Tapping into Tumblr’s Unique Gaming Community with Siena Nahl

When thinking about the gaming audience, what quickly comes to mind is the competitive nature of games: esports leagues, battle royales, fighting up the rank ladders, and picking apart the meta. But this is only a portion of the gaming world. Gaming fandom, in particular, encompasses a whole lot more than that.

“We play games to connect with the characters, the world, and then, of course, with our friends and our community,” Siena Nahl, head of Gaming and Esports Partnerships at Tumblr, explains. “Creating content around what you’re passionate about in the gaming space is an extension of how you keep living in that world.”

We spoke with Siena about gaming communities on Tumblr, how smaller games find their home on the platform, and the surprising ways games fans connect over the stories they love.


You can listen to the episode using the player embedded above, or you can read a full transcript below.

Episode Transcript

Jamin Warren: Our guest this episode is Siena Nahl, Head of Gaming & Esports Partnerships at Tumblr.

The platform has grown into a robust, diverse social network for art, entertainment, and perhaps most notably, fandom. As an ecosystem of microblogs, Tumblr offers users the opportunity to develop close-knit communities around the games, characters, and stories they love. Siena’s role at Tumblr places her right at the forefront. Siena also works alongside Esports competitors, voice actors, indie game developers, cosplayers, streamers, and more touching almost every area of the gaming world. Having joined in 2018, she helps partners navigate Tumblr, developing campaigns, blogs, content, and events to connect with the gaming community.

Siena Nahl: That being said, I also have the great opportunity to play games as a career, which I always love to throw to people because that’s quite a great opportunity to have. I never thought I would have that growing up as a kid.

Jamin: Tell me a little bit about the particularities that you might have noticed about the Tumblr gaming community, maybe in comparison to other gaming communities. What are some things that people maybe take for granted or don’t understand in terms of how Tumblr might be different in this respect?

Siena: Of course. Tumblr is such a different space within the gaming community. A lot you’ll see that drives our community is character-driven. There’s a lot of focus on the growth and the investment of the player or character. This also can lead to a deep dive around their ships as well. We also have a lot of indie games featured on Tumblr. I would say, in our top list of gaming fandoms, about 30% of those are indie games. That’s going to be a bit different from what you see elsewhere.

For our 2019 year in review, Fortnite was number 41, which surprises a lot of people coming from different platforms. It’s just very different in the sense of the content you’re getting. A lot of our gaming community interacts through shit posting, memes, fan art, fan fiction, and just general discourse about the games, lore, and characters. It’s less gameplay and more based on the actual meat-on-the-bone sort of speech.

Jamin: Got it. I guess for folks who don’t know shipping characters. Can you explain that? [chuckles]

Siena: I can explain in the best way possible. You take your favorite characters and you imagine together in a relationship whether that’s canon or not. A lot of that is rampant on Tumblr.

Jamin: I think when we think about video games, a lot of times we think about it as a medium where stories get told to us. To see folks elsewhere taking their own spin is really, really interesting. I don’t think that’s something we normally associate with video games or video game communities.

Siena: Definitely, with Tumblr, you see a lot of that. I would say Tumblr is on the side of creating a whole new world and new stories around that gaming fandom and then bringing light to that. For example, I’m a big Overwatch fan and a lot of folks are more focused on maybe Overwatch League itself or the gameplay mechanics of it and the new meta, the roles, and so forth. With Tumblr, you see a lot of discussion around the lore and the actual characters themselves and creating their own side canons and creating a whole new world that you can interact with based on Overwatch.

Jamin: Well, can you tell me a little bit about the demographics, just like what you know about the Tumblr gaming audience? You’ve talked a little bit about some of the characteristics and things they engage in, but from a demographic standpoint, do you have a sense of who the average Tumblr gaming person looks like?

Siena: Yes. Gaming is our fourth-largest community in terms of engagements, just based on our latest numbers. Around 51% of that audience is 18 to 34 years old and then 55% of them are men. The thing is people come to Tumblr to dive even deeper into their interest and connect with those that are hyper-engaged. You can consume gameplay like I’ve mentioned and walkthroughs elsewhere, but with Tumblr, you’re really taking that step further.

You’re going to see our audience creating blogs around Animal Crossing patterns and sharing them or Minecraft blogs with more aesthetic shots or comics made out of their favorite characters. As you mentioned, it’s a great opportunity for brands who might not perform well elsewhere but would absolutely thrive on Tumblr with their gaming demographic.

Jamin: Do you have a sense of why folks come to Tumblr versus other gaming communities? What do you think they’re coming to Tumblr specifically for?

Siena: Yes, Tumblr since it started, it really allows our users to be anonymous, which means, you really have the freedom to geek out and be a super fan of whatever it is without any judgment. You don’t have to worry about your aunt or your boss or anyone knowing about your true interests, and so many of the reasons why Tumblr is popular across various communities and audiences are applicable to the gaming world.

As a company, we’re very respectful about privacy, we provide a platform that lets people’s interests and passions represent them rather than their faces. Whether you’re posting original content or capturing screen grabs or curating popular posts around your favorite passion, there’s really no other platform that provides a complete creative canvas to post to.

Jamin: What do you think it is about games that drives people to create the content that they do? Do you see similar behaviors across some of the other categories in Tumblr or is there something unique about gaming that encourages this specific type of interaction?

Siena: First and foremost, games are a form of escapism. We play games to connect with the characters, the world, and then, of course, a step further with our friends and our community. 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. For example, I grew up drawing Sonic the Hedgehog and creating my own characters. I always say, which some people might not agree with, that my passion for gaming started with Sonic Adventure 2: Battle. For me, it’s when you become passionate about something you want to rep it in some form, and creating content around is the best way to quickly do that, that’s instantaneous.

Jamin: Gamers are often known for pushing existing platforms to their limit, creating new conventions, finding new ways to engage that maybe the original designers of a platform or game experience had not intended, are there some ways in which you’ve had to adapt or adopt communication conventions on Tumblr to fit the needs of a gaming community?

Siena: Yes, of course. A fun way that we’ve really had to adapt is the way we use our hashtags because the product allows for spaces in them, people can write whole sentences in their hashtag instead of just having it all mushed into one word. We’ll see people often reblogging something, and then really get into their feelings in the tags like it’ll be a secret note between them and their community, or whatever is they’re posting about.

Sometimes we experience people thinking that Tumblr is only a platform for fandoms, but that’s not the case, there’s something here for everyone. If there’s an interest and it exists, I guarantee it’s on Tumblr. The good news about Tumblr being interest- and passion-based is that we are also able to hyper-target communities on our platform, and tailor messaging in a way that can be more specific,  pointed, and appealing to the audience because we already know what they’re most passionate about. The message resonance tends to be really great as a result.

The great thing about Tumblr is that a brand can really experiment with marketing content. We’ve seen a lot of brands use Tumblr as a way to test out their more experimental and less traditional marketing content. We’ve also seen people use their Tumblr as their .com, which really runs the gamut. I think the core of marketing on Tumblr is really connecting to your community. We come alongside to give brands insights into what their community is already doing and then we really help them tap into that.

One example is Critical Role, or our Critter community is really huge on Tumblr. We wanted to come alongside and help Critical Role tap into that because it was massive. We teamed up with them, with the lovely folks at Critical Role, and did a video Answer Time which is our Q&A that is, with fans submitted questions. We also onboarded them to Tumblr so they could start really interacting there, which was great. We’ve also worked really close with our social impact team to identify different ways for brands to connect there. We recently did a spotlight campaign with the Gamers vs COVID initiatives that performed really well because it aligned with our gaming audiences.

It’s really tapping into what’s happening now and how can we help out in our small ways. A lot of folks don’t consider themselves “gamers” but if you have a mobile game on your phone or now participate in Animal Crossing, I would say it’s a part of your life and you are in that gamut of being a gamer. I think with that, a lot of brands need to step away from the stereotypical gamer mindset and just think about people in general. For example, with streamers, it’s a great opportunity to approach them with not just hardware, software, and typical gaming marketing, but you can also think, all right, they’re sitting in their room streaming all day, you want to also think about the chair they’re using, the desk, what they’re drinking, the food, the apparel, and on and on.

Jamin: What’s the process for deciding some of the spotlight features? I know that that’s something you discussed. Tell me a little bit about, well, some of the goals in terms of deciding like new features or new guests.

Siena: Yes. We started our spotlight series as a way to highlight up and coming artists and streamers and so forth. Really, for us, the process is identifying those folks, whether it be a musician or an actor or a streamer or indie game, or for example, a voice actor and how they’re participating in the space as well, and really looking at what does their community look like and what do they stand for. From there, we reached out to whoever it is we’re spotlighting, and we really collaborate to figure out what it is they want to talk about and what messaging they want to put out there.

Jamin: You have metrics that are rolled in as well, the Fandometrics, it seems like a really interesting way of engaging and measuring fan conversation. Can you tell me a little bit about that part of the Tumblr ecosystem and maybe how folks in the gaming world have responded or utilized it in interesting ways?

Siena: For those who don’t know, our Fandometrics is our weekly trending category tools. We have that on fandom.tumblr.com. We have it ranging from categories to video games, ships, TV shows, every top-level category that we have on Tumblr. Then we list the top 20 for each of them. It’s a great way in the sense of gaming for the gaming press to use it to understand the hot topics in gaming, but also too for brands to look at it.

We’ve had brands approach us because they saw they were trending that week and they go, “We’ve never trended anywhere else. We will love to tap into this community.” We’ve also had a lot of our fans have these certain games or characters or whatever it may be that their interests are, they will read blog these posts and leave feedback saying, “Oh, my goodness, we did it this week.”

Really, just celebrating that their game or their show or whatever it is, it’s thriving on Tumblr so it’s a great way for both brands and the users themselves to celebrate and also to coming alongside with different brands to understand, “All right, how can we possibly get you here? What do we think aligns with our users and hopefully create more conversation around it?”

Jamin: I guess along those lines, while we’re on the topic, can you tell me a little bit about maybe how the esports fandoms might differ because it’s really interesting when you think about gaming at large in the way that a player’s relationship to a character is, you’re the center of your own story and you do something through this character.

Whereas with esports, you’re watching somebody else, they’re typically not playing story-based games, they’re playing these competitive games.

Some of those games have deep lore and story, some of them don’t. How has esports fandom maybe manifest itself differently on Tumblr, may be compared to other platforms, or even compared to other types of gaming content on Tumblr?

Siena: Esports right now is a very opportune space on Tumblr. There’s not as many official brands that are esports brands that are tapping into these conversations in these fandoms yet. Basically, the majority of all esports content on Tumblr is user-generated content. As you mentioned, a lot of it is biased towards the players themselves. Some of them will be captures in major gameplay moments, but of course, people really want to dive into understanding that esports player and championing them through their careers.

Jamin: The last set of questions I have for you is just, our world is very different now and I was curious about maybe how the Tumblr gaming community has changed in light of how the things that are going on in the world right now? Then how much of this behavior do you think will stick around after eventually, we’ll be able to get out of our homes and whatnot? I’d love to hear a little bit more about how Tumblr is responding to the current crisis.

Siena: We’ve seen a lot more engagement, especially this past month from the end of February to the end of March and now we’re seeing it now in April. I think people are leaning more into their passions more than ever right now while those who can stay at home, stay at home. We’re seeing a lot more options too where people can really fixate on these games and dive into it.

I definitely think as we start to return to some normalcy, that once people connect to those fandoms and really have that deep-seated interest, it’s not going to go away. Of course, we won’t have the leisure of playing video games as much, I’m assuming, but I still think there’s going to be that massive interaction and engagement around all things gaming or streaming or entertainment, whatever it is that we’re biding our time with right now.

Jamin: One thing that’s really interesting about games is that you have these content creators. Can you tell me a little bit about what their relationship to Tumblr is and maybe how it’s different because they’ve often built their brands in other places and they’re looking at something like Tumblr to extend their existing relationship with fans? What’s Tumblr’s relationship with gaming content creators look like?

Siena: The great thing about Tumblr is it gives them a space to be behind the scenes in a way to connect with them off-camera. We’ve seen a lot more streamers start using Tumblr as a recap of what happened on the stream or any questions they couldn’t answer or just reblogging fan art that people are submitting. We see that a lot with Jacksepticeye, where he creates a lot of original content just talking to his fans but he also is always reblogging fan art and submissions and really engaging in that way which I think is very unique and very Tumblr.

We’ve also seen it too where it just allows you to be the diary of whoever it is. We’ve seen it also in our music space too with the Jonas Brothers using their Tumblr more as a visual diary of when they go on tour. It really grows a great opportunity for folks to give a little more peek behind the curtain and insight into their lives and showing too that they appreciate their fans and appreciate the content they’re creating for them.

Jamin: Great. Awesome. Well, Siena, thank you so much for joining me. I really appreciate it.

Siena: Thank you so much for having me.