CTV-Style Ads Are Converting Sceptical Brands to Gaming

31 August, 2021 

Earlier this year Simulmedia, a specialist in CTV advertising, unveiled PlayerWON, a new division which brings CTV-style ads into major console and PC games.

The PlayerWON platform runs full-screen ads in premium video games, giving players in-game rewards in exchange for their time. Rewarded video formats are fairly well established in the mobile world, but Simulmedia says that bringing the concept to AAA games offers a very different experience, both to brands and the players themselves.

Today PlayerWON announced a partnership with Venatus, an ad tech platform focused on gaming and entertainment, which will see Venatus help brands set up and run campaigns on PlayerWON. This partnership is getting off the ground this week with a campaign for Bulldog Skincare, a male grooming brand, run in collaboration with Bulldog’s media agency Essence.

VideoWeek spoke with Dave Madden, president of PlayerWON, and Matt Cannon, COO and co-founder of Venatus, to hear more about how the format works, how the unique challenges of bringing CTV-style ads to premium games, why the format is winning over an initially hostile section of the gaming audience.

How does the PlayerWON’s ad format work, and how does it look from the user’s end?

Dave Madden: The PlayerWON platform is 100 percent player controlled. It works in games that have a live service economy, so it might be free-to-play battle royale style games, role playing games, sports games, or any game that gives players the opportunity to progress by purchasing virtual items, which are usually vanity items or in-game power ups. Often you can also earn those items through hours of gameplay instead.

We work with the developers to put in an opportunity for the player to earn those items by watching an ad. That opportunity might occur on a menu screen, it could be when the player finishes a match, it could be when they’re in a lobby forming a team, wherever it makes sense for the developer. And the developer decides how they want to message it, so it might be a button saying ‘Earn Free Rewards’, it might be a button offering specific boosts or power ups, it’s up to the developer.

Then the player clicks on the button if they want to, with their controller on Xbox or PlayStation or with their mouse if they’re on PC, and they’ll only watch an ad if they choose to click that button. Typically again they’re told which items they’ll earn in exchange for watching the ad, which might be six seconds, fifteen seconds, or thirty seconds. And the ads themselves are typically brand advertisement, things like streaming media services, movies, TV shows, soft drinks, that sort of thing. Once they’ve watched the ad, they receive the items straight away.

Which game titles are involved at this stage, and which sorts of titles is the format appropriate for?

Dave Madden: We’ve piloted the tech over the last six to nine months with a bunch of titles, and got a tonne of learnings about how players use it and enjoy it. Now we’re up and running as a platform, and our first couple games that we’ve gone live in come from a studio called Hi-Rez. The first two of their titles we’re live in are a game called Smite, which is a top ten MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena) game, and another game called Paladins, which again is a very large, globally successful game.

Both those games have pretty sincere core gaming audiences that have been enjoying the free rewards and giving us very positive feedback during the trial period. And we’ve found the average player who chooses to watch ads and earn rewards in these games has an appetite to watch over ten ads a day. So they’re really into the format. And that’s across a couple of hours of gameplay – it’s not like mobile where you’re trying to fit lots of ads into fifteen minute window.

We’ve got a line-up of about another dozen games that will be live by November. We don’t name the titles until they’re live, for the simple reason that we really want players to experience it before they have an opinion of it. But I can say the interest is global, and it’s mid-sized developers all the way up to some of the biggest game companies who are leaning into the free-to-play model.

Matt Cannon: An important point there is that we’re focusing on console and PC games as opposed to mobile, and that’s one of the key foundations for PlayerWON.  I feel that’s as a big, big difference between us and what’s already out there on market.

There’s a lot of hype at the moment about native in-game ads, where it’s things like in-game billboards. The reality is there’s not a huge amount of engagement with these formats, and a lot of them gravitate towards mobile opportunities, where the actual ad you’re looking at as a player is tiny. Obviously the user experience that PlayerWON drives, where it’s full-screen ads on a TV or desktop computer, is fundamentally different.

Some users bristle at the idea of watching ads in a paid title. Do you think this format works best in free-to-play games, where users might understand that they’re effectively paying through watching ads, or can it work in paid titles too?

Dave Madden: I know, by experience and having tested it, that it works in paid games as well as free-to-play. But the initial emphasis is going to be all around free-to-play games, partly because that’s really where the industry growth is. Many of the biggest games in the world right now are free-to-play.

But during our tests, from a player’s point of view, the vast majority wanted the opportunity to earn free rewards through ads, whether that’s on free games or paid games. On Reddit, 77 percent of users told us they want the ability to earn free items and power-ups in games – and this was on Reddit, it wasn’t a layup survey!

The reason for this is nowadays, even if you’re spending $65 or $70 on a game, so many will have a live service economy. So you buy a game and get a certain amount of content, but then this games will still ask you to buy a season pass, to buy virtual currency, or to buy in-game abilities.

Gamers realise there are only three ways to get that extra content. They either spend money on it, they spend hours and hours playing the game in order to earn it, or with this new format they can watch ads to unlock it.

And younger generations understand that their time is worth money. They’re on TikTok and Snapchat, and they understand that brands want to be able to reach them. So they see it as a fair trade-off, as long as they are getting good value in exchange for their time.

What sort of data is available for targeting through PlayerWON?

Dave Madden: So keep in mind that if you’re playing on a console, the ad is actually showing up on a TV set. The TV sets themselves will often have a level of understanding about who’s watching TV or who’s on that television, playing video games. But we’re not pulling any data from the games themselves about the players, and we’re not sharing any data around players. We feel that is the player’s expectation.

Frankly, this audience is so hard for brands to reach – the genres of games we’re working with at the moment mostly have a young male audience that are pretty much unreachable on a big screen. If they do engage with brands, it’s usually on a small screen and in a passive way, like on Snapchat or TikTok. So we don’t really need to give the same level of data and targeting that’s happening on mobile devices to be successful. Brands are trying to build relationships with these consumers as they’re forming their brand loyalties in their formative years, and we can help them do that.

While the format bears resemblance to mobile rewarded video ads, it’s very new to the console and PC world. How quickly do you think this will gain traction?

Matt Cannon: I think the best way to frame this is to look at the buy-side. We’ve been out in in market for a very short space of time talking to brands and agencies about the PlayerWON product. And where we’re really seeing massive interest in PlayerWON is with brands that have never really dipped their toes that much into gaming before.

Our launch partners are brands that haven’t really spent in hardcore gaming before. But when you frame PlayerWON as essentially a TV opportunity around a gaming audience, a lot of the barriers they might have had for advertising around gaming get swept away.

There’s definitely a bit appetite for this. Brands we’re speaking to often come with mindset that they want to engage this young audience on a big screen, and they’re asking what the best media opportunities are to do that. Honestly, they’re few and far between. So it’s been interesting to see the level of interest from brands which aren’t normally associated with gaming.

How neatly can this fit alongside other CTV buys? Can it be executed seamlessly as part of a wider CTV-based campaign, or should it be handled separately?

Dave Madden: We’re seeing a bit of both. Some holding companies group together digital video across platforms. And they’ve actually blurred the lines in some cases between linear TV, connected TV, and digital video, it’s just one group. So they would put this into their digital video investments. That’s probably around two-thirds of buyers we talk to. Those types of buyers are really looking at the specific capabilities and uniqueness of the audience.

And we also see it coming specifically out of CTV budgets as well, because the ads are showing up on the big screen. We’ve been hearing that both YouTube and Twitch are positioning themselves as connected TV opportunities, and they’re going after those budgets quite successfully. The reality is that a small percentage of those YouTube and Twitch viewers are actually watching on the big screen. But because marketers are so desperate to reach younger audiences on a big screen, they’re willing to turn a blind eye to the fact that most viewers aren’t watching those services on TV! So our product fits very well into CTV budgets, because it is being watched on the big screen, and it’s not a passive engagement.

Matt Cannon: It’s important though not to underestimate the technical complexity of serving high quality video ads within games. It’s a very different ecosystem. And something that our team is doing a really good job of at the moment is managing the expectations of trading desks and holding companies to explain the differences. The ways you transact media, some of the ways you execute verification, and some of the ways you use data in this gaming ecosystem will be different because it’s fundamentally siloed.

Companies like PlayerWON are at the vanguard of this, we’re taking things in gentle steps. And I think the first thing to do is get the initial advertisers on board, make sure it’s a good experience for players, and drive strong results. Later down the line, I’m sure there’s going to be an evolution into specific programmatic pipes to unlock greater spend within gaming, but for now we’re just taking that those first steps on the journey.

So do you see this sort of inventory commonly being sold on programmatic platforms further down the line? Might we see CTV gaming inventory being a big feature for DSPs in a few years time, in the same way CTV is right now?

Matt Cannon: I definitely do. But there are some specific challenges. Games studios have these very valuable and engaged pieces of IP, and that means we have to tread very carefully as an industry. You have to make sure you don’t get the wrong ad, or a competitive ad, showing up in their games. A lot of studios don’t want competitive studios advertising in their environments.

In the early stage of any relationship, it’s about building trust, so that’s what we’re doing now. As we progress along the journey, I think the challenges out there can be technically overcome. And as the ad dollars start to flow, it’s going to get really exciting.

There is a section of the gaming audience which seems quite hostile towards the idea of advertising in gaming. Why do you think that is, and what would you say to advertisers who might be concerned about that hostility?

Dave Madden: Usually people who have made negative comments about the format are people who haven’t seen or experienced it.

So for example we’ve seen some comments where people have said “This is awful, console games are becoming like mobile games”. And frankly the mobile experience really isn’t great – we’ve created a really pristine experience which feels very different from what gamers are used to on mobile. But what we’ve seen is that when negative comments are made, other gamers are replying and explaining that it’s not an interruptive format, that you opt-in to ads, and the the rewards are actually really good. We don’t even have to do anything, we just have to sit back and watch! And usually players who have made negative comments will come round, and they’ll start saying “Okay, I’ll watch and see where this goes”.

So there will be some who still want to see where it goes and what it looks like in practice. But in general, the feedback has been really positive. And the data shows that players who are watching ads are also spending more time playing those games as a result. So that shows how this can be really healthy for the gaming economy.


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