With the launch of Football Superstars and Music Mogul, 2008 just might go down as the year traditional sponsorship dollars began migrating from the real world to the virtual world.
Football Superstars is a massively multiplayer online game, where fans can emulate the on and off-pitch lives of footballers they've long envied. Alongside thousands of fellow players, they can train, create their own side... maybe even work their way to the top of the ladder and indulge in the hedonistic lifestyle enjoyed by their offline heroes (WAGs, virtual scandals etc etc). Its currently recruiting enthusiasts at a rate of 3-4,000 a day.
Sponsors who've signed up so far include Puma and more recently Reebok. While Puma's brand integration sounds very Second Life, Reebok will bridge the virtual-real world divide with its ambassador program; a search for real world amateur players who will compete for sponsorship.
Last week, Music Mogul announced its arrival. A team of video game and music industry heavyweights are behind this online virtual music world gearing up for its first preview this week. Set in a virtual LA, Music Mogul will provide music wannabes with an industry backed Idol style competition. Described as 'a virtual world with real world benefits', users will also be able to share performance videos, attend virtual album releases, undertake missions to earn real world rewards, and well, live life like a rockstar. No brand partners have yet been announced.
Unlike worlds like Second Life and Habbo Hotel, Football Superstars and Music Mogul are built around existing offline passions and as such, have ready made, highly involved tribes prepared to spend time and money on their hobby.
Sports and music fans are willing participants in both the community and commercial aspects of their passion. And they will no doubt be attracted to the idea of converting their real world aspiration into a virtual reality. It's this connection to aspiration that has long fuelled the sponsorship strategies of brands from Coca-Cola to Adidas.
The challenges for brands partnering with virtual worlds are not unlike those they face in the world we know. Creating a global platform while building local programs, enhancing the consumer experience, broader business integration, and delivering the right return on investment.
Still, it will be interesting to see which ones get it right.
p.s I visited Music Mogul last week and it was nothing more than a holding page, but there was no tool allowing me to sign up. Opportunity lost. Poor first experience. I emailed them and was told "Thankyou for your interest. The site will formally launch on Nov 24 and you can register then". Yeah but...oh don't worry about it. I'm betting the experience will improve.