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Is video games licensing finally growing up?

BLE brand director Anna Knight asks whether licensing has finally woken up to the potential of video games.

At Brand Licensing Europe last year, we launched a Gaming Activation Zone. We were astounded that such a huge part of the entertainment industry remained relatively untapped in terms of licensing, especially when you consider the vast opportunities it has to offer. The zone had an area where visitors could play the games, as well as a ‘shop’ to help retailers and licensees visualise how games IP can translate to product and sales. We also hosted a gaming session in the Licensing Academy. It was packed out.

That was only just over seven months ago, yet so much seems to have happened since then that, as the games industry readies itself to descend on LA for E3, I’ve been left pondering whether video games licensing has finally grown up.

Video games as culture and art is certainly being taken more seriously. In April, the V&A announced Design/Play/Disrupt, an exhibition opening in September, which will explore the design and culture of 12 ‘disruptive’ video games. As I wrote this column, Radio 4’s Today Programme are interviewing The Guardian’s games editor Keza MacDonald on the 40th anniversary of Space Invaders.

Licensed video games have been around for many years now – anyone remember Paris Hilton’s mobile game back in 2006? Nope. Let’s leave that there then. But on Tuesday evening, that ever so slightly better-known brand Pokémon streamed a press conference live from Japan to announce its next three games with Nintendo – Pokémon Quest, Let’s Go Pikachu and Let’s Go Eevee – each designed for newcomers to the Pokémon games, with a focus on younger generations and non-gamers that have been pulled in by Pokémon Go: a keen consumer products audience.

Fortnite

Licensing video games has also never been bigger. Last week, Epic, the developer and publisher of the phenomenally successful Fortnite, which has prompted a mass of articles about ‘how much screen time is safe for your kids’, appointed IMG as its exclusive worldwide licensing agent.

Activision Blizzard unveiled Hasbro as master toy licensee, plus plans for Overwatch LEGO, at Licensing Expo. Rovio also announced its next ‘content roadmap’ for Angry Birds, hinging a flurry of activity around Sony Pictures’ theatrical release of Angry Birds 2 in September.

Leaving ‘normal’ video games to one side for a moment, let’s look at what ‘little sister’ esports have been up to. And, wow. Just wow.

Recent research from Juniper estimates that by 2022, 858 million people worldwide – that’s one in 10 of us – will be watching gaming content online. Much of that increase has been powered by the success of the ‘last-man standing’ genre including the Battle Royale titles. Fortnite and PUBG have also played their part by appealing to new audiences, helping to expand the reach and interest in esports. Of course, it’s not just the content that has driven the meteoric rise of esports. The prize money helps. This year’s pot for Fortnite, for example, is $100 million.

It’s also becoming increasingly global: the first ever Dota 2 major tournament finally took place in the UK over the May bank holiday – teams competed in Birmingham for a cut of the $1 million prize pool. That was just a qualifying round, though, for ‘The International’, which has a prize pool of $24 million up for grabs. I might start practising!

Anna Knight is brand director of Brand Licensing Europe, which takes place October 9-11 2018 at Olympia London. Registration for BLE opens next week at www.brandlicensing.eu.

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