While attention has been drawn to the enormous success and amazing growth of eSports over the last few years, Virgin Gaming has been bringing competitive gaming to everyone else. The company provides tournaments in a variety of console games, primarily on the Xbox 360 and PS3, as well as head-to-head competition, gaming leagues, and sponsored tournaments, all with cash prizes. Since its launch, Virgin Gaming has registered over 2.7 million users and awarded over $41 million in cash prizes. Virgin Gaming has partnered with some of the top brands in the world including NOS Energy Drink, Maxim, Dr Pepper, Pizza Hut, Sony PlayStation, Microsoft Xbox, SteelSeries, Energizer and Proctor & Gamble.
In other words, you don’t have to be a professional eSports competitor to make money playing a game. You can challenge individuals to a matchup in FIFA or Madden on NBA 2K and lay some money on the outcome, with Virgin Gaming handling all the details of the competition and the financial transaction. Or you can compete with your friends in a league, or join in an online competition. The [a]list daily spoke with Virgin Gaming’s Wim Stocks, EVP of business development, Zack Zeldin, VP of gaming operations (and Virgin Gaming co-founder), and Eric Nachman, director of marketing & strategy about Virgin Gaming’s latest moves.
Virgin Gaming has been busy adding more titles and making it easier than ever to begin competing. “Super Street Fighter IV is the first title we’ve used with the new onboarding process,” said Stocks. “We’re really broadening the number of titles on our platform, and not just sports titles or shooter — we’ll have racing titles, fighting titles, and military shooters and a whole host of other titles coming on board in the next three to four weeks.”
“Xbox Tournaments on the Xbox 360 is a free app that you can download today,” Stocks noted. “It streamlines the interactions a player will have in our events and our tournaments through Xbox Live. It syncs up friends lists, registrations, our wallets so a player can use their PayPal or credit card account.” As you might expect, Virgin Gaming is working on a successor to that app for next-gen consoles, but that won’t be announced until it’s almost ready. In the meantime, there’s plenty to play for current-gen console owners. “We’re announcing a whole host of tournaments that will run in conjunction with some of our key titles like NBA 2K14, FIFA 14, NHL 14,” said Stocks.
Making it easy for players to get into competitive gaming is obviously important, and that’s why Virgin Gaming has introduced a mobile app, Wewana: Play, to make it easier. “It was a little bit tedious for users to take that extra step to go to virgingaming.com and challenge someboday,” explained Zeldin. “That was always a focus for Virgin Gaming — if I can go on Xbox Live and press the A button three times and get matched up into an online game, what’s the advantage of Virgin Gaming We always struggled with that. How can we do this seamlessly, how can we take away the pain point for consumers Mobile was obviously the natural step for us in that direction.” Mobile is just the latest effort in this process. “The Xbox app was really the genesis to bridge that gap to eliminate the perceived barriers to entry,” added Nachman.
Virgin Gaming is essentially offering eSports for everybody by providing competitive gaming to the biggest possible audience. “We have tremendous respect for these eSports organizations that are really catering to the top 0.01 percent, the best of the best,” said Nachman. “Zach and I still play baseball with our friends in a league, even though we’ve aged a lot and we’re really bad. It’s ultra-competitive between the teams. Why not make it interesting and lay five dollars on it, that appeals to the casual gamer. With eSports the interest is there, we’re just making it available to everyone, and streaming is a big part of that.” It’s really bringing power to the people. “Now the consoles give you the ability to be your own directors,” Zeldin noted. “We can direct our matches, chop up the highlights with ‘Xbox record that’ and I can now show that awesome half-court shot I used to beat Eric.”
Getting the message out to players about the existence of competitive gaming is, of course, a challenge in itself. “Discoverability is always the challenge,” agreed Nachman. “For the most part, we’ve found that the most effective marketing tools and channels we have available is working directly with our publishing partners. We have a fantastic relationship with Electronic Arts, with TakeTwo, now with Capcom, and often times we’ll work a marketing communications strategy directly with their marketing team about aligning Virgin Gaming tournaments to their key beats. Whether it’s marketing in the game through kickers, relying on the publishers to work through their social channels, work with their key brand ambassadors, we look for the top influencers.”
Competitive gaming has been a very successful brand marketing tool for major brands looking to tap into the tremendous engagement of gamers and connect that to their brands. “We’ve got a number of different brands involved with us, looking at the opportunities to associate and communicate with the gaming audience,” said Stocks. “We just ran a Madden McDonald’s tournament, and a FIFA 14 event with ESPN FC — they actually ran the final event live in their studios. They’re seeing the power of engaging with this audience, and as a proving ground to try out different sorts of creative that can resonate with this audience.” The Madden McDonald’s tournament shows how creative a popular brand can get in trying to connect with gamers.
“It’s no longer CPM and impressions,” said Stocks. “The more insightful brands are seeing the engagement that videogaming and our tournaments can bring. It’s changing the discussion around what is effective advertising and what is effective sponsorship. We’ve got some pretty compelling evidence that things like purchase intent and affinity for the brand are off the charts. We did a sponsorship two years ago with Head&Shoulders, they’re an NFL sponsor, they sponsored a tournament. Some of the metrics that came from the tournament that they commissioned, they called it some of the most effective advertising and brand association that they’ve ever seen.”
This year Virgin Gaming plans to add 20 or more new games to the service, expand its mobile footprint (with some mobiles games getting ready for testing soon) and work on next-gen consoles as well. With competitive gaming finding support from players, publishers, and major brands, it looks like Virgin Gaming isn’t leaving anything to chance as the company expands.