Online gaming in China has doubled in six years, and was valued at around 403 billion yuan in 2022 (US$450 million). Esports, as well as increased participation by women in gaming and esports, has driven the phenomenon further.
Just under half of the total Chinese population, which is 1.4 billion, is believed to be gamers. It’s hard to keep up with the growth of esports in China. China is positioned to lead the world. In fact, the Chinese esports user base is estimated at over 480 million players.
The Chinese government, however, has set time limits on gaming, particularly in relation to its use by young people. This has had a severe impact on both the activity itself and the award of licenses. But 2023 has been better for the industry and there are signs of recovery as regulation has become more relaxed.
The market is focused on mobile apps, not desktop and console games. It offers opportunities for brands in a fast-paced and flexible environment. This makes it an ideal marketing opportunity beyond the usual physical spaces.
While the gaming and esports phenomena in China are huge, the advent of in-game marketing is relatively recent. Unlike other mature environments; films, TV, and so on, in-game marketing started in around 2014 and grew exponentially. It all began with brand logos appearing in-game. In less than 10 years, the emphasis has shifted to implementing a natural way for brands to appear in the gaming environment, become involved with the virtual world and be part of the gaming experience.
The touchpoints with consumers are endless. From the physical world, to online games, to esports and then back to the physical world via mechanisms like collectors’ cards, brands now inhabit whole marketing ecosystems, and they must participate in a credible way if consumers are to engage.
Measuring in-game marketing success is crucial. In the period prior to 2018, most brands advertising in-game marked those efforts down to innovation. Brands were largely looking for engagement rather than a return on investment (ROI). Post-Covid, the global economy has struggled and returns on investment are vital. Now Chinese clients are looking for direct benefits, not only media ROI and marketing ROI, but they’re also asking for a positive impact on actual sales.
There are more than 15 sponsors for each of the top esports leagues in China. And they are all leading brands in their categories. For many brands, esports perform as a bridge between gaming and physical sports played by real teams with real competitions.
What the gaming and esports environments give is a complementary virtual world alongside the physical world to play in so that the marketing ecosystem exists for the brand in both dimensions.