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Marketers: Don’t Sleep on Fortnite and the Metaverse

There used to be no better feeling than knowing it was finally my turn to play Sonic the Hedgehog on the family playstation. So recently, when the middle school boys I train with for basketball started talking about a new video game they were into, Fortnite, I got it. It was only when they mentioned “skins” that I became very confused.

Lucky for you, my confusion has led us here. To a post where we explore what makes Fortnite – the multi-player video game with 350 million registered users – so popular, and how companies have used its platform to date to propel their own success through customized marketing experiences.

But if you’re not yet convinced you need to give a crud about it, let me blow your mind:

Already back in 2018, Netflix mentioned in its earnings report that “we compete with (and lose to) Fortnite more than HBO.”

Plus, Fortnite players logged 3.2 billion hours on the game in April. That’s over 36,500 years of gaming condensed into one month.

Fortnite has become a cultural phenomenon: from professional athletes celebrating their goals with Fortnite dances to gameplay being included in blockbuster movies – it’s everywhere!

Here’s what makes Fortnite so unique

Each game, you and 99 other players parachute onto the same island to spend around 30 minutes gathering weapons and fighting each other within an ever-shrinking arena, striving to achieve the coveted “Victory Royale”. To win a game in Fortnite Battle Royale, the player must be the last person standing (in solos), or the last team standing (in squads).

But this isn’t your average video game: Fortnite is more of a social network. In fact, one study suggests that it has more in common with Facebook than Call of Duty.

Fortnite has ascended and fallen into the social network category in part due to its popularity on Twitch. It has both the largest audiences and most streamers on the Amazon-owned streaming platform, where its live videos and gameplay already totaled more than 103 million hours in March of 2019. A popular gamer, Ninja began playing Fortnite, and as a result, his highlights and new discoveries helped build an audience on YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

In addition to building a community, Fortnite even provides ways for folks to just hang out. Fortnite just released Party Royale, a social hub to relax, further solidifying their creation of a new world and way of existence for kids and teens. The new no-combat hub acts as a social lobby, and takes place on a smaller map featuring special challenges and mini-games. You can visit changing booths to adjust your outfit, find the battle bus, and directly queue for proper Battle Royale. And – as an added bonus – water balloons, a “paint launcher”, and burger grenades are reportedly on the way. 😂

And if that isn’t enough to show it’s more community hangs than killing, Epic, the owner of Fortnite, has stated their express goal is creating the Metaverse. Since the late 1970s, the technology community has imagined a future state of the Internet – called the Metaverse, some key components of which include:

  1. It will be synchronous and live – even though pre-scheduled and self-contained events will happen, just as they do in “real life”, the Metaverse will be a living experience that exists consistently for everyone and in real time
  2. It will be a fully functioning economy – individuals and businesses will be able to create, own, invest, sell, and be rewarded for an incredibly wide range of “work” that produces “value” that is recognized by others
  3. It will be an experience that spans – both the digital and physical worlds, private and public networks/experiences, and open and closed platforms

So let me continue to blow your mind with this whole new world.

Fortnite‘s audience skews young

Fortnite is most popular among players between the ages of 18 – 24, who account for 63% of all players; 22.5% are ages 25 – 34, 13% are ages 35 – 44. Fortnite enthusiasts are extremely loyal: Those between the ages of 10 to 17 and who play the game at least once a week spend 25 percent of all of their free time playing the game, higher than any other form of entertainment.

Fortnite also has very broad appeal. Back in February of 2019 six percent of YouTube’s video influencers created Fortnite videos. Of those, over 80 percent were from non-gamers – meaning this game has broken out of the gaming niche.

Fortnite’s business model

Fortnite is free. And it’s among the first to build a truly successful business model of selling digital items that don’t reward players with any progress in the actual game. Basically, they make money by allowing players to buy skins, items, and coins – that are all just cosmetic – to customize their characters. It works because today consumers’ personal image is in much larger part defined in the virtual world (ahem Metaverse). According to Nielsen’s Superdata, the game made $2.4 billion in 2018, with all of that that coming from the micropayments players make to buy cosmetic skins, dances and pre-released game modes for their characters, which range from $2 to $20.

Skins

Fortnite releases new skins almost weekly and they’re quite inexpensive, costing anywhere from $10-$15 worth of VBucks, Fornite coins.  

Battle passes

Fortnite releases new Battle Passes about every three months, kicking off a new game. To get the most of the new game players buy $10 battle passes to complete challenges, level up, and unlock exclusive gear.

Seasons

What the rest of the software world might call versions, Fortnite calls seasons – basically three month patch cycles. And each serves the same purpose: to keep bringing players back, and to stave off Battle Royale-style game competition. 

Fortnite creates suspense with these themes, treating them as massive events. For weeks leading up to the releases, they hide easter eggs in game – such as cinematic glimpses at some wider narrative – showing something big is coming. For example, season 3 closed with rocks falling from the sky, which led to season 4 opening with a huge meteor crash, leaving a crater that became a rocket launch pad at the release of season 5.

However season 10 was different. In this season, Fortnite needed to launch a whole new map rather than just tweaking an existing level, which probably required a complete overhaul of their underlying server infrastructure. Rather than warn players, ask for patience, or explain how long things were going to take, Fortnite said nothing for almost two days after taking the game dark. The coverage around “The End” event ended up being enormous – way larger than Epic could have garnered with a traditional announcement, and it probably brought in even more first-time users when the social experience came back online.

So how can a brand get involved?

Marketing in gaming isn’t as niche as you may think. In 2014, it was a $1 billion dollar industry and Forbes anticipated it would grow to $7.2 billion by 2016.

Fortnite is certainly seeing their fair share of that pie, as “creating a unique item for players to use in-game cost roughly $500,000 – and that’s likely only for a week,” according to a person who’s negotiated with Fortnite, but asked to remain anonymous. “The price goes up from there,” the person said. “But keep in mind: You also have to amplify that skin’s experience through paid channels once you sign up.”  

The latest Fortnite advertising stunt = concerts

OK so a concert in a video game sounds kind of…lame. I get it! But Travis Scott and Fortnite-maker Epic Games didn’t just add his avatar and play his music.

Instead, they created a surreal “astronomical” event, with an enormous, kaiju-sized Scott avatar looming over players and teleporting around the venue while the visuals around him got increasingly psychedelic. It’s something that could only happen in a virtual concert, and that’s what makes it delightful.

Plus, the event was viewed by far more people than could ever pack into even the largest concert venue. Epic Games said 12.3 million concurrent players participated, a new record for the game. And that’s just looking at the number of accounts tuned in. Especially now, with many in shelter in place, you can imagine parents were watching over shoulders as well.

Epic followed that up with a Diplo show, and a mini-music festival featuring DJs Dillon Francis, Steve Aoki, and deadmau5 is on the way – starting at 9PM ET this Friday, May 8th.

So how did Fortnite marketing get here?

Here’s a quick timeline of how marketing within Fortnite has evolved:

  • From June – September 2018, Casper, Dollar Shave Club, Blue Apron, 1-800 Flowers, Honey, and others sponsored Fortnite content. Dollar Shave Club sponsored 9 video integrations with partners, for 9.8 million total views in three months.
  • 2018 also saw the release of Fortnite’s Avengers crossover, where players could collect the Infinity Stones and become Thanos. 
  • In January 2019, the NFL launched a two-week sale of NFL jersey in-game skins for players to buy.
  • In February of 2019 Fornite hosted a live Marshmello concert.
  • Also in February 2019, the band Weezer produced a bespoke island where fans could get an exclusive first listen to their new album (while dancing with other “players”.
  • In May 2019 Fortnite produced a themed “limited-time modes” involving the likes of Nike’s Air Jordan.
  • Also in May 2019 Fortnite released a limited time mode for Lionsgate’s John Wick film series where players could become bounty hunters. In some cases, these “LTMs” transform part of Fortnite’s map into a mini-virtual world that, when entered, changes the aesthetics, items and play-style of the game to resemble another. This has included the universe of the game Borderlands, Batman’s hometown of Gotham, and the old west.
  • In November of 2019 fast-food restaurant Wendy’s hosted its first livestream of the game on Twitch by co-opting the game’s “Food Fight” mission. The event split players into either playing for the Durr Burger or Pizza Pit in-game restaurants, with Wendy’s asking its fans to play against the burger chain, as a dig at Wendy’s rivals that use frozen burgers. Wendy’s went from zero followers on Twitch to more than 7,400. And received around 43,500 comments, compared to Wendy’s typical 3,000 comments per day on Twitter.
  • In December 2019, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker released a clip of the hotly-anticipated film exclusively in Fortnite as part of a larger, in-game audience-interactive event that included a live interview with director J.J. Abrams.
  • In May of 2019 you could buy Jordan sneakers, and jump into a new limited-time mode called Downtown Drop. What makes this tie-in noteworthy is that it’s the first time Epic teamed up with community creators, Tollmolia and Notnellaf, to develop branded, high-profile content.
  • In a slightly different charity-for-gaming angle, Susan G. Komen launched a month-long Fortnite-based philanthropic campaign in partnership with RedPeg marketing to raise support for the fight against breast cancer. Launched on Giving Tuesday, December 3, 2019, the campaign saw four gaming influencers play a digital version of the nonprofit organization’s Ribbon Race on a custom-built Fortnite landscape.
  • In January of 2020, the International Committee of the Red Cross partnered with Fortnite creative mode developer Team Evolve to launch “Liferun”. The new game mode prompts gamers to complete four missions to help save lives, which in turn raises awareness around what the ICRC does in war zones around the world. At a launch event, the organization tapped three popular Fortnite YouTube streamers to livestream the new game mode to fans, resulting in at least 811,000 views.
  • In April of 2020 Quibi the mobile video startup premiered one of its reality shows in the game. The first episodes of “Punk’d,” a reboot of the hidden-camera prank show, were first available in the virtual drive-in section of Fortnite called “Risky Reels” CNet reported. For 24 hours after that, Quibi premiered new episodes of the show starring musician Chance the Rapper at the top of every hour.

Fortnite‘s cross-over into other mediums

It’s also important to consider how Fortnite‘s impact extends even beyond its in-game experience.

The Fortnite Dance challenge

The Fortnite Dance Challenge is everywhere and was brought to the masses by The Eh Bee Family channel – with the five videos on their channel earning almost 350 million views. Other brands got involved, too, including America’s Got Talent, Buzzfeed, ESPN, and the Cartoon Network.

Fortnite Fails

Fortnite fails became one of the hottest trends in the first quarter of this year, pulling in an astounding 726 million views on YouTube alone. The Fortnite dance challenge drove 629 million views on YouTube across roughly 33K videos and 8 million views on Facebook from 222 uploads.

As a result, many advertisers instead sponsor Fortnite’s most popular players.

You don’t necessarily have to collaborate with Epic to have an impact on its audience. Instead, you can work with key contributors.

For example, high-profile Fortnite influencer Dr. Lupo became the first professional esports player to be sponsored by insurance company State Farm.

Meanwhile Ninja, the most followed streamer on Twitch, was paid by UberEats to promote the game last summer. The UberEats promotion linked a level of discount to the number of “kills” Ninja made during a match. It was meant to be extended over a week, but the discount was redeemed so many times that the fast-food delivery service ended it after one day.

Is Fortnite marketing worth the investment?

There aren’t a lot of stat out there about the impact of in-game advertising just yet. But a 2010 Nielsen study of 100,000 U.S. households that purchased at least one of six EA SPORTS™ titles, showed that in-game advertising increased household dollars spent on Gatorade by 24%, with a return on investment of $3.11.

And, what kids want, parents buy. According to a report by NRF, 87% of parents surveyed say their children influence their purchase decisions. Just about half (48%) of parents report that their children have influence over purchases specifically for the child, while more than one-third (36%) say their children influence purchases for the household.

So what’s a marketer to do?

1. Contemplate the metaverse – fur real.

I know, I know – it feels more Pineapple Express than poignant. But already back in 2016 Elon Musk was saying we’re living in a video game. Today, I’d imagine our progress towards the metaverse is rapidly compounding – in a way similar to Moore’s Law – since more people are working from home and children are being taught online now due to shelter in place.

We’re all creating original content and collaborating on Slack, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Docs, Miro, and the like. With Facebook trying to get in on the action by releasing Portal (and they already own VR headset company Oculus). As it is, you can already fake being there on these video conferences.

Consider:

  • Creating custom Zoom backgrounds that reflect your company.
  • Designing personalized Zoom cloaks or masks that reflect your company.
  • Beauty brands, in addition to Pinterest Lens, could test out a Zoom makeup integration.
  • Starting a Slack group based on your topic or niche to create community or a Facebook group.
  • Selling virtual goods on eBay.
  • Starting an ad agency/service that helps other brands create the best content for emerging platforms – i.e. help them make their Fail video.
  • Create Fortnite related-content – blog posts that tie back to your industry, a calendar of upcoming Fortnite events, etc.

2. Pay attention to Youtube and TikTok influencers.

It’s time to accept these influencers are here to stay, and the competition is intense. After all, they’re starting as young as 4 these days and they’re putting in a full day’s work and garnering millions of views.

Consider:

  • Subscribing to Youtubers/Tiktokers in your topic to stay up to date on trends and words they use.
  • Partnering with a handful of Youtubers/Tiktokers on a product launch, publishing easter eggs on their platforms.
  • Paying Youtubers/Tiktokers to create original content (1/2 hour show) on behalf of your brand.
  • Sponsoring a Youtuber – for examples check out David Dobrik‘s sponsors like Chipotle and his giveaways.
  • Advertising through Youtube retargeting and TikTok’s ad platform.
  • Sponsoring a virtual influencer.

3. Keep your eye on eSports.

When you look more broadly at esports, Puma, Luis Vuitton and Nike are all already pumping money into the field – which is a sign it will only get more competitive.

For example, at the League of Legends World Championship finals last November, 44 million viewers watched China’s FunPlus Phoenix team hoist the winning trophy next to a custom high-tech trunk designed by Louis Vuitton. The gamers wore matching Nike sneakers and Swoosh-branded jerseys as part of a four-year sponsorship deal the athletic giant signed with China’s 16-team League of Legends Pro League. 

Consider:

  • In-game advertising opportunities for Fortnite, Call of Duty, Animal Crossing, and more of the best video games this year.
  • Sponsor an up and coming gamer (find young MJ!), by finding them through talking to kids, Google Trends, and Youtube analysis – you could have them wear your brand, create custom content, do giveaways, etc.
  • Build a service for selling ad spots (basically Google ads but for gaming) within key eSports games or key gamers.
  • With Peloton popping and virtual races on the rise due to shelter in place, expect more sports to move into the eArena, and get in early with ad partnerships (email newsletter placements is one opportunity, providing digital branded runner bibs/medals/trophies could be another).

Go forth and Fortnite!

Now you’re able to consider how Fortnite might fit into your marketing strategy. If nothing else, you’re more informed than you were when you woke up this morning. And that’s a great feeling isn’t it? Up next, go old school, which is actually the new new school, and learn why direct mail marketing is a magical unicorn.

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By the way

Epic Games released new details about its latest game engine, Unreal Engine 5, its most powerful engine yet, allowing video game developers and filmmakers to create hyperrealistic representations of real-life surfaces, at a fraction of the time and money. “The hardest problem in game development right now is building high quality games…so we want to make developers’ lives easier and more productive,” Epic CEO Tim Sweeney told The Verge

By Megan Mitzel

I'm the wearer of overalls behind the marketing advice website Marketing Overalls. I'm also a senior marketing director with more than ten years of experience leading acquisition and lifecycle marketing at successful startups. Before that, I got a business degree at UNC-Chapel Hill. Before that, I owned a seashell shop. And that's the tea on me.