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The 2022 Honda Civic Prototype, which debuted on Twitch earlier this year.

Courtesy of manufacturer

Live video streams on Twitch have a messy, teenage-room energy, and not just because some streams are, in fact, coming to you from teenagers’ bedrooms. The site’s homepage looks like a chaotic version of YouTube, with a round-the-clock smorgasbord of live-stream gaming, homemade talk shows, people cooking, eating, playing music and chatting – but mostly gaming.

Amid that melee, you may also see a car company launching a new vehicle or catch your favourite professional gamer arriving at a tournament in a particular car.

Twitch describes itself as “a global community of millions who come together each day to create their own entertainment,” which is a lovely concept that skips over the fact that Twitch is also an advertising platform, and not just for stereotypical gamer stuff such as energy drinks and Doritos.

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Car companies are increasingly using Twitch, as well as video games, e-sports and virtual events, in the hope of attracting new and young(ish) customers for whom gaming has always been a major source of entertainment. The first generation that grew up playing video games is in their thirties and forties now, and they have a lot more than just allowance money to spend.

Still, Twitch is a strange place for the uninitiated. On a recent weekday morning, 60,000 people were watching someone play the game Dota 2 in Russian. Meanwhile, nearly 2,000 people were watching two women have dinner IRL (in real life) at a restaurant in Portugal. Beside each video is a chat box flowing with inside jokes, emojis, memes and all-caps comments that stream by so fast it’s amazing the video hosts can respond, but they often do. Below the video, streamers sell their own branded merchandise and solicit donations from fans.

Twitch is frantic and messy, but immediate and strangely intimate. It’s also easy to watch in the background and to ignore completely.

It was in this environment that Honda chose to launch its new Civic, the next-generation version of Canada’s best-selling car. It was unveiled in a live stream featuring online-famous gamers playing the still-popular game Fortnite, in which cartoonish characters run around and shoot each other.

“Young buyers are critically important to the future of any brand, but especially for Honda and Civic, which already leads the industry in sales to young and first-time buyers,” said Phil Hruska, manager of media strategy at American Honda Motor Co. Inc. “With Twitch’s audience made up of not only gaming enthusiasts, but 67 per cent being under the age of 35, Twitch made sense for this reveal,” he said.

At any given time there are, on average, more than two million people on the platform and 17.5 million average daily visitors, according to the company’s own data. Twitch is owned by Amazon Inc., and its rivals include YouTube and Facebook Gaming.

Porsche unveiled its Formula E race car on Twitch in August, 2019.

Richard Pardon/Courtesy of manufacturer

Honda was not the first automaker to launch a car on Twitch; last year, before the pandemic made traditional car shows impossible, Porsche used Twitch to unveil its Formula-E race car.

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“Many [gamers] are at the point in their lives, financially and in terms of life stage, where they can afford significant vehicle purchases,” Laurance Yap, creative director at Pfaff Automotive Partners, wrote in an e-mail. Pfaff, a Canadian dealership group that has long advertised to gamers, launched a national virtual racing championship in 2017; this year, the finals took place live at the Canadian International Autoshow in Toronto.

Gamers are everywhere

Gamers are an attractive demographic. “‘Hardcore’ gamers – defined by number of hours spent gaming per week – had an average income in the six figures and an average age over 30, which is right in the sweet spot for a lot of the brands that we represent,” Yap wrote.

Worldwide, by the end of this year, an estimated 2.7 billion people will have played at least one digital game on any platform in the past six months, according to games market research firm Newzoo. Of those players, 210 million are in North America.

Ahmid Al-Dhaher is a self-described gamer who also happens to be in the market for a new car. He’s 35 years old and grew up playing video games, although he remembers having to hide some games from his father, who disapproved. Now, Al-Dhaher plays games such as Minecraft with his six-year-old daughter. “Itʼs nice that we can bond that way through gaming,” he said. “It’s amazing to see how she can grasp the controller so quickly.”

Since having children, the Milton, Ont.-based civil servant said he’s had a lot less time for gaming, although he still manages around 10 hours a week and sometimes watches Twitch. Advertising in video games and ads targeted at gamers are things he’s well accustomed to, but he said the ads are becoming more prevalent as gaming becomes mainstream.

“It’s no longer that gamers are a subsection of our [society]; gamers are now the mainstream,” said Neil Duffy, chief commercial officer of CSL Esports, which runs a collegiate e-sports gaming league. “When sports went down in 2020 [due to COVID-19], e-sports was the only sport, and I think that’s when car manufacturers and everyone else stood up and took notice – gamers are everywhere.”

At the most recent Canadian International Autoshow, the e-sports-gaming zone was the second-most-popular exhibit, behind only electric-vehicle test drives, according to a survey of show attendees, Duffy said.

Just as Honda sponsors the Toronto Blue Jays, the automaker has, since 2019, also sponsored the e-sports squad Team Liquid. Popular Team Liquid athletes – yes, pro gamers are often called athletes – drive to and from tournaments and practices in co-branded Honda Civics and Odyssey minivans. “Our intention is to grow the brand’s visibility among the gaming community and to forge lasting relationships with this young and critically important audience,” explained Honda’s Phil Hruska.

In 2010, Jeep partnered with Activision to create the 2011 Jeep Wrangler Call of Duty: Black Ops Edition.

Courtesy of manufacturer

Of course, cars and video games have a long history together. Jeep announced a special-edition Wrangler – the Call of Duty: Black Ops Edition – in 2010 to coincide with the launch of the first-person military shooter game of the same name. Today’s gearheads grew up with racing games such as Forza, Gran Turismo and Need for Speed, all of which have partnered with automakers that want their cars featured prominently.

Polestar Performance AB, an upstart maker of hybrid and electric vehicles, was featured on the cover as the hero car of last year’s Need for Speed Heat. The brand normally doesn’t do traditional sponsorships, explained Magnus Brodd, head of brand experience at Polestar. However, the Need for Speed tie-in positioned the brand’s flagship Polestar 1 as a true performance car.

The Polestar 1 electric car was featured on the cover of Need for Speed Heat in 2019.

Courtesy of manufacturer

Similarly, gamers tried Porsche’s flagship GT2 RS sports car virtually in Forza Motorsport 7 before anyone could drive the car in real life. In a 2017 statement announcing a six-year partnership with Microsoft and the Forza franchise, a Porsche executive said deals like that foster a passion for the brand among young people.

In the new big-budget dystopian video game Cyberpunk 2077, Porsche is at it again; a character played by Keanu Reeves drives a vintage Porsche 911.

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Among other things, the pandemic has made clear that the virtual realm – be it Zoom calls or video games or virtual-car test drives – is a poor substitute for real-life experiences. But it is, nevertheless, a substitute. When you’re stuck at home for months, escaping to a virtual private island with your friends in Animal Crossing is the next best thing to doing it for real like Kim Kardashian. Twitch viewership has skyrocketed this year, and more people are giving video games a try. Where people go, advertising follows.

Don’t be surprised if you see a Lamborghini tractor on your Animal Crossing farm some day soon or a driveable Ford SUV in Fortnite. Car companies have still only just scratched the surface of gaming’s potential to sell stuff.

Shopping for a new car? Check out the new Globe Drive Build and Price Tool to see the latest discounts, rebates and rates on new cars, trucks and SUVs. Click here to get your price.

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