The Super Bowl is one of those rare events that still attracts a live television audience of tens of millions of people, and that continues to make it a massive venue for gaming publishers to tell people about their games. Only it’s the free-to-play game makers on mobile, console, and PC that actually drop the cash to buy these spots.
World of Tanks publisher Wargaming spent an estimated $5 million to market its free-to-play vehicle-based shooter during the Super Bowl. World of Tanks is one of the top-grossing free-to-play games on PC and console, and it relies on constantly bringing in new players. The ads are parodies of other television commercials and shows, with one aping the style of a Viagra ad and another that mimics the kind of promo you’d see for a property-buying show. These ads always end with a giant tank busting onto the set and interrupting the action.
Of course, these are ads for an online multiplayer game that debuted way back in 2010 on PC before getting versions on consoles and mobile over the last couple of years. But just because the game is old doesn’t mean Wargaming has no reason to market it. Since it is a free-to-play game-as-a-service, World of Tanks always needs to bring in new players to maintain its business model where it is constantly making new content for the most enthusiastic fans to spend their money on. To keep those dedicated players happy, they need a large community to play with. Wargaming designed these ads to bring attention to the game to increase the likelihood that you might install it in the future and either act as fodder for the big spenders or turn into a spender yourself.
And Wargaming isn’t the only free-to-play publisher blowing a significant chunk of their marketing budget on a Super Bowl commercial. Smartphone strategy game Mobile Strike from publisher MZ had a 30-second spot featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger spouting off his movie one-liners. And that city-building Flash game Evony that regularly advertises with half-naked women in its web ads also had an ad during the big game.
While some might argue that these games are some of the best the gaming industry has to offer, they are certainly not the latest. World of Tanks debuted in 2010, Mobile Strike came out in 2015, and Evony debuted in 2009. Meanwhile, Nintendo was the only company that rolled out a Super Bowl ad for an upcoming blockbuster, premium-priced ($60) console or PC game with its spot for The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild — although, that ad also doubled as a trailer for Nintendo’s new Switch console.
And it’s not like Microsoft, Sony, and other traditional gaming powerhouses don’t have major new games coming out in the next couple of months. Microsoft is launching its strategy Halo Wars 2 spinoff February 21, and it released a new trailer for it a day after the Super Bowl. Sony Interactive Entertainment is launching Horizon: Zero Dawn, one of its most important games of the first half of 2017, for the PlayStation 4 on February 28. And Electronic Arts has Mass Effect: Andromeda, the latest entry in its sci-fi adventure epic, debuting March 21.
Those are some heavy hitters, and not a single one had an ad during the Super Bowl.
This is not a new phenomenon. The 2016 Super Bowl had an ad for the Pokémon brand, which led into the launch of Pokémon Go for mobile, and Mobile Strike also had a commercial. In 2015, Supercell’s mobile strategy battler Clash of Clans, Ucool’s iOS and Android puzzler Heroes Charge, and MZ’s Game of War all got Super Bowl ads. And for each of those years, Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo, and third-party publishers all decided not to spend their cash on that venue.