What place does branding have in South African gaming?

When many of us think of playing games, marketing and branding doesn’t often come into our thought processes. And, of course, it makes sense. Most gamers are not hopping on their consoles or PC’s to figure out how to build a business, we’re here to relax and have fun.

There is a space for marketing and branding in gaming though, even from a player’s perspective. Take esports and streaming, for example. This is something more and more people are trying to do as a living, and with that business, especially streaming, comes branding yourself and making sure you reach a larger audience.

On an individual level, having an understanding of branding and marketing is essential to some kind of success in playing games. Whether you are trying to make it as a pro or reaching people with streaming, it’s one of the main parts of your business model.

But this is not the only business that exists in trying to turn gaming into something lucrative. Now that gaming has become more marketable and companies are starting to realise the benefits of focusing on gamified education, branding, and more, everyone is trying to get their hands on a piece of the pie.

This is where the issue comes in; in a country like South Africa, how do you build a business from the ground up?

The first issue we come across in South Africa is a lack of infrastructure that leads to significant setbacks when it comes to any kind of economic growth. The country’s issues with unemployment, a shrinking tax base, and entrenched corruption makes it difficult to look at an industry like video games and say “Yes, this is something I can invest in.”

At the end of the day, for a gaming industry to thrive, you need players. If your players can’t afford to play, then you are looking at a situation where gaming becomes a niche market in South Africa compared to being a billion-dollar industry worldwide.

As a result, anyone who is trying to step into the gaming industry needs to look at the business model from a different perspective. Brands cannot have the same approach as the rest of the world, because the fact of the matter is that we do not face the same challenges.

Thulani Sishi, Operations and Team Manager at Goliath Gaming, said that one solution could be to try and expose more people to games with a low cost barrier. “[Exposing] as many people as you can to the industry is how you really grow,” he said.

For example, hosting tournaments for people who don’t have access to consoles, PC’s or the internet is one way of doing this. The main point, though, is not taking advantage of gamers who no longer have any place to go.

In my chat with Sishi, we both lamented about the disappearance of internet cafes. Places where people could go, pay a small fee, and play on equipment they did not have access to. Not only that, but it would form a sense of community where many could be exposed to a healthy idea of what gaming is all about.

Now that most places like this have disappeared, there is space for brands to come in and take advantage of people who want that sense of community, connection, and general access to equipment.

So how do we fight against that? While it’s not necessarily the responsibility of the private sector to push the industry forward, it’s important to recognise the role they play in doing so – alongside governmental-level initiatives.

“You have to have the private and the public sector working together to push a certain industry as a whole,” Sishi said. “You look at finances, you look at IT, mining and minerals, it’s all the same thing. The private sector and the government have to work quite closely together to manage that industry.”

“You take that model and you apply it to esports, [we’ll be] sitting at a different spot in a few years,” he continued.

Local Economic Development, which is a theoretical practice the South African government has held important in pushing the economy forward, is also meant to give those in the private sector the power to become job creators.

This is easier said than done, especially considering that the infrastructural issues South Africa is facing is leaving people without their basic needs like water and electricity. There are much bigger fish to fry, for lack of a better term, so why should we care about growing the gaming industry right now?

It boils down to investments in technology. It plays a crucial role in stimulating economic development and growth, and the gaming industry is mostly – if not completely – based around the development of technology.

Focusing on bringing more people into gaming can, as such, have a net positive effect on the general economic growth of South Africa.

Sishi also mentions that the skills that come with participating in gaming is transferable, meaning that honing the skills of players who want to become more involved can only be a good thing.

This brings us back to the original question this article poses: what is it like to brand yourself as a person of colour? In simple terms, and only the information I could put into a 1000-word article, it is more challenging. 

“[Those skills] are not in isolation to esports,” Sishi said. “And once they understand the government can actually benefit from these types of events, then you’ll get a helping hand from them.”

So, to go back to the original question, the role of brands in the South African gaming industry right now is not what you would expect from your run-of-the-mill marketing and branding plans. The focus, at this stage, is to be the connection between gamers and the opportunities just out of their reach.

While profit is obviously important when it comes to running a business, it cannot be the main focus while we are trying to grow the industry in South Africa. First and foremost, it’s about accessibility and education.

Those in the business of gaming have intimate knowledge about the brand personalities of gamers, how we think, and how we work. Most importantly, brands should have a focus on how they can bring people outside of the gaming world into it – because it’s rapidly becoming something for everyone.

The audio interview will be released on Apple and Spotify podcast tomorrow at 10am SAST.

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Thulani Sishi