On Sunday afternoon, a few hours before the Super Bowl, I went through my email in search of any reference to Super Bowl LII. I found some promotions about Papa John’s Pizza, Angry Birds, and Xbox — but nothing mentioned anything about a Super Bowl commercial. That was a pretty big departure from the last couple of years, when mobile developers like Supercell would promote their big ads for weeks ahead of the “Big Game.”
As it turns out, I didn’t get those emails because we only got one game-related commercial for the mobile fantasy esports game Heroes Arena. Once again, big triple-A publishers like Sony, Activision, and Electronic Arts passed on the opportunity to run a Super Bowl commercial. And I talked about why that’s the case on a special episode of the GamesBeat Decides podcast.
Unlike other GamesBeat Decides episodes, this is a solo narrative project where I dive into one subject. No guests and no Mike Minotti. You can listen to it right here:
While Super Bowl viewers saw ads for the Amazon Echo, Budweiser, and even Koch Industries, you didn’t see anything for Mario, Dragon Ball FighterZ, or even Call of Duty. Why is that? Well, maybe a Super Bowl ad is a waste of money.
The above ad is the 30-second “Challenge Accepted” spot from Koch Industries, the Koch brothers’ international conglomerate. Koch spent $5 million for that 30-second spot on top of production costs that can cost millions more. That’s a lot of money, and in an era with social media and influencers, is a Super Bowl ad still worth that premium price? Yes. It is, and social media and influencers are a big reason why.
You may have noticed that Super Bowl ads don’t necessarily debut during the game anymore. Companies will premiere them weeks ahead of time on YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram with teasers. That’s right, we’re getting trailers for ads now.
Paramount, for example, has launched a teaser for its Mission Impossible 6: Fallout trailer that aired during the Super Bowl. It has spent a week building up to the event, and the idea here is that people will know it’s coming and get excited for it. This concept translates even to full ads that debut ahead of time.
“We have this massive audience of people watching these Super Bowl ads, and if we can get 10 million people seeing it early, we’ll actually have ambassadors in the room,” Association of Independent Commercial Producers chief executive officer Matt Miller said in an interview with Fox Business. “Someone says, ‘Oh, I’ve seen this before. This is really funny.’ and they pull people into the ad.”
Of course, building up buzz online doesn’t require the Super Bowl. You could theoretically release a commercial online during this time and call it a “Big Game” ad without having to spend $5 million on 30 seconds of air time. But that $5 million is still a bargain to reach an audience the size of the Super Bowl in a time of media fragmentation.
Social media, Netflix, and Twitch have taken eyeballs away from a lot of traditional media, and that has driven down the value of 30 seconds of air time during an average night of the year. The Super Bowl, however, is still as watched as it ever was, and that makes its ads more important than ever. PepsiCo doesn’t have a better way of reaching a gigantic audience than the Super Bowl, and that’s why it keeps paying $5 million for each of its Doritos and Mountain Dew spots.
So then, where are the video game Super Bowl ads?
If a Super Bowl ad is so worth it, we should see video game ads, right? Well, not exactly, and there’s a couple of reasons.
One thing is that this is the wrong time of the year for a massive marketing campaign that would justify a Super Bowl ad. EA, for example, spent $230 million on marketing and sales during the holiday quarter, but it only spent $162 million during the Super Bowl quarter last year. In February, publishers are coming out of the gift-giving holidays, and they have fewer blockbusters to market. Instead, you see the likes of Activision promote Call of Duty with a trailer during the NBA playoffs in May every single year.
Sony could start promoting God of War, or Rockstar could start hyping up audiences for Red Dead Redemption 2’s October release. But those companies have other reasons that they didn’t do that.
While the biggest event in U.S. sports reaches a huge, broad audience, that isn’t as important when it comes to games marketing. Gaming is huge — especially with mobile platforms — but actually spending money to buy blockbusters games appeals to a smaller audience of people who tend to spend a lot on their hobby. To maximize revenues from those kinds of customers, publishers need to intelligently target them. Sony could shout about Spider-Man for PlayStation 4 to a lot of people with a Super Bowl ad, but the problem is that most of the people watching the game would never purchase a console game. We can assume that a larger number of Super Bowl viewers purchase flavored tortilla chips, and that’s why we get the Doritos ads instead.
And what’s great for gaming companies is that they have a number of promotional networks that appeal directly to hardcore gaming fans. Most notably, influencer platforms are huge and especially robust when it comes to gaming. This is something we saw with Fortnite recently. Epic Games was able to jumpstart the success of that battle royal shooter with an influencer campaign that had nearly every major streamer on Twitch playing Fortnite for their faithful audiences. That amped up buzz among a group of people who are very likely to seek out Fortnite for themselves.
Fortnite owes a lot of its current success to Epic’s smart, targeted marketing. And $5 million saved by avoiding a Super Bowl ad is $5 million earned.
So then why in the hell do mobile games advertise during the Super Bowl? Well, we saw that trend reverse a bit compared to the recent past. We’ve seen a lot of mobile game ads debut during the Super Bowl in 2015, 2016, and 2017, but only one aired during this year’s match. But in the past, mobile games likely thought it was worth it because they were looking to build up brand awareness to improve conversion on other advertising platforms.
Mobile games are almost always free and on ubiquitous devices like smartphones. And a Super Bowl mobile-game ad isn’t designed to get you to open your phone and download the game right away. Instead, an ad like this one for Clash of Clans featuring Liam Neeson is supposed to build up brand recognition.
Then, if you see an ad on Facebook for Clash of Clans, you may be more likely to click on it. But as Supercell didn’t return for a new Super Bowl ad in 2018, it is probably finding that targeting gamers is better for its products as well.