By Sara Mosqueda
With the video game industry becoming more mainstream, and the popularity of Fortnite and eSports growing, afﬁliated toy and product companies have monetized and adapted to a brave new world largely inﬂuenced by the fans.
According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, the national and global video game markets are rapidly growing, with the U.S. expected to make $19.6 billion in earnings by 2019, a 5.5 percent bump from three years prior, and global revenues surpassing $93 billion.
“Video games have become a $100 billion industry that is constantly innovating and bringing new applications to market,” the agency predicted in a 2016 markets report. Sparked by the breadth of streaming, gamers have energized the gaming industry by exploring and establishing new fandoms around games, characters, and players. “Streaming has deﬁnitely stuck an adrenaline needle in [gaming],” says Gerhard Runken, vice-president of marketing and brand strategy for Wicked Cool Toys, which serves as the master toy partner for The Pokémon Company as well as leading eSports inﬂuencer and Fortnite player Ninja.
Streaming allows players to access multiple games on multiple devices, including smartphones and tablets, and encouraged social and casual interactions among users, as well as the growth of electronic sports, or eSports, and professional video gaming. Players also saw a greater variety of games and creators due to a rise in independent video game developers. According to a 2016 report from the Entertainment Software Association, although Valve Corporation’s Steam has hosted an online distribution plat-form since 2003, analytics site Steam Spy reported in 2016 that 38 percent of Steam’s entire library was added to the game marketplace in 2016. Streaming also allowed for the emergence of player personalities around games, including Fortnite, and allowed users to watch others play, for either entertainment purposes or as a learning experience.
The Fortnite Effect, Overwatch, and eSports
In an October 2018 The World of Games—eSports: From Wild West to Mainstream report from Goldman Sachs, industry analysts noted that within just one year, the battle royale style game Fortnite, became massively popular due to streaming on Twitch, live-play allowing for social engagement, an attractive in-game building feature, and the simple but unique offer to play for free. By eliminating the initial cost to access the game, Fortnite reached a larger audience, including younger users lacking disposable incomes, while still generating revenue through in-game purchases. It currently has more than 125 million users and, as of April 2018, has generated $296 million in revenue across platforms.
Beyond its own immediate popularity, analysts say Fortnite also elevated other video games and eSports. Tyler Blevins, also known as Ninja, has become the biggest name in Fortnite, attracting millions of viewers while he live-streams. As of this January, Ninja boasted more than 21 million subscribers on his YouTube channel, and broke the record for the most concurrent viewers ever on an individual’s Twitch channel, attracting 628,000 viewers—almost twice the average concurrent viewership of the NFL’s Thursday Night Football on Twitter and Amazon Prime, according to Goldman Sachs. CNBC reported Ninja earns more than $500,000 per month from streaming Fortnite.
“And because the distribution of eSports are nearly 100 percent digital, fans can stream eSports content for free anywhere in the world, unencumbered by traditional TV rights that for most Western-based pro sports leagues have been segmented by geography and are often lumped into an expensive cable subscription,” analysts say.
Wicked Cool’s Runken adds that, besides streaming, the industry also found new fans drawn in by watching top-tier gamers such as Ninja who interact with popular games and inject a memorable personality into the playing experience. These high-level players also live-stream while play-ing against other regular users, allowing fans to engage in a scenario likened to playing catch with a member of the 2018 Boston Red Sox or Los Angeles Dodgers, a chance to learn up-close from the best.
“As Fortnite brings more new gamers to the ecosystem, particularly those in younger demographics, we believe the eSports audience—and associated revenue streams will beneﬁ t over time,” Goldman Sachs says. Analysts estimated eSports will attract almost 300 million viewers by 2022. According to the investment banking ﬁ rm Clairﬁ eld International’s 2018 Gaming Industry and Marketing Report, eSports also attracted additional fans as video games continue shifting away from early nerdy perceptions, becoming more mainstream. As eSports’ popularity grew, European television channels started broadcasting ﬁnal rounds, while established teams recruited players. Other eSport leagues, including Overwatch, launched by Activision-Blizzard in January 2018, and Riot Games’ League of Legends leagues, created in 2017, helped establish what an eSports league could be by supporting leagues with an infrastructure. Nintendo has hosted Super Smash Bros. tournaments at conventions and in stores. Tim Kilpin, president and CEO of Activision-Blizzard Consumer Products Group, says the Overwatch league was an organic outgrowth of the game, which attracted a broad range of ages and demographics. “People were engaging in the characters, they were engaging with linear storytelling … in watching other people play,” he says. “We’ve created a whole new level of afﬁnity with our fans that reaches beyond the current game platform, into support for teams … that are now part of the ecosystem for Overwatch.”
That very ecosystem allows league spectators, learning how to play by watching, to shift into Overwatch players. The league also provided the company with additional monetization opportunities, from jerseys and hats to collectibles and trading cards, all of which fans can purchase to support their preferred team, as well as corporate partnerships. eSports are “right in the sweet spot of where our audience lives, and that to me is one of the most exciting things because it just takes the franchises to another level entirely,” Kilpin says.
Kilpin adds that more fans have ﬂocked to eSports and other facets of the industry due to the rising popularity of franchises. “These are no longer just games,” he says. “These are franchises that have the same footprint or staying power as major franchises like Star Wars or Marvel.”
Fans’ afﬁnity for a franchise’s universe allowed Activision-Blizzard and other companies the opportunity to create new products that link to games’ characters and stories—a big difference from ﬁve or 10 years ago, says Kilpin. This adoration for the stories and characters that create the universe, and sometimes multiverses, of video games also have companies exploring nostalgic franchises. With audiences and players engaging differently with a game’s universe compared to 25 years prior, toy and game companies see new revenue stream opportunities. “The way people experienced these games 20 or 30 years ago was very much of a physical box, a play-it-and-be-done kind of experience that now can be this ongoing experience with the character, with the franchise, through multiple monetization models, and that’s all new,” Kilpin said.
What Toy Makers are Doing—Not Your Uber Driver’s Side Hustle
Wicked Cool found its chance to create for a franchise avenue with Pokémon, which has evolved its own social environment through Pokémon Go and will release Pokémon Detective Pikachu in May. The Pokémon brand, now more than 20 years old, still ﬁnds ways to attract fans across multiple generations.
Jazwares, which has produced physical products for Mega Man, Sonic, Minecraft, and other lines, partnered with Fortnite creator Epic Games in 2018. Its Fortnite toy line, launched last fall, includes action ﬁgures, building sets, weaponry and tool replicas, and even No Drama Llama pinatas.
“We know that Fortnite players are consuming content constantly,” says Sam Ferguson, vice-president of global licensing for Jazwares. “It only makes sense that fans want Fortnite in all categories. The key is that all the manufactured product is extending the game fantasy and keeps the players in mind.”
Nintendo also tapped into the trends of multi-device viewing and game-play when it launched Nintendo Switch in 2017. The console went on to become the fastest-selling gaming system of this hardware generation, according to the NPD Group. “It’s a new era in gaming that delivers entirely new ways to play wherever and whenever people want,” says Charlie Scibetta, senior director of corporate communications for Nintendo of America. “The portability of Nintendo Switch helps make that possible.”
“We’re starting to see now this level of engagement that includes not only people getting excited about their favorite characters in a game, but getting excited about the professional play of the game,” Kilpin says. Whether through physical learning models and equipment or by mining franchises of games and esports, game and toy companies have countless options for how to engage players. How players engage with games and other players today means a deeper experience producers can create and nurture for the future.