Why the in-game advertising boom is no longer a sure thing

Why the in-game advertising boom is no longer a sure thing

January 11, 2023 | By Alexander Lee

Ivy Liu

There’s a funny thing about the world of in-game advertising: The more some marketers ask where all the inventory is located, the less satisfying the answer seems to be. At the moment, the overwhelming majority of the inventory of leading in-game ad firms such as Bidstack, Frameplay and Anzu is located inside free-to-play or mobile games — not the premium titles that account for the bulk of gamers’ attention.

“I think there’s this huge confusion for a lot of brands of what in-game is, because some people will talk about in-game and they’re referring purely to running a display banner inside this, you know, soccer game on mobile,” said Mike Murphy O’Reilly, head of business development for the gaming and esports website Dexerto. “But a client might have in their head that they think this is something much grander, such as a branded experience or map inside a game.”

In-game ad companies know that brands are champing at the bit to place their ads inside console titles. In 2022, the most-streamed games on Twitch were all so-called AAA titles, major releases such as League of Legends, Fortnite and GTA V. For brands looking to reach gamers, placing ads inside these premium games is akin to running television commercials alongside “Sunday Night Football” or “The Bachelor.”

“The moment brands can buy ads in gaming that are on that screen, and not this screen, they’re going to exhaust it,” said Bidstack CRO Jude O’Connor, pointing from a television on the wall to his smartphone. “Today, for any of the in-game advertising companies, obviously everything’s mobile or on PC.”

At the moment, in-game ad companies such as Bidstack do occasionally produce bespoke, hard-coded ads inside console titles — but not the programmatic ads that represent the bulk of their inventory. This may change in the near future: Bidstack and Anzu executives told Digiday that they are slowly but surely working toward console inventory, though they declined to share more details as of yet. As of last year, both Xbox and PlayStation were reportedly spinning up their own internal in-game ad departments as well.

“For sports games, it is already native for consumers to see ads, be it ad boards in FIFA or NBA 2K, just like in traditional sports,” said Brent Koning, an evp and global gaming lead at Dentsu. “For any other genre of video game, advertising becomes ‘non-traditional,’ meaning it takes more for a marketing team to sign off on it, as it may seem ‘new.’”

There’s also a data gap that could prevent brands from enthusiastically signing off on in-game ads. If marketers ask any of the vested players for hardcore data to prove the quality of their inventory, for example, they’re more likely to receive relatively nebulous metrics such as brand lift than hard numbers, though in-game ad measurement standards saw a much-needed overhaul in 2022. Advertisers are desperate to learn more about in-game advertising and the returns they can get from it — but full transparency about in-game ad performance is still years out. 

“They don’t expect to have a physical, actual solution for it until potentially Q1 of 2024,” O’Connor said, referring to pre-existing measurement platforms such as Oracle Moat. 

All of the aforementioned factors mean that the in-game ad industry’s purported growth spurt might not be in the cards for 2023. That isn’t to say that the industry isn’t still poised for growth this year — O’Connor predicted that industry-wide in-game ad sales would double in 2023, from an estimated $20 million to roughly $40 million — but much education about the space is still necessary if in-game ad firms want brands to fully buy in. 

And as they enter 2023, the world’s leading in-game ad companies are well aware of the importance of premium console inventory for their continued success.

“One of the big milestones, almost tipping points, will be with console advertising,” said Anzu CEO Itamar Benedy. “We have spent five years working on our console advertising offering, so there was a huge investment from our side. We didn’t have the short-term revenues, but we were so bullish on the mid-term and long-term opportunities that it made sense for us to focus on it — and Sony is one of our investors.”

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