thanks to digital, everyone’s invited
“We made our own entertainment in my day.” That’s what my northern grandparents told me, without adding too much detail about what that ‘entertainment’ consisted of. I have a feeling it’s what we’ll tell our grandchildren too as they fly around the house on their hover boards wearing the virtual reality suit you got them for Christmas. And it’s the lockdown we’ll harken back to. Because, let’s be honest, up until now most of us have been quite happy for someone else to make the entertainment. But being obliged to stay at home (for the very best reasons, of course) has forced us to be a bit more resourceful, a bit more inventive, than we’d previously been.
Hence, the weekly Zoom pub quiz with pals. The WhatsApp baking contest. And the Kitchen Disco.
I specify kitchen because that’s where my weekly disco happens, with Radio 1’s Dance Anthems blaring and a large G&T for company. Your disco might happen elsewhere but for me, as for many, it’s the kitchen. (The tiled floor is definitely a factor.)
Innovation within brands
But it’s not just the locked down millions who are being inventive and finding new ways to entertain themselves and their friends. Brands are reaching out, too, innovating at a time when innovation is desperately needed. Using the digital channels that are open to them to reach their shut-in, novelty-starved audiences.
Last month, 12.5 million Fortnite players watched an in-game gig performed live by Travis Scott. To be totally honest, I’d never heard of Travis Scott before (I’m not exactly his target demo) but I’ve bloomin’ well heard of him now. Blanket coverage, and not just in the industry media, has made him a household name. So kudos to his management company and Epic Games for putting together an experience which resonated hugely, hit its target square between the eyes and re-set the bar when it comes to capturing an online audience for a live entertainment event.
“Epic Games aren’t thinking like a games developer”
What’s notable about the Fortnite example is that Epic Games aren’t thinking like a games developer, they’re thinking like a media owner. Fortnite isn’t even a game any more, not in the accepted sense. It’s an entertainment ecosystem, housing experiences that appeal to its existing audience, raise awareness of the Fortnite brand and bring in new players. The Travis Scott gig pretty much replicated the staging of an IRL concert, with a stage, lighting system, etc. before spinning off into something a little more surreal. But that barely scratches the surface of what’s possible in the medium. Imagine the creative possibilities ‘virtual’ gigs can offer in future. Fully-realised, immersive 3D environments that do away with the conventions of staged entertainment completely and deliver something utterly unique. Personally, I can’t wait for The Chemical Brothers to dive in and see what they can do with the form.
When my career in advertising began we called it ‘creating culture’. All the best brands do it. It’s the reason they’re the best brands. Nike, Apple, Google. They don’t make ads, they don’t run campaigns, they create culture, moving the needle and inspiring people to behave differently.
But Fortnite isn’t the only platform breaking through the digital clutter to help redefine what live can look like when delivered digitally. Defected Records have been doing pretty, pretty good too, pulling in 6.5 million people each Friday night for their Virtual Festival, hosted from an (empty) Ministry of Sound. (Back in the day I’d have been all over it but now, as a responsible parent, my lockdown kitchen disco serves last orders at 10pm.)
Evolution from the gaming ghetto
At the outset of my career I worked for EASPORTS. Like Epic Games, we thought of ways to align the brand with popular culture, especially the gold standard FIFA franchise, working with high profile artists (of the time) such as Robbie Williams and Blur to provide the soundtrack to the game, so that the experience would resonate with lifestyle players and not just hard core gamers. (Memorably, Robbie Williams wore an EASPORTS-branded sweatshirt to collect his Brits one year and, when asked how he’d celebrate, replied, “I’m going home to play FIFA.”). For us, this was moving the needle, aligning gaming with mainstream entertainment culture and evolving it out of the gaming ghetto.
So it’s about time. Twenty years ago we didn’t have the technology. We could curate a soundtrack, release an album, get airplay, raise awareness. But we couldn’t insert limitless players’ avatars in an environment, invite them to interact with one another, and then use the platform to house complimentary entertainment experiences. That’s what Epic Games have been able to take advantage of. With a bit more vision, a bit more inventiveness, other brands might have got there sooner. But Fortnite has set the bar and thrown down a challenge. Let’s see which brands are brave enough, and inventive enough, to take it on while the lockdown continues to offer them a (literally) captive audience. Because those who do will be remembered for delivering the experiences that define the era we’re living through.