MOBILE GAMES

I helped lead the development and design aesthetic for Bleacher Report's first explorations into mobile gaming. These games were social first vehicles which looked to capitalize on ongoing sports storylines. The games were designed to be played on mobile through audiences funneled into the experience via social stories. The first four major games that were developed as a part of this initiative garnered over 10+ Million plays and saw extremely low bounce rates compared to the industry averages. Using a data driven approach I was able to develop a monetization vehicle for Bleacher Report that would convert multiple sponsorship deals as mobile gaming went from an experimental forray to a legitimate part of our premium branded social executions that our partners were excited to explore with us.

NUMBERS
9 + Minute Time on Site
DATE
1.13.20
COMPANY
Bleacher Report
Scroll Down
10,000,000+ Total Play Sessions

CHALLENGE

Of the games we developed, the most important challenges included playability and user retention. These games were developed with the specific goal of increasing the amount of time users would spend on our app and website. The first game we developed, Flappy Beard was created in conjunction with James Harden winning the NBA MVP award. To capitalize on the storyline, we built the game which was based on the classic iOS game Flappy Bird. Upon launch we received over 200,000 concurrent players on the game, with a bounce rate of just 2%. The average bounce rate across the industry for mobile tends to hover around 80-90%, so getting a bounce rate this low was a huge success. For our subsequent games, we aimed to focus on specific metrics we could increase in a similar fashion. Our BR Kicks "Snake" based game known as Mamba was built to see if we could incentivize custom levels. Our PokeBron game that we released during NBA free agency was developed to increase replayability by creating different user paths throughout the game. Finally, our NFL game "Rack Em Up" was produced to give users the ability to play as different characters. Once we had developed these initial experiments, I was able to hand off the development duties to our larger team who developed the game "Shoot Your Shot" during the NBA playoffs, which combined the features from all of our previous game experiments. Laying the groundwork for that execution and the future branded ones we did with sponsors such as Puma was at the core of this initial experiment.

A Mobile Gaming Solution for a Sports App.

Click the image above to go to the BR Arcade stream on the Bleacher Report App.

I had the opportunity to spearhead the mobile gaming efforts at Bleacher Report through a series of experiments that were designed to learn about our audience's usage habits and to design, implement, and scale a repeatable playbook that could be executed around this type of a content vehicle. Gaming was seen as a largely unscalable mountain due to the combination of design work paired with the coding and programming knowledge necessary to implement these executions properly. Our traditional social media team didn't possess the technical knowledge to pull them off, and our engineering team was focused on launching new features on our Team Stream app.Building off of native social content executions, the development of mobile games was seen as a huge potential area for growth.

Thus - the responsibility to develop this idea and see whether or not it was feasible fell to me as a part of a set of tactical experimental projects within our media lab internal content incubator initiative. A number of unique gameplay experiences were released to the public and became a staple offering for our sales team as they went to market to monetize around our owned and operated platforms.

As far as the impetus behind undertaking such a project, one of the things that I truly pride myself upon is a data driven analytical approach to content creation, and as an innovator interested in emerging technologies I always look to trends to inform what areas to explore next. The success of 8-bit and video game inspired content on our social channels that I art directed was one of the major drivers that pushed me to explore mobile gaming as a viable sub-brand and content vehicle for Bleacher Report.

Any time I would commision social moments posts that were themed with a video game twist like the NBA Jam or Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter or any other video game themed project content we would create that had an instantly recognizable arcade game artistic flair and style we would get numerous comments asking us to turn this into a "real game" or how much our audience badly wanted that these would be playable.

The "Video Game" Genre was one that Bleacher Report had seen a decent level of success with from a content theme standpoint as anytime we referenced a game or any sort of style that was similar to game art there would be a distinct outcry from our audience for more of this video game themed content. It was identifying this appetite and then creating content to solve for that hole in the market that made the BR Games vertical a reality.

These 8 b-bit themed content executions were often a part of our predictive social team coverage and along with the help of Joey Merkel and Dan Worthington I helped build and expand the usage of this style for a number of video projects. The interesting this about this aesthetic is that normally whenever we would do a sponsored post the engagement on those would generally be lower than a standard in game highlight, but when paired with an appealing art style like this we were able to mitigate that dip simply due to consumer excitement around the artwork.

Using video games as a design language or using it to build content experiences was something that I really did champion at Bleacher Report as is evidenced by our Hoodie melo campaign or our many NBA 2K simulations that we did over the years from a content perspective. From an elevated highlights standpoints, something I champoined as a part of our Social Moments team we often included video game elements such as NBA Jam or NBA street.

When we would tap someone like Diego to help illustrate a sponsored post for a brand like Hankook Racing Tires or State Farm we got significantly more engagement on the 8 bit style sponsored posts rather than regular highlight driven ones. Even when we would use the style because it simply lended itself to the content like for this nostalgic Team USA Dream Team stats breakdown, the engagement tended to chart higher than many normal posts.

The most important goal of our mobile gaming explorations was twofold, that the game was based in an existing editorial narrative around the sports world, and that the game took advantage of the social conversation around that editorial trigger. By creating an interactive experience at the intersection of editorial and social, we could create an engaging and fun mobile game experience that was at the forefront of both storytelling and tech while tapping into the fan sentiment around a sports story. I worked with a team of developers and artists to produce, design, and storyboard out a set of game experiments that would form the backbone of a new segment of Bleacher Report's interactive experiences which became scalable monetization opportunities for our sales teams.

An early pilot project that ended up unpublished around this content vehicle was a test around a Steph Curry shooting game that Under Armour was interested in sponsoring that I helped art direct and produce with programmer Mike Fey and illustrator for our Media Lab team. It really allowed us to dip our toes into this world and learn what it would take to create a robust mobile gaming solution for our fans.

Our first venture into this world was based around one of the bigger triggers on our social calendar, the NBA MVP being announced at the NBA award show at the end of the season. Flappy Beard was based on the wildly popular Flappy Bird game and visualized the journey through multiple other teams and players that Harden had to take to win his award along with a high score that mirrored his career high in points reached earlier that season with 60 points against the Hawks in just 3 quarters. The award show being a Turner Sports product made capitalizing on this trigger even more important. Working with Diego Sanches who had done much of the pixel art for our content series, and one of our in house designers Marcus Brown, a our small team was able to launch and execute this project on a super short 4 week turnaround time.

The game would be released in conjunction with the first time the award show would be presented. It was an opportunity to take the social conversation that had been building up throughout the entire year, and give people a platform to coalesce around. With all indications that James Harden would win the MVP award, I pushed to create and deliver Bleacher Report's truly first mobile game experience, Flappy Beard. The game launched during the NBA awards and saw over 355,000 concurrent users playing the game simultaneously through Bleacher Report's social channels and through the app, proving the viability of mobile gaming as a monetizable opportunity for B/R.

However - the most impressive data that was uncovered from the "Flappy Beard" experience was a lesson in user experience. Flappy Bird itself, the iconic game which this experiment was based on is known for being notoriously hard to play. This adds to the gamification and repeat plays as users try and get higher and higher scores. So due to this gameplay mechanic we found that people would repeatedly play the game multiple times in a row to keep trying to get a higher score. The individual gameplay sessions started short, and got longer as people get the hang of the mechanics, but this leads to a very gratifying feeling for consumers and lead to extremely high metrics in the time spent category.

Furthermore, the most stunning statistic wat the bounce rate, or the percentage of visitors to a particular website who navigate away from the site after viewing only one page, was astonishingly low. For most content across the web, as well as Bleacher Report's app and website your average bounce rate was 80-90% meaning many people come and read one story or article and maybe one or two more but don't stick around too long and don't click on a ton of related content. But with a game like Flappy Beard that was gamified and users felt fine spending a long time playing, we saw a crazy 2% down from 84%.

This led to the designation of this kind of innovative content offering in our mobile app to be coined "Sticky" content that would lead users down a wormhole and they would be willing to spend time on your site and poke around and check out some of your other content on different pages as well. Sticky content was something that would truly stand out amongst everything else on the app and offer an innovative interactive experience that draws in audience members and gives them a reason to feel at home and to enjoy themselves and delve deeper into the Bleacher Report ecosystem. As I helped lead the charge on mobile games and interactive and innovative experiences that could be pushed through our app, having a data driven approach that took into account User Experience design and prioritized the needs of our audience first and foremost was key to the whole initiative.

Flappy Beard essentially served its role in the grand scheme of things as the perfect pilot project, attached toa built in social trigger in James Harden winning the MVP, which we knew would happen weeks in advance to help us prep. The NBA awards were an owned and operated opportunity as well so we had an extra layer of access and even got Harden to play the game on the night of the awards show, he found it quite amusing. Not only did it give us a chance to test the prowess of our social channels in terms of funnelling traffic and eyeballs to an interactive experience, but it also let us test the load for our scalable cloud architecture as we had hundreds of thousands of concurrent users on the app at the same time. Furthermore, we got a wealth of data from these experiences that would help us shape a more optimized landing page experience in future iterations of games.

Sticky content like mobile games was something that we could use to build user affinity and our next iteration that I helped art direct and work on within our tactical social team that focused on longer term social projects was a game slated for release around the start of the Thursday Night Opener for the NFL season. This first of it's kind "Rack 'Em Up" NFL game was once again based upon the success of an art style that had been popularized through our social channels in collaboration with artist Park Tyson of Korea with whom I had first begun working with in my Posterizes.com days. Park Tyson had worked on particular NBA based easter egg illustrations for NFL many times in the past, so it felt fun to run with this style and to create a fun and addictive NFL based game. Once again working alongside Marcus, and our talented social producer Mikey Navarro on the music, we were able to launch in a similarly quick timeframe of around 6 weeks from start to finish.

Featuring Antonio Brown of the Steelers and Odell Beckham Jr. of the Giants, the two biggest superstar wide receivers playing on opening night, along with a secret character of Randy Moss unlockable with a high score, the game featured classic side to side scrolling and an addictive gameplay mechanic. One of the most interesting tidbits of data to come out of this Rack 'Em Up NFL Mobile game was that we found analytical proof of the second screen experience as the number of concurrent players of the game spiked during halftime of the primetime Thursday Night premiere game.

Despite the game launching hours prior to kickoff and us sending out the app notification alert well before the game we had only seen a high of around 20,000 concurrent players at that time, but as soon as halftime hit we quickly saw over 200,000 concurrent users playing the game as they took a break from the broadcast within the Bleacher Report app. With this data in hand, we were better able to launch future games and it informed how we treated users.

Capitalizing on social moments that would push our sizable set of eyeballs toward an experience and spark a moment of conversation on the internet was something that we had a chance to test out earlier that summer in the form of our LeBron Free Agency blowout game as the biggest story in sports was his impending free agency decision. Before he shocked the sports world by going to the Los Angeles Lakers we released a parody of the classick pocket monster games with "PokeBron" which simulated different teams pitching to him in a similar turn based negotiation battle style. Working off the success of content executions that used the same archetype borrowed from the Pokemon games, we knew that it resonated with our audience, so building an interactive version felt like something worth exploring.

The game was one of the crowning jewels in our"LeBron Week" coverage featuring other interactive experiences such as our 360 LeBron James Free Agency Illustration or a take on Drake's Scorpion Cover artwork. Every day that week—heading into the start of free agency at 12:01 a.m. ET July 1—Bleacher Report looked at every angle of LeBron James' upcoming decision with reports and features from our most plugged-in NBA reporters with the game as a related content option. PokeBron was released as a piece of this coverage that we found would become something users constantly went back to and played throughout the week, increasing user retention times and building a ton of brand awareness as we saw people explore different game paths every time they used the stream. By having a variable reward system built into our content offering in this interactive game, we gave our users a reason to keep coming back.

https://thelab.bleacherreport.com/PokeBron/

Our smartest move with a game like PokeBron that I helped bring to market was the way that we programmed it within our app as we knew that users would constantly be checking their phones for free agency updates. Because of this whenever we would send out a new notification, we would make sure to show a related link to the game within the context of that news update. As users spent time in the app and explored around the stream a bit, they all eventually tended to play a couple rounds of the game. This was significant because instead of simply relying on social to drive audience we knew that the games continued to be sticky content when discovered by the users organically as a part of their app experience rather than hooking them in using the game.

One of the differentiating gameplay mechanics for this game was the ability to select your character, as you could play as 1 of 6 teams most likely to sign LeBron. Each team had their own "special moves" and were baked into the storyline as the teams with lower probability of signing LeBron were much higher difficulty in the game. The reaction to this content was great as the press picked it up and we saw our users enjoying playing through the different scenarios. With the fervor around LeBron, and the spotlight quickly shifting to Kawhi Leonard and his trade saga, we decided to do a quick turnaround take on Where's Waldo called "Find Kawhi" based on the success of PokeBron.

When we first launched our mobile gaming initiative there were two ideas that were constantly swirling around my head, the first being a sneaker box based tetris game, and the second being a take off on the classic snake game that we have all spent countless hours playing on the old nokia phone bricks. Seeing the upcoming content calendar opportunity of Mamba Day coming up, I went ahead and pitched our BR Kicks team on the concept of my Snake game and integrating it in with Kobe's Black Mamba moniker and we decided to move forward with the experience.

Once again I found myself running point on all parts of producing this game, working as the overall creative director deciding on gameplay mechanics with our game development team at Juego Studios in Mangalore and coordinating with two of our trusted IC's in Sam Melvin and Khammy Villiasang in Taiwan and the Philippines for the artwork. With everyone spread out like this, the game was a perfect exercise in remote collaboration as we were able to swiftly turn the game around within just 4 weeks.

In the game, the player controls a black mamba snake on a flat bordered plane. Various shoes and obstacles will pop-up throughout the plane. Your objective is to collect/eat as many shoes as you encounter, without hitting the obstacles or the borders and gain the maximum score. The game is playable on iOS & Android and built on an HTML5 and Javascript framework with easy control and different power ups that allow for temporary invincibility. The NBA theme also allows for level progression as the courts update from a standard BR Kicks themed court, to a Lakers themed court, and finally to a secret Mamba Academy court as you progress further.

We had hundreds of folks sending us screenshots of their high score as we were further gamifying the experience by giving away a pair of coveted Kobe kicks on release day. Throughout all of 8/24 we saw huge engagement numbers for the BR Kicks account as we averaged over 7 minutes of time spent in app for each gameplay session and peaked with over 395,000 concurrent gamers when we alerted a notification driving folks to the game. The ability to leverage our news coverage as a method to send notifications out to users, we knew we had a direct line of communication with our fans. However, respecting the sanctity of that space, we had often shied away from alerting something simple like a game. So this was done more as a test for this type of a less news driven alert and how our audience would react to it. What we saw was stunning, as people seemed to welcome this type of content and in fact spent even longer on it in comparison to our breaking news alerts.

Fresh off the success of Mamna, Rack 'Em Up, and Flappy Beard we had a ton of data to work with and knew the factors that helped pushed eyeballs towards our games. As the holiday season came around, me and the team knew we wanted to execute another mobile game to capitalize on the day long NBA schedule to give users another second screen interactive experience within our app. Once again working in conjunction with Marcus and Mikey on our Tactical team, we had a chance about 3 weeks out of Christmas to put together this game with the help of Notion Games, a game developer based out of Austin, Texas. This next game was a focus for our tactical team as Christmas was one of our biggest NBA moments on the calendar and we had already built experiences around it in previous years that were record setting for engagement at the time.

Knowing that we were on a quick timeline we sketched out a few options as far as gameplay mechanics go and decided to work on developing a long range shooting game where Steph Curry would be shooting gifts into people's chimneys. Taking a page from the "Mamba" playbook we decided to give away a Supreme backpack to help gamify the initial experience as the sneaker giveaway had driven a ton of interest previously. Furthermore, knowing that a leaderboard and the option to share your high score was something that our users enjoyed, we spent a bit extra time workin that into the build. Meeting with Bryan Graham and Mikey Navarro on our team, we looked at the options we had to help generate even more user interest around playability. We knew that NBA games would be on all day long, so we could drive continuous traffic through these giveaways and alerts during game breaks.

We released the "Makin' It RainDeer" game on Christmas morning and as expected were able to take our learnings from previous mobile game experiences to curate a proper flow of eyeballs to this content throughout the day. We knew when to promote the game, specifically alerting the Lakers, Rockets, and Warriors streams (The three playable characters in the game were Steph Curry, LeBron James, and James Harden based on the matchups going on that day) during the halftime break of each respective game. We would consistently see an uptick in users during this time and we were able to maximize the second screen experience. I think this was really one of the big strengths of this type of content vehicle, as it provided great shoulder programming to the content that was being broadcast on linear television. The game was something that players could mindlessly put on in between games or during a commercial break to see how they would score.

This game gave us a ton of opportunities to A/B test within our social audience demographic and through different factors within our app as a targeted mechanism and the information that we were able to gather would be integral as we took our mobile gaming offerings to market to get sponsored. I am a big proponent of setting SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time based) goals that we can then use to produce high quality sales materials for our team to take to market. Having a deeply data driven approach we can present a number of options for brand integration that showcase efficacy and build a compelling case to any advertiser.

This Christmas project proved to be perhaps the most influential game that I worked on at BR because it really unlocked the doors to sponsored opportunities using our mobile games as a vector for transmitting that message. The timing ended up being perfect as we were able to release this project at the tail end of Q4 and could go into the new year and head into Q1 with fresh eyes and a set of robust data from multiple games that could be taken to market and shown to our partners in hopes of closing a deal. We had collected enough information on our user behavior to understand how to best position a game, and our sales and branded content teams worked with me to help produce proper pitch decks and marketing materials. I even ended up applying a "StockX" sponsor skin to a build of our Christmas game as our team was in negotiations with them to become the official sponsor of our BR Kicks stream in the app. The game was instrumental in landing the near $2 Million partnership and opened the floodgates for more sponsored experiences in the gaming vertical.

Our sales team was able to land a sponsorship deal with Puma who was interested in promoting their new soccer boots with our BR Football sub brand. By using Flappy Beard and our other games as an example we were able to convince Puma to partner with us to create and promote a one of a kind mobile game featuring the cleats and telling the story of Antoine Griezmann's prolific rise through the World Cup and to his current squad simultaneously. The character and level artwork design was inspired by Grizimoji, the new emoji keyboard that Griezmann had recently launched, we were able to make an interactive e-commerce based mobile game experience that would act as a sales funnel to build brand affinity and give users and opportunity to purchase the boots. Thus we were able to leverage B/R's white glove ability to quickly produce a game of high quality with social storytelling enabling us to drive eyeballs to the content and enable a point of purchase opportunity for consumers.

The "Power Up Griezmann" experience was an in app and instagram story experience where users were able to play through multiple vertical infinite scroller games as Antoine wearing the cleats. Being able to leverage it as an example, as well as the growing presence of our BR Gaming handle on social (Run singlehandedly by the talented Alex Magdaleno on our social team)  our branded content team was able to prove that this type of content was viable to our audience and started exploring the gaming space for more partnership opportunities before landing one with Resident Evil 2. Prior to establishing our gaming vertical and increasing the frequency and depth of our social coverage, a partnership around a non sports game like this would often have felt out of place, but armed with data about our target demographic a social audience and app to surface eyeballs, we were able to pull off this partnership with flying colors, even doing a future video around Ghost Recon with a similar setup.

As we were slowly growing our monetization opportunities we knew that we had to continue to innovate and offer more initiative and deeper experiences to our audience. My role in launching the mobile gaming vertical was always to come in and to design a minimum viable product that we could use as a pilot project, then to implement the best practices while championing a data driven approach, and then scaling the whole process as we figured out different ways to monetize it as well. As the vertical was maturing and we were finally able to monetize it to a degree, I was able to help hand off some of the reins to Marcus and Mikey as they worked with Push Start Studios to design a multi level game with bonus stages and very in depth character design capabilities called "Shoot Your Shot" which saw over 4 minutes per user of time spent. Working with the team at a high level to produce these types of games was an important part of my time on the tactical team.

Following the success of our brand activation for a mobile game under the BR Football banner for Puma and the successful launch of "Shoot Your Shot" as a customizable multi level experience that drew fans in with a storyline, bonus mode, high score leaderboard, and custom characters, among a host of other advanced we saw interest from other partners in activating through this avenue. As our branded content team took the vehicle of mobile gaming to the market, we had two unique avenues to drive audience awareness with. It was important to take a data driven approach to presenting new monetization opportunities, so the ample data that was collected around user behavior and metrics such as time spent, bounce rate, or concurrent viewership was utilized to present a case to Lionsgate Films around the promotion of their new Uncle Drew movie starring Kyrie Irving and a host of other NBA stars including Turner Sports talent Reggie Miller and Shaq. This mobile game, "Uncle Drew: Half Court Hustle" was activated on instagram stories as a swipe up opportunity to play the game.

Ultimately, partnerships with brands like Lionsgate, Puma, and StockX proved mobile gaming to be extremely engaging from a content perspective but also an extremely valuable asset in terms of new media experiences for our sales team to take to market. Partnerships such as these managed to raise well over 6 million dollars in revenue for Bleacher Report across different channels. Starting with a few small pilot projects to a revenue driving segment of the business. Mobile gaming had made its mark and was here to stay, and I truly believe that it is an integral part of the future prospects of Bleacher Report.

Along with actual mobile gaming content, I also helped develop out a slate of interactive adjacent video episodic longform content such as our reddit inspired "Battlestations" show which I was a consulting producer and creative strategiston. The show paired famous athletes who loved to game with former Faze Clan member Doug Censor Martin as they explored their in home gaming setups and broke down the equipment that they used. I helped contribute entire segments such as the end where Censor challenges the players to a one on one match in a classic old school retro video game. Working with the studio Kid's at Play we produced episodes with Josh Hart, and De'Aaron Fox, who actually captured the behind the scenes of shoot day on his own youtube channel for his weekly vlog series.

Working on shows like Battle Stations allowed us to go to bigger advertising partners like Google for their new Stadia device that we did a series of branded content pieces for. Having built out our BR Gaming vertical through the success of our BR Arcade type mobile games and having built up experience with Athlete shoots in the gaming space, we had enough experience and data to move forward with episodes with Todd Gurley, Ja Morant, and Karl Anthony Towns.

As I helped look for lower lift alternatives, I also helped our innovation team explore non interactive elevated gameplay through instagram stories themselves. I helped put together games like "Find the Sneaker" which utilized inbuilt polling features to give users an elevated gameplay experience without leaving the instagram app itself. We found that by removing the swipe up barrier we were able to triple or even sometimes quadruple our play numbers. This formula eventually led to us partnering with the creative studio I Love Dust to produce tap through 8 bit instagram story games for big moments like the start of NBA season or Thanksgiving Day NFL Matchups.

Much of the content that I worked on can be found in the BR Arcade section of our team stream app and the "Games" Highlight on our instagram profile. Having an opportunity to experiment with mobile gaming and to help design, implement and scale an overall strategy for our company to not only push eyeballs but also to drive revenue through this vertical was a challenge that was interesting to tackle. Throughout the process I picked up a number of skills that serve me well as I move forward in exploring the interactive social landscape and I believe that this type of content truly is the future for many publishers. We are moving into an age where brands no longer simply want to be adjacent to good content but rather baked into it. Many of these brands are not publishers themselves and look for an audience to get there message across to. Bleacher Report, sitting at the intersection of content creation and being a media publisher with our own audience gives us a unique position in the marketplace to execute things like this.

Key Collaborators: Marcus Brown, Mikey Navarro, Juego Studios, Sam Melvin, Bam.Bam.Bam.99, Diego Sanchez, Notion Games, Park Tyson, Aaron Givens

Tools: Photoshop, Illustrator, After Effects, Unity, Sublime Text

Deliverables: Full functional HTML packaged game microsites with supporting social assets (Promotional Graphics and Video to drive user adoption) 

Category: Creative Direction, Art Direction, Production, Mobile Games, Motion Graphics, UI, UX, Graphic Design, Brand Positioning, App Development