Never in our wildest dreams could we have imagined we'd be running around in a Call of Duty game as Lionel Messi armed with an AK47 and a rocket launcher, but that’s the world of video games for you. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II launched at the end of October while its battle royale mode, Warzone 2.0, was released just before the opening of the World Cup. Activision capitalised on the convenient timing by introducing Neymar, Lionel Messi, and Paul Pogba into the game as playable characters (operators).
This collaboration might seem wild, and we appreciate there are plenty of PR professionals scratching their heads at the corporate positioning of giving guns to professional athletes. But you’d struggle to find a bigger boost for brand awareness than appearing in one of the most popular first-person-shooter franchises of all time. Not only that, but Modern Warfare II is the fastest-selling entry in the entire series and it’s only been out for just over a month.
What we’re seeing here is essentially influencer marketing 101. Footballers are arguably some of the biggest influencers in the world, and attract millions in sponsorships every year. By positioning themselves at the very centre of one of the world’s most popular video games, Messi, Neymar and Pogba are sitting in the spotlight of youth culture. This is a collaboration that no one’s going to forget any time soon.
You could also argue that guns and themes of violence aside, this collaboration is a natural fit for the three footballers. Professional footballers spend a lot of time playing video games in their downtime. While we’re not suggesting that Neymar, Messi and Pogba are planning to launch Twitch gaming channels after they retire, partnerships such as these do align their brands with gaming audiences and open them up for more deals in the future; all of this exposure will inevitably lead to more money in the future.
Of course, this isn’t the first time that professional footballers have appeared in video games. Harry Kane and Marco Reus’s skins were made available in Fortnite, PUBG Mobile, another first-person-shooter battle royale, has just announced a partnership with Messi too (we wonder who paid the most) to celebrate the arrival of the World Cup.
If you’re wondering what Activision gets out of the deal with the three footballers, players can only choose them as Operators if they purchase their limited-time Operator Packs, which cost $19.99 each. Given that Warzone 2.0 is free to download, parting with a bit of cash to play as one of the trio (or all three) won’t put off many football fanatics.
The quest for footballers to gain brand recognition goes beyond the monetary factor. It is well documented that elite football players rank amongst the top earners for athletes worldwide. Yet, they are still actively pursuing licensing deals to achieve a legendary status in society that money can not buy. By allowing fans to interact with football players in unique ways, the exposure ensures they are not only well-known in the football industry but worldwide.
Piers Morgan’s famous interview with the most recognisable footballer on the planet, Cristiano Ronaldo, recently highlighted footballers’ pursuit of status is equal to their desire for money. Where Ronaldo admitted difficulty in deciding what he would prefer from Morgan’s question of ‘More money in the bank’ or ‘More Instagram followers’.
Footballers have always led the way when it comes to high-value influencer partnerships with entertainment brands, but we’ll be interested to see if the growing number of professional athletes making their way into video games encourages celebrities and influencers in other sectors of the entertainment industry to follow suit.