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When It Comes to Ads in Games, These Guys Aren't Playing Around

Electronic Arts is out to master the delicate dance of marketing and gaming

Photo: Chris Gaede

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Team Detroit is late.

Reps from the WPP agency were supposed to arrive for their meeting with Electronic Arts at 2 p.m. on June 5, but the client, Ford Motor Co., seems to have its time zones mixed up. But it’s no problem—this is L.A., after all.

This week is a particularly busy one for the city. The Kings are trying to close out the Stanley Cup finals (successfully, it turns out). President Obama is in town for a fund-raiser. And some 50,000 people (at least 90 percent of them men), including the guys from EA, Team Detroit and Ford, have descended here for the Electronic Entertainment Expo, better known as E3, the video game industry’s annual confab, where eardrums and retinas are gradually destroyed amid one of the world’s great sensory overloads.

E3 is itself a small city of wall-to-wall video games, projected on giant screens and cranked up to multiple decibels. And front and center in the South Hall of the vast Los Angeles Convention Center, EA has built its own makeshift metropolis, featuring clusters of massive HD sets beaming the latest versions of megahit games like Madden NFL 13, NHL 13, Need for Speed and Battlefield 3. Some EA guests are led on walking tours while others are sequestered in gaming booths, trying out new titles. Every 15 minutes or so, Baltimore Ravens linebacker legend Ray Lewis (his virtual representation, actually) makes a booming, impassioned speech about leaving your mark after you’re gone. In between, it’s mostly the sound of explosions and gunfire.

Upstairs in EA’s spaceship-like booth at the show, its execs dart back and forth, scarfing down sandwiches and prepping for their next meeting—all the while trying to figure out where to now squeeze in Team Detroit. Come to think of it, “booth” might not be the best term—when your booth has an upstairs and is flanked by a security detail, it’s really not a booth anymore. But neither is E3 the typical industry gathering. As if to drive home the point, there’s Snoop Dogg and his entourage, wandering around EA’s digs. E3 attendees, decked out in their Halo T-shirts, barely notice. This sort of thing just happens at E3. And it makes sense that Snoop stops by—he is a gamer, after all, and has lent his likeness and/or music to several titles, including Fear & Respect Tekken Tag Tournament 2.

But what is Team Detroit doing here?

Actually, it was one of hundreds of agencies and clients to show up. A few years ago, gaming specialists from a handful of agencies would go to E3. This year, EA hosted 50 meetings, up from about 30 last year. Unilever sent more than 20 reps to L.A. Jay Sampson, evp, global sales at L.A.-based gaming/media company Machinima, scheduled 63 meetings. “It’s definitely sexy to come to things like this,” says Chris D’Amico, svp, group creative director at Hill Holliday. “Gaming is becoming a real media channel now.”

That E3 is still a destination will come as a surprise to those who thought in-game advertising was dead, or at least tapped out. It’s been two years since Microsoft shut down its in-game division Massive. Rival firms Double Fusion and IGA Worldwide essentially ceased operations in the U.S. after burning through piles of VC cash (Double Fusion's website now reads "coming soon" while IGA's New York phone number now yields a busy signal). Research firms such as eMarketer and Yankee Group, which published bullish reports on in-game ad spending in the mid-2000s, haven’t bothered with the space in years.

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