“If it’s in the game, it’s in the game.”
For more than two decades, video game studio EA Sports seared this slogan, which plays in the opening credits of nearly every one of its games, into the hearts and mind of millions of fans. With each new season it seems more true; sports games reflect everything fans expect from their favourite sports, no matter how small the detail.
Unfortunately, that also includes advertisements.
Sports games have adopted the same penchant for aggressive advertising as their real-world counterparts. As the games have grown more complex, so have the ads.
Here’s how sports video games have become a vehicle for sponsors:
This social media-style replay from ‘NBA Live 19’ not-so-subtly features the Jordan Jumpman in the background.
In trying to build a product that feels identical to the real thing, sports video games have fully embraced the sponsorship culture of professional sports. Basketball games feel like the worst perpetrators.
Take-Two Interactive’s “NBA 2K19” and EA’s “NBA Live 19” each include extensive sponsorships from Nike and its Jordan brand. Both games feature Jordan and Nike clothing worn by the virtual players, and Jumpman logos are emblazoned across arenas and backgrounds.
As part of its career mode, “NBA Live 19” even has players compete in virtual versions of real-life Jordan-branded events, such as Quai 54, a Parisian streetball tournament.
You can’t miss the Gatorade coolers during 60-second timeouts.
As in live sports, most of the ads in sports games are in the background. But it feels different seeing them in a video game. In a video-game context, it’s difficult to ignore that the Gatorade-sponsored timeout happens to feature a pair of Gatorade coolers right behind your team, with the logos facing the camera.
Even during the story mode cut scenes in “NBA 2K19,” I found myself distracted by the large brand logos on my character’s clothes.
Jumpman even leaped into my in-game text messages.
If the games restricted the ads to just the same places you’d find them in actual sports events, they wouldn’t be so annoying. But they don’t.
The games also throw in lots of branded apparel, such as designer sneakers and clothing. So, regardless of how you choose to play, the ads are omnipresent.
State Farm sponsors the Assist of the Game in ‘NBA 2K’ just as it does on NBA broadcasts.
Game makers are also wrapping ads around new features. For example, “NBA 2K19” offers game-generated instant replay that’s sponsored by State Farm.
Of course, if the goal is to emulate live sports as much as possible, duplicating advertising spots seems unavoidable. But the question is whether these games are simply trying to look like the real deal or if these sponsorships are becoming a fundamental part of how the games are financed.
Both ‘NBA Live’ and ‘NBA 2K’ feature their own promotional pre-game videos.
Sports games have even pioneered some unique marketing vehicles. In both “NBA Live” and “NBA 2K19,” you’ll find live-action pre-game shows. Though they are not traditional ads, the video clips sell players on the culture of the game after they have purchased it. Developers can update the videos and use pre-game load times to promote content outside the game.
Professional soccer players have slowly become walking billboards; so too their virtual counterparts in ‘FIFA 19’
Some may defend all of this ad placement in the name of authenticity, that it makes the games more like the real-life contests. And game developers may have to include as many ads as they do to placate the major sports leagues and the leagues’ corporate sponsors.
But the ads really detract from the experience of playing the games. It feels as if the developers are including new features sometimes only as an excuse to show more ads – not to make the games more real or more fun.
Sports video games may have nearly caught up with live sports in terms of how true-to-life they are. But when it comes to ads, developers ought to realise that sometimes less authenticity is better.
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