Game On: Sport, Brands and Gamification

With March Madness now in full swing, there are an estimated 60 million ‘brackets’ completed, (including one from Barack Obama) attempting to predict the winners of each match from the first round through to the National Championship match. The official NCAA bracket challenge was predictably ambushed by an unofficial challenge offered by Quicken Loans & Warren Buffett, which offered $1 billion if someone could predict a perfect bracket, but with odds of 9.2 quintillion to one, equally predictably every entry was eliminated by the end of the first round.

The popularity of fan games in sport is not unique to College Basketball, with 3.2 million players registered on the official Barclays Premier League Fantasy Football game and NFL Fantasy Football being a huge part of the culture of being a ‘football’ fan. But despite this popularity, brand engagement in both remains minimal, with relatively low activation by partners. EA Sports’ association with Fantasy Premier League is limited to an EA badge offered for your personalised team kit, and doesn’t highlight their role as Sports Technology Partner – a missed opportunity perhaps.

An example of a brand leading the way in this type of activation is the Hilton Honors Fantasy Racing challenge in F1, which invites fans to select four drivers, two constructors, and an engine manufacturer, with their ‘team’ rewarded in points from actual performances at a Grand Prix weekend. As a partner of McLaren, Hilton is at the forefront of the experience – something that is rarely the case in fan games.

The PGA Tour Connect app and T20 World Cup Fantasy Challenge are relatively new additions from rightsholders, but with limited partner activity. As both rightsholders and brands seek to engage with fans in a meaningful manner, activation in the gamification of sport can be a rich area. The popularity of a major event is indeed often enhanced through gamification, as the various NCAA tournament bracket challenges show. With such games coming at a relatively significant cost, it makes sense that rightsholders would look to their partners for financial and marketing support.

Considering the popularity of many major sporting events, and the impact on public consciousness, it is perhaps surprising that many rightsholders and brands alike have not connected with fans like this. With the FIFA World Cup on the horizon, it could be a rewarding pursuit for non-sponsors looking to gain an association with the biggest single-sport event in the world. The official FIFA Fantasy Football, in association with World Cup sponsor, McDonald’s, will have a lot of entrants, but as the NCAA brackets show, ‘official’ does not necessarily mean other brands will not enter the field.

Wimbledon is one event which could lend itself to increased fan interaction: the huge global interest it attracts, combined with the vagaries of its many matches suggests there is more than enough scope to replicate the NCAA bracket format, with clear opportunities for brands to get involved and enhance the fans’ Wimbledon experience.

As we wrote in Synergy’s 2014 #NowNewNext, the gamification of sport is also exploding via wearable tech, pioneered by Nike +, and the gamification of playing, for example with vPar and GameBook in golf.

With rights holders and brands seeking new ways to credibly connect with consumers, gamification is clearly rich in potential both for passionate and casual fans, and of course to draw new fans into sport, but brand involvement has been relatively modest. Now’s the time for that to change.