Mobile game makers, not AAA publishers, push their product to viewers.
The estimated 110 million people who watched the Super Bowl last night, including the 78 percent who watch more for the ads than the game, got to see more advertisements for video games than have ever been featured during football's biggest night. Amid the standard rotation of ads for cars, beer, soda, and films, viewers got to see a nearly naked Kate Upton advertising Game of War, a revenge-driven Liam Neeson expressing his passion for Clash of Clans, and a short animated cut scene promoting Heroes Charge.
What those viewers didn't see were any ads for big-budget, AAA console and PC games. As far as the Super Bowl ad market is concerned, video games and free-to-play mobile games might as well be synonymous, reflecting some unavoidable trends in the industry as a whole.
Many "hardcore gamers" might look down on the simplistic, microtransaction-driven nature of most free-to-play mobile titles, but the numbers behind these games show why their ads showed up during the Super Bowl. Game of War maker Machine Zone is valued at over $3 billion. Clash of Clansgenerated $2.4 million in revenue a day as of 2013, enough to pay for a minute-long Super Bowl spot in less than a week. Even relative upstart uCool has seen six million downloads for Heroes Charge, the smallest title from this year's super Bowl gaming ad crop.
The world of big-budget console and PC gaming blockbusters, on the other hand, has traditionally been under-represented in the Super Bowl ad blitz. Sony's God of War: Ascension ad in 2013 and EA's nearly banned Dante's Inferno ad in 2010 are outliers when it comes to Super Bowl advertising.
Kate Upton tells Super Bowl viewers to play Game of War, not God of War.
It's tempting to see this as another sign that mobile and free-to-play gaming are devouring the whole of the industry, but there are reasons to question whether Super Bowl advertising is the best measure of the health of the industry's various segments. One is timing. The late January/early February time frame is usually a dead zone for major big-budget releases, coming just after most AAA publishers have just finished promotional blitzes for last year's holiday titles and far from the next wave of E3-driven hype. Free-to-play mobile games, on the other hand, are looking for a new audience year round to fund their microtransaction-driven business model.
What's more, a good proportion of the Super Bowl audience is probably using their phones to surf the Internet while they watch the game anyway, making them the perfect target for an impulse download of a free title. Last night's "download now" messaging seems to have worked: Clash of Clans rose nine places (to 29th) in Apple's overall iOS App Store download charts from Saturday to Sunday (according to AppAnnie); Game of War jumped 21 places (to 18th); and Heroes Crash jumped a whopping 647 places (to 252nd). Convincing players to go to a store to buy (or another machine to download) a $60 big-budget title is a heavier, slower lift of brand awareness.
But there's another key difference for mobile gaming: demographics. More than most other sporting events, the Super Bowl audience is close to a representative cross section of America. Nearly half the audience is women, and viewership is pretty evenly split among age groups across the spectrum. That's actually not ideal for most standard big-budget console titles, which target 12- to 35-year-old males almost exclusively. Why spend the big bucks on a Super Bowl ad when most of the viewers are going to be outside of that narrow target?
Mobile gaming, on the other hand, has demographics that line up much better with the whole of the country. Unlike consoles and PCs, women are just as likely as men to play games on mobile devices. The mobile gaming audience tends to be better spread across different age groups than the traditional high-end gaming blockbuster as well. These are the kind of games that developers want to market to the widest audience possible, alongside the like of massive brands like Coca-Cola and Budweiser.
None of this suggests that big-budget games designed for high-end hardware are going anywhere any time soon. The standard flock of AAA shooters and action games will still see plenty of sales, and there will be plenty of advertising where young, male gamers can see it.
But when it comes to representative, Super Bowl-sized audience, mobile gaming currently has the demographic breadth and depth to try to reach out to more than the traditional gaming niche. Last night's big-game advertising was a very public sign of a market shift and expansion that doesn't look to be slowing down.