July 9, 2020

by Jamin Warren

Like many children of the ’80s and ‘90s, many of my earliest memories of video games were tied to characters. Mario and Luigi. Link and Zelda. Sonic and Tails. The Doomguy and that big red demon. That love of characters continues to this day — my recent favorite video games like Control and Red Dead Redemption 2 tend to be focused mainly on telling good stories. 

I’m not alone. Last year Polygon put together a list of 70 of their favorite video game characters with personal notes from their team on why they loved each one. Movies and television are more successfully adapting video game characters into stories like Netflix’s The Witcher and Sonic the Hedgehog, one of the highest grossing video game films of all-time. Cosplay, the tradition of dressing up as a pop culture character, is more popular than ever. More than 40 countries participated in the World Cosplay Summit in 2019 and professionals like Stella Chuu make six figures from their work.

Part of this is inherent to video games as a medium. They are focused on you as a player. For any marketer interested in a gaming audience, connecting to that love of characters is huge opportunity.

Tumblr’s Unique Video Game Community

When we think of video game fans, we tend to gravitate towards those consuming video game culture — attending events, watching their favorite streamer online, or attending an esports competition. But don’t overlook the way fans also create original content around video games and their favorite characters.

Consider the platform Tumblr. A darling of the Web 2.0 era, the social network is a vibrant source of creativity, with more than 65 million users worldwide, over 400 million blogs, and an audience that’s mainly under the age of 34. Surprisingly, gaming is Tumblr’s fourth-largest category. In many ways, the audience is prototypical of a generation that’s grown up on video games.

But when you dig deeper, Tumblr’s gaming community is quite different from the ones you might find on YouTube or Twitch. For example, Travis Scott’s in-game concert in Fortnite was one of the biggest events of the year, but on Tumblr, Fortnite ranks 40th in popularity. While Fortnite is no doubt popular, its characters are generic, and it does not offer the same type of content that fuels Tumblr’s vibrant gaming community. This is a unique audience within the gaming community which has a deep appreciation for character creation, lore, and the arts. 

“We play games to connect with the characters, the world, and then, of course, step further with our friends and our community,” Siena Nahl, head of gaming and esports for Tumblr, recently told me on the Twofivesix podcast. “Creating content around what you’re passionate about in the gaming space is an extension of how you keep living in that world and fandom.”

Tumblr’s feature set helps enable a community that’s driven by creative content. It has an Explore page that allows someone to go down a rabbit hole of their favorite game. The Tumblr community also supports its own language for things like “ships,” fan-created relationships between their favorite fictional characters, such as Iron Man or Captain America.

But one of the biggest places where characters get attention on Tumblr is the weekly Fandometrics chart, which showcases trending books, movies, web series, and, of course, games.

“Being interest- and passion-based means we can hyper-target communities on our platform, and tailor messaging in a way that can be more specific, pointed, and appealing,” Nahl told me. “We already know what they’re most passionate about. The message resonance tends to be really great as a result.”

How Do You Find Gamers On Tumblr?

If you want to find gamers on Tumblr, you need to understand how the emphasis on video game characters speaks to several specific needs of video game players. 

At a macro level, four larger forces are giving character-driven gaming communities a creative lift. 

First, more and more games are taking a “games-as-a-service” model that enables them to release more and more content over a longer period of time. Popular competitive shooter Overwatch has introduced 12 new heroes over the past five years. Five-on-five competitive game League of Legends started with 17 characters and now has over 140. In both cases, each character has extensive lore that fuels fans’ imaginations. 

Characters can be a place where one can find community as narrowly defined as you like. For example, someone interested in the popular game Overwatch can follow a specific tag if they want to follow their favorite character (#Reinhardt), find high-def cinematics (#overwatchedit), or banter about their favorite “ship” (#mekamechanic). The emphasis on characters can be so popular on Tumblr that games, TV, and movies can find a fan-created presence on the site instead of a brand-created one.

Second, Tumblr is also quite mature: at 13 years old, it’s the same age as Twitter. (For context, Facebook is 16 and YouTube is 15). That means Tumblr’s norms as a platform are more established than newer platforms like TikTok. For example, Tumblr arguably popularized the use of “reaction GIFs” to express an emotional response to a situation, almost always with a specific character in mind.

Third, other Tumblr features reinforce video game fandom. Tumblr relies extensively on threads to keep conversations going and inviting the perfect image-based response to punctuate a conversation. Tumblr also has had a tagging system since its inception which allows communities to find and comment to each other in a natural way. For example, Tumblr users often use the first three tags for their posts to help with search rank, but will add additional ones to help signal something like spoilers or live commentary.

Fourth,, there’s still a stigma around being a gamer, particularly for marginalized groups. Being able to anonymously champion your interests is important. And finally, making all of that accessible and easy to find so that you can meet with your tribe is important in an era of distributed digital communities.

Using Tumblr to Promote Your Brand 

When brands are looking to make their way into the gaming space, they tend to gravitate toward major figures within gaming. That could be video game streamers, game creators, or esports competitors. Opportunities with video game characters and their communities are often forgotten.

This absence is strange and ironic, given how prevalent characters are in the world of advertising. Flo. Ronald McDonald. Mr. Peanut (RIP). Geico Gecko. The Burger King. All of these characters found new life and identities online on social media (for better or worse!) Brands looking to connect with gaming audiences should tap into the same spirit of experimentation when engaging with video game characters and their communities.

Brands looking to engage with videogame characters can look at a couple areas.

To launch a successful campaign on Tumblr, a brand might have to take a higher risk on a smaller audience than if they were targeting a different platform. The reward, however, is an audience that is passionate, loyal, and eager to interact.

Authenticity is important and can be more easily earned if the brand “acts like a person” or attaches themselves to an individual identity, whether they are fictional or real. For inspiration, check out @lilmonix3, an official Twitter account related to the game Doki Doki Literature Club. The account roleplays as Monika, one of the game’s primary characters, and its feed is replete with references to the game’s lore and polls that act as opportunities for interaction with the game’s fanbase.

Additionally, consider checking out Denny’s Tumblr account, which tends towards the off-beat and colorful. By taking risks on brand safety and by being vulnerable, Denny’s was able to foster a connection with their audience that feels personal, trustworthy, and authentic.

Tumblr’s audience values anonymity and having a safe space to relate over shared interests and connections to fandom. That’s why roleplay is a useful device for connecting with an audience; it allows people to interact with a fandom on their own terms, whether as observers or active participants. 

One of our favorite examples is this character sheet that an Overwatch fan designed for an original character they created. It’s unlikely that this character is going to make its way into a popular game like Overwatch, but Tumblr posts like this one serve as blueprints for how others might appropriately interact with a roleplayer according to their preferences. 

It’s rare for gaming brands to take ownership of the roleplaying communities that emerge for their game on Tumblr, but finding a way to help facilitate interactions between passionate roleplayers would help build trust with fans while introducing new content and helping to guide conversations. 

Build Support: While working directly with video game characters may require IP approval, you can support individual fan art creators to cosign their communities.

Know Your Audience: Every video game character community is different. Consider micro-campaigns and tests to find what tribe aligns best with your brand voice and point of view.

Think Long-Term: The life cycle for popular video game fan communities is getting longer and longer. Dip a toe, then jump in the pool to swim a couple of laps.

I run Twofivesix, a strategic consultancy that helps brands engage in the world of gaming. As a team, we guide brands through the world of gaming, esports, and VR/AR with research, workshops, and strategy. Sign up for our newsletter for more insights like this one.