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Wii U struggles to build buzz

From Twitter talk to mainstream media coverage, Nintendo's big briefing was lost in the shadow of Apple's iPhone 5 unveiling

Last week, GamesIndustry International ran an article asking whether Nintendo's Wii U launch announcements would be overshadowed by Apple's long-awaited iPhone 5 unveiling from the day before. As we've since discovered, the answer was an emphatic "Yes!"

But a few letters and some punctuation doesn't quite cover it, so I went looking for some less subjective assessments of how the week's two big tech to-dos turned out. Twitter trend analytics service helped out on that front with a handy graph showing the use of #iPhone5 and #WiiU tags from Tuesday night through Thursday afternoon. data underscores the challenge Nintendo faced in cutting through the buzz over Apple's latest iPhone.

It's not a fair fight by any means. Even at the Wii U hashtag's peak use in the moments after the Nintendo conference concluded, the flashy new console was trailing the Twitter buzz surrounding the IPhone 5. And that was almost a full day after all the details of Apple's new phone had been confirmed in a presentation that wasn't even streamed online.

While it's obvious that Apple and Nintendo's social buzz operate in different orders of magnitude these days, it wasn't always that way. A Google Trends comparison of the search terms "Wii" and "iPhone" (below) shows that as recently as the 2009 holiday season, the two were at least in the same ballpark.

Context-light data aside, a lap around some of the biggest mainstream news sites in the world Thursday afternoon revealed more anecdotal evidence of the Wii U event's difficulty creating a stir.

Several hours after Nintendo wrapped up its event,'s Technland blog had four featured stories at the top of the page, and the Wii U couldn't push news from the Apple event out of any one of them. Nintendo's new console was all-but-invisible on the New York Times site, appearing on neither the technology nor the arts section front pages. The Wall Street Journal at least gave the Wii U news a thumbnail picture and headline in its technology section, but it was posted well into the afternoon and displayed underneath 10 iPhone-related headlines.

Google Trends shows holiday 2009 as the last time Wii search volume was on par with that of the iPhone.

Across the pond, The Guardian's tech section gave the Wii U prominent placement on its front page, but saved the featured art slot for an iPhone follow-up. The Daily Mail science section did the same. And El Mundo carried the Wii U news on its tech section front, but without art, and subordinate to a blog post about how leaks had made the Apple event seem routine.

And then there was the Daily Telegraph, which, like its peers, covered the Wii U, but tossed the news into the virtual back pages, beneath an awe-inspiring all-Apple assault of articles, with separate stories for the device's earphones, analysts' reaction, picture galleries, and an editorial stating that the event yielded "no surprises."

Perhaps the most telling moment of the day's mainstream media trawl came in the way USA Today covered the event. Back in 2005, console gaming was front-page news for the paper. Nintendo even let USA Today spill the beans on the Wii (then called the Revolution) hours before its big Electronic Entertainment Expo briefing that featured the system's unveiling as its finale. Seven years later, Nintendo just doesn't carry the same urgency for the paper. Moments after Nintendo's Wii U event ended, I couldn't find the news anywhere on the USA Today site, not even on its game-specific page. Instead, I found a farewell post from the paper's Game Hunters blog, explaining that the paper and its sites are undergoing a massive redesign, and the game-specific blog "won't be a part of that plan."

As for follow-ups, The Sun today posted a follow-up story on the Wii U, but it's not quite a marketing triumph for Nintendo when the headline screams, "Will you be picking up a Wii U? Here's five reasons not to." Among other things, the article says the system is "dramatically overpriced," will be outdated in a year, and is unnecessary considering Sony's recently announced PlayStation Vita-PS3 cross-functionality.

The top of the Daily Telegraph's tech section front page on Thursday. Not pictured: The Wii U launch date story.

According to freelance journalist Chris Morris (who has covered games for CNN, Forbes, Variety, and more), the problem isn't that big media cares less about traditional gaming; it's that there's less to care about. "Retail sales are down considerably (at least as seen through NPD)," Morris told GamesIndustry. "The consoles are long in the tooth. And there hasn't been a surprise breakaway blockbuster for some time. Call of Duty is still a huge seller, but those numbers are never a surprise now. Those are the sorts of things that ping the radar of many mainstream outlets."

Compare that to the mobile and social spaces that have attracted headlines in recent years, from Apple's annual iPhone unveilings to the Zynga and Facebook IPOs. While Morris expects that phones and tablets will continue growing in gaming significance, he added that the new generation of traditional consoles (and even big releases along the lines of a new Grand Theft Auto) could make gaming coverage more appealing to mainstream media's gatekeepers.

"Convincing editors to write about the video game industry has always been a dicey affair for as long as I've been doing this for national outlets (over 15 years now)," Morris said. "And since games seem to be largely running on autopilot these days, that makes it even harder. But I think it's cyclical, just like this industry."

As for the Wii U specifically, Morris noted that the original Wii was not an instant phenomenon either, benefiting from inspired PR and marketing work and post-launch supply shortages that made it the hottest holiday gift of the year.

"If the Wii U proves to be as groundbreaking as the Wii, we'll likely see another surge of coverage," Morris said. "But so far, the general reaction from investors and the general public to the system has been a collective shoulder shrug. Many people see it simply as a Wii HD (which underscores the marketing problem Nintendo faces). Also, Nintendo has done virtually nothing to market it, withholding key details until just recently. So there hasn't been anything to write about."

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Brendan Sinclair avatar
Brendan Sinclair: Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot.
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