The opportunity for sports brands in ‘The Metaverse’





Earlier this month I left the warm confines and storied halls of Wimbledon to start a new creative agency - Doppelgänger - alongside developer studio, The Gang, focused on helping brands enter the metaverse.


But what is ‘the metaverse’? Where is it? And more relevantly for this readership, can it really help rights holders and sports brands connect with new audiences?




It’s easy to get lost in the slew of jargon that accompanies conversations around ‘the metaverse’. It often feels like a never ending game of lingo bingo.


web3, interoperability, VR, AR, XR, crypto, blockchain, NFTs, Roblox, Sandbox etc.


Even the pre-eminent thinker on the space, Matthew Ball, who dedicated the first 70 pages of his book attempting to define the term, came up with the rather meandering:


“A massively scaled and interoperable network of real-time rendered 3D virtual worlds that can be experienced synchronously and persistently by an effectively unlimited number of users with an individual sense of presence and with continuity of data, such as identity, history, entitlements, objects, communications and payments”


Clear?


Boiled down to its basics, ‘the metaverse’ can be described as a collection of virtual spaces and experiences supercharged by new technology. In these virtual worlds people do exactly what they do in the real world (and on the current internet): connect with others, play, learn, buy stuff and express themselves.


In the not-too-distant future this will manifest in the form of rich, immersive, 3D experiences that are enjoyed by thousands of people concurrently, although the consensus is that we’re a few years from that point. However, in the same way that the internet did not simply appear one day complete with all of the apps we now know and rely upon, so too will the metaverse and its opportunities creep up on us.


In fact in many ways it is already here. There are already a number of ‘proto-metaverse’ platforms that are being visited by tens of millions of users each day and herein lies the immediate opportunities for brands.


Roblox - a platform where users create their own mini worlds, games and experiences - has over 250 million monthly active users who spend an average of over 2.5 hours a day on the platform - jumping from experience to experience. Fortnite meanwhile has just under 100 million monthly active users. And while these titles are typically labelled as ‘games’ that doesn’t do justice to the richness of experience. This is where friends meet, chat and play after work and school.


Beyond gaming and social meet-ups, they are also entertainment platforms. 27 million people experienced Travis Scott’s performance live within Fortnite for his album launch while 33 million joined Lil Nas X in Roblox for a motion captured performance. Replay views of Scott’s event alone have reached over 120 million.


No wonder then that there’s been a rush from the largest brands in the world to get their slice of those eyeballs. From Nike to Gucci, O2 to NFL, it seems like the biggest names from every category are setting up roots in the ‘verse. The Gang themselves have already built more branded experiences on Roblox than any other studio - with many more in the pipeline.


But as with all new technologies and media channels, there is a risk that marketing departments will clamour to jump on the bandwagon while losing sight of what it is they’re actually trying to achieve for their businesses.


For Wimbledon, one thing we were always cognisant of was trying to remain relevant for younger audiences and also expanding our global footprint. As we’re constantly (and unfairly) reminded by all marketing theorists, Gen Z and Gen Alpha have the attention spans of a goldfish with ADHD and aren’t interested in sitting down for an entire 4 hour tennis match. Similarly, you were unlikely to get most fans in Thailand or Brazil tuning in at Silly O’Clock for a live match. While short form, localised content can go some way to keep those fans updated on events at SW19, it would often lack any real depth of engagement.


Cue a Roblox activation.


For this year’s Championships we recreated Wimbledon on the platform. Users visited a virtual All England Lawn Tennis Club where they could play on the hallowed turf of Centre Court, watch that day’s highlights from the real life tournament, meet with a virtual Andy Murray, and buy merch for their avatars. We saw over 11 million visitors over the fortnight - over 20x more than those able to attend SW19 in person. And each of those visitors hung around for an average of 8 minutes per visit. Not quite the same as a 4 hour match but far better than passively consuming 6 seconds of TikTok or Instagram content.




What’s more, coming back to the business problem, the people we reached were bullseye target market. 80% of the visitors to WimbleWorld were under 24 and the top 3 markets were USA, SE Asia and LATAM.


And while doing innovative things in the new media channel du jour has always been effective for boosting brand scores and reaching younger audiences, metaverse activations also offer more immediate commercial benefits.


Firstly, brands can sell in-game branded items - essentially merchandise for avatars - and make a direct return. But perhaps more interestingly for sports brands, the creation of these new virtual spaces increase the inventory available to sell or pass on to sponsors as added value - which should in theory increase the valuation of those sponsorships. At Wimbledon, AmEx had the exclusive presenting rights to the Virtual Hill - a proprietary virtual platform that we created from scratch - while Ralph Lauren were able to sell digital versions of their Wimbledon collection in the WimbleWorld Roblox store.


The next realm to be disrupted by the metaverse is likely to be broadcast. Other than the ability to pause/rewind, the format of live sports broadcasting hasn’t significantly changed since its inception back in the early 20th century. With the emerging technology of volumetric 3D being developed by the likes of Unity, non-stadium-going-fans will be able to position themselves wherever they please within the action in real time: courtside, centre circle, wicket keeper, wherever. Man City are already exploring this approach via their partnership with Sony although a lot will be dependent on pre-existing broadcast deals.


More than just observing from these perspectives, fans will be able to participate as well. The familiar groan of “my nan could have made that shot” will now be put to the test as we’ll be able to recreate the matchplay situation in VR. “Hand your nan the Quest headset and give her a go then.”


Clearly none of these things will be equal replacements for attending a live event. There is after all no better feeling than standing at a gig arm-in-arm with a stranger as you both butcher your favourite song. Or enjoying a shower of beer in celebration after Mitrovic scores yet another winner. However, as the rationale for the ill-conceived European Super League showed, there are tens of millions of fans around the world who crave a substitute for IRL attendance. Therefore any ways which make those experiences richer for the remote fans can only be a good (read: lucrative) thing for rights holders.


With the technology developing at such a rapid rate and so many new opportunities presenting themselves, we at Doppelgänger are very excited to be part of helping brands enter into the space.


If you’d like to explore the ways your brand could have a presence in the metaverse or Web3, please get in touch with me at max@thegang.io