Gaming Exploded in 2020—and the Trend Will Continue in 2021

One bright spot of 2020 has been the rise of gaming as a way to connect and unwind during these massively trying times. This year’s activations and events brought in some of the highest recorded ad revenue and set records for viewership, cementing gaming’s status at the pinnacle of the entertainment industry. Ketchum’s own research shows that 70 percent of parents and consumers believe video games have a positive influence on their children’s lives—a sentiment that has shifted dramatically over the years.

On the industry side, the lines between movies, TV, music and gaming continue to blur. Last week, famed movie director and writer Christopher Nolan presented the Game of the Year award during the annual The Game Awards, celebrating storytelling and world-building within the immersive universes of games. As the general population continues to dedicate more and more of their leisure time to digital worlds, the opportunities for marketing promotions, gear drops, PR and more will only keep leveling up.

What does this mean for brands in 2021? Here’s a recap of the year that was and a look ahead.

Virtual Worlds in Gaming

The Sports Marketing team at Ketchum is bullish on virtual experiences in games or platforms to recreate IRL experiences. Fortnite hosted an ongoing series of immersive in-game concerts across music genres with artists including Travis Scott, Dillon Francis, Steve Aoki, deadmau5, Diplo and others, with Minecraft (Electric Blockaloo, Mat Zo & Friends) and Roblox (Lil Nas X, Ava Max) following suit. Each of these events were attended by tens of millions of people in game, with recordings shared widely across every social media platform. One standout was the recent ComplexLand event, a virtual game-like experience that replaced the cultural icon’s ComplexCon. Users were able to create their own avatar and wander a digital world filled with topical panels, live art installations, musical performances, with promotional giveaways, sales and other experiences from brands.

2021 prediction: Even as IRL events return, expect these virtual destinations to continue as a way to make events more accessible to a global audience.

Esports Leagues Shift to Online

When COVID-19 canceled in-person events, esports quickly and organically shifted to online-only. Esports were born online—and now, with advanced technologies in place, experiences became even more dynamic and saw record engagement numbers from the likes of the Call of Duty League, Overwatch League and League of Legends circuits

2021 prediction: These leagues will continue expanding their technological innovations and engaging new audiences hungry to watch pro-level competition. The creation of these leagues proves there is space for brands to reach out directly to their audience to build teams and create historically large and engaging events that shift or create a culture.

Twitch Explosion

Live streaming in gaming and entertainment, with chat features and e-commerce extensions, was one of the most effective ways to carry out a brand campaign in 2020. The per hour viewership of Twitch jumped over 30 percent year over year and is expected to report a total ad revenue of $213.8M, showing that the engagement in live streaming content is trending upwards.

2021 prediction: Brands on Twitch should keep their eye on one major feature—the “Just Chatting” channel, which is experiencing exponential growth and gives brands a more focused platform to deliver messages.

Traditional Sports Turning to Gaming

With live sports on hold, traditional leagues turned to gaming to entertain and keep fans engaged. It was normal to see pro gamers and pro NBA players shoot hoops in NBA2K on ESPN before the return of official NBA competition. EA Sports and Madden have had a massive year, as the NFL turned to the sports gaming icon to host the Pro Bowl this year and other events. And both the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series and Formula 1 Virtual Grand Prix series kept drivers and fans engaged with fast and furious racing.

2021 prediction: With the collaboration between athletes and gaming further blurring the lines between the two worlds, there will be even more opportunities for brands to create partnerships at the cross-section of traditional sports and gaming.

Accessibility Continues to Grow

This year the industry and social media spheres turned a corner to make gaming more accessible to all and specific developers and technologies were recognized. As diversity, equity and inclusion grow in importance, the historically un-inclusive trend in gaming is giving way to a broadening audience taking active steps to diversify and become more inclusive. Developers are giving more focus to adding features, technology and content to help games be played and enjoyed by a broader audience. The first annual Video Game Accessibility Awards were live-streamed to celebrate accessibility in video games but unable to secure official sponsors given complications from the pandemic. Further, The Game Awards introduced a new award category starting in 2020, Innovation in Accessibility.

2021 prediction: Forward-thinking brands will see this white space and engage with this cause to align with their core values, engage with a more diverse audience, and enhance their corporate reputation.

Consoles Versus Cloud

While the launch of the new Xbox and PlayStation consoles have dominated the last quarter of 2020, cloud gaming services from the likes of Amazon, Google and others are iterating and innovating. In 2020, digital game sales exceeded physical game sales for the first time in the industry’s history, with gamers opting for direct downloads of games or subscription services. As a result, brand access to audiences has expanded greatly because of consumers’ ability to see a game in-console and download and play instead of finding retailers or ordering online.

2021 prediction: The cloud will open up more channels for brands to deliver innovative messaging directly to target audiences.

The Three Ds for 2021

Keep these three watchwords in mind as you fine-tune your marketing and communication strategies for 2021:

  • Diverse – Diversity is crucial in who you work with, what messaging is presented to your audience and what games and you partner with. A smart and thoroughly thought out diversity plan is key to any program.
  • Digital – Recent news of vaccine deployment is encouraging, but we must stay grounded in digital and remote activations first, with IRL events as a potential bonus in 2021. This year has shown us that the possibilities of online executions are endless, and we should continue to find new and creative ways to push digital.
  • Dynamic – Try new things. Test and learn. Study what’s been done before and do something that is still uncharted territory. Work with creative up and comers, fresh faces in the industry and give new voices a chance to be heard.

Passionate about gaming? Curious about how your brand can play in this world? We’re ready to hear from you.

Vice President, Ketchum

Jon Stone is a seasoned public relations professional who leads teams across sectors including gaming and esports, enterprise technology, financial services, professional consulting services and medical devices. He has in-depth experience guiding communications programs that drive earned media, new business, positive thought leadership and elevated industry positioning for his clients. In addition to deep traditional media expertise, Jon also has background in driving social media campaigns, event planning and business and blog writing.

Jon specializes in the intersection of gaming culture, esports, mainstream sponsorships and the media and influencer landscape, working with top-tier media outlets to secure coverage for his clients.

Jon holds a BBA in Marketing from The George Washington University and currently resides in Dallas, TX.


Nashanta is an Account Coordinator on the influencer team, based in Los Angeles. Her passions are all things graphic—novels, video games and art. She has experience in gaming—both hardware and software, tech and lifestyle verticals.