What we learnt at IAB Gaming Upfronts 2022

November 16, 2022

Taking place in the heart of the City of London for the first time in-person, IAB UK’s Gaming Upfronts 2022 event set out to inspire a sold-out audience of global media agencies, brands and industry peers alike to further recognise the incredible potential of gaming as an advertising channel.

From exploring non-intrusive in-game advertising formats to understanding gaming audiences – the event promised and delivered an insightful deep-dive into the past, present and future of gaming, exploring audiences, motivations and the continuous evolution of the attention economy, in which brands have shifted focus to capturing audiences through innovative value-driven experiences.

The evolution of media consumption habits amongst consumer audiences, particularly with the continued growth of gaming, is recognised to present a unique but nonetheless exciting challenge for innovative brands and advertising agencies.

With over 3 billion players and counting, gaming remains the most diverse entertainment category, reaching international audiences across a suite of platforms and devices, making it the perfect platform to engage audiences at scale.

Opening the event, James Chandler, CMO at IAB UK, reinforced this point, concluding that those in attendance would leave the event having realised that “gaming is a fully emerged and incredible channel to be utilised”.

The Evolution of Digital

Kicking off the keynotes, Bidstack CRO Jude O’Connor took to the stage to explore the evolution of digital advertising and video games through an interactive timeline. Starting back in 1994 with the first-ever online banner advertising placement, the audience took a trip through modern advertising history, traversing the boom, bust and renaissance of online media formats, unpacking how key moments had paved the way for innovative new digital formats to thrive.

Adjusting the focus to recent innovation and standardisation, the timeline applied consideration to the continued impact of both industry and government policy, ranging from GDPR and the focus on protecting user data to the commercial impacts of new measurement tools, enabling brands and agencies to feel confident testing new or developing formats.

Guidelines such as the IAB and MRC’s recently announced Intrinsic In-Game Advertising Measurement Standards, in particular, became a recurring point of discussion throughout the event, with the contributor’s highlighting the significance of the guidelines in providing clarity around critical viewability and measurement standards for in-game advertising formats. This provides comfort to brands seeking to invest within these formats, providing safe and transparent approaches to enable the delivery and evaluation of in-game campaigns, establishing a more sustainable industry for technology providers, publishers and advertisers.

Gaming has Levelled-Up

Much like the evolution of advertising, the timeline celebrated the continued achievements in enhancing gameplay, gaming environments and graphical fidelity, enabling publishers to deliver unique experiences that captivate audience attention. New and developing technologies have enabled publishers to empower creative teams to further converge the real-world and virtual experience whilst unlocking new opportunities to effectively monetise work through brand partnerships and, more recently, seamless in-game advertising placements.

Whilst the formats have levelled up significantly since the ‘hard-coded’ advertising placements in titles such as ‘Boxing Legends of the Ring’ and ‘ABC Monday Night Football’ of the 1990s, the opportunity for brands to engage hard-to-reach audiences through the entertainment category remains as significant as ever. Through the availability of programmatic activations, data-powered buying and robust measurement tools, both brands and publishers are now able to establish highly valuable yet efficient partnerships in which relevant messaging is delivered to geo-targeted audiences at a vast scale. 

Much like the evolution of the technology behind the games, the perceptions of audiences have shifted significantly in recent years, dismantling historical stereotypes of gamers being exclusively younger, often anti-social males. In reality, audiences now are comprised of almost 50% female, and the average age of gamers is 35 years old.

Gamers are nuanced individuals, each with unique values, interests and preferences. As highlighted later in the event by Jonathan Stringfield, VP of Global Business Research and Marketing at Activision Blizzard Media, a significant portion of individuals who consume and interact with video games often do not even identify as gamers, opting to consume content without consideration to associations. 

The research further indicates that audiences, in general, continue to express a notable preference for gaming as an entertainment category over more traditional formats such as television or print. With younger generations, including Gen Z, this is even more distinct, with audiences being found to exhibit a preference for gaming even over other digital formats, including social media.

As gaming continues to become more accessible across PC, Console, Mobile, VR and Cloud Gaming platforms, global audiences will continue to scale further. This reinforces the importance of both brands and agencies opting to utilise gaming to effectively engage and capture attention amongst these audiences. Simon Jones, Managing Partner at Spark Foundry, reflected on this point, stating, “brands understand the value of gaming but don’t know how to access it,” adding that “it’s now incumbent on agencies to sell gaming properly, as the size that gaming is, it should be regarded as a media channel in its own right”.

The Socialisation of Gaming

Building off the topic of gaming audiences, Johnathan Stringfield, VP of Global Business Research & Marketing at Activision Blizzard Media, took to the stage to discuss the importance of ongoing research in better understanding audience needs and motivations, reinforcing the point that brands should “lead with insights on the player because that will effectively yield the best opportunities”.

As gaming has developed and audiences have expanded, the availability of research and insights has continued to become more prevalent, providing valuable context for brands looking to explore in-game, around the game or game-adjacent advertising formats. These insights empower brands to identify crossovers between consumer interests and specific genres or game franchises, assisting in the identification of key partnership opportunities and maximising return on brand investment.

The keynote introduced new research from Activision Blizzard Media, which examined the social power of gaming amongst audiences, exploring how individuals utilise gaming as a forum for socialisation without the need for physical presence – a topic particularly relevant in response to the global pandemic. In fact, the research indicated that currently, 38% of individuals playing video games did so for the social aspect, with a further 65% of respondents indicating that they play games with friends, either in-person or online.   

Reinforcing the importance of these insights, Johnathan added, “Gaming is not just a platform that is becoming more popular, what we’re seeing is that gaming is on the leading edge of a fundamental reconfiguration of the media and consumer landscape, one where we’re leaning towards more interactive experiences”.

From a consumption perspective, Lou Emmerson, UK Sales Director at Twitch, unpacked further trends in consumption habits, deep-diving into Generation Z and the shift in audience values and behaviours. With this generation set to represent 27% of the world’s income, the importance of brands establishing awareness and favourability amongst these individuals is essential for long-term business viability.

With over a third of gaming audiences now also watching either esports or live gaming content online, even gaming titles that are inherently designed to be single-player experiences now have the potential to generate significant social interaction between users. Johnathan concluded his keynote by adding that “If you’re a savvy marketer, you will understand that there are mechanisms in which you can tap into the power of this social interactivity across a multitude of touchpoints”, highlighting the opportunity for both innovative brands and agencies to diversify existing media strategies by utilising gaming formats. 

The Attention Economy

The attention economy remains a hot topic within advertising, with brands continuously seeking new opportunities to capture audience attention. When evaluating the effectiveness of campaigns, the focus continues to shift from metrics such as viewability, which outline only if the content was seen, to measures that outline to what extent audiences interacted with and processed information. 

Gaming is recognised as a format that benefits significantly from high levels of attention, with the experience fundamentally relying on audience input and decision-making to control gameplay outcomes. Research also suggests that, on average, audiences are now opting to engage with gaming content on average 3 times a day, with sessions typically lasting up to 10 minutes. This outlines the opportunity for utilising contextually relevant virtual spaces within gameplay to place relevant branded content that remains non-intrusive and enhances the experience by recreating real-world environments in which audiences have come to expect the presence of advertisements.

Reinforcing this point, Jude O’Connor stated, “When you have your ads in this arena, you’re doing so much more than placing a media buy. You’re becoming part of the experience and journey”. Unlike other digital formats, the user remains immersed within the entertainment experience, choosing through consent to engage with the content, in contrast to alternative traditional formats where advertisements are placed obstructively to maximise viewability at the detriment of user experience.

Gaming formats also further benefit from cumulative viewability, in which audiences may opt to continue engaging with content over an extended period of time rather than just an initial impression. Discussing this, Michael Isaacs-Olaye, Senior Manager of Business Development at Integral Ad Science (IAS) stated, ”If we have a character in a game that is stood in front of an ad for a period of time, according to the MRC standards that’s one impression. However, the amount of attention that would be drawn to that ad is significant; it’s not something you would get in many other environments”.

As brands continue to explore how to maximise audience attention and subsequent interest to drive business results, understanding how to measure attention within in-game environments becomes a key consideration. In addition to the IAB and MRC’s recent industry guidelines, tools such as state-of-the-art eye-tracking studies provide an independent and scientific approach to understanding how audiences receive and interact with branded content in gameplay environments, empowering brands to better understand the return on investment.

In-Game Advertising Has Arrived

Gaming as an entertainment category continues to expand year on year, reaching new global audiences through highly interactive and engaging experiences. As more brands and agencies continue to explore advertising through gaming channels, be it in-game, around the game or game-adjacent formats, the key takeaway from this year’s event is the notion that gaming has evolved into a fully emerged, highly influential marketing channel that even more hesitant brands can no longer bypass. 

As misconceptions of gaming and audiences also continue to be smashed, the focus will shift moving forwards to better understanding how best to apply value to audiences’ entertainment experiences, ensuring that branded content remains contextually relevant and non-intrusive to the gameplay. By also better understanding the values and motivations of these audiences, brands are able to pivot messaging to be more authentic and sympathetic to their attitudes, driving significant shifts in perceptions and favourability amongst audiences towards these brands. 

Closing the event, conversations shifted to the future of gaming and digital advertising, with presenters outlining how technology will continue to shape and evolve the formats, empowering more brands to easily adopt and utilise them. Notably, Scott Curtis, Global Head of Digital and Innovation and Spark Foundry, concluded his thoughts by stating, “I hope in the future we aren’t having these conversations because it’s just a known”, highlighting the importance of events such as IAB Gaming Upfronts in educating the wider advertising industry about gaming and wide-reaching gaming audiences.


If you missed our sessions at  IAB Gaming Upfronts 2022, a full recording of the presentation can be found here.