When creating virtual spaces that are supposed to have the look and feel of the real world, video game designers often need to insert ads in order to make the game feel more authentic. Sports simulation games for example will have hoardings and signs around pitches or tracks, and open-world games will have billboards on buildings and next to roads.
Traditionally this space would be reserved for brands directly partnered with the game developer, or for fake in-game brands. But Bidstack, an ad tech company headquartered in London, has built technology to serve ads directly into these in-game spaces and they can also be sold programmatically.
VAN spoke with Bidstack’s CEO James Draper to hear more about how his company prevents in-game ads from putting off gamers, and why the growth of in-game events and concerts could make gaming streamers the richest entertainers on the planet.
What attitudes do you see from game designers around in-game advertising? Are they hesitant to introduce in-game ads and risk putting off audiences?
It’s important to remember that the ultimate decision maker in all of these places, from the huge AAA studios to the two or three person outfits that we’ve come across, is always the studio head, the lead artist. And some of these studios will have spent hundreds of millions of pounds developing their games. So if we turn up and offer a useful additional bit of revenue, but that tramples all over their game’s artwork which has taken hundreds of people and many months or years to create, we’re not going to get far.
So we’ve got to make sure we respect the artwork. We’ve built out our copy approval system which makes sure ad content has always been checked through before it appears in game. We can immediately reject things which we know won’t work, or the publisher can say yes or no to anything which comes their way. Publishers can also give us blacklists of brands which can’t appear in-game.
And we also layer on effects in-game to make the ads look more natural. So that might be mud splatters, rain effects, things like that. And that ensures you’ve not got a pristine billboard which looks completely out of place if everything else is covered with mud.
Gamers don’t mind advertising per-say, it’s how it happens. For us, that means we have to keep it authentic. We’re using ad placements which are already there – we’re not asking our partners to start shoving billboards all over their games to fit in more ads. And we make sure the ads themselves work within the game. So if you’re seeing a virtual Old Trafford, we don’t want a bunch of ‘visit our Instagram page’ ads which you’d never see at the real Old Trafford.
There seems to be confusion still around the types of audiences which advertisers can find in games and esports. For example, to what extent do gaming audiences skew towards men? Do advertisers understand which audiences they can reach through gaming?
There are different misperceptions and a lack of education around it. I think brands and agencies know they need to get involved in gaming and esports, but they don’t really understand it. And anyone who claims to be an expert across all of gaming is lying, it’s such a diverse and fragmented space with so many different games and leagues and teams.
So we often get agencies who come to us knowing they want to get involved, but it’s hard to know where they should be, so we’re having to educate them.
With simulation games, games like Football Manager, it is a predominantly male audience. And obviously that’s quite useful if you’re trying to target men. You do see some skewed statistics going around, about how more women play games than men, but that’s mostly from mobile gaming, and very misleading for the type of inventory we sell.
There are some games which have bigger female audiences. CS:GO [a first-person shooter game] has quite high female usage, and Rainbow Six Siege [another first-person shooter] has a high female secondary audience. But you’re still looking at a majority male audience, which like I say, can be a good thing for brands wanting to reach that audience.
How do you work within esports, where you have only a handful of people actually playing the game, but potentially millions of people watching the footage being streamed, and therefore seeing the in-game ads?
It’s been baby steps for us. Part of it has been building relationships – it’s no secret that the COO of [esports team] Fnatic is on our advisory board. And we’ve been talking with some well recognised well-established esports titles about advertising within the game world during esports events.
One interesting opportunity is personalising the ads to each team competing. So if you’re watching two teams battling it out on a stream of a first person shooter game, we can target it so each team has their own ad content. For example, Fnatic’s players would see one set of ads, and 100 Thieves’ [another esports team] players would see another.
And then there are some patents that we’ve got pending at the moment which target people watching the stream with the same type of content they’ve seen in-game, if they’ve got the same type of profile as the person playing the game. So for example when a Nike ad is displayed within the game environment, people watching the stream who fit the advertiser’s profile might also see a clickable direct-response Nike ad next to the stream.
What impact on esports are you seeing from the lockdown?
We’ve had 260 percent increase in ad requests come through our platform, so that gives you an impression how time spent playing is increasing.
But it’s interesting how there’s a lot of lazy journalism out there saying that gaming is on the rise in the pandemic. Well off course it is, people are stuck indoors so they’re going to be playing more games. It’s more interesting looking at the different impacts of that.
So people playing games which require skill, like simulation games, will make more progress into the game, and their skill level will increase as they play it more. But everyone’s skill level is going up, so they’ll start looking for ways to get an edge on their opponents when they reach their thresholds in terms of ability. That’s when they’re likely to start spending more on microtransactions, and these are often used to fund prize pools for esports tournaments.
And then we are seeing cases where people wanting to get their sporting fix are watching FIFA tournaments and virtual F1 races. I personally am watching a lot of virtual racing at the moment, it’s completely addictive when it’s produced well, it’s a fantastic alternative. So you’ve suddenly got a lot of mainstream attention on esports, rather than just organic growth, and people who haven’t been engaged with competitive gaming in any way are seeing it for the first time.
But this is shining a light on production values which are honestly pretty poor across the esports landscape. If you want to attract the right sorts of brands into the environment, those production values have to go up. The esports landscape is still like the Wild West at the moment because its growth has been so organic and driven by the community. It’s not a defined clear product yet which agencies and brands can go and buy off the shelf.
Travis Scott’s live concert on Fortnite a few weeks ago got a lot of attention, with over 12 million players logging on to watch the show live. Do you think games will increasingly be used as spaces for online events and virtual hangouts, and how would that affect Bidstack?
I think it’s pretty obvious things are moving in that direction. If you want to reach an enormous audience in one go, that’s an easy way to do it. You can imagine artists easily making an absolute fortune from doing events like these.
I think the cloud gaming space [where players can stream games over the cloud, rather than downloading or physically owning a game] is particularly interesting. With that, you can have virtual concerts where you’ve got hundreds of thousands of people walking around the environment and interacting with the superstar. You could have entire virtual cities, with loads of cool opportunities for interactions there. So what we’ve seen so far is only the start of it.
Fortnite has been an incredible hub for these events. And the question now is, what’s going to be the next Fortnite? It’s quite clear people want to hang out with their friends online, so there’ll be more games coming out that are designed to cater to that.
And of course where anything is set in a virtual world, we could monetise it if there’s natural space to do so.
I think it’s interesting as well when you look at YouTube and Google’s cloud gaming platform Stadia. Those two could come together and make streamers the richest entertainers on the planet! If you’re one of the big streamers of the day with millions of people following you, you could charge say £10-15 for people to instantly jump into a game and play alongside you. You could do virtual meet and greets where your followers can come and meet your avatar in-game. That’s what Stadia’s vision is, and it’s got the infrastructure to do that.
I think it’s now more a case of opening the minds of game designers in terms of new game mechanics, rather than hardware limitations. But you can definitely imagine all sorts of shenanigans going on in the virtual world which could give musical artists or filmmakers new ways to interact with their audiences.