Meet Chris Erb, a Pioneer of Video Game Collaborations

With 20 years in the video game industry, followed by a short stint in entertainment, Chris Erb has been around the block. From EA Sports to Legendary Pictures, Erb is behind some of the most pivotal moments in gaming’s ascendance to the mainstream. Off the back of the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 launch, I sit down with Erb to learn first-hand how he went from promoting trading cards at Wizards of the Coast to giving away Xbox consoles with Taco Bell.

In the run up to the launch of Microsoft’s eagerly awaited next-generation console, the Xbox Series X, you might have come across some lifestyle marketing collateral. Perhaps you bought a Froster recently at Circle K while filling up for gas and wrapped your hand around Master Chief. Or maybe you added a bigger drink to your order at Taco Bell for a chance to win an Xbox Series X. If you’re into streetwear, there’s a chance you were one of the 117 to cop a tee from Billionaire Boys Club’s collaboration with Halo. The list goes on.

Video games crossing over into everyday consumer channels is something we’ve all become familiar with in the last decade. It’s now no different than seeing the latest gang of Marvel superheroes sprawled across TVs and billboards. What’s different is what video gamers expect in return from the brands they open their wallets for.

In the world of entertainment, primarily movies, the relationship between consumer and studio is essentially one-and-done. Studios build up hype for months and sometimes years ahead of time, teasing characters, storylines, and footage in hopes of getting people into theater seats on opening weekend, or, increasingly, streaming the movie from their living rooms. Some fans will see a movie more than once or go one step further and order tie-in product, but for the vast majority of moviegoers, finding out what happens between acts one and three is enough.

The relationship consumers have with video games, by contrast, often extends far longer. I’ve been playing Blizzard’s Overwatch since it released in 2015 and still look forward to every update and seasonal event the Irvine-based publisher puts out.

That relationship impacts the kind of marketing video game companies trade in. It’s important to make a splash from day one but it’s not the be-all end-all. Making sure the consumer is engaged with the brand and rewarded for that engagement over the course of the game’s lifetime is just as significant, an observation that seems obvious when considering the amount of time players sink into their favorite games—gamers typically sink 25-40 hours for the main storyline of an AAA game, while games played primarily online, like Overwatch, literally have no end.

Today that kind of marketing spans everything from a chance to win a beastly Gears of War x Rockstar Energy x Ford F-150 Raptor to a pack of checkout counter chewing gum that unlocks special in-game content.

Certain properties take a different route altogether, aiming to embed themselves in pop culture in an effort to become pop culture. Lightning, the main protagonist of Final Fantasy XIII, memorably starred in Louis Vuitton’s Spring/Summer 2016 campaign. Esports organization Fnatic was tapped for a collaborative watch by Italian fashion house Gucci. True Damage, a virtual hip-hop collective consisting of League of Legends characters, performed live at the 2019 League of Legends World Championships.

Regardless of which path companies pursue to reach consumers, the road usually leads back to Chris Erb, EA Sports’ former Executive Vice President of Brand Marketing. During his stint at EA Sports, Erb oversaw the release of four Madden NFL titles, all of which are among the best-selling sports video games of all time in North America.

After a decade at EA Sports, Erb was recruited by Thomas Tull at Legendary Pictures, bringing his marketing expertise to the film industry for the first time. A year into his time at the studio, Erb realized the video game industry was lacking the kind of marketing agencies that transformed comic book movies from niche interests into global phenomenons.

He soon left to form his own agency, tripleclix, with the intent to do exactly that for the wide world of video games. To learn exactly how it all went down, I spoke to Erb over Zoom.

Hey Chris, let’s start at the beginning. What are your earliest memories of video games?

Well I got an Atari 2600 when I was a kid, probably when I was five or six years old, and I’ve been gaming ever since.

What did the industry look like as you grew up and started to look into video games as a potential career path?

The gaming industry was just different back then. My generation was the first generation that really wanted gaming in the house. My dad’s generation really wanted television in the house. My grandparents’ generation was fighting to get a phone installed in the house.

And how did you get your foot in the door?

So when I graduated from the University of Washington, my first “real job” was Marketing Director for GameWorks, Steven Spielberg’s 100,000-square foot arcade with beer and chicken wings.

I wanted to do marketing, but I wanted to do marketing of the shit that I loved and gaming was just that thing. I spent four years running the marketing for GameWorks and after that, I moved to Wizards of the Coast, managing Pokémon, Dungeons & Dragons, and Neopets.

What did marketing strategies for brands like that look like back then?

Right, so, when I look at my career, I knew I always wanted to be a well-rounded marketer and GameWorks allowed me to hone my skills on venue-based marketing. I had to come up with strategies to drive people to stores and in the case of GameWorks, it was very much a local place. So it was all about collaborating within the city of Seattle to do great things, whether that’s partnering with movie theaters or the radio station to bring NSYNC in for a performance.

When I went to Wizards of the Coast, I started running brands, which is a different piece of that. There was no social or digital so it was really about building relationships with consumers in different ways. We would do your typical advertising marketing but we also started to talk more with partners. Think Pokémon promo cards, everywhere from movie theaters to McDonald’s.

Beyond that, Wizards was really about core gaming and hobby stores. People go to stores to play Dungeon & Dragons or Magic: the Gathering, so we worked hard on organized play. Before we could talk to everybody on social and online, it was really about catching consumers where they were. It was all about incentivizing consumers and connecting to them in their own world.

What about when you got to EA?

At EA I spent five years running the Madden franchise. What that means is that I owned the P&L, the marketing of Madden, and when I got there, social was just starting to pop off a bit. Websites and communities were starting to build up.

That said, most of the marketing for Madden at the time was TV advertising; your typical advertising to get people to come down to their local GameStop at midnight to buy the game.

“The biggest thing we ever did for Madden was turn the launch of Madden into a national holiday.”

What kind of campaigns did you put in place to shake things up?

One of the first big moments was deciding to let consumers pick the cover of Madden. But by far the biggest thing we ever did for Madden was turn the launch of Madden into a national holiday.

What we really want to do was like when a movie launched—it always felt like everybody in culture was getting behind a film. I felt like we had that a bit in gaming, but it hadn’t broken through yet. So how do we take the launch of Madden and turn it into a theatrical moment? How do we really bring culture together?

Our first stunt event was in Madden, Mississippi which is the only place named Madden in the country. We gave everybody in town an Xbox and we had a parade and got a lot of good buzz. It was fun, but really just the beginning of this Madden holiday idea.

The next year we really evolved the idea. We took over Time Square. We took out the ball that drops on New Year’s and turned it into the Madden box. Ozzy Osbourne played on the marquee in Times Square and then we did the countdown. The box dropped and then we sold the first copy at Toys R Us.

We would give fans medical notes from the doctor saying they need to take the next day off. It was about getting everybody to go buy Madden at midnight and call in sick.

What about some of the lifestyle collabs from that era? Can you tell me about those?

Absolutely. At the time, no one was really doing shoe collabs in the space. We were the first to do it with EA Sports. We did them with Manny Pacquiao, Tim Tebow, Drew Brees. That really started all the collaborations with big brands, the Doritos and Nikes of the world. Again, it was all in service of creating a cultural moment around Madden.

With so much success at EA, why did you leave for Legendary?

To be honest, the real reason I left was: I had kids and I was at EA for a decade. It was just time for change. I wanted to get out of Florida. I wanted to get back to the West Coast.

I was friends with Thomas Tull and Thomas had previously reached out to me to be Head of Marketing for a video game company he had called Brash Entertainment. I didn’t want to leave EA to do that but when the time was right, I thought, “Okay, what’s the right moment for me to do something different?” So I left and he recruited me to come over to Legendary.

What kind of projects were you overseeing there?

I was doing all the brand-new theatrical marketing for Legendary. Right away one thing I noticed was that at EA, there were no agencies I could hire to help with gaming stuff. At EA we had to go out and do all these partnerships and programs ourselves. At Legendary, on the other hand, there’s literally 1,000 agencies that do promotional partnerships within the movie industry.

So from day one at Legendary, there was very much an “aha” moment. I could have used all this stuff at EA or Wizards. I started to think about it more and realized I was really missing gaming, and that’s really where tripleclix is born out of. It was the idea that there wasn’t an agency supporting the video game industry.

“The goal of tripleclix was really to be a connection between brands—the Taco Bells, the Nikes, the Cokes of the world—and the gaming industry.”

Before getting into tripleclix, what were the key differences between marketing to video game fans and marketing to movie fans?

Great question. There’s a bunch of different answers. To start, gaming is more about community. Besides Star Wars and IPs [intellectual properties] that have huge followings, when a new movie comes out it’s super hype for a week or two and then it fades away.

When Halo comes out, Gears of War comes out, people spend 500, 600 hours playing those games. They’re much more invested in the IP. They’re deeper into the culture of the games.

Of course, there are people that love movies, but there’s not a kind of “movie culture.” There’s people that love Star Wars and Lord of the Rings but it’s different from gaming fans. For instance, I’m super excited for Cyberpunk. I’m also super excited for Nintendo’s next drop. You love the industry. You don’t have that community nature as much in the film industry.

Put it this way: if you combine the movie and music industry together, gaming is twice that big. So again, the idea of the scale and scope of this industry being much bigger than movies and not having agencies to support it from a partnership or lifestyle perspective just blew me away.

That’s a perfect transition to tripleclix. Tell me about the beginning.

I had never worked in an agency before and I’m not an entrepreneur by nature, but I saw this opportunity and wanted to get back into gaming. The main question was: how do I take what I was doing for EA and do it for everybody else?

So the goal of tripleclix was really to be a connection between brands—the Taco Bells, the Nikes, the Cokes of the world—and the gaming industry. And how do I bring them together for literally the betterment of gamers?

For example, when you go to the grocery store and you see Spider Man on a bag of chips, there’s nothing in it for the consumers. You buy that bag and you get a bag of chips with Spider Man on it. The question is, how do we build programs where we give consumers value through promotion? How do we get brands like Kellogg’s to give something to gamers of value?

“The same people that are buying The Hundreds on Thursdays are the same people who are going home and playing Halo or Madden.”

And what are some campaigns that answer those questions?

Well first, something like 95% of Gen Z plays video games, so they know microtransactions. The question then becomes more specific: how do we offer those things that they’re used to buying, but give them away for free when they buy the brands they love?

tripleclix’s idea was to help game publishers find brands to help them market their games. At the same time, we wanted to help brands authentically come into the gaming industry. Instead of just buying advertising and marketing to gamers, we wanted to create programs that actually help them build relationships with gamers.

I was going to ask this later but now’s the perfect time: how do you make these partnerships actually feel authentic on every side? On the brand side, the studio side, the consumer side?

It depends on if you’re talking about lifestyle or partnerships. From a partnerships standpoint, it’s really about value. It’s about Pringles going, “We get you guys. We game too. Here’s some exclusive content for buying our product.”

On the lifestyle side, it’s about authentic collaboration. The people that are making streetwear are huge video game fans too, so they really understand that space. The same people that are buying The Hundreds on Thursdays are the same people who are going home and playing Halo or Madden.

It 100% makes sense for The Hundreds to do a collaboration with Xbox, for Billionaire Boys Club to do something with Halo, for Undefeated to play with Gears of War, for Nike to do an Xbox shoe. That stuff all makes sense because those audiences are cross-pollinating.

Walk me through a specific collaboration.

Run The Jewels x Gears is a good example. Gears is all about cultural relevance and the Gears team is huge fans of Run The Jewels.

It worked like this: we got RTJ 3 around six months before it was done. We took tracks from the album and debuted them in trailers for Gears. Then you’d see people from Rolling Stone covering the new Gears trailer. They’d be like, “I have no idea what this game is, but they’ve got the new RTJ track.” And at the same time, Kotaku is like, “There’s some crazy music in this new video, check out this band Run The Jewels.”

After that we started playing with Run The Jewels’ amazing hand and fist logo. We were like, “what if we drop the hand and put this iconic Lancer weapon from the game into the logo? And then on the end of the chain, we put the cog for Gears?” We just gave it to the guys and they made shirts and sold them and it became a big thing. That part actually wasn’t meant to be a marketing play at all. El and Mike would just wear the shirt and again it speaks to that idea of collaborating authentically.

All of that stuff was pregame. When the game launched, we got the guys into the studio and had them do voiceovers for 12 or 16 hours, and then we actually made them playable characters in multiplayer.

The whole collab culminated with them playing live at the Game Awards. 40 million people watched. It was a huge show. Ultimately, what we did was take all these different marketing beats and build a collaborative relationship around it.

“Gen Z is going to be buying something like 46% of luxury goods in the next five years and Gen Z loves video games. It’s really smart for luxury brands to dip their toes into the gaming space.”

How do you settle on a group like Run The Jewels in the first place?

The credit goes to the Gears team really. They get it. They’re huge Run The Jewels fans. They could have signed and wrote a much bigger check to a much bigger band. But they love Run The Jewels and they think their fans are going to love Run The Jewels. If their fans don’t know them, they’re going to educate them on them. It just fit into what that game is about and who they love.

Now I just want to get your thoughts on some wider trends we’re seeing in the space. I don’t think you worked on these projects specifically but why are we seeing luxury brands getting into the video game space? I’m thinking of Final Fantasy x Louis Vuitton, Gucci x Fnatic, etc.

That’s a good question and you’re right, I didn’t work on any of those, but I think it’s great and it makes a ton of sense. If you look at the studies, Gen Z is going to be buying something like 46% of luxury goods in the next five years and Gen Z loves video games. It’s really smart for luxury brands to dip their toes into the gaming space.

And in luxury a lot of what’s going on there is coming from street culture. So what’s happening is that street culture is resonating on the luxury side as well as on the gaming side. You’ve got Virgil at Louis Vuitton. KAWS playing with Kim Jones at Dior. There’s a lot of natural connectivity and it gets back to my earlier comment of street culture and shoes and gaming overlapping.

Lastly, the new Xbox just launched. Tell me about some of the campaigns you worked on.

With The Hundreds, we did a small capsule collection to celebrate the launch of the Series X.

We also did a project with Taco Bell. All the pre-orders were sold out so the only way you could get an Xbox was from winning it at Taco Bell. We were giving away an Xbox every 15 minutes, 24 hours a day.

With Cyberpunk, we created four collectible cans with a different character on each can. We actually got Rockstar to create what we’re calling Samurai Cola, which is an all-new, limited-time flavor of Rockstar specifically for Cyberpunk. All five of the Rockstar cans contain a code that gives you $1 credit on Xbox, therefore you can save up cans and put the money towards buying Cyberpunk.

We’ve also done a bunch of programs with Halo in the run up to the launch. We worked with Oreo, Nutter Butter, and Chips Ahoy to put exclusive content on the packages. In Canada, we’re working with Sour Patch Kids and Trident.

With BBC, we celebrated Halo Day, which is November 7 because Master Chief’s number is 117. BBC dropped two exclusive tees. One shows Master Chief with the Energy Sword and his armor is a BBC camo pattern. The second shirt is the Master Chief helmet with this classic camo pattern from BBC. It was a super limited drop—117 tees.