How Marvel Strike Force Scaled Profitably, Hit $300M Revenue, and Got Acquired by Disney

Marvel Strike Force (MSF) feeds our addiction to mobile gaming and the extensive Marvel universe.

Part of MSF’s appeal is that it allows players to play both favorite characters popularized by the Marvel movies and the classic cult characters in the comics: Why just play a mobile game when you can play a mobile game with characters you know and love?

But even the most popular property is up against stiff competition in today's app-saturated and on-demand entertainment landscape.

Getting the product in front of fans and generating revenue from the game would require a clever and strategic campaign. Such a campaign can easily invest $250,000 daily, requiring a trusted partner who can turn your ad dollars into real business in real-time. 

In 2018, Marvel Strike Force(MSF) launched to stiff competition, not uncommon in a space where there are hundreds of thousands of games in app stores, with new games launching weekly. The MSF team understood that even with the strength of the Marvel brand, success would demand a dynamic and agile acquisition campaign.

User acquisition and return users are both sides of the success coin, especially for free-to-play games that rely on in-game monetization. Any campaign would have to drive both user acquisition and help keep existing users coming back for more. 

With the help of Apex Growth and our relentless commitment to being an extension of our client's team, MSF launched its own media-buying “strike force” to build and market the game, aid in the company’s growth, and ensure transparent solid relationships internally. They scaled profitably from $100 to $250,000 in ad spend per day and rose to the top, hitting revenue of $150M in the first year and $300M by 2020.

Striking fast with confidence: Understanding your campaign through a data lens

Success in mobile gaming requires standing out — and with more than 1.5M apps available at the time MSF launched, standing out required a culture of moving fast, experimenting, and testing to inspire confidence in user acquisition.

User acquisition in a competitive environment such as the mobile gaming space requires rapid adaptation. Having strong data insights to inform that adaptation is a lot like having a “cheat code” for user acquisition success.

At the heart of MSF’s success cheat code is the ability to gather insights from adapting dynamic creative and the subsequent impact on performance data. Being passive or measuring at long-term intervals (versus daily or weekly) leaves dollars on the table. If you can’t dynamically test creative, you can’t adapt to tune and refine your creative strategy to what works best.

This is why many performance marketers struggle with advertising ROI: They focus solely on Return on Ad Spend (ROAS) without considering what is affecting it. However, digital ad spending makes granularity and higher resolution of insights possible. Technology enables experimentation based on these insights and frees media buyers to focus on the higher-level functions of creativity and strategy. 

This is where Apex came in. With our transparent, truthful data-driven approach, MSF learned and understood the dimensions impacting ROAS, which aided in their ability to maximize ROAS performance.

We began by determining their desires— they wanted to launch a mobile game that the team and Marvel fans loved. Hence, we focused on building regularity and generating substantial Life Time Value resulting in commercial success for MSF and long-term Marvel fan enjoyment. 

We then addressed the challenges of an executive team that wasn’t used to creative that could adopt and pivot quickly— or make such fast decisions. To resolve these difficulties, Apex developed a culture of experimentation for MSF’s ad strategy with constant testing and iteration. This data feedback loop for creative enabled a sophisticated and highly tuned approach lacking in many companies and allowed for more optimized targeting. This, in turn, reduced customer acquisition costs — a key result for the campaign.

The Apex ‘cheat code’: Pre-beta to beta to worldwide launch

Apex takes a three-phased approach to launch with a tailored media strategy, managed with a bespoke attribution process that enables dynamic and scaled creative. All this feeds into testing that leverages the best of data and human creativity and management.

Our month-long pre-beta phase involved building a beta media plan and budgets, which were proposed to and agreed upon with the MSF team. We integrated marketing technology toolsets, including Database Integration, Marketing Partner credentials, Attribution, and Singular.

We then moved into a two-month beta phase where we deepened the cross-functional processes among the Creative, App Store Optimization, Finance, and Engineering teams. The MSF team had outstanding creative and development teams, which enabled a strong flow from the ad into the game itself.

Apex partnered with MSF’s internal game development team to identify launch countries and expansion plans that would translate and localize for global audiences. We also suggested a cross-functional stakeholder team (Leadership, Finance, Analytics, Marketing), just like we do for all our clients.

Building this team was about tapping into the creative and business smarts of the team and freeing them up to focus on the bigger picture since Apex takes the brunt of the data and analytics work.

Our data-driven creative and testing ‘strike’ plan for MSF

The data vectors Apex analyzes for clients include assigning key marketing leads and defining analytics reports, which surfaced through user-friendly dashboards for managing media buying. That data then feeds into identification and testing for key learning objectives for media buying (Bid Type, Audience, Channel). Testing helped us build an agreed-upon worldwide media plan and budget based on the beta actuals and forecast model.

This integral step was our own “cheat code” to forging a deep partnership with the MSF Finance & Analytics teams, resulting in a bespoke, data-driven LTV-model and payback periods.

We then began to scale our creative production capabilities, working with MSF’s creative development team to prepare for a profitable worldwide launch. Yield targets were refined by ever-more granular segmentation (e.g., source, OS, geolocation) to support 3-5 new creative concepts weekly. Furthermore, we helped MSF expand their marketing technology to support 90% of all media spend.

But we didn’t stop there: We worked with MSF to develop other bucket testing processes to identify pockets of media inventory to grow to reach and ultimately exceed their revenue goals.

Our team’s experience with developing flexible creative templates allowed us to set up MSF’s creative team to scale quickly. A highly-customizable base template laid the foundation with key variables like background, character, and layout laid the foundation for over 1,500 different lightweight versions of MSF assets.

Fueled by MSF in-game footage, these creative assets ran across ad networks like Facebook, Google, Snapchat, and influencers. We were able to isolate specific variables and learnings to inform a more complex and high-ROI design. From there, Apex helped MSF execute a media buying strategy that included social, Google Ads, and pre-loads for Android via the major ad networks while ensuring APAC partnered with local marketing channels. Retargeting was then used to optimize the effectiveness of each ad.

MSF ultimately achieved more efficient media buying with Apex through better attribution, including incrementality testing, fingerprinting to minimize waste and known industry sources, and only buying traffic where we could track traffic serving and validate viewability.

MSF was the perfect game to make the most of Apex’s creative strategy designed to scale. But any company can benefit from this tuned template approach.

Our creative testing process drives the evolution and adaptation of creative at its core. At MSF, this process included a weekly four-day cadence:

  • Tuesday: Creative brainstorming that leveraged MSF’s character content and gameplay plans.
  • Wednesday: Test and analysis of results.
  • Thursday: Test result presentation to the MSF team.
  • Friday: Asset delivery.

We then repeated the process weekly to get to MSF’s high-ROI design.

Winning the game: A top-50 app earning $5M per month

MSF shifted their blanket spending on passive TV and OOH ad creative and pivoted online ads to target a more controlled audience. They created more localized and cultural ads in diverse international markets to ensure sensitivity to cultural subtleties — and the results proved these efforts worked. In return, MSF gained more control over ROAS and a culture of testing that extends into the product.  

“We had a really good feedback loop from the user acquisition specialists,” said David Riggs, co-founder of Apex Growth.” We would meet regularly, at least once a week … [and] provide them data on which creatives were working well, which would inform the creative production. They could quickly turn around and improve assets based on the data we showed them.”

This deep partnering with the developers and creative teams meant testing creative, and product features (such as rapid testing of different monetizable in-game characters) could be featured in the ads, effectively extending the game into the ads. It answered questions like: Did the market react positively to the promoted character? Did it lead to a purchase? Did the ad bring existing users back into the game? Such data provided concrete results to build the business. 

Ultimately, the new model led to MSF exceeding its targets. Within about six months of its launch, MSF had grossed over $50M. Two years later, the game had earned the title of “most lucrative RPG of 2020” thanks to its $300M earnings. During that time, it had also been acquired by Disney, and later, Scopely.

Today, MSF is consistently in the top 50 apps for revenue and has won mobile game of the year at SXSW 2018. This continued success has been possible in no small part thanks to the tireless efforts of the Apex team and its data-driven creative.

How can Apex help YOU?

At Apex, we understand that not every company is in the same place as MSF was when they came to us. In fact, every company we work with is at a different stage... facing different challenges.

That’s why we take a unique approach with each and every one of our clients. 

We listen, and we learn. And we use our decades of experience to craft efficient and effective solutions to help our partners reach their next level. 

You can work with Apex to test faster, learn faster, and grow faster, without sacrificing intention or quality. As it was for MSF, you can think of Apex as a partner that takes a seat at your table, seeks to understand your business, and cares about results.

Each of our partner’s stories are exciting, thrilling, and full of previously unrecognized growth potential. 

Work with us.

Let’s unlock your unique cheat code, together.