Do gamers dream of electric beers?
Matt Curtis uncovers the unlikely relationship between gaming and craft beer
Saturday 12 February 2022
This article is from
Great European Road Trip
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Long before I discovered the delights of good beer, video games would become an integral part of my life. I first properly got to grips with gaming in the late ‘80s, thanks to my trusty Amiga 500. Admittedly I was a bit jealous of my friends with their far more thrilling Nintendo Entertainment Systems and its brightly coloured, fast paced (for the time) games such as Duck Hunt and the timeless Super Mario Bros.
At the time, my parents deemed the Amiga to somehow be more ‘educational’. But honestly the only education I remember getting from it was courtesy of the absolutely brutal Shadow of the Beast 2, which was so challenging the game literally required a cheat code to become in any way playable. Looking back, it feels a little ironic that the code in question (entered at a specific point in the early stages of the game) was “ten pints”.
As I grew older, other interests gradually crept into my life, the most influential being my unbounding love for beer; something that would occupy much of my downtime as well as eventually becoming the focus of my career. There was still a special place, however, for that beer I opened in those precious moments when I found the time to fire up my games console. Gaming is not something I have grown out of, and I still consider it to be one of the most gloriously fulfilling acts of escapism one can engage in.
My experience as an avid gamer has taught me that certain titles lend themselves to a couple of beers. A few sips of a nice stout or saison ideally punctuate the gaps in a turn-based strategy game like XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Meanwhile, an IPA or a few lagers provide a fine accompaniment to something like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild as I lose myself in another world for a little while.
Although, not every game is as forgiving to the beer drinking gamer. Dark Souls (perhaps the finest game of the 21st century) becomes progressively more challenging the more you imbibe; robbing you of the necessary timing and dexterity required to avoid your foes. Plus, this game in particular adds another element, wherein the game is played online, giving other (potentially more sober) players the opportunity to “invade” your game and engage you in glorious combat.
It was this element in particular that got me thinking about the growing relationship between craft beer and the world of online gaming. In particular that of “streamers” who will commentate on their own playthrough while broadcasting live. While for me firing up the console has always been an act of escapism, for many millions of people it’s part of engaging with, and feeling part of a globe-spanning streaming community.
Danny Wan is marketing manager at PCSpecialist, which designed and builds bespoke, high-performance systems for the ‘e-sports’ community. He confirms the scene has grown exponentially over the last couple of years.
“More people are enjoying watching esports within the comfort of their own home due to COVID restrictions,” he says. “There’s been plenty of watch parties where fans join in on social drinking whilst watching some of their favourite esports teams duke it out – and all online. There’s no doubt these fans are quite particular in their choices of beverage, be it craft beer, energy drinks or even tea, they want to make a great time of it.”
Aileen (who requested I didn’t use their surname) is an affiliate at Twitch, presently the world’s most popular video game streaming service, and while gaming goes by the pseudonym Mofzilla. They also happen to be a huge fan of craft beer.
“The games I play aren’t particularly affected by having a couple of beers,” Aileen tells me. “I wouldn’t choose an 8% DIPA for a Bloodborne session [but] If I’m playing Cities Skylines then I might get a bit more relaxed and creative.”
Aileen began streaming in December 2020, and since then they’ve amassed over 570 followers, and now streams for around 32 hours every week. Aileen refers to themself as a “variety streamer” meaning they don’t focus on streaming a particular genre of content. While one day they could be blasting their way through Dead Space, another could see them doing a live sewing session, or pep-talk.
One particularly popular element that’s been integrated into their longer streams – which can sometimes last for up to 12 hours – is craft beer tasting.
“I take my viewers through the beer I’m tasting, and take my time,” Aileen says. “One thing I keep reminding myself is that your viewers are there to see you, not for the game. If they just wanted to see the game they could just play it themselves.”
It’s a fair assessment that streaming is now prime time viewing for millions of people
Over the past decade, streaming has grown from a niche interest into a popular pastime that pulls in billions of dollars in revenue. According to tech publication Business of Apps, in 2012 Twitch was home to around 300,000 streamers. By 2021 that had grown to 9 million, collectively amassing 18.6 billion hours in viewing time that year. It’s a fair assessment that streaming is now prime time viewing for millions of people.
2020 saw the California-based tech giant generate $2.3 billion (around £1.69 billion) in revenue, $750 million (£550 million) of which came from advertising. And they’re not the only ones cashing in on streaming’s growing popularity, with streamers themselves gleefully making bank thanks to affiliate links, product placement and plenty of shoutouts.
Some products, including energy drinks like Red Bull and Monster, seem well placed in this market, especially if you consider the potential tie-ins with activities including all-day streaming sessions, and team based games like Call of Duty which require concentration and quick reflexes. But plenty of other industries and brands are looking to take advantage of this large and rapidly growing market, which includes craft beer.
“For so many people who stream or watch on Twitch, it’s just hanging out with a bunch of people while playing or talking about video games. If you’re the sort of person who likes a drink in a social setting, then this is no different,” Chris McRae, the UK Brand Developer for Voodoo Ranger, tells me.
A sub-brand of Colorado-based brewery New Belgium, itself owned by Australian beverage giant Lion, Voodoo Ranger consists of a range of beers targeted at younger Millennials and Generation Z. Each beer in its line-up is a hop-forward IPA, the cans adorned with bright, attractive colours, central to which is the skeletal, Voodoo Ranger character itself. In the UK this so far consists of a single beer, a 5.4% hazy pale ale brewed by fellow Lion-owned brand Fourpure.
As a brand, Voodoo Ranger has targeted the Twitch community, including through partnerships with affiliates, specific games and it’s very own channel, which presently has 613 models. McRae tells me how the brand has a “light-hearted irreverence that is pretty perfect for gaming,” and has already collaborated with streaming titles including Outriders in the US, and Back 4 Blood in the UK.
“The fact that our spokes-creature [the Voodoo Ranger] is a cartoon skeleton means that we can more naturally fit within a gaming space,” McRae says. “As much as eSports [are] becoming big money and attracting bigger audiences, we are much more aligned to the casual gaming/fun side that the Twitch platform excels at. Being able to grow alongside the content creators that we work with has been fantastic.”
As a beer, Voodoo Ranger is not an outlier in attempting to connect with this vast audience. In September 2019 the part-Heineken-owned Beavertown released a beer called Bandit Brew to celebrate the launch of Borderlands 3. In a promotional video the brewery’s founder Logan Plant described gaming as “almost like the new pub”—referring to the vast streaming community—and the beer itself was sent as part of a pack to prominent Twitch affiliates. Scottish craft beer giant BrewDog has also used Twitch to place advertisements.
Streamers with the best presenting—as well as gaming—skills, tend to pull in the biggest audiences
It’s not just larger and multinational-owned brands looking to get in on the action either. In the Netherlands, fledgling beer brand EXLA sees the streaming community as an ideal place in which to market their beer. Co-founder Alex Lionarons sees promoting beer within the streaming community as “an untapped market with huge potential.” But he admits it’s not quite converting to big sales yet, which Voodoo Ranger’s Chris McRae also admits.
“We’re not seeing massive sales come in through any of our activity on Twitch,” he says. “Our success has mostly been in raising brand awareness and aligning us with the gaming community.”
One potential, albeit obvious reason for this is, as much as it’s aspirational to position yourself adjacent to a beer brand, successful streamers become so by being very good at the games they play. And not only must they be competent gamers, but also hosts, and it’s the streamers with the best presenting—as well as gaming—skills, who tend to pull in the biggest audiences.
“At first I was inclined to have a couple of beers before I would start streaming, as I was incredibly nervous about broadcasting to potentially a lot of people who I don’t know.” Nick Duke, a close friend of mine and streamer who plays Destiny 2 tells me. “I quickly realised you’re streaming to a handful of people, and the juggling act of playing a game competently, near constant talking to avoid dead air and keeping an eye on your stream chat makes doing it inebriated quite difficult.”
Colleen O’Sullivan and James Mann – collectively better known as South London’s Duckchicken Cider – have also taken to streaming. Their game of choice is the incredibly popular Fortnite.
“We normally have a beer (cider is usually too strong) while streaming. On most of our streams we share a mini cask of a low ABV, sessionable beer so we know we can drink for a few hours and keep our wits about us in the game,” O’Sullivan says. “Occasionally we do a sober stream [but] I can’t say our game play is any better, sadly.”
While it could be tempting to play a few drinking games while streaming—taking a shot when your character is gunned down by a foe, or completing a particular task, for example—platforms like Twitch have strict rules against this. In fact taking a shot is specifically against those rules, as is streaming while intoxicated. With the majority of content centred around video games, the audience is often under the legal drinking age of the country they’re viewing from.
By and large, streamers seem to be incredibly respectful of this. In addition, a common thread that emerged in my research is that for the majority of gamers the appeal of streaming is not the lure of potentially securing a big sponsorship deal, or being aligned with particularly appealing brands, but the feeling of community it generates. If you think about how the pandemic pushed many of us onto Zoom for some virtual get-togethers, for streamers and their community, platforms like Twitch provide a similar function: that vital third space where we can relax and socialise away from work and home life.
“I was concerned that Twitch and streaming was for younger, laddish type gamers that would give me stick for being an older, casual gaming woman,” Eileen tells me. “[But] I fell into a lovely community who support, uplift and encourage each other. I’m still one of the older ones, but only by a year or two, rather than 20.”
This point is a crucial one: as streaming becomes more established, those millions of young gamers who find their community here are becoming older. It’s because of this young, yet ageing demographic that beer brands are beginning to show interest. While the likes of Voodoo Ranger and EXLA and presently coy about the financial benefits of supporting streamers, the speed at which this community is growing is definitely a market I believe craft beer (including the raft of emerging low and no alcohol brands) will hope to leverage.
The awareness of this growing market is also gradually manifesting as physical spaces like Four Quarters in London, and the soon to be open Pixel Bar in Manchester (the latter intends to sell Pokémon themed cocktails.) At its heart, good beer has always been about finding one’s place with a community, and enjoying downtime with a delicious beverage in hand. For some that’s a quick pint down the local, for other’s that might be at the end of a 50-strong killstreak in
Call of Duty. It’s no surprise beer brands are now looking for a piece of that for themselves.
“Covid has changed the online community,” EXLA’s Alex Lionarans tells me. “It’s all about finding the sweet spot.”
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