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Online games and eSports complete the ecosystem

The opportunities for brands in-game and in eSports are massive in China and should be considered part of the marketing mix, says Liu Yi of WPP’s Mindshare

Valued at around 403bn yuan in 2022, online gaming in China has doubled within six years. And eSports – as well as increased participation by women in gaming and eSports – have driven the phenomenon further. Just under half of the total Chinese population, which is 1.4bn, is believed to be gamers.

It’s hard to keep up with the growth of eSports in China. Velocity has been fuelled by the pandemic and now China is positioned to lead the world. In fact, the Chinese eSports user base is estimated at over 480m players.

But it has not all been plain sailing. The Chinese government has set time limits on gaming , particularly in relation to its use by young people. This has had a severe impact on both the activity itself and the award of licences. But 2023 has been better for the industry and there are signs of recovery as regulation has become more relaxed.

Notwithstanding regulation, there remains huge interest in gaming. The market is focused on mobile apps, not desktop and console games. It offers opportunities for brands in a fast-paced and flexible environment. This makes it an ideal marketing opportunity beyond the usual physical spaces.

WPP’s Mindshare in China is tasked by clients to determine the best return on their marketing investment. This means figuring out which channels make sense, working out how to design the experience across different media channels, and identifying the extent to which in-game and eSport advertising will work as part of the marketing mix.

From logos to embedded in-game

While the gaming and eSports phenomena in China are huge, the advent of in-game marketing is relatively recent. Unlike other mature environments – films, TV, and so on – in-game marketing started in around 2014 and grew exponentially.

It all began with brand logos appearing in-game. In less than 10 years, the emphasis has shifted to implementing a natural way – a gamer-friendly way – for brands to appear in the gaming environment, become involved with the virtual world and be part of the gaming experience; they should never be a bolt-on.

The touchpoints with consumers are endless. From the physical world, to online games, to eSports and then back to the physical world via mechanisms like collectors’ cards, brands now inhabit whole marketing ecosystems, and they must participate in a credible way if consumers are to engage.

How to measure success

Measuring in-game marketing success is crucial. In the period prior to 2018, most brands advertising in-game marked those efforts down to innovation. Brands were largely looking for engagement rather than a return on investment (ROI).

Post-Covid, the global economy has struggled and returns on investment are vital. Now Chinese clients are looking for direct benefits – not only media ROI and marketing ROI, but they’re also asking for a positive impact on actual sales.

When we create the user experience in the game, we consider both brand-building and sales channels. We direct gamers – through the in-game experience – to buying opportunities and make the shopping experience as seamless as possible for the shopper.

By now, most FMCG brands are familiar with the opportunity for brands to market in-game or within its ecosystem. Some high-end brands are also successfully navigating this landscape. Brands who are at the start of their in-game marketing journey are already entering a crowded, highly competitive marketplace. It might take new entrants perseverance to prosper in these digital environments but we have seen that the rewards can be great.

eSports in China are booming

There are more than 15 sponsors for each of the top eSports leagues in China. And they are all leading brands in their categories. It is the uniqueness of the opportunity afforded by sponsoring this type of channel that is causing them to participate in this way.

The proliferation of games that are suitable to become eSports has helped. For many brands, eSports perform as a bridge between gaming and physical sports played by real teams with real competitions. But for in-game and eSports marketing, there are important decisions to be made.

Our role is to help brands work out – when they are operating in these virtual environments and cultures – what character would work, what assets it would need designed to make the experience authentic, the value of those assets if they were to be traded in a virtual environment and what this kind of experience that might deliver for brands.

Every case is a new challenge. But what the gaming and eSports environments give us and our clients is a complementary virtual world alongside the physical world to play in so that the marketing ecosystem exists for the brand in both dimensions.

Liu Yi


published on

06 December 2023


Technology & innovation

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