Sports and In-Game Advertising

Two industry experts discuss the potential for hawking products via athletics-themed massively multiplayer online games

If two things are ubiquitous in modern life, it's sports and advertising. As anyone who likes (or dislikes) sports can attest it'd be impossible to turn on the television and not flip through and find some sort of televised sporting event [There are even a couple channels covering it 24/7, in case you didn't hear. - Ed.]. Advertising is also omnipresent. No matter where you look, someone or some company is marketing something; it's inescapable.

It shouldn't be too surprising, therefore, that the mixing of sports and advertising is common as well. Sports figures are all over advertising, hawking things like apparel and drinks to products completely unrelated to their athletic endeavors, such as watches and cars. Similarly, advertising in sports is present at all levels of professional competition. It runs from the obvious (billboards in stadiums, sponsors on soccer jerseys and plastered over race cars) to the more subtle (sponsored segments on TV, the "official" apparel worn on the sidelines of every NFL sideline).

While sports and ads make a good mix, do ads and sports videogames make a good mix? There are plenty of examples right now, but what form is it going to take in the future? And what is the potential of Sports MMOs? We chatted with Sean Mackay, Director of Community Development for Netamin and Julie Shumaker, Double Fusion's VP of Worldwide Sales, to find out.

Will UBO become a word like ESPN?

One recent example of advertising in sports games can be found in Netamin's Ultimate Baseball Online. The

deal with Double Fusion will allow the developer to continue to offer UBO for free. It will also give Double Fusion unique opportunities to present before their advertising partners.

"For us, [Double Fusion is] going to enhance the business model," said Mackay. "They're the largest independent in-game advertising company and for our part, they had a lot of sponsors already lined up. DF focuses on broader product sponsorship deals. For example, players will be sponsored; they'll be trying to achieve a level to where they'll be sponsored. Players can also get enhancements from in-game advertisers and discounts and things of that nature."

"I think the big attraction with UBO is that baseball itself is something that's easy to sell; baseball already has plenty of advertising," he continued. "You don't have to explain a billboard in the outfield or a cut scene that plays between innings. We have a different array of billboards, both still and animated, and we have a scoreboard that will be shown at various moments. There's also the scorecard that could be sponsored, maybe something in the dugouts. The game is already set up for stuff like that. Maybe in the future, we'll create a stadium for a sponsor."

"We're keeping the gameplay at a premium, and we're going to ask that sponsors not impede on that. The typical UBO player plays about 3 hours a day, so ad placements usually take about 15 seconds or so, but over the course of the game, there are plenty of opportunities for people to see ads. Things like in between actions and refreshes are when those advertisements stream in."

"I think the big picture for us is that... we're quite excited about the 'advanced casual' game space. It is for people who are into immersive gameplay and aren't at their console and are looking to compete online," commented Shumaker. "Not only are the gamers excited, but this is a non-licensed sports title... this is great for marketers who want to tap into the sports space but don't have league rights."

Console in-game ads space heating up

UBO and the Double Fusion fueled sponsorship is probably not what most people first think of when it comes to in-game advertising in sports titles. Indeed, primary among sports titles (and perhaps primary among in-game ads) are games like those from EA Sports and their partner IGA along with 2K Sports and Double Fusion. Selling things like billboards, sponsored "transition"

moments and extensive sponsorship deals like what was featured in Fight Night Round 3 are all examples of this, and it will likely be a huge market for years to come.

"[The deal with 2K Sports] was a significant commitment from one of the most powerful publishers in the world, not to mention a world class developer," said Shumaker. "From our perspective, we see the power of sports advertising. This derives tremendous value for our company. From a games perspective, the one we're really ecstatic about is the football title, [All-Pro Football 2K8]. Not only does IGN say it's one of the top 10 game of 2007, the series has been critically superior to Madden on a consistent basis. Advertisers want to reach in a powerful way, but they also want association with content. It really benefits us that this game is unique and uses America's favorite game. As for what's out now, NBA 2K7 is the only third-party basketball game out on PS3 and it's dominating the critical reviews, making it a tremendous stake in the ground for success in late '06. The main success is leveraging the marketing in various other sports games."

"I think the first step is—since we can reference so much real world sports—is to look at the game from an enthusiast's perspective even before looking at it as a gamer," she said when asked about how Double Fusion handles sports games differently than other titles. "If they expect to see content, like a replay, we're going to bring a sponsored replayed. You have to consider the psychographic of a sports game player over regular gamers. For example, one of the things we're going to be doing is that gamers can get achievements from something based on a sponsor. Let's say that I am 'insert brand here' in College Hoops 2K8 and I go through as the Duke Blue Devils. Let's say I unlock a point guard with better shooting percentage. That's the 'insert brand here' player advantage."

Will the future hold more opportunities?

When you look at the niche genre of Sports MMO games, it seems like the sort of thing that would have taken off a long time ago. After all, the potential to reach for something that sports fans can participate in that merely requires an Internet connection seems massive. You wouldn't even have to be a fan of videogames to want to interact with sports fans around the globe in such a way. With things like fantasy leagues all the rage, GameDaily BIZ wouldn't be surprised if some time in the future there were official and unofficial sports MMO leagues, with huge participation from around the world.

"We believe the advanced online category is great," ventured Shumaker. "It's attracting more gamers to the medium and we believe it literally has limitless potential. One example is a game in Asia called Freestyle Basketball and that's completely online. We're completely committed to the sports space and we're determined to get revenue for all categories in sports."

When asked if he expected to see additional MMO Sports titles in the future, Mackay responded, "From other companies it's certainly possible and from us it is a definite. Our goal is to expand into all the different team sports games. We've tackled the technical hurdle of players following the action when a baseball is hit. We thought baseball would be the easiest, but the time between the pitch and the hit, created a common problem in the very beginning. We've actually got some patents out, pending right now, so we can turn this team baseball experience and translate it online."

"The idea [of Sports MMOs] seems so simple in retrospect, but that's the genius of our owner. He started with fantasy MMOs, but he took a step back and realized he couldn't compete with the big publishers. He watched the World Baseball Classic and saw the sport was expanding in a big way. That's why we're doing what we're doing and we're very fortunate in that there are no other competing baseball games on the Internet."

He then added that the MLB license would just be a "limiter" since in the MMO world only one person could be Derek Jeter or Jason Giambi. Out of curiosity, since he named two Yankees, we asked if he was a Yankees fan. He laughed and said no, revealing that he's actually a fan of their cross town rivals, the Mets and he really meant to say Jose Reyes. Mackay idly remarked that when you put Giambi's and Jeter's faces everywhere that's what you recall, giving ironic testament to the power of advertising and sports.

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