Issue #
Anime action, celebrity licensing deals and the Unity fiasco

A monthly look at the best examples of IP licensing in video games, as well as the latest news on collaborations, brand partnerships and in-game events. 

It’s been a busy month for licensing deals, but an even busier month for the team at Unity, who whipped up one of the biggest gaming storms in the last decade with it announced to start charging game developers per install. After U-turning on those plans, we explore what went wrong and what we can learn from this fiasco about revenue models. 

A flawless victory for Mortal Kombat’s developer? After a 30-year wait, Jean-Claude Van Damme has finally made his way into the gory fighting game as part of a licensing deal that marks one of many taking place between celebrities and game studios right now. We take a look back at the most interesting deals from this year so far. And in the aftermath of One Piece’s success on Netflix, we examine the rise of anime IP in video games and explain why this is a growing market that licensors and game devs should be tapping into. 

You can find our top picks for video game licensing deals, as well as the latest news on collaborations, brand partnerships and in-game events from the last month, below.

Five of the hottest celebrity licensing deals in gaming from 2023

Nicki Minaj in Call of Duty. Jean-Claude Van Damme in Mortal Kombat. Tik-Tok influencer Addison Rae in… Final Fantasy?! 2023 has been a busy year for celebrity licensing deals in video games, and we’ve still got another three months to go! With that in mind (and to make sure we can fit them all into a single story), here are the most interesting partnerships we’ve spotted this year. 

Nicolas Cage in Dead by Daylight 

Behavior Interactive’s survival horror game has hosted a massive selection of licensed collaborations over the years, from Resident Evil and Left 4 Dead to A Nightmare on Elm Street and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But players could have never guessed that Nicolas Cage would find his way into the game, who entered as a playable survivor in his own special chapter. 

Cricket legend MS Dhoni re-launches Garena Free Fire in India 

The massively popular battle royale game Garena Free Fire is relaunching in India after it was banned by the government over fears that player data was being sent to servers in China. To support the relaunch, Garena has enlisted the help of India sporting legends including cricket legend MS Dhoni, football captain Sunil Chhetri, badminton champ Saina Nehwal, tennis legend Leander Paes, and Kabbadi champion Rahul Chaudhari, who will appear in the game as playable characters. 

Tik-Tok star, Khaby Lame, gets his own Fortnite skin 

How do you know you’ve officially made it as a celeb? When Epic gives you your own Fortnite skin, of course, which is exactly what happened to Tik-Tok mega star Khaby Lame. According to Variety, he didn’t just license his likeness for the deal, but also worked closely with the Epic on motion capture and brainstorming creative ideas to wow his 160 million fans. 

Jean-Claude Van Damme finally makes his debut in Mortal Kombat

Fun fact: Mortal Kombat character Jonny Cage is modelled after Jean-Claude Van Damme’s appearance in Bloodsport after the actor turned down an invite from developer NetherRealm to star in his own game. 30 years later, NetherRealm’s dreams have come true as the actor has licensed his likeness to appear as Jonny Cage in the game. The only question now is who’s cooler? Van Damme or Sub-Zero? 

Dana White gets his own mobile game with Power Slap 

Most people know Dana White as the president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), but he’s also the leader of the world’s premier slap-fighting promotion: Power Slap. What started as a fringe sport in Russia has now captured the world's attention (as well as YouTube stars such as MoistCr1TiKaL), with Dana White capitalising on this popularity by launching a Power Slap mobile game. He knows an opportunity when he sees one… 

Anime IP in video games is just one piece of the monetisation puzzle

At the time of writing, Netflix’s One Piece TV series has an audience score of 95% on Rotten Tomatoes, one of the highest for a Netflix Original TV series. By comparison, Squid Game has an audience score of 85%, while Stranger Things holds a 90% score. After making its debut on August 31, One Piece found itself at the top of Netflix’s top 10 list in over 86 countries, making it more popular than Season 4 of Stranger Things

So what’s all the fuss about? Netflix’s TV series is a live-action adaptation of the best-selling manga in the world, which has sold over 510 million copies worldwide. The anime series boasts over 1000 episodes. Over in Japan, One Piece holds the same popularity as any Disney IP you can think of. A recent Fandom survey of US and UK gaming and entertainment fans named it the world’s third-most popular media franchise. As a media franchise, it’s worth more money than Lord of the Rings or James Bond; the latest film, One Piece Red, grossed over ¥31.9 billion ($245 million), making it the fifth highest-grossing anime film in the world. 

The success of One Piece is indicative of the growing popularity of anime, especially in the West. The global anime market is worth more than $20 billion, and there’s been a concentrated effort from video game studios to license anime IP into their games, or develop original games based on anime IP. According to Newzoo’s IP-based Mobile Games Report, five of the top-10 grossing franchises on mobile originated from China and Japan, where manga and anime IPs are most popular. 

One Piece recently made its way into Fortnite, following the likes of other anime IP such as Dragon Ball, My Hero Academia, Attack on Titan and Jujutsu Kaisen (you can find a full list of anime Fortnite skins here). Of course, Fortnite is just one of many video games licensing anime IP to pull in new users. PUBG Mobile recently hosted a collaboration with Dragon Ball, while gacha games such as Knights Chronicles and Valkyrie Connect have collaborated with Evangelion and Summoners War. 

While anime collaborations are most popular across other anime-themed mobile games in Japan and China, they’re a great way for mobile games in the West to attract new users from these areas, as we’ve seen with collaborations in games such as PUBG, Fortnite and even Overwatch 2 with One Punch Man. Polygon attributes this rise in shifting consumer trends in the wake of the pandemic, as more people in the West turned to anime while Tik-Tok trends started incorporating anime IP. 

It helps, of course, that there’s always been a natural crossover between the world of video games and anime – just take a quick look at Bandai Namco’s portfolio. This makes anime IP a great fit for most video game collaborations, but if you’re planning on working with anime as a game developer, there are a couple of things you should always bear in mind: 

  • There isn’t one single demographic encompassing your average ‘anime fan’. Some anime franchises are aimed at children, while others feature adult content. Bear this in mind when you’re scoping opportunities, whether you’re on the licensing or gaming side. 
  • Stay true to the original anime/manga source material. Anime fans will expect any licensed content in in-game events to honour the franchise it’s representing. 
  • Most anime and manga IPs are known for their large cast of characters. Make sure you research these characters carefully so you can license the most suitable ones for any crossovers and collaborations. This research will also help ensure there’s a natural crossover between the game genre and licensed anime/manga IP. 

What can licensors learn about revenue models from the Unity fiasco? 

With all the arguments and Twitter storms of review scores and console wars, it’s rare that you’ll find video game communities singing in unison. But you’d struggle to find a single positive reaction to Unity’s announcement that it would start charging video game developers per install for use of its engine – regardless of how much those games had earned. 

This announcement was met with universal condemnation by video game developers, journalists, and players. Why? Because as game developer Rami Ismail highlighted, it would significantly increase the business risk of activities such as creating demos, bundles, giveaways and updates. In some cases, it would make the very business of developing games unsustainable. 

With that in mind, Unity has now U-turned on these plans and issued an open letter of apology over its runtime fees, but its willingness to make such significant changes to its license policy without informing customers in advance has left such a foul taste in some developers’ mouths that they’ve canceled projects that were in development using the Unity engine. 

Video games, especially those distributed on marketplaces such as Steam, rely on demos, bundles and giveaways to attract new players, which will hopefully convert into paying customers. Unity’s runtime fees would have charged smaller developers 20 cents per install, which may not sound like a lot, but can easily add up if your demo is a hit. With no guarantee of demo downloads converting, there’s a lot of risk here on smaller teams. 

It’s also worth noting that Unity’s initial plans (the policy was changed several times due to backlash), were charging people per install. This meant if players uninstalled and reinstalled a game or demo, the studio would be charged twice. 

Of course, there are numerous ways that video games make money, and these can vary significantly from platform to platform. Some games solely rely on their initial cost to generate revenues, while others adopt freemium models where revenue is generated through in-game purchases or ad monetisation. 

Is there a lesson here for licensors looking to navigate the world of gaming? Absolutely. The overwhelming backlash to Unity’s decision to charge studios before they’ve reached a certain download threshold indicates how developers feel paying out large advances to licensors. Instead, we’d always recommend that licensors lower minimum guarantees and an advance for a higher royalty rate. This means there’s less risk involved for the studio but potentially higher payouts for licensors, especially if they’re working with video games that generate a high volume of in-game purchases. 

Video games can scale exponentially better than any traditional merchandise product, while also having better margins. This means they’re better positioned to provide upside to licensors, especially compared to traditional merchandise deals as there’s no additional marginal cost per unit sold. 

In brief 

Here are some of our other favorite brand collaborations, licensing deals and partnerships from the last month.

And in other news…