Let’s play | Does gamification still have a place in the rights-holder toolbox?

  • Gaming firms and rise of online gambling make it harder to find new opportunities
  • But addition of game dynamics can still boost sports participation levels
  • Point-of-sale games could increase ticket and vending sales

At first sight, there’s something counter-intuitive about using ‘gamification’ in sport. After all, the sports sector is – by its very definition – a series of robust game-playing scenarios that have evolved over many years.

But dig a little deeper and you start to glimpse how the integration of game dynamics, game psychology and game mechanics into certain sporting scenarios might benefit existing stakeholders and aspiring entrepreneurs.

In the case of rights-holders and broadcasters, for example, gamification is an opportunity to increase revenues, generate data-based insights and improve the fan experience – thus driving deeper loyalty.

The same is true for governing bodies, but with the added goal of boosting participation. As for brands, gamification is a gateway to increased consumer engagement – maybe via performance-based communities.

The problem with evaluating the impact of gamification, however, is that it has become increasingly difficult to separate it from the array of revenue-generating and brand-building activities that surround it.

“A few years ago gamification was a real buzzword,” says Luca Massaro, managing director of digital sports agency WePlay. “I’d write white papers on it and advocate it on conference panels. That’s not the case now.”

Compelling offer

Massaro identifies two broad reasons for this. The first is that the big revenue-generating opportunities in sport gamification are increasingly driven by gaming firms.

Electronic Arts, for example, has been extraordinarily successful with Ultimate Team, a digital fantasy sport-style offering that started out as a mode within the Fifa console game and has been extended across its sports-based licensing franchises. As of March 2017, Ultimate Team was generating revenues of $800m (€720m) per annum.

This has coincided with the rise of real-time sports gambling, says Massaro, with its compelling offer of live odds on every conceivable variable within a game.

Image: Premier League clubs Stoke City and Swansea City are both sponsored by betting companies (Getty Images)

“The betting companies are the masters of gamification with all of their incentives, betting options, changing odds and ability to cash out during play,” he says. “They’ve given fans a reason to watch live sport that goes beyond their basic interest in a particular game.”

The expertise of gaming and betting firms means that this part of the business has – in effect – been outsourced in return for licensing or sponsorship revenues.

This is fine for the sports sector’s bigger brands (most leading soccer clubs have a betting partner, for example), which may also benefit from improved brand image and data gathering, but not so much for smaller stakeholders – which are of less interest to gaming firms.

Massaro’s second broad theme is that gamification as a brand-building solution is no longer regarded as a stand-alone service – but just a device, similar to a piece of shareable content, a prize or a YouTube influencer. “A simple game mechanic like a leaderboard or fan incentive may have a place in your overall digital strategy,” he says.

“But it would only be one tool among many. What we were finding was that a game mechanic might engage with some fans, but not do anything for brands in the long term. Often there are more cost-effective ways for brands to tap into and track fan passion through social media.”

Factors like these probably explain why it’s not easy to come up with many examples of brand-led sports gamification.

Chris Coles, senior account manager at sponsorship consultancy Synergy Global, recalls Heineken Star Player – a fantasy football activation linked to the Uefa Champions League back in 2011/2012. But move forward to 2014 and Heineken had shifted its digital activity around the competition towards interaction with football celebrities.

Clear objective

“I think there are a couple of key challenges for brands,” says Coles. “The first is that it’s expensive to come up with a game that has the kind of quality user experience the brand’s target consumers would be interested in playing.

“The second is that they have to find a way of getting their brand message over in a way fans are comfortable with.”

Olcayto Cengiz, co-founder of Berlin-based digital agency Gamewheel, agrees with much of the above, saying that his company has also come to regard gamification as one of several digital marketing tools that brands can work with.

“I would still argue that gamification has a role if you have a clear objective and brief,” he says. “But there are a couple of problems. Sometimes agencies create games that the CEO is happy with – but which don’t have a clear marketing role.

“Other times the client is hesitant about committing much of a budget – so you get games that aren’t that interesting. When this happens, the audience response is low and the next client is also hesitant.”

Situations where gamification can have a role are where it is tied to major sports events or linked into product launches. At the 2014 Fifa World Cup, for example, adidas created a digital game experience called #FASTORFAIL that was centred on its relationship with Lionel Messi.

The purpose of the game was to promote the launch of Messi’s new signature range of boots and training wear, and the prize for those who played (and won) was tickets to the World Cup. The game, part of a broad media campaign, was played by 400,000 fans, with 250,000+ games completed.

The key takeaway here was that the real audience driver was the combination of game, message and reward. The same game without Fifa tickets or the Messi product buzz would not have gained the same fan traction.

One area where Synergy’s Coles does see potential for brands is gamification scenarios linked to participation and community. He points to Nike+ Run Club, a platform-agnostic mobile app that allows runners to plug data from their personal performance into a running community.

“The key to this has been the motivation it provides runners with and the fact it has this social dimension,” says Coles. “The benefit to Nike is that it provides a dialogue with fans and data to drive purchase.”

Personal improvement

In Coles’ view, this kind of performance-enhancing gamification model – usually delivered in a social media context – is applicable to a range of sporting scenarios.

“Think of a sport like golf, where you might input data about your rounds and link that to other players. Or maybe this data would trigger communications from golf brands that can help you improve,” he says.

Coles’ assessment is not only relevant to brands. In a report entitled ‘Future Trends’ the UK’s Sport + Recreational Alliance identified social-driven gamification as a potential benefit to governing bodies.

“Games are powerful motivationally,” says the report, “because they help participants see a narrative of personal improvement, drive competition and boost morale with instant and incremental rewards.

“By leveraging connected technologies, governing bodies can expose the average participant to the motivations of professional athletes.”

The report cites the example of Battle Badminton, an online platform that is aimed at encouraging more men aged 25-45 to reach out and find people to play with.

In the first six months the platform attracted around 3,200 registered users.

Beyond brands and governing bodies there is also a lot of entrepreneurial activity driving this participatory agenda. Six to Start, for example, is an independent company that created an audio-based mobile app for runners called ‘Zombies, Run!’

“The idea,” says company chief executive Adrian Hon, “is that as you run, you are taken to a post-apocalyptic world where you are being chased by zombies.

“Your job is to collect supplies and complete tasks while staying ahead of the zombies. The aim is to make what can be a boring activity more fun to participate in.”

To date, ‘Zombies, Run!’ has generated around three million downloads, 250,000 active players and 30 billion metres logged online. It has also been extended so that there is a ‘couch to 5K’ training programme and a related platform called ‘Racelink’.

Image: Zombies, Run! is an app that accompanies road runners

“In 2015 we introduced a virtual race with a special mission,” explains Hon. “That resulted in people creating real-world meet-ups all around the world. So now we have spun off the virtual race concept into a separate app called ‘Racelink’.”

While ‘Zombies, Run!’ is an app that accompanies road runners, Hon believes this kind of audio story-telling approach could have real benefits in the context of gym memberships.

With so many people not utilising them properly, he believes gamification could lead to greater stickiness and engagement.

Alleviate the boredom

Operating in a similar space is Zwift, an LA-based company that has created a cycling game that allows riders to hook up their indoor training kit with other cyclists in a virtual environment. Company CEO Eric Min says Zwift is “part video game, part fitness app and part social network. Its strength is that it is a way of bringing a community together in real time, helping to alleviate the boredom associated with indoor riding. It’s also an alternative to outdoor riding, where weather, traffic, time constraints and distance from other cyclists can be issues.”

Zwift, which charges a monthly subscription, “can be a workout tool programmed to your requirements,” says Min.

“But it can also be used for social riding or to take part in virtual competitive events. We have even introduced a competition where the best Zwift riders can take part in a road race.”

Image: Zwift allows riders to hook up their indoor training kit with other cyclists in a virtual environment

Zwift has around 120,000 subscriptions at the moment, but Min says it is on an aggressive growth curve “with one million subs a realistic target”.

If that is the case, then how should traditional stakeholders in the sport react?

“Well, anything that can boost participation has to be good for the sport,” says Min, who is a keen amateur cyclist.

“But it’s also great for brands. We’ve had professional race teams getting involved in the Zwift community, because it’s a way to engage at a different level.”

Min’s example of Zwift riders going on to take part in real-world race scenarios is an interesting example of how gamification can narrow the gap between amateur and elite.

Formula One team McLaren recently launched the World’s Fastest Gamer contest that offers the winner a role as an official simulator driver. This approach has also been used by Nissan, which created the GT Academy.

In this case, people who were proficient at virtual racing game Gran Turismo were given the chance of becoming professional racing drivers (after a boot camp that tested whether they could transfer their skills to a real car).

Motivating staff

Proof that the process works is Lucas Ordóñez, a GT Academy graduate who came second in the Le Mans 24 Hours. For Nissan, the concept has transformed into a global reality TV franchise that reaches 100 million people in 160 countries.

While gamification may not offer sports rights-holders an easy way to generate large revenues, that doesn’t mean it can’t have a useful impact when deployed as a b2b tool – perhaps by motivating staff or teaching them how to handle interaction with fans.

Gamewheel’s Cengiz says: “A lot of our work is now b2b – but gamification doesn’t really capture what it is about. We sometimes use the word ‘learnification’ because the game mechanics we use are more about explaining processes.”

Interestingly, there are also examples at clubs such as MLB’s St Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants, where gamification is used to improve player focus during training. After all, players – like employees in other walks of life – need to be motivated.

There are other examples of how gamification can play a more functional role within an enterprise’s content. US firm OfferCraft offers applications ranging from “line-buster games that make standing in queues more enjoyable to games at point of sale to increase ticket and vending sales”.

It also builds sports-themed games that can be used as part of its communications via emails, social media posts, websites, apps and the like.

One thing that is clear is that advances in technology open up opportunities for gamification-style strategies.

For instance, tech solution-provider Intellitix uses RFID (radio-frequency identification) to create fan engagement.

The company points to examples like the Uefa Champions Festival, an annual event that takes place alongside the Champions League Final, where 30,000 fans registered custom RFID cards to take part in sports simulations and skill stations.

All told, Intellitix enabled 85,000 on-site RFID interactions and 45 million page impressions online. The company also worked with Standard Life Investments during its Ryder Cup sponsorship, using RFID to prompt people to take part in on-site activities, collecting points to compete for prizes.

Augmented reality (AR) is also attracting interest as a gamification tool. Cengiz says: “After the Pokémon Go craze last year, a lot of organisations became interested because a key side effect of the game was that players walked 2,000 extra steps each day.”

One brand that acted quickly was Virgin Active, which launched a 5K run featuring multiple PokéStops and Pokémon capture opportunities along the route – while also taking participants to bricks and mortar Virgin Active gyms in the process.

Group exercise

While the Pokémon Go fad has died down, this hasn’t stopped figures in the outdoor, adventure and fitness sectors seeing AR as a potentially useful tool. In a blog forum organised by health and fitness PR agency Action PR, Michael Clark, owner of consultancy Creative Fitness, said AR could be used for “engaging with a broader audience who don’t exist within the four walls of the gym by making getting active a cleverly concealed bi-product of an AR experience. AR also has more overt applications, especially in the group exercise environment by adding more ‘play’ to create this experiential offering.”

Also coming down the road is virtual reality (VR), though it is perhaps a little early to see how it might impact.

While it has been used as the centrepiece of PR stunts, Zwift’s Min says: “We’ve experimented with VR headsets, but there is an issue with sweat and foam – so we think there is some way to go yet.”

While gamification isn’t always easy to get right, Six to Start’s Hon says sports need to keep tabs on the sector because of “the growth in gaming and, in particular, rising interest in esports”. He adds:

“Esports constantly evolve, are cheap to play and can be personalised through listening to different commentators, which is why they have been so attractive to young audiences.”

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