Faris Yakob reports from a foray into the cross-platform game Fortnite, where the medium of gaming has collided with the mainstream.

Last week I went on a solo retreat to a cabin in the woods to commune with nature and myself and, long story short, I’ve started playing Fortnite. I’m obviously behind the cultural tsunami, since Fortnite is literally the most played game on the planet. According to a report by UK retailer GAME, it took the top spot easily thanks to a total of 10.4 million years of cumulative playtime (Sept 2020).

Have you played? Or is that something your children do? It’s likely to be both. Advertising agencies are largely populated by people between the ages of 21 and 50. The average age of a gamer is now 35 to 44 years old thanks to a generation that has grown up alongside them, with the heart of the target a 35 year old, with a house and children. Fortnite skews younger but even so, 13% of the players are 35-44, the bracket into which I narrowly squeak. Averages aside, two thirds of adults (US) play games according to the Entertainment Software Association, a segment that therefore requires its own segments. As indicated by the years spent playing Fortnite, if you are a player, gaming can consume vast amounts of your media consumption time.

Therein lies, of course, the importance for advertising, for we are an industry of media, and we follow where the eyeballs lead. However, despite gaming being the dominant medium of the age (the industry is worth more than movies, sports and music combined), it is also uniquely fragmented. Whilst this provides opportunities for audience targeting by title and platform, it also presents significant complexities in using games as a creative advertising medium, especially since it exists way outside an agency’s traditional wheelhouse of ‘art & copy’.

Not to say we haven’t tried, with some successes. I remember working on a cross-platform gaming proposition for Microsoft way back in the mid-noughties, (I recall being very interested in ideas about Homo Ludens or ‘Man the Player’) and there have been various successful game integrations and activations since then. CPB/BK’s Sneak King and its companion titles sold 2.5 million copies in their first five weeks in 2007. Wendy’s ‘hacked’ Fortnite in 2019 when the game introduced a Food Fight mode between burgers and pizzas and VMLY&R designed an avatar to look like Wendy and played the game over and over, destroying beef freezers to emphasize the ‘fresh, never frozen’ proposition each time.

The pandemic made gaming even more salient for many, and in popular culture, for obvious reasons. At Cannes this year there were so many game related entries various jurors argued that there should be a gaming category next year. Samsung, which has been pushing purpose award entries as part of a long term brand reputation strategy for years, put forward the “Anti-Bullying Skin” to give less affluent Fortniters a choice beyond the free default skin, so they didn’t get picked on by their peers.

As Gerry D’Angelo, VP of Global Media at P&G wrote, “There were an enormous number of gaming entries. The ones that stood out were those that understood that consumers are now devoting more attention to this new area, and diverted hard dollars to try to tap into that media consumption. The big question then becomes how do you do it creatively? For a long time, advertising in gaming has been things like interstitials and pre-rolls to win extras on Candy Crush. It’s been clunky. What a lot of these brands did is achieve the most incredibly sensitive adaptation to the environment.”

Gaming, like all digital media, is challenging because the medium doesn’t dictate the type of content or idea, as it historically did with analogue media. Gaming presents a suite of channels, platforms and tactics for advertisers, with various production complications, lead times and budgetary considerations.

It’s a complex world unto itself that clients need help navigating, which is why the holding companies have begun to offer gaming services as they attempt to capitalize on this surge of interest. In the last year DDB launched FTW (For the Win), Denstu announced DGame, and Publicis launched Play.

Ideas are born of necessity and made distinctive by constraints, and the pandemic presented a particular set of those. Musicians, who now make more of their income by touring than selling records (music being mostly the advertising for high margin show tickets and licensing deals), found themselves cut off from audiences. Travis Scott’s ‘Astronomical’ tour in Fortnite broke records and picked up a Grand Prix at Cannes.

No good idea in advertising is ever wasted, they get endlessly recycled instead. Sometimes they inspire enough new ideas to create a recognizable new medium. Lil Nas X followed Scott, performing in Roblox, a gaming platform focused on younger children, that is worth about $50bn following an IPO this year (for comparison, WPP’s market cap is about $15bn).

Digital things are blurry, anything can be bits and bits commingle, but music and gaming seem especially well paired, at least in retrospect. Sports have long been a mainstay category of games, thus Verizon rebuilt the SuperBowl Stadium in Fortnite. Adidas and EA partnered for ‘Play Connected’ which uses digital data from the Adidas GMR product (pronounced ‘gamer') to translate real-life football skills to improve players' performance in EA Sports' Fifa Mobile. On the non-profit front, The Uncensored Library replicated books that are censored in various countries in a vast virtual library inside Minecraft by DDB for Reporters Without Borders. It was built by a production company called Blockworks that only works in Minecraft.

As with so many of the award-winning ideas from Cannes, I hadn’t personally experienced any of these and had only heard of the most famous wins. However, whilst playing Fortnite, I noticed an invitation to an O2 experience. I have good memories of the venue (I’m dating myself, but the Prince run was incredible) and an interest in such things, so one button click later I found myself inside a 20 minute musical experience from the breakout British band of the summer (according to the press release), Easy Life, developed by VCCP. It was novel and entertaining enough to get me to stick around, and I’ve been listening to the album on repeat since, forcing it on to the stereo at an Independence Day pool party no less.

Advertising that drives penetration, in whatever form, works when it introduces the right product to the right people, and as audiences get harder to find on television, the industry will increasingly need to find opportunities for people to play with brands.