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How Apex Legends used influencer marketing to oust Fortnite

5 April 2019
A promo shot for Apex Legends | How Apex Legends used influencer marketing to oust Fortnite | Neon

At the start of February, a new free-to-play battle royale game was released to the public.

Apex Legends fuses elements from a variety of other titles, but is most similar to the immensely popular Fortnite in that players are pitted against each other in squads and have to scavenge for weapons and fight as the map gradually becomes smaller until there’s a winner.

The game seemed to come from nowhere because its promotion was so unconventional. The battle royale space is crowded, with Fornite, H1Z1 and PUBG all being released in the space of a year and, in the case of Fortnite, receiving plenty of media attention. So Apex developer Respawn Entertainment and publisher EA Sports tried something different by avoiding traditional routes and focusing instead on influencer marketing to slowly build word-of-mouth.

The strategy proved a huge success and Apex enjoyed an incredible first month that saw it oust Fortnite as the most streamed game on Twitch. So why did it work so well?

Shrouded in secrecy

There’s usually a standard approach to the release of a new game. First, it’s quietly developed over a number of months and years and a few strategically-placed leaks take place to test the water with the target audience. Then it’s aggressively marketed to generate pre-orders and build momentum for the full release, a process that typically peaks with media coverage and retail promotions.

Apex ignored all of this. Rather than funnel money into costly pre-launch trailers and teasers, the game was shrouded in secrecy. It was only in the days before it became available for purchase that marketing activity truly started. A number of popular streamers pushed out cryptic messages indicating that a new battle royale title was on the horizon, but title wasn’t named and no clear details were offered.

A screengrab of a tweet from @CouRageJD | How Apex Legends used influencer marketing to oust Fortnite | Neon

By doing this, Respawn manoeuvred the esports ecosystem brilliantly. They gained awareness because of the high number of followers the influencers have and built a sense of excitement because of the trust that people place in them. Simply put: if CouRage thinks this mysterious new game looks cool then it must be.

Ninja stars

Respawn’s major splash arrived when they enlisted some of esports’ biggest names (Ninja, Shroud and Dr.Disrespect) to play the game live and on stream. It’s been reported that Ninja was paid $1 million to participate in the campaign, and while this sounds like an expensive investment, it’s a smart one.

Ninja has a huge audience. At the time of writing, he’s gained nearly 13 million Twitch followers and has attracted a peak audience of 83,000 people to a single stream. Indeed, he’s become so famous that he appeared in an advert for the NFL during the 2019 Super Bowl.

Certainly his reach doesn’t rival that which brands advertising during major TV events enjoy (for example, 26.5 million people watched England’s World Cup semi-final defeat last summer), but everyone tuning in is highly relevant and highly engaged. The fans are there because they want to be there, and they hang on every word Ninja says.

The emotive power of live streams shouldn’t be overlooked either. As he plays the game, Ninja is experiencing all the emotions players will experience while playing it themselves, and those watching are feeling the very same emotions. They’re all connected together – Ninja with his fans, and the fans with Ninja and each other – in an emotion-driven moment fuelled by the game.

As such, the stream doesn’t really feel like an advert. Ninja is just playing the game as he ordinarily would do when streaming and viewers are watching it, as they would ordinarily do. There’s no hard sell, no feeling that the audience is being advertised to. Just a perfect union between the promotion of the game and an entertaining stream of it.

And it worked like a charm. Apex surpassed a million unique players just after launch, made $92m in its first month alone, and became the most-watched title on Twitch, with 63.7 million live hours streamed. Not bad for an up-and-comer in a genre dominated by Fortnite.

Let the game speak for itself

Respawn successfully condensed the marketing for Apex down to a very short period of time, and connected directly with the target audience through people they not only look up to and respect, but also feel an emotional connection with.

The gaming audience can be fickle at the best of times, and Apex’s publisher EA has had notable troubles thanks to its use of microtransactions. Respawn’s approach didn’t give people the chance to be angry, for them to moan about the release on Reddit or send snarky Tweets.

Instead, they put their faith in the product and developed a strategy built on generating trust and authenticity. As the game’s lead producer Drew McCoy said when he spoke to Eurogamer: they ‘just let the game speak for itself’.

Would you ever feel confident letting a product speak for itself like this, or do you think this success was just a fluke? Tweet @createdbyneon and let us know.

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