In the 26 years that the Madden NFL franchise has been around, it’s established itself as the video game for football lovers, with passionate fans regularly waiting with bated breath for the each new release of EA Sports’ flagship game. However, in recent years, the ways new gamers game has changed radically. No longer tied to consoles, younger fans are filling their time with free-to-play or digital download games that are played on tablets or phones. Rushing to the video game store to score a hot new title is not an experience these gamers will recount with nostalgia in their older years.
To reach this younger, savvy audience, EA’s latest marketing effort for Madden NFL 15 is a full-on digital blitz. The campaign began in August with “Madden Season” a wonderfully weird three-minute online film that featured Kevin Hart and Dave Franco in an all-out sporting rivalry (you can read about it here). If that film was meant to pique the interest of the Funny or Die crowd (and with over 25 million views, we’d say their interest was piqued), the Madden GIFerator is meant to engage with those who are not just fans of Madden NFL but all fans of the actual NFL.
Tapping into people’s seemingly insatiable appetite to build GIFs and memes around of-the-moment cultural happenings, the Madden GIFerator allows football fans to effortlessly smack-talk friends and rivals. But what makes the GIFerator different is that it’s tied to real-time football action during big NFL games. So if the Seattle Seahawks score a touchdown in the season-opening game this week the GIFerator will instantly draw assets from Madden NFL 15 that reflect the actual gameplay to which people can their own trash talk text. Generated GIFs will stream on the Madden NFL site and especially good ones might get repurposed by EA Sports.
Anthony Stevenson, VP global marketing and brand at EA Sports, says the goal with the campaign is to reach a digital native audience–and potential Madden NFL consumers–in the moment that they’re hyped about football. “We have the benefit of a real-world tide that we can ride in parallel with–the NFL season. People are talking about the NFL in real time and we need to be able to talk to our fans and engage our fans around the things that are happening,” he says. “We know that things trend and then in 20 minutes they’re gone. If we’re not there, we’re not going to be part of the conversation. We’ve almost completely eliminated the time between the event and when the fans are engaging with our brand.”
But the GIFerator is more than just a fun way for fans to create clever game-related content. It also allows EA Sports to serve up super-relevant ads to potential customers in real time. Conceived by EA Sports’ agency of record Heat, and built in partnership with Google’s Art, Copy, and Code group–a division that works closely with select brands to create new experiences–the project involves a dynamic ad creation engine that’s linked to Google’s display ad network, meaning EA can deliver game-specific ads to millions of websites within minutes. So, if Seattle scores a TD, a GIF reflecting that play is auto-generated with some quippy copy and can be instantly delivered across the ad network. In the event of another unusual event like the Super Bowl blackout, EA has the capacity to create custom GIFs on the fly, as well. In all, the generator has enough lines of copy and visual assets to create upwards of 100,000 different pieces of creative.
The insights that led to this campaign are twofold says Mike Glaser, marketing manager, creative partnerships at Art, Copy, and Code. First, he says that 84% of smartphone users watch TV with a second screen, creating a fertile environment for more targeted and effective real-time marketing–particularly with sports, where fans are often checking player stats and visiting sports-specific sites during the game. The GIFerator employs a real-time ad delivery tool that Google is currently piloting.
Second, Glaser says the rise in visual communication made GIFs the perfect type of content for EA to appeal to an entice younger audiences. “When we looked into Google trends, the interest in GIFs or memes is at an all time high over the past couple of months. This is the way that consumers are communicating in the moment and we wanted to tap into this,” he says.
For Google, the GIFerator is a useful experiment in understanding how to better create a real-time ad service. “Our hope is by having very, very relevant creative that’s delivered in the seconds after an event happens, we can create an experience that is very additive to their sports-watching behavior and not interruptive,” he says. “The vision is to build new real-time capabilities. We’re going to learn a lot from this campaign so from a Google perspective that allows us to really craft the future of our products.
From the perspective of EA Sports, the Madden GIFerator creates an opportunity to be hyper-connected to fans throughout the NFL season and beyond. “In the U.S. the NFL is a 365-day-a-year sport. Whether you’re talking a out the draft, the pre-season, the post-season–it’s year-round. There’s no reason why this can’t be year-round,” says Stevenson. He notes that one of the fastest growing aspects of Madden NFL is the Madden Ultimate team, a cross between Madden NFL and fantasy football. “ In the past year or two the engagement on that particular mode is around the clock, year round. And when the super bowl ended, we had more people playing Madden Ultimate Team than at any point we’d had during the season. We imagine that when events happen in your Madden team, people will create GIFs.”
In all, the Madden NFL 15 campaign, including the “Madden Season” online film are indicative of how EA’s marketing is evolving to reach new audiences. Stevenson says the decision to create a web film for the launch of this year’s game was a web film was a huge departure for a company used to creating TV campaigns. “To have a three-minute digital piece was frankly something we were a little nervous about,” he says, adding that marketing within EA as a whole has undergone “a massive transformation.”
“I would say this is the best example so far of the art truly meeting the science. This is the art of engaging a conversation and creating art in GIFs, but all informed with data. We’re no longer throwing darts at a board. This is a real-time, highly targeted execution that allows us to have personalized and hopefully a long-term relationship with our fans that we hope they’re passionate about.”