Frontline Marketing

Op-Ed: Super Bowl Video Game Ads Pass Audiences Back To Digital

By | February 6, 2017 |

The Super Bowl is one of the only events where crowds that tune in are almost as excited by the commercials as they are the Big Game. This year, Super Bowl LI in Houston, Texas made history with a stunning 34-28 overtime victory by the New England Patriots. Although many probably began tuning out after the Atlanta Falcons established a major 28-3 lead early in the third quarter, the famous Super Bowl ads, which viewers often regard as 30-second mini-movies, may have been enough to keep some people around. But while ads for Budweiser, Honda and Skittles may have become a kind of mainstay for promotional entertainment, video game companies have gradually looked to take advantage of the huge audience over the past few years. Given how each 30-second ad costs $5 million dollars, the obvious question for game makers is whether the cost is worth the investment.

Fox announced that the history-making game drew in 111.3 million people to its broadcast channel, an average streaming audience of 1.7 million and another 650,000 on Fox Deportes. This shows a slight decline from last year’s TV viewing audience of 111.9 million and is still well below 2015’s record-breaking peak of 114.4 million. However, that’s still a tremendous audience by any standard, which is why some have argued that $5 million is still a bargain despite a decline in viewership and how returns from advertising are difficult to track.

According to surveys of Super Bowl audiences, between 80 and 90 percent of ads have no impact on their purchasing decisions. Studies have also shown that a brand such as Coca-Cola might see a lift in sales if it happens to be the only soda company to show a commercial, but that is negated if Pepsi also airs an ad during the game. On the other hand, Buick saw 50 percent increase in traffic to Buick.com on Game Day last year, and then had a 100 percent increase the day after, despite a multitude of car commercials.

So, what does this mean to the handful of video game companies that advertised during Super Bowl LI? Four video game brands had Game Day commercials: Nintendo, Mobile Strike, Battle for Evony and World of Tanks. Wargaming, which makes World of Tanks, decided to get the most for its money by airing two 15-second ads during the game and added two more on its digital channels. Meanwhile, the newcomer Evony made a huge impression with an epic commercial that paid tribute to historical kings and leaders from around the world, which is actually a shortened version of an amazing two-minute digital ad.

While a commercial for Nintendo’s upcoming Switch console might make sense, given how the company is looking to reach beyond the traditional gamers and recapture the casual audience that brought the Wii to success. What better way is there to advertise a gaming system designed for parties and gatherings than with one of the biggest party events of the year?

However, it’s a different story when it comes to games. Although Wargaming’s director of marketing, Erik Whiteford told [a]listdaily that the inspiration behind making the World of Tanks ads came from how past free-to-play games saw success with their Super Bowl ads, he also stated that “a lot of exposure comes from pre-game and post-game activities.”

Pre-game and post-game activity on social media discussing the featured commercials is what a lot of companies are banking on, whether they involve video games or not, which indicates that each ad is a $5 million way to draw viewers to digital channels. Additionally, “success” is a very relative term when it comes to Super Bowl advertising, given its high price tag. As observed by mNectar’s CEO, Wally Nguyen, TV is the “island of last resort” for high profile game publishers. These companies have already maxed out all the existing digital channels for reaching an audience, and so they turn to television advertising. In fact, being able to spend $5 million on a single ad suggests that companies such as SuperCell (Clash of Clans; Clash Royale) and MZ (formerly Machine Zone) had already found great success before airing their Super Bowl commercials.

Those observations were confirmed in an interview where MZ CEO, Gabe Leydon, told [a]listdaily that “we didn’t go to television because we were excited about television. We went to television because we had pretty much maxed out the mobile digital market. What we found is that television is really bad. Most people lose money on TV because it’s not trackable, the ratings are questionable whether they’re actually correct or not, and there’s a lot of confusion in the space just in general.”

Despite how Leydon considers TV an “immature market,” MZ still went ahead with a new Mobile Strike commercial starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, which aired during Super Bowl LI.  That’s because the company is still relying on the effect television has on its digital channels.

“What we found is that while most of your television ads don’t do much, what they do have is a tremendous effect on your mobile digital ads,” Leydon said in the same interview. “When people see Arnold Schwarzenegger on television, and they look down at their Facebook app and they see Arnold Schwarzenegger on a video ad there, they make that emotional connection from what they’ve seen on TV and it legitimizes the product in a lot of ways.”

So, it appears most video game companies agree that TV advertising during the Super Bowl is a big and expensive way to draw viewers to digital channels. While Super Bowl ads continue to demonstrate how big free-to-play games, particularly on mobile, have become, there’s little doubt that the real audience more interested in sharing these ads online, where they have presumably always been.