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Pixels to Profit: What Brands Can Learn From the Gaming Industry

Written by Alex Pagani and Elgin Watts II, Illustration by Michelle Wang

The gaming industry has taken Gen Z by storm, given a desire for socialization in a time of immense isolation. More and more Gen Zers are dipping their toe into gaming, and now 90% of Gen Zers identify as gamers. 

The gaming industry was exponentially growing pre-pandemic, but this digital pastime’s popularity has risen as we’ve spent time quarantining at home. A recent survey found that since the pandemic started, a whopping 33% of people have subscribed to a video gaming service, used a cloud gaming service, or watched esports or a virtual sporting event for the first time. Community engagement, and particularly building on niche communities, has helped games explode in popularity during a period when Gen Z is constantly looking for entertainment behind a screen.

New Horizons Are Emerging 

As the weeks passed at home, Gen Z sought new ways to stay entertained while being safe. Video games are positioned perfectly for this scenario. The sheer variety of games are designed to fill all entertainment needs, from storytelling to social interaction and competition. This year saw a big growth in sales for video games, generally considered a discretionary/luxury good, even throughout a rocky economy and record unemployment. 

Animal Crossing: New Horizons was released March of this year, coincidentally yet perfectly aligned with the moment everyone was in lockdown. This caused more attention for the popular gaming franchise than normal. It was something we were able to look forward to playing and a new yet familiar game that people love. It’s relaxed style of gameplay also perfectly countered the stress of life at the time, making it a prized possession for many Gen Zers.

Game consoles also saw historic highs since the start of the pandemic. Game consoles, often the most popular option for casual gamers, are purpose-built, plug-and-play systems for gaming that come at a very attractive price (usually half the price of a PC with similar game performance). 

The Nintendo Switch, released in 2017, instantly sold out as demand skyrocketed this past March, coinciding with the start of the pandemic and the new release of Animal Crossing: new Horizons. Some of those lucky to have one on hand resold the consoles on second-hand marketplaces for a sizable profit. 

Playstation and Xbox, the two most mainstream consoles for gaming, released their next-gen consoles in November 2020, just in time for the holiday season. Given the increased time spent using gaming as a form of indoor entertainment and as a social outlet amongst Gen Zers, consoles are more sought after than ever as holiday gifts this year. 

Gaming Is All “Among Us” 

Although the impact of console gaming has been monumental during this pandemic, one other mobile and PC gaming title has recently stood above the rest with Gen Z: Among Us. 

The “who dunnit” game is now one of the most played titles in the last few months of 2020, with peak player counts at 1.5 million

How did Among Us get so popular with Gen Z? Being free to play on mobile devices? An entertaining storyline? Brazil and Korea? The answer is all three. Among Us was released in 2018 with a slightly decent following, but a core community was being built as early as 2007. Marcus B., co-founder of the development team that created Among Us, had already gained a decent community of gamers from the content he put on the internet, and once Among Us was released, this community continued to support his work. The title’s initial release saw most of its fans concentrated in Brazil and South Korea. These groups were small, but loyal. Eventually, these smaller fan bases would attract popular Korean video game streamers that had their own audiences who would become fans of the game. 

This traction would lead to Among Us becoming featured on the Steam video game marketplace, where more people discovered the game, including some streamers with large followings. Coupled with everyone being home and longing for some kind of connection, Among Us erupted in popularity, reaching gamers and even people who never considered themselves gamers prior. Now, Among Us is strengthening existing friendships, forging new ones, and making people feel more connected than ever before. 

How Brands Can Score

To all non-gaming companies and organizations out there, we’re not saying you have to rush and develop a game where you complete tasks for animals or play as cartoon spacemen (unless you want to), but it is important to understand the success behind these games: a small, seemingly niche customer or fan base isn’t always a bad thing. These networks were the foundation for the explosive popularity of Among Us, perfectly timed with the world at home. If marketing to Gen Z, understand that just like the initial following of Among Us in Brazil and Korea, a small audience of us can be a great thing. We’re pretty vocal and passionate about the things we love, and will waste no time telling everyone about it.. By playing to our tendencies, companies can develop loyal fan bases who are willing to do some of the marketing for you (without even realizing it).

In addition to gaming usage, content consumption surrounding gaming has seen proportional increases as well. 

The average number of viewers of the most popular game streaming platform, Twitch, jumped by 50% from March 2020 to April 2020. This is an incredibly powerful opportunity for brands to capture the attention of these new viewers through advertising and marketing campaigns on these streaming platforms.

A prime example of capturing the attention of gamers is G FUEL. The company is the “Official Energy Drink of Esports,” and with good reason. Instead of marketing at gamers, it marketed with gamers, deeply embedding itself in the very things gamers love. The company developed key partnerships with gaming influencers and teams, making it so that its name was synonymous with the favorite people and organizations that gamers support. 

G FUEL’s referral program is open to everyone, meaning any content creator or individual can promote its products without needing to reach out to the company or become official partners. This way, anyone may feel connected to the brand as a partner, and the G FUEL praise is spoken for free through an army of gaming micro-influencers. 

In short, the sense of community within gamers is unlike other industries. With the rise of gaming this year, now is the time to pay close attention to Gen Z gamers. As we hope for the end to the pandemic as soon as possible, we know gaming’s increased Gen Z audience is here to stay for the long-haul. 

Published by Jenna Bratman, Lead Strategist, The Agency