Marketing

What Fortnite and esports could mean for the music industry


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At Music Ally’s Sandbox Summit London conference last month, I gave a talk about games: specifically about what 2018’s gaming craze Fortnite, and the wider world of esports – competitive gaming – could mean for music marketing and the wider industry. This is an edited summary of the talk.

Fortnite was released in 2017, but it was the launch of its free ‘Battle Royale’ mode that autumn that sent it towards craze status.

The game is a third-person shooter: originally 100 players skydived on to an environment full of weapons, with the last survivor deemed the winner. Since then, more modes have been added: for example, two teams of 50 competing.

Fortnite is big: it had 78.3 million players in August this year – around 44% of Spotify’s active listeners, and nearly seven million more than Pandora, as a comparison to our world. The game reportedly reached its first $1bn in revenues by July, thanks to in-game purchases of its VBucks currency, which players use to unlock cosmetic improvements (i.e. ones that don’t give them an advantage in gameplay) for their characters.

Research firm SuperData estimated that Fortnite made $318m in May 2018 alone. As a comparison, again, the three major labels combined were making around $540m of streaming revenues a month in the first half of this year.

Fortnite is also a big hit online: on Amazon’s live-video service Twitch, people watched 389.1m hours of it in the third quarter of this year alone, and it’s the second-biggest game on YouTube behind Minecraft.

The game has hastened the rise of some new online-video stars, like Tyler ‘Ninja’ Blevins and Ali-A, his British equivalent. Both have double-digit millions of subscribers on YouTube and Twitch, and other social networks too.

Ninja is already embedded in the music world: he’s played Fortnite with Drake and dance star Marshmello, breaking online-viewing records in the process. And for the (very) young audience that watches these videos, these are partnerships of equals: for the average 12 year-old in 2018, Ninja is as big a star as Drake – strange though that may seem to a music-industry executive who’s never heard of the former.

They likely have now: Ninja recently signed a partnership with Astralwerks, part of the UMG empire, to launch a compilation (and related merchandise brand) called Ninjawerks.

What does Fortnite mean for music marketing? The success of the likes of Ninja and Ali-A suggest opportunities for artists: especially younger acts who love games, and who play online already.

Why shouldn’t they experiment with live-streaming on Twitch and/or YouTube, and engaging with their fans around Fortnite or other games outside their regular promotional cycles? For an artist or label, this can also be an introduction to some of the monetisation mechanics (tips, for example) that are familiar to live-streamers, but less so to musicians.

There are also partnerships and collaborations to be explored, much like Ninja and Marshmello. This hopefully isn’t just bare-bones influencer marketing, where labels seek out online-video stars and bung them cash to promote an album. Instead, it could be more about creative collaborations based around a shared love of gaming and music.

What we’ve been talking about so far is entertainment, but Fortnite offers a good link to esports, because its publisher Epic Games is ploughing $100m into tournaments for Fortnite over the coming year.

Tournaments is a useful word for understanding what esports are: it’s competitive gaming – with all kinds of games, not just sports – with tournaments, prize money, teams and professional players, as well as large and growing audiences both offline and online. In esports heartlands like South Korea, watching these pro gamers attracts tens of thousands of fans to stadia, and tens of millions more online on Twitch and YouTube.

Research firm Newzoo published a report earlier this year that’s been widely quoted since. It estimated that the esports market would be worth $905.6m in 2018, with 40% of that coming from sponsorship, 19% from advertising and 18% from media rights.

Newzoo predicted that 380 million people would watch esports this year – 165 million ‘enthusiasts’ and 215 million ‘occasional’ viewers. And while esports has traditionally focused on PC games like Dota 2, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, League of Legends and StarCraft II – which can feel a bit inaccessible to outsiders – the trends are towards more mainstream and more mobile titles: card-battler Hearthstone, mobile title Clash Royale, through to console franchises like Rocket League, FIFA and Call of Duty.

How can the music industry work with the esports world? We already have some examples. Universal Music is working with tournaments organiser ESL on a joint label that will sign artists and promote them at esports events, while UMG’s Canada division is working with esports firm Luminosity Gaming on similar promo partnerships.

Drake and Scooter Braun recently became co-owners of esports startup 100 Thieves, joining the likes of Steve Aoki, Jennifer Lopez and Imagine Dragons as investors in this world. And MTV has worked with Riot Games, the publisher of League of Legends, on an esports and music festival in Singapore called Hyperplay. Nick Jonas and Alessia Cara took top billing at the first event, alongside a League of Legends tournament.

In preparation for Sandbox Summit, Music Ally looked at some of the way non-music brands are working with esports. Mastercard, for example, has a long-term deal with Riot Games to sponsor its League of Legends tournaments, with pop-up booths, meet’n’greets with pro gamers, and digital-content extensions.

US chocolate brands Hershey and Reese enlisted Ninja and fellow streamer DrLupo to promote a new bar, announcing it on their live-streams from the recent TwitchCon event, while meeting fans at the brands’ booth to give away chocolate and selfies.

That’s one trend in brand/esports partnerships: the combination of online content and real-world, physical activations: brands helping fans to meet their esports idols, rather than simply paying those stars to promote a product.

Some partnerships involve in-game content. Tournament organiser Super League Gaming created a new mod for Minecraft based on a Spider-Man film, which makes us wonder what the equivalent could be for an album or artist. Riot Games worked with Dutch blood bank Sanquin on a campaign to encourage people to give blood – unlocking an exclusive skin in League of Legends if they gave their first donation during the campaign.

One trend in esports is for the publishers of games to also be running the tournaments, from Epic Games with Fortnite, to Electronic Arts with FIFA, and Supercell with Clash Royale. Where the game publisher is also the esports organiser, there may be interesting creative opportunities. Imagine a Drake skin for Fortnite, unlocked by doing something in the real world, which was promoted at a prominent esports tournament for the game…

It’s still early days for the young esports industry, and there are clunking campaigns as well as inventive ones. But it feels like we’re long past the point where ‘people like to watch other people playing games’ is seen as strange or niche. It’s mainstream entertainment, and a fast-growing business.

Esports teams, stars and tournaments are keen to do interesting, creative partnerships with brands of all kinds, and within the music world, we have plenty of artists and marketing people who’ve grown up with games, and are capable of forging those partnerships. Within the next year, Music Ally expects to see a number of campaigns that prove this.

Stuart Dredge

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