25 million players in the first week. The most streamed game on Twitch with over 63.7 million hours of live viewership in the first ten days. A tournament in the first two weeks with $200,000 in prize money (NewZoo). Apex Legends is the fastest growing video game in history and regardless of whether you’ve dropped into the latest battle royale shooter, there’s one more statistic that’s worth paying attention to: Apex did no marketing before it launched.
Zero. Zilch. Nada. The fastest growing video game in history launched with no traditional marketing. To put this in perspective, the marketing cycle of AAA (blockbuster) games in the United States is very similar to that of major Hollywood movies. Announcements are made years before launch. From there, things pick up over time in a steadily increasing stream of content, social media and PR - all supported by marketing and paid media.
Like, a lot of paid media. Take 2014’s Destiny for example. The game is reported to have had a marketing budget of around $140 million (Wikipedia) that included a live action trailer complete with Led Zeppelin, Peter Dinklage, and an estimated media buy of $6.7 million to make sure people saw it (VentureBeat).
The point I’m getting at is that gaming is an incredibly expensive and competitive market to play in. On top of that, Apex was entering the space as a direct competitor to 2018’s Best Multiplayer Game (The Game Awards) and pop culture sensation, Fortnite. Knowing all this, I find it absolutely fascinating that the marketing director of Apex was able to go to their boss, say “nah, we’re good.”
So, why the radical shift in strategy? The team at Respawn Entertainment (the game’s publisher) knew their product carried four big risk factors when going to market:
- It was not Titanfall 3, the eagerly awaited follow up to their last game Titanfall 2.
- It is a free-to-play game with microtransactions and loot boxes, a monetization tactic that is considered predatory by many.
- It is published by Electronic Arts and gamers generally hate Electronic Arts. Think of them as the Comcast of the gaming world.
- It is yet another entry into the already saturated battle royale genre of games
Respawn also knew one other thing - they had created a damn good game. So, instead of forcing Apex Legends down gamer's throats months in advance and allowing the hivemind to speculate on all the negatives, they bet big on themselves. Utilizing the power of Twitch and YouTube gaming, Respawn strategically placed the game with the world’s top streamers on launch day and let the product do the talking. Within 72 hours the game had reached 10 million downloads - a feat that had taken Fortnite two weeks to accomplish. The rest is history.
Cool story bro, but why does this matter to me? The gaming market sits in a unique place alongside beauty and fashion as an industry that is a combination of big business and young consumers. As such, the segment has traditionally been a proving ground for emerging marketing trends and technologies. Marketing practices that are now commonplace such as social media and influencer marketing, were pioneered in gaming before making the leap to other industries with older consumers.
Apex Legends is a shot across the bow. This launch is an early indicator of where marketing is heading as Gen Z continues to grow and technology shifts towards real time engagement platforms such as Twitch. Apex didn’t need the traditional fancy video, multi-million-dollar media buy or months of lead time to reach their core consumer. Rather, they strategically leveraged a keen understanding of emerging audience behaviors and network theory to ignite organic growth for a good product.
So what? Apex Legends is not the first instance of a product launch that has leveraged live streaming and influencers, but it is a meaningful one due to scale of success they are seeing. Do I think this means that marketers need to immediately shift their entire way of thinking about product launches? Of course not. However, I do believe that this is an important indicator of what is on the horizon as Gen Z begins to come into their own. Technology is paving the way for marketing innovation and there’s no better place than to watch how it plays out for the early adopters than in the gaming space.
Update 3/4/19: Apex Legends has now hit 50 Million players in less than a month (Apex Legends)