Bethesda Softworks recently joined a handful of other publishers in proving that you don’t need to do a lot to generate a lot of conversation around a new announcement. As a lead-in to the eventual release of the Fallout 76 teaser trailer, the video game publisher hosted a 24-hour Twitch livestream event featuring a statue of the franchise’s “vault boy” mascot and some other props, but little actually happened. Occasionally, alleged Bethesda employees would come out and silently rearrange props or put on a strange puppet show, but these highlights were few and far between.
Still, the livestream managed to peak at over 150,000 concurrent viewers, and SuperData estimates that the subsequent trailer generated more than 5.5 million views on YouTube within 24 hours despite the fact that neither offered much information about the game. Audiences were essentially being trolled with an hours-long joke that won’t be fully resolved until the company presents its E3 showcase on June 10.
But Bethesda isn’t the first to toy with its livestream audience. In 2015, over 11,000 people tuned in to Ubisoft’s 24-hour long zoom-out of a cave painting before the formal announcement of Far Cry Primal—a stunt that the publisher stuck with even after the title was leaked hours earlier.
More recently, Overwatch creative director Jeff Kaplan helped celebrate the holidays by sitting motionless in front of a lit fireplace, mostly staring contemplatively out into space for 10 straight hours on a livestream. The December 24 broadcast peaked with almost 45,000 viewers, who were “rewarded” with a faux character announcement at the end—the livestream “breaks up” and becomes unintelligible during the so-called reveal.
“The appeal of live video is that people do not want to miss out on what’s going to happen,” Twitch’s SVP of content Michael Aragon explained to AListDaily. “If you are a publisher of an awesome game, a popular content creator, or there’s a highly anticipated marathon or esports event coming up, there is a good chance fans will hang out in chat.”
Marketers may be attracted to the approach because of its ROI.
“It does not take much manpower or dollars to set up a livestream of Jeff Kaplan sitting in a comfortable chair or a Vault Boy statuette in front of a television,” said SuperData analyst Reggie McKim. “In return, you get thousands of engaged viewers speculating on what is going to be announced, news sites reporting on the strange stream, organic discovery from a portion of the Twitch audience, and increased interest in the YouTube trailer from those who want to watch it again.”
Whatever one might think of them, most agree that these hours-long teasers can be extremely effective conversation starters, which typically begin with chats on Twitch before moving on to other platforms as the media and other fans become aware of the livestream.
“You see this very interesting spread, with eyeballs in different places, even though you concentrated them all in one place with nothing less than 24 hours earlier,” observed Adam Sessler, co-founder of the AI-driven data analysis platform Spiketrap.
Judging by Spiketrap’s data, Bethesda’s Fallout livestream probably peaked when people heard about it and tuned in to see what was going on. There are two large viewership spikes with the second occurring right before the trailer plays, indicating that many eventually figured out the joke, since 2015’s Fallout 4 announcement was preceded by a 24-hour countdown clock, then decided to drop out and return later.
An “extraordinarily high” number of people remained in Twitch’s chat after the trailer was shown, averaging about 255.2 message per minute, even though they were watching a black screen. There was also a great deal of activity across Twitter, YouTube and Bethesda’s forums as fan speculation led to more chatter about the trailer in anticipation of what might be in store at E3.
“People try to fill the void when given a little bit of information,” said Sessler. “[But] people get in on the joke pretty quickly, and they have fun with that. They might say that they’re being trolled, but they might enjoy it—it’s not an antagonistic relationship.”
Relatively few people had anything negative to say about the long-teasing livestream itself, except for those who thought the whole thing might be a hoax with nothing to do with Fallout at all. Instead, the overall sentiment was positive, but tempered by later rumors that Fallout 76 would be an online multiplayer game—something that fans were not enthusiastic about.
But even with the negative speculation, the long tease provided a big payoff for Bethesda. The Fallout 76 announcement brought in 473,837 engagements, which is almost 3x higher than Rockstar’s May trailer for Red Dead Redemption 2, which revealed the game’s characters, setting and the release date.
Kaplan’s Overwatch Yule Log stream didn’t have as many viewers as Fallout’s, but that could be because of the holiday timing. Another difference is that the number of viewers remained relatively consistent with no major spikes throughout the 10-hour period, possibly because the broadcast didn’t go overnight and people couldn’t guess its duration.
Although there appear to be strong returns, instances of these kinds of livestreams are too rare to predict whether they would work for other brands. Activision’s more straightforward Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 announcement, where a great deal of information was relayed on livestream, generated over 145,000 more engagement than the Fallout 76 stream, and it didn’t need a whole day to do it. But there is a consequence to being forthcoming, in that you give viewers more specific things to misinterpret, become irritated over, and simply be negative about.
“Once you get into specific discussions, you tend to see sentiment drop a little, despite whatever promotional opportunity it is,” Sessler explained. “You’re giving people more reasons to be nasty.”
At the same time, it’s unlikely that Call of Duty’s fanbase would have taken well to being joked with in this way. The Fallout franchise is generally known for having a sense of humor, and it has been almost three years since the last game came out. On the other hand, a new Call of Duty game releases annually, with ties to esports and other endeavors, making informative livestreams necessary. Brands need to carefully consider their audiences before messing with them.
Adam Lieb, CEO at video games marketing and analytics platform Innervate, attests to the effectiveness of the teasing approach. Innervate found that there were over 10 million combined impressions on Twitter for the terms “#PleaseStandBy” and “Fallout 76.”
“More than a tweet or other promoted content, Bethesda created a tune-in moment for their fans, where the community could speculate while sharing Easter eggs from the stream,” said Lieb. “As for downsides, there aren’t many that would turn off existing fans—they are going to make their purchasing decisions based on the game’s content and loyalty to the franchise and studio.”
Lieb further explained that being trolled is part of the experience, and it can even be fun for those who don’t quite get the joke. Stories of people falling asleep in front of their computers while watching an 8-hour stream of nothing makes for tales that might appeal to casual fans. But one risk is that audiences may respond negatively if they feel that they’ve seen this sort of thing before and are “over it,” or if the eventual payoff disappoints them.
But, he also notes that success may depend on a fanbase that will probably purchase a game regardless of this kind of marketing approach.
The bigger question is whether it can drive attention for players who aren’t already fans of a franchise and if it can convert them to customers.
Other publishers are likely to emulate this long-tease approach and offer their own twist, which is almost sure to eventually wear down its novelty. Lieb advises brands to creatively find ways to spread their message while determining what works for their community and their company voice.
Aragon also affirmed that the Twitch community is always ready to reward creativity and showmanship.
“I wouldn’t say that it’s a slam dunk every time, and we don’t know how many times it can be replicated before it becomes normalized,” Sessler added. “But I think it engenders goodwill with a different type of excitement that’s easy to exploit.”
Sessler believes that teasing the audience works when handled correctly. When viewers get a sense that the publisher and developer are having fun, even at a subliminal level, it can be infectious. All the speculation and anticipation will pay dividends in the final reveal, when all the uncertainty is dispelled and questions are answered.
But he also notes that, “Trolling without confidence is a bad idea. If you’re willing to go down this path, you need a sense of confidence in your product and community.”
Right now, novelty, combined with a fanbase that appreciates the joke, appear to be key factors. There’s no telling how audiences will take to the long tease in the future, especially as more entertainment brands experiment with the approach.
For instance, HBO got thousands of viewers to watch a block of ice melt with the Game of Thrones seventh season premiere date inside, but some media outlets and viewers wrote equally chilly responses to it. Similarly, some found Far Cry Primal’s stream worrisome, since the mystery was revealed midway through but Ubisoft still persisted with a ruined joke.
“If this strategy becomes the norm, the consumer may become fatigued with keeping an eye and ear on the livestream for hours,” said McKim. “Instead, they may just wait for the YouTube trailer to release or for multiple news sites to report on what happened.”