Over the weekend, the Financial Times broke the news that Electronic Arts are considering dropping FIFA as the namesake of their legendary football game. It’s a bold step, and one that demonstrates the shifting balance of power in the world of esports and gaming.
As publishers find new ways to monetise the loyalty of tribal fans - with EA now amassing more than $1.5bn in annual revenue from its Ultimate Team product - they wield a new degree of leverage. Gone are the days in which a big brand like FIFA was the only way to accrue credibility.
Today, the legitimacy and love from users is earned in smaller, niche digital communities - more 1,000 true fans, in the spirit of Kevin Kelly, than one million. These new parameters for success are a competitive advantage for the next generation of gaming startups, that can move fast and build a cult following among power users.
But what strategies and tactics can they employ to make the most of this opportunity? How do early stage gaming startups grow in the decade to come?
Let’s meet the contenders
- Playdough - a community of play-to-earn gamers.
- Monkeyball - FIFA Street and Final Fantasy rolled into one Solana-based play-to-earn game.
- GuildFi - aspiring to create the backbone of games, NFTs, communities and metaverse.
- Genopets - a “move-to-earn” game where players are rewarded for the steps they take in real life.
- Moment Ranks - the premier NFT resource platform, offering analytics and tracking tools for NBA Top Shot collectors.
- Upland - a virtual property trading game mapped to the real world and based on blockchain technology.
- DreamCraft - a platform that allows anyone to create, publish and monetize games without coding.
- Fantrade - earn money by playing real-time daily contests based on fantasy crypto and stocks.
- GridRival - a real money gaming platform dedicated exclusively to motorsports.
- HypeX - the first Blockchain Game for Sneaker Lovers.
- Ender - a competition platform where kids can win cash prizes for building apps, games, websites, and other real-world projects.
How to approach launching and growing a gaming startup
Though by no means exhaustive, here are three approaches that these kinds of startups should consider as they seek to build enduring businesses:
1) Allocate your resources so that you can continue to launch:
One of the biggest pitfalls we see startups make is over-emphasising the “big launch” moment. By all means, have a campaign plan to build hype and then announce yourself in a meaningful way across the media landscape - using traditional PR as well outreach in targeted digital communities - but you need to deploy capital wisely so that you can continue to play a role in the relevant niche long after that initial pop. Get clear on the difference between a growth engine and a turbo boost, and don’t rely on turbo boosts for scale.
2) Lay early foundations for story-telling and myth-making:
The best gaming cultures are cults which rely on velvet ropes to identify who is “in” and who is “out” of that tribe; Fortnite, for instance. NFTs enable this, no doubt, but don’t mistake enablement for engagement. Think hard about how you are using the technology to seed the foundations of brand strategy. What do you want your game to stand for? What types of players do you want to succeed in the short, medium and long term? What “breadcrumbs” can you drop throughout your game which reward your early adopters and give them unmistakeable status? These are all questions whose answers compound exponentially over time, so start now.
3) Obsess over your brand identity and its rollout:
There is perhaps no more important investment for a gaming startup, given that its success is largely predicated on visual affiliation from users. The approach taken by Monkeyball is impressive because it not only feels differentiated at a high level, but it works well across different contexts. The only way to maintain coherence of your brand across Discord channels, in-game experiences, merchandise, and so on, is to plan it out properly in advance. If you’re asking users to fall in love with how you come across, make sure that they’re falling in love with the same brand time and time again.