisers have started to recognise how effective games can be as a platform for providing exposure that is not only very large and growing but, more importantly, is unique in being able to offer interactive engagement for their brands over an extended period of time. At the same time, game developers and publishers have also become savvier and more sophisticated in customising the experiences within their games to cater to brands, allowing both parties to deepen engagement with players and strengthen their respective brand affinities.

For Free Fire, one of the key factors behind our sustained success is our commitment to keep our game fresh and engaging. The successful activations we have been able to pull off are testament to how gamers and brands around the world are increasingly recognising Garena’s reputation for constantly enhancing the Free Fire experience with innovative content, partnerships and esports activities.

In the first quarter of this year, we rolled out partnerships with popular Japanese manga titles like One Punch Man and Attack on Titan to create memorable crossover events and content experiences for our users. We also received very positive feedback when we introduced in-game characters based on popular local celebrities. In MENA, we collaborated with famous Egyptian singer and actor Mohamed Ramadan, who had a hit song last year that generated over 225 million views on YouTube, to create in-game characters.

WARC: How have such conversations with brands changed in the last 8-10 months?

As games continue to garner ever larger audiences across broader spectrums of society, we can expect collaborations with brands and games to grow. We have observed both endemic and non-endemic brands increasingly looking to explore opportunities with us.

For Arena of Valor (AOV) in Thailand, for instance, we work with endemic brands like TrueMove, where they are our official telco partner for esports tournaments and, through our partnership, have enabled users to obtain exclusive cosmetic items for in-game characters when selected SIM cards are purchased.

In addition, we now work with brands that have, in the past, had less engagement with the gaming industry. KFC has been a partner of AOV Thailand for a few years now and our most recent collaboration with them saw Colonel Sanders making an appearance in AOV. Players stand a chance to win KFC’s very own Colonel Sanders as an in-game skin when they purchase a combo meal.

KFC’s Colonel Sanders in Arena of Valor

WARC: How different should marketing efforts be when attempting to engage mobile gamers compared to other channels, be it TikTok, TV or other digital platforms?

Each platform has its own distinctive “language”. For example, asking users to upload short videos of themselves is very natural through TikTok, while designing an in-game activation that is native to the game would be most natural and more likely to appeal to gamers. Understanding and crafting strategies based on that “language” is important.

WARC: When it comes to brand involvement in mobile games, which recent campaign has been your favourite and why?

The most memorable campaign would have to be the one where we announced international football icon Cristiano Ronaldo as Free Fire’s global ambassador.

The team thoroughly enjoyed developing and delivering the Chrono campaign for our players last year. Our goal has always been to provide new and engaging experiences for Free Fire players all over the world and one way to do this is to align with their interests beyond gaming, including sports.

Our activation with Cristiano Ronaldo has been an incredible success. It was a case of “the world’s number one game meets the world’s number one footballer” and we were able to deepen the engagement with our community of players, many of whom are avid football fans as well. We also share many of the same values, including the constant pursuit of excellence.

We are always looking to push the envelope in terms of creativity and execution. Through months of hard work, we became the first battle royale mobile game to integrate a footballer as a playable character. It was also a massive help that we had previously worked with Ronaldo’s team and were well-placed to pitch the idea, ensuring a creative collaboration that benefited all parties.

As the world’s most popular athlete and most followed person on Instagram, his massive online following has also proved invaluable in amplifying the campaign via a cross-channel promotional strategy and bringing new players to the game.

The reaction to the partnership with Cristiano Ronaldo has been incredible and we hope to continue delivering experiences like this to our players.

WARC: What would be your message to brands that want to reach SEA audiences via mobile games? What advice would you offer?

It is probably a cliché but I think it cannot be overstated that Southeast Asia is a highly diverse and digital-first region. This offers brands immense potential to tap on, given they are able to reach users regardless of whether they are located in the cities or suburbs. Consumers in the region are also among the most engaged in the world, spending more time on mobile than anywhere else.

The challenge then is to develop content that resonates with multiple local audiences, while leveraging common themes that users across various cultures can all relate to.

One of the pillars of Free Fire’s sustained success is our ability to consistently create captivating content that engages our global user community. Our local teams are focused on developing highly localised gaming content which appeals to our gamers’ tastes and preferences.

In Indonesia, we have partnered with one of the country’s most popular actors and star of Mortal Kombat, Joe Taslim, to create a playable in-game character called Jota modelled after Joe himself. To promote this, we also worked with one of Indonesia’s most popular directors to create a short film with Joe showcasing his famous martial arts skills.

So far in Indonesia, over half of our users have played as Jota. This initiative highlights how these elements of local flavour really resonate with our users.

In Vietnam, we collaborated with the popular “V-Pop prince” Son Tung M-TP, to launch Skyler, Free Fire’s first Vietnamese character. The inspiration for Skyler came from Son himself while he was playing Free Fire and the collaboration is an extension of how we can better engage both his fans and Free Fire players.