Electronic Arts was arguably the least well-received press conference of E3 2017. There are multiple reasons for this, most of them stemming from the fact that most of the press conference focused on their EA Sports brand– the lowlight being an elongated segment with the hosts of the Football (European) podcast, “Men in Blazers”, whose routine was met with a decidedly silent crowd reaction.
But what stood out to me, more than the celebrity appearances, the non-directed, 14-minute gameplay demo of Star Wars: Battlefront II, or literally any of the other games they showed. What really put me off throughout their press conference was how they tried to position themselves and their audience in relation to their products.
The term “influencers” has become a common phrase in the industry in recent years, and although “influencer marketing” has long been a common method of advertising products, it’s almost always been a term used inside the industry, only. It wasn’t until the last two years that it became a common video game industry term to describe personalities and writers that viewers may watch on through let’s plays or streams on YouTube or Twitch. But where it really started making its way into the wider games industry lexicon was when EA used it in their first EA Play presentation last year.
The term “influencer” has a wide range of uses within the marketing industry. You might have seen car commercials where “real people” reacting positively to the brand’s products. Hell, in EA’s own 2017 press conference, they used their Star Wars: Battlefront II “gamechangers” segment to essentially the same effect. If it isn’t obvious, the idea is that consumers tend to listen to opinions they can relate to more, which is more likely to happen if they see other people that appear to be in the same position related to the product being sold. Twitch and YouTube personalities may command large followings, but in the grand scheme of things, they’re still consumers looking at games as something to buy and play– which makes them prime candidates to be used as “influencers” by publishers.
But again, the specific term “influencers” refers to how the publishers view those personalities and lays out how they want to use them– to influence their viewers into buying their products. But that had always been a term used solely within the industry. Sure viewers generally understand that’s what publishers want to do, and even in those car commercials, most people likely assume the “influencers” are just paid actors pretending to be regular people. But, generally speaking, when marketing your products, you’re not supposed to tell them that that’s how you view them.
EA basically decided to pull back the thin veneer of authenticity and shamelessly tell viewers, “here are the people we’re using to influence you to buy our products.” Add on the fact that most of those “influencers” were likely paid to be there (late last year, EA’s hand was forced by FTC scrutiny to make “influencers” label sponsored content), and you really have to question what the thought process was from the marketing team to start making that word their go-to description of Twitch and YouTube personalities.
And it wasn’t even the most blatantly shameless decision in word choice at their own press conference. No, that award goes to whomever it was that wrote Janina Gavankar’s (bless) preamble for Star Wars: Battlefront II.
Janina may have presented herself as an outside observer of Star Wars Battlefront, and to her credit, she came off as very genuine, but at the end of the day, she’s still employed by EA and while she was onstage, spoke for them. It’s a little comical how she, and others representing EA, tried to frame their first Battlefront game– one heavily criticized for its lack of content and what many saw as a greedy DLC structure– as somehow unrelated to the company they’re representing.
It’s hard to believe anyone heard “they listened to us” multiple times during the press conference and didn’t immediately think “what do you mean ‘us’? Weren’t you the ones who published the first game?” Despite clearly having listened to criticisms and improved greatly on the first game– there appears to be a wealth of content, a smarter progression system, and a consumer friendly DLC structure– but it’s also more than a little disingenuous to try to distance yourself from the game that you’re responsible for in a way that seems like an attempt to downplay the first’s problem in order to sell the sequel.
Now, neither are particularly egregious marketing missteps– or at least, not compared to the other areas of the EA Play presentation that garnered criticism– but it’s a reminder that companies, in an attempt to sell games, have to be mindful of the rhetoric they use in order to not come off as laughably shameless. Because consumers are smart enough to see right through it.