“Then Iron Man happened...”
Peer Schneider is the man who runs IGN, making him arguably one of the most powerful men in games media today. One of the original gaming websites, IGN is now far more than just a gaming brand, and has a much broader presence than just a site – much of which can be dated back to Marvel’s 2008 film.
“Suddenly what used to be this niche culture, this small geek audience, became mainstream entertainment...”
And it looks mainstream from where we’re standing – a large, darkened conference room way above the bustling halls of Gamescom. The room is half-filled by a slick TV studio with all the production kit you’d expect, while numerous members of staff are hard at work editing and disseminating huge amounts of content.
“And so we set ourselves the task to become a video-first business.”
IGN started life as a website, or rather a series of console-specific websites, which then came together as channels of IGN.com. There’s been a lot of changes since then, but the core audience remains the same.
“In 1999, we started serving people who self-identified as gamers, people who are into video games to varying degrees, with related content: movies, TV, sci-fi, even wrestling at one point,” says Schneider.
Now, IGN serves video to that audience on practically every platform imaginable: YouTube, Facebook, Twitch, Snapchat, the Xbox and PlayStation dashboards, and many more, on top of continuing to operate its own site, of course.
“When we pivoted to video, our initial focus was: ‘How do we convert more readers into watchers?’ So the first approach was to take what worked in article content and make it as video, too. We called that the ‘watch-read’ initiative,” Schneider continues. “So when you encounter a piece of content on the IGN homepage, you could choose whether to watch or read it, and that was successful in getting some people to watch.”
The next step was to look beyond IGN.com itself. “We expanded to other platforms because we firmly believe that consumers don’t like to travel; they want to consume the content wherever they are right now,” he says.
“So we said Facebook is not a traffic referral engine for IGN; Facebook is the place where IGN content lives. So we started publishing videos natively to Facebook and Twitter, and then Snapchat – a big platform in the US for a younger audience.”
Those platforms are now primarily mobile, too, Schneider explains: “Consumption has moved almost entirely to mobile phones, to the point where certain sections of IGN are 90 per cent mobile traffic.”
Naturally, more platforms means more pairs of eyes, says Schneider: “From a company efficiency perspective, you want to, of course, create one piece of content and put it out on as many platforms as possible and get eyeballs on that content. That’s how you get paid, for the eyeballs you’re able to attract.”
It’s rarely that simple, however, as each platform has its own challenges. Plus, consumers increasingly expect video that is styled to their particular tastes.
“The first pieces of content we adapted were for YouTube, where it quickly became clear that there is an audience that will not consume a traditional game review,” says Schneider. “They want to see someone they trust or love or find entertaining; they want to see them play a game for a little while.
“There’s a huge difference between a ‘classic core gamer’ as we call them, versus what we call a ‘modern core gamer’ – someone who is more into voice-driven content. So the one side wants authority content, they want the review from IGN to tell them this is a 9/10, go out and buy this. It’s the brand power leading.
“Whereas a younger gamer, a modern core gamer, will want something that is driven by one of their favourite personalities, more conversational in tone – a completely different voice from the ‘authority voice’.”
"Facebook content needed to be a lot shorter, and the consumption patterns were very much silent viewing."Peer Schneider, IGN
So while IGN continued to create traditional review content, it also added ‘The First Minutes’ where it highlighted the beginning of a game without any commentary whatsoever. It also branched out into Let’s Play content with plenty of personality.
“I think that was one of the big dangers of moving into the social and YouTube era for media in general – not realising that you needed to proudly put your faces on the front, and become a ‘voice’ led publication,” he says. “Obviously, TV programmes have done that for decades, building up trust by having a journalist you know and remember. They may not always have written the story or produced the piece, but they were the spokespeople.”
Now those spokespeople are influencers: “Influencers are content celebrities,” Schneider continues. “They’re very focused on a narrow part of the entertainment or games space and they’re really good at it. They have a rapport with the audience and I think that’s the important part.”
YouTube may have moved games coverage to video, but it was still preaching to the converted. To really reach out and spread the word, IGN turned to social networks.
“Our mission was to make games media mainstream,” says Schneider. “With social networks, initially everyone was interested in food, travel and mainstream news, but gaming was often overlooked. So we fought the good fight and kept on telling the story of how big gaming is and how many consumers want to just watch it.”
That story is certainly hitting home now: “We partnered with Twitter earlier this year where we livestreamed E3 to its platform, to the point where if you logged into Twitter, you would see the IGN livestream from E3 play. We saw 45m views just on the Twitter E3 content. The audience was there and waiting for it.”
Creating content for Facebook, however, has brought its own set of challenges: “The content needed to be a lot shorter, and the consumption patterns were very much silent viewing,” Schneider explains.
“People were on the go, they don’t want their phone blaring out. So then you start developing just for Facebook – formats that play well without audio, either having subtitles or being infographic driven. Obviously, you want to convert a silent viewer to someone who activates the video, or hangs around and gets the full voice and experience, we always strive for that.”
"Three million people check out an edition of IGN on Snapchat."Peer Schneider, IGN
Going forward, IGN has even bigger plans for Facebook that are just starting to kick off. “Who better than a company like Facebook to figure out where the gamers are on its platform, and put the content in front of them,” he says, referencing Facebook’s new Watch platform. Here, the social network is taking on YouTube and its ilk with longer-form video content.
“We have a six show deal,” says Schneider. “One show will launch at the same time as their Watch platform. It will be really cool. We’re trying to tell stories that are a bit more accessible to the mainstream, so it won’t be how many levels there are in CoD or what maps return, but more the emotional story behind creating a game.”
These human interest stories from the gaming world will include how Rocket League went from obscure to massive almost overnight, and how Overwatch came out of the cancelled Titan project at Blizzard.
“Those are the stories we’d like to tell on a platform like Facebook, and we’re really curious to see how those pieces will perform there. We’re big believers in the platform. We’ve done billions of video views on Facebook already, so we’re excited.”
"It’s so important that the audience knows the content creator. "Peer Schneider, IGN
Facebook isn’t the only platform IGN has its eye on, however: “You’ve got Twitter, you’ve got Facebook, but there’s always another platform around the corner.”
And most recently, that platform has been Snapchat: “Three million people check out an edition of IGN on Snapchat, and the type of content you see on there is completely different to what you’d see on Facebook.
“To give you an example, let’s start with ads. Snapchat is an interesting platform in that you have vertical content that you swipe through, and the ads appear in between the swipes. So in the beginning, games publishers would give us one ad creative that would then be repeated multiple times in one edition, and then you go back and say: ‘No, the user actually catches pieces of your story, so take your one minute story and segment it, so it becomes interesting.’”
While publishers and platform holders used to leave such content to the media, they are now increasingly involved with their own channels.
“I think publishers, especially in the gaming space, have been trying to create their own voices and their own followers,” Schneider continues. “Back when we were big on YouTube, publishers didn’t have their own channels on the platform – they didn’t see it as a marketing platform yet.”
IGN also works with publishers to create native content. “We have different production arms at IGN,” he explains. “We have a team called IGN Studios that can actually produce content for partners, whether that’s in collaboration with editorial, or something where our team produces something [directly] for a publisher, almost like a commercial.”
Schneider is keen to note that there’s a clear boundary between editorial work and advertising: “We wouldn’t put commercial or fully native content back on IGN and pretend it’s our editorial voice,” he says. “We’ll disclose it and fully show who made it, how we made it and how we collaborated on it.”
That said, he does see that publishers are beginning to understand there’s a more nuanced divide now between media companies such as IGN and influencers.
“When you talk to advertisers or publishers, they almost draw a line between media and influencers, because that’s how it’s traditionally been,” he says. “There’s a journalist behind a desk writing a story and it may be turned into a video. That’s something we moved away from very early on, because it’s so important that the audience knows the content creator.
“So that’s why we have bylines and we have the editors narrate their own videos. We don’t have voiceover talent, and I think publishers see the value of influencers that are also in games media.”
Production and events
Of course, there are still some key differences between the international offices and huge numbers of staff at IGN and a typical YouTuber, Twitch streamer or even a small esports organisation.
“The difference between us and a lot of the younger companies, whether they’re in the esports or streaming space, is that we are a 20-year business,” says Schneider. “We’re not a start-up, we can’t afford to rundown vast amounts of cash.”
Coming back to IGN’s Gamescom HQ, the staff are breaking for a fully-catered hot lunch – something that most journalists covering the show won’t see all week. It’s a serious business for the company, with serious costs.
“E3 and Comic Con are by far our most successful events that we partake in,” Schneider explains. “And we upscale the production. At Comic Con, we work with every Hollywood studio, we get all the big stars and directors to come on stage, so you have to make sure you put on a bit of a show.
“But for all these events, we want to make sure we make a profit. We are in the business to be a business, so we don’t have any loss-leader events, we don’t do any events where we’re not making a good margin.
“It can be challenging,” he continues. “Take an event like Gamescom, where we travel to Germany. Even though it’s a huge event online, Gamescom may not be as familiar to advertisers in the United States, especially outside of gaming, so it’s a little bit more difficult to sign on a larger consumer sponsor.”
It’s those big consumer sponsors that IGN’s looking for, too – the same kind of non-endemic brands that have driven the surge in esports over the last couple of years.
“We’re a global company. We have the international business led by our folks in London that spans 25 languages. We can execute on global sponsorships, build a program around those.”
But despite gaming’s huge success over the last decade, it’s still not quite up there with music, TV or movies. Schneider gestures at the event around him: “So far, Gamescom has been very much endemics, games companies that understand what it is. A lot of brands have a little bit of a blindspot to the sheer size of the event here and how big the event is online. There will be millions of consumers that engage with the content on IGN, whether on our website, our Facebook page, Youtube or Snapchat.”
Gaming has come an awful long way, then, and IGN has certainly done its part to place it in the mainstream. But there’s still a way to go, and a lot more platforms may come and go before gaming content can truly compete with the universal appeal of Iron Man and his Marvel chums.