Lockdown has expanded the ranks of gamers. There are now as many gamers as there are people who watch TV.

While this offers brands huge potential in reaching new consumers, it means targeting them has become more challenging.

It’s time to change the way we define gamers.

Using data from our core survey and custom research fielded in the UK and the U.S. in July, we explore the following questions:

  • How has mobile gaming impacted the industry?
  • Why is the term “gamers” no longer viable?
  • How can using gaming motivations improve in-game advertising?

Gaming is attracting the attention of some unexpected audiences.

We’ve witnessed gaming’s popularity explode in a short space of time, with the industry value expected to reach $250 billion by 2025.

Between Q4 2019 and Q2 2020, gaming via any device grew by 7 percentage-points, with 87% of global internet users doing so.

To put this in perspective, gaming as an activity experienced somewhat of a downturn before Q4 2019, having fallen to 80% of internet users from 88% in Q4 2015.

This quick rebound stems from activity during lockdown, as the first wave of our coronavirus research in March shows over 1 in 3 internet users across 13 markets playing more video games.

As the figures haven’t budged by our fifth wave from July, it appears these habits are here to stay.

To really understand the importance of this surging popularity, we have to look at gaming engagement among some unexpected audiences.

Traditionally, gaming was associated with young males, of which 92% aged 16-24 played games on any device in Q4 2019, compared to 85% of females in this age group. 

But as of Q2 2020, however, 92% of females aged 16-24 play games on any device – putting them just 3 percentage-points behind their male counterparts. At the same time, gaming on any device among 55-64 year-olds grew from 57% to 67%. 

Smartphones are at the heart of this. They’ve proven crucial in attracting new audiences to gaming for some time and the outbreak has only accelerated this.

No longer requiring users to make an expensive, one-off purchase to play high-quality games, smartphones are providing budding gamers with a valid means to get into the activity.

Additionally, some of the world’s most popular franchises can now be played on mobile devices, further adding to their popularity. 

A major advantage is their equal appeal among male and female audiences, with 74% of male and female internet users playing games on this device. 

It’s something consoles and PCs have struggled with since their inception, both of which are more popular among males instead (29% vs 21%).

In Europe and North America, smartphone gaming is actually slightly more prominent among females than males (typically around a 5 percentage-point lead). This follows a similar trend to APAC, where mobile gaming has been a real hit for budding female gamers.

Likewise, 45% of 55-64 year olds now play games on their smartphones, but the real growth among this audience has been on PC/laptops – up 10 percentage-points in Q4 2019 (now on 35%).

Gaming on PC/laptops has risen just 2 percentage-points since Q4 2019 on a global level, but their popularity among older age groups signals a new lease of life for these devices, having experienced a period of slow decline prior to the outbreak. 

It’s worth noting also that mobile-gaming has promoted cooperation between smartphones and other gaming devices. This is dramatically furthering the development of cloud gaming – such as Microsoft’s XCloud service – which provides high quality gaming anytime, anywhere.

Gaming’s ubiquity puts it on the same level as social media usage or movie watching. Marketers would not target these groups indiscriminately, so why do the same with gamers?

The “gamer” tag is no longer useful.

Gaming hasn’t been limited to a niche group for some time, making the process of defining “gamers” a near impossible task.

Only by recognizing the numerous subcultures within gaming can we gain a truly harmonized perspective of different gaming audiences – instead of using an umbrella term to describe them all. 

Brand safety is at stake here. Making an ill-conceived effort to reach out to these subcultures through blanket advertising can do more harm than good.

Acknowledging how each franchise has its own very different set of players is the first step to understanding the tribalistic nature of modern gaming.

For example, franchises such as the Endless series attract a player base more likely to be community-minded, with over 1 in 3 players saying they buy products to access the community built around them. 

By comparison, just 1 in 5 Plants vs Zombies players buy products for this reason, and will require a different marketing approach to that of Endless players.

Lawrence Chan, Managing Director at MyRepublic Singapore, says brands need to understand that communication is about engagement.

“If you’re talking about a gaming community, focus on what you need to do to reach that audience. It’s a big market. And it’s a big base of consumers who are very interested in consuming your products if associated with the things they care about.”

Marketers should conduct research into the culture, history and community of the specific games their target audience plays. Rather than assume two different sets of players will be equally receptive to the same marketing strategy.

We can demonstrate these differences further by comparing two sets of franchise players based on their preference for community.

For example, 31% of Total War players say they want brands to run customer forums, in-line with their community-oriented mindset – while for Mario fans, this falls to 23%. The former want to be connected, and brands will have more success speaking to this player base en masse. 

But for players who are less community-minded put a greater emphasis on individuality, meaning they’re unlikely to respond to campaigns that fail to treat them as such.

Call of Duty fans, for example, want brands to make them feel valued (46% say this) against 38% of Endless fans. 

While these differences at a franchise level are indicative of the vast differences between gaming subcultures, brands also need to be aware of the reason these players are gaming in the first place.

Alongside gaming subcultures, identify motivations.

Gaming is a diverse activity, and people have different motivations for doing it. 

We used custom research fielded in the UK and the U.S in July to spotlight the motivations of those playing games during lockdown – specifically casual gamers, who game solely to pass the time, and habitual gamers who game out of habit. 

Here, we look past the act of gaming and zero in on their motivations for doing so. Brands that do this can thereby identify the most committed individuals and make an informed, data-driven approach to tap into the growing gaming advertising opportunity.

For example, of all those who say they played games during lockdown, 19% say they do so to socialize with friends. 

But by segmenting audiences by their motivation, we see 32% of habitual gamers play games for this same reason.

We can then go deeper, with male habitual gamers more likely to play games for social reasons (35%) than females in this audience (26%). 

Had we stuck to traditional gaming definitions, this is a sizeable female audience that would have otherwise gone unnoticed.

Another key motivator are online tournaments. They’ve proven extremely popular on the mobile scene and are important to both male and female habitual gamers who show equal interest in this feature (19%). 

In the absence of live sports and large events, advertising in tournaments presents a lucrative opportunity. And since many mobile games require ads in order to fund their free-to-play model, brands should have no trouble reaching these audiences.

But they need to bear in mind that casual audiences who game less aren’t as receptive to ads as their habitual counterparts. Hence identifying the greater need for a deeper look into gaming behaviors.

71% of casual mobile gamers say it’s important games are free to download (vs. 63% of habitual gamers), with 48% in this group also insisting games have as few ads as possible. 

Because they’re generally less committed gamers, casual audiences are more bothered by costs to their time and money.

But they shouldn’t be ignored in favor of habitual gamers, given their size and influence in the industry – casual gamers represent 48% of UK and U.S. internet users, while habitual gamers account for just 19%.

The growing importance of in-game advertising cannot be understated. And with more people gaming than ever, brands haven’t been slow on the uptake.

More mainstream brands in this space include such examples as JD Sports hosting esports competitions or Estée Lauder developing their own branded game, each having catered to a huge market of loyal fans by recognizing the diversity of gaming.

The lockdown has proven itself a real game changer for brands. Those who continue to treat “gamers” as a term befitting everyone who picks up a controller are missing out on a huge audience – and greater rewards.

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