Drawing parallels between mini-golf and mobile gaming in a pandemic may seem peculiar, but Ben Bring, VP at AdColony explains how this this scenario offers marketers another way of reaching a wider, or conversely, an even more targeted audience.

If you didn’t know about the 1919 Flu Pandemic (aka the Spanish Flu) before COVID-19, you probably heard about it over the past 18 months. Now, it seems everyone can cite the parallels.

When COVID hit, it was generally thought mobile games would fall off, as everyone was at home with their giant TVs and computers playing traditional games and streaming video. But, the mobile gaming audience had grown to the point where there was no going back, even though it no longer meant those public “micro-moments” (e.g., waiting in line for coffee) in which to play. Instead, mobile gamers were seeking out gameplay at home, during work breaks, or to wind down before bed.

Brands that align themselves with the pandemic-induced gaming boom and embrace the diversity of the audience will see returns on their investment. Even almost two years on, this truth remains. The game Wordle – originally developed by a Brooklyn engineer for his partner – has ballooned from 90 players to 300,000 within two months.      

Society has been here before – it’s worth examining the parallels. Mobile gaming’s explosion during COVID and our still-ongoing attempts to move on from it have strong parallels to another hot entertainment activity that exploded during hard times: Mini-golf.

Parallel courses

Emerging during the Roaring ‘20s – in the aftermath of the Spanish Flu – miniature golf evolved due to the situations of the time. Leading up to then, golf had migrated from Northern Europe and was established as an upper-class hobby, accessible only to those who had a car to drive out to “the country,” and the financial means to pay the hefty fees of the club.

The 20s saw the emergence of cheaper country clubs, and, more importantly, the emergence of “short-game” courses being built in smaller spaces, like on top of buildings in New York. These rooftop courses were ideal for office workers who could go knock out a quick game during lunch, and for women who were not welcome in the long game.

Then in 1929, Black Monday changed everything, mini-golf included. Well-manicured, regulation rooftop courses were too expensive, so “rinkie-dink” courses sprang up. They used obstacles scrounged from whatever people could find lying around: tires, rain gutters, barrels, and pipes. By the end of the 1930s, over four million people in the US were playing mini-golf on these “zany” courses, a precursor to today’s, filled with windmills and loop-dee-loops.

Because it was still a badly-needed form of cheap entertainment, mini-golf did not die out during the Depression. Rinkie-dink courses were still popular, until the booming 50s, when the modern game of putt-putt, closer to the original game of golf, was invented.

Gaming’s own evolution

Now, look at how video games parallel mini-golf. These sprung up in the 70s and 80s, first as arcade games, then as gaming consoles and home computer games. By the 90s, they were a significant part of the entertainment mix and were firmly established in pop culture – only they didn’t have the “aspirational” feel of golf. Quite the opposite! Gamers were seen as teenage boys, or underemployed 20-something males, who “lived in the basement” and drank Mountain Dew by the case.

Even when mobile games came on the scene with the first flip phones and smartphones, games were still not seen as being high-class entertainment. Match-3 games like Candy Crush didn’t catch brands’ fancies either. It was widely believed those games skewed towards female, middle-aged, non-working-professionals, and mostly in lower household income brackets.

And then suddenly that wasn’t true. Even before the pandemic hit, mobile gaming’s role in the average consumer’s entertainment lineup had evolved beyond those early cliches.

Still, the bias has continued. As this pandemic began, many assumed mobile gaming would crash with everyone at home, but ­­– as I alluded to above – it totally didn’t.

Your phone can be a way to get some alone time, where you are solely focused on gameplay, but it can also be your connection to the outside world – and not just through social media, email or messaging. Multiplayer games like PUBG, Genshin Impact, and Mario Kart Tour can be played together with friends.

That’s the thing about mobile games – they are one of the few forms of entertainment that are moldable to the type of experience you want to have - thirty seconds of Wordle? Five minutes of an infinite runner? Ten minutes of Call of Duty: Mobile? They’re all available, and with different opportunities to reach consumers. From rewarded video ads, with in-play ads, or even more traditional formats, the games and ad experiences can ebb and flow, depending on what you’re in the mood for.

Adaptation and growth

Developers have gotten so good at creating mobile experiences that the mobile gaming trend didn’t diminish. In fact, according to data from LoopMe and IDC, it grew, with the majority (63%) of consumers increasing their gameplay time during the pandemic.

Consumers also started watching more esports, as traditional sports ground to a halt and interest in both games and the players increased. Just as golf went from being the sport of kings to something the masses could enjoy, and then became a way for professionals to make a living, pro gaming became a legit occupation.

Mobile gaming, just like mini-golf, is a form of entertainment that was and is accessible to everyone.  Your target audience fits within that massive category, so look for them in mobile.