How influencer marketing made EA’s Apex Legends release a success

March 28, 2019

Written by Katherine K. Ellis

In the last month, influencer marketing drove massive success for a previously unknown video game going up against a monster competitor, and they did it with little precursory fanfare.

Influencer marketing is not a new concept. Retracing its history will take you back to the first highly recognized “influencers:” Santa Claus & Tony the Tiger. Characters yes, but ones with their own unique perspectives and personification of products.

We’re far from that world now, in an age where this iteration of influencers can sell out a product simply by linking to it on their Instagram. No longer limited to forking over hundreds of millions for traditional marketing, brands and agencies are able to leverage relationships with people who are already intimately plugged in to their desired audience. Probably most important: the ROI is immediately clear.

Electronic Arts (EA) announced Apex Legends on a Sunday and released the game the next day. They dove headfirst into a market dominated by Epic Games’ Fortnite, the wildly popular battle royale first person shooter (FPS) that can’t seem to stay out of the news. It was completely atypical for a video game release, and particularly for EA, which spends over $600 million in more traditional marketing every year.

Apex vs. Fortnite engagements to web content Jan. 30 – Feb. 14

Generating hype is crucial for any new release. There’s usually a long-awaited build up prior to a huge announcement, and a clear campaign targeting potential players months before it’s available to play. But with Apex Legends, now taking the gaming industry by storm, no one but developers Respawn Entertainment knew about it until a small press viewing the week before.

When Electronic Arts (EA) announced in 2017 that they’d be spending more on influencers, it wasn’t game-changing, it was expected. Most companies are advised to allot some of their budget for influencer marketing and we’ve seen influencers included in rolling out new products to their audiences. But influencer marketing is often a smaller part of the entire strategy, rarely center stage as the entire plan for a release.

Their key to success here was Twitch, the live video streaming platform, which pulls in 15 million daily viewers on average and its 2.2 million daily broadcasters stream directly to their target demographic. Fortnite alone accounts for 14 percent of views and 14 percent of viewing hours on the entire platform.
As such, EA went directly to the most popular streamers, including Tyler Blevins, known to his fans as ‘Ninja’ and reportedly paid him $1 million to play and stream Apex Legends the same day it was released.

He rose to fame streaming their competitor, built a following, and EA knew he was directly communicating with the consumers they wanted to target. As has been written about at length, this gamble in influencer marketing paid off. EA was worried about releasing a free-to-play game with in-game monetization, which it had been burned in the past for (Star Wars Battlefront II) but knew their audience was dialed into Twitch, and followed these streamers.

So. What happened?

  • Jan. 14: EA takes heat about their Star Wars game in media coverage
  • Feb. 3: Rumblings about a new battle royale game from the creators of Titanfall start to make waves on social media
  • Feb. 4th: Apex Legends is released, amassing 2.5 million players on its first day (announced, streamed and released same-day)
  • Feb 11th: hits 25 million players in a week

EA vs. Apex Legends engagements to web content during its release

Media coverage and social media interactions peak a week after the live-stream and release, maintaining momentum over a month later, at its lowest point still garnering 50k interactions on web coverage. One week after release it reached 25 million players, and by the end of its first month it reached 50 million players. Apex Legends quickly rose to the most-watched game spot on Twitch, clocking more than 390,000 concurrent viewers watching live only one day after the game dropped.

Apex vs Fortnite engagements to web content the week of Apex launch

The press starts writing about Apex in the last week of January. Ninja and others stream Feb. 5, you can see in the data when streaming took off and how Apex’s coverage spiked around 5 days after the campaign. Influencers were paid for the first 24 hours after the game dropped but some continued to stream and play (providing excellent coverage and buy-in from their fans) long after they were required to.

It’s worth noting that competitor Fortnite held an in-game concert with Marshmello on Feb. 2, just when coverage for Apex’s release was starting to fizzle in, that had more “attendees” than Woodstock (yes, really) and yet, Apex’s coverage begins to drown them out soon after.

Fortnite’s release and engagements to web content Jul. 2017 – Jul. 2018

Fortnite’s initial release had a more traditional strategy, thoughtfully promoting Alpha and Beta testing as early as 2014 before releasing free-to-play in September of 2017. Even with its obvious success now, Fortnite didn’t hit the same numbers for earned media engagement as Apex during its release period, peaking at just over 50k engagements, while Apex’s stealth release peaked at over 600k. Even in March 2018, after announcing Fortnite’s mobile release, its engagement spiked at just under 500k.

Fortnite vs Apex engagements to web content from May 2018 – Mar. 2019

Additionally, Fortnite’s past year and rise to fame hasn’t been without multiple crises. Engagement is meaningful and can provide a glimpse into public reception, but sentiment matters, particularly where video games are concerned.

Most of Fortnite’s top stories that hit close to 2 million total engagements (measured by a combination of likes, shares and comments) were negative and had little to do with actual gameplay: (1) calling attention to predators using Fortnite to lure children into chat rooms; (2) they were then sued for stealing dance moves; (3) the only positive coverage came at the third spike when Fortnite’s creator bought up 40,000 acres of trees and; (4) the final spike in this graph ties fortnite to the Momo challenge. That blue peak refers to the launch of Apex Legends, and after the Momo challenge died down, Apex’s media presence has maintained higher engagement than Fortnite.

Exploring Fortnite’s spikes in engagement further shows the sentiment behind the engagement:

As far as number of players go, Apex’s first couple months look promising. Influencer marketing helped create the potential to eclipse Fortnite if it maintains momentum, but many are quick to remind fans that Fortnite isn’t even close to “dead.” At the time of writing, Fortnite is still the second-most watched game on Twitch (behind League of Legends), with Apex Legends claiming third. Though certainly nothing to scoff at in a market where Fortnite was once considered untouchable, what can’t be denied is the influence of these streamers, whose gameplay catapulted Apex Legends into an overnight hit.

If you want to track your own web coverage or see who else is writing about gaming, check out NewsWhip Spike & Analytics.

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Katherine K. Ellis

Katherine is a Content Strategist for NewsWhip working at the confluence of journalism and marketing.

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