Some of the best TV right now has been coming from delightfully and unabashedly nerdy sources. TV adaptations of The Wheel of Time, The Rings of Power, The Sandman and House of the Dragon are streaming beloved storylines from high fantasy and sci-fi literature to living rooms across the world. Leveraging IP with an established fan base appears to be a winning strategy, though recently the source material has not been exclusive to books or comics: Stories from video games are becoming a recurring feature on the film and TV scenes alike, and the reception has never been better nor more significant as a trend in the future of entertainment.
With an increasingly competitive landscape for consumer subscriptions in the world of streaming, the fall of linear TV and box offices recovering from the ongoing impact of the pandemic, the TV and movie landscape is ripe for disruption. It is perhaps no coincidence that the circumstances around the pandemic, which pushed traditional entertainment to a breaking point, was one where video gaming flourished. The prominence of video gaming across a variety of formats demonstrates broader, ongoing cultural acceptance of the media.
As a result, it is getting increasingly difficult to miss the influence of gaming, even among those who haven’t picked up a controller in years, nor are there any signs that this trend is slowing down. Nearly 25 feature length films (including the star-studded adaptation of 2K Games’ Borderlands) and almost 30 TV adaptations have been announced or are in some form of development across nearly every major streaming service, including HBO Max (The Last of Us), Amazon Prime (Fallout), Peacock (Twisted Metal) and Netflix (Horizon Zero Dawn—among many other of adaptations, ranging from Castlevania to The Witcher).
From this wealth of projects, two notable trends are immediately apparent: First, both the quantity and quality of these adaptations are increasing. English-language theatrical releases of video game adaptations over the past five years amounted to 10 films with an average Rotten Tomatoes score of 56%, punctuated most recently by the largely warm reception of family-friendly films like Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (69%). While it would be a stretch to describe this record as sterling, it is a substantial evolution compared to the 31 films released in the 25 years prior to that, which collectively amounted to a dismal average Rotten Tomatoes score of 19% (including the legendarily poor live-action ’90s adaptations of Super Mario Bros. [29%] and Street Fighter [11%]).
Second, the TV series are exclusively airing on streaming services rather than linear TV. Much in the same way Disney+ has been reeling in subscribers by turning to the near-infinite 84-year-old well of IP within the Marvel Universe for compelling TV (most recently in the form of She-Hulk), services lacking such robust sources of content in-house have instead turned to the 65-year-old history of video games for the same. Historically, Hollywood has largely shunned the video game industry, which has left much of this history unexploited. In either case, the advantages are the same—new IP is difficult to launch, and pop culture mainstays (whether it be from books, comics or video games) have existing fandoms “built in.”
The rise of video game adaptations across the silver and streaming screens is thus not only a cultural trend, but a partial reaction to fundamental shift in viewing behaviors. Viewership and behaviors around streaming services are very similar to game consumption. Recent research by Activision Blizzard has shown that all but the oldest consumers universally prefer streaming services relative to linear TV, and younger consumers increasingly point to gaming as one of their top forms of entertainment. Both gaming and streaming content is being consumed by younger consumers throughout the day rather than in historical primetime periods. In short, gaming IP is attractive to these services because it fits with not just what types of media younger viewers consume but how they prefer to consume them.
Though quantitatively more difficult to pin down, aside from notable exceptions such as Halo, many of the most successful adaptations stay true to the fiction of the game—rewarding fans and introducing non-fans to the increasing sophistication of storytelling in games. Catering to fans without alienating neophytes to the IP is a difficult balance to strike, but a potentially rewarding one. Recent Netflix animated series Arcane: League of Legends and Cyberpunk: Edgerunners are both sitting at nearly perfect audience and critical scores on Rotten Tomatoes. In addition to drawing over 15 million hours of viewing, Cyberpunk: Edgerunners prompted a massive spike in players for Cyberpunk 2077, the game the show is based on, representing a resurgence from a notoriously rocky launch of the game which cut the value of developer CD Projekt RED by over 75%. Fandom for the games is reciprocated toward the shows, and vice versa, with the right execution.
The proliferation of video game adaptations portends to a new era of transmedia—the practice of telling a story across multiple forms of media—where streaming services such as Netflix are looking to win back or acquire new subscribers based in part on expanding their offering into gaming, complete with their own game studios. While Netflix’s ad-supported subscriptions has monopolized the attention of brands looking for entry points into the world of OTT, the additional and uniquely engaging surface area provided by a complimentary interactive experience may fly under the radar (much in the same way that opportunities in gaming for marketers has done for the past few decades). A savvy thread weaved through the passive (i.e. viewing) and interactive (i.e. gaming) experiences of a story may yield uniquely powerful halo effects for advertisers, not unlike the multiplatform impact enjoyed by the Cyberpunk franchise.
An unexpected outcome may be new fans for gaming IP emerging among consumers who have never played a video game in their life. In recent years, marketers have been increasing their attention toward opportunities in gaming based upon factors ranging from a desire to engage with consumers in leaned-in media to budding interest in the metaverse. Much in the same way that consumers may find themselves as fans of the gaming ecosystem through the path of traditional media, marketers will find that contending with gaming is an inevitability even without directly integrating with gameplay experiences or platforms. However, marketers should look toward opportunities that run across both traditional and gaming media to benefit from the reciprocal relationship between these touch points for consumer engagement. As the opportunities for transmedia stories become richer, where the lines between traditional entertainment and gaming blur, so too will the opportunities for marketers.
In doing so, marketers and Hollywood can together realize what fans of gaming have known for years: Gaming is massive, blockbuster entertainment, yielding some of the most compelling stories that have been told in recent years. In just the past few weeks, new trailers for of The Last of Us on HBO Max and the animated feature-length release of The Super Mario Bros. Movie have collectively racked up nearly 30 million views on Youtube. From even these two examples, it becomes clear that many consumers, active gamers or not, are interested in those stories.
The industry which has historically been the pariah of Hollywood may end up being its savior, and we may soon be in a world where gaming IP is as beloved and culturally recognized as today’s adaptations of fantasy and sci-fi literature or comics. While marketers are only beginning to learn about the uniquely immersive properties of gaming and where brands can fit into these environments, they are now also challenged with understanding the growing fandom around gaming IP across multiple forms of media. In either case, the imperative to understand the gaming world becomes even more pressing as gaming continues its march toward the center of popular culture.