FIRST Is Bad at Mainstream Marketing

I’d like to get some opinions regarding FIRST’s branding and themes. Lately I’ve found that it is getting harder and harder to market to a wider range of students in schools because of the connotation behind the themes such as in 2016 and 2017, and even 2015 for the most part.

In addition to catering to a pretty “nerdy” crowd that turns a lot of people off, I feel that the additional expenses of branding every season could be reduced if we went back to traditional games and themes.

Other reasoning: the terminology for the latest themes makes a lot of things confusing for an audience or someone who hasn’t read the manual.

tl;dr - why is FIRST so bad at branding for the mainstream? Even the music at events is very off putting for many people because FIRST only lets DJ’s play pre-approved stuff.

It just feels a little too “nerdy” for me to sell to a wider audience of students and mentors who just aren’t into these kinds of things. Isn’t the point to attract a diverse crowd into STEM through FIRST? Am I losing my vision of FIRST or is FIRST failing to uphold that vision with these kinds of themes?

Am I missing something here? So much of the theming feels unnessesary - when I was a student we always had fun and still nerded out - we didn’t need silly themes to accentuate the stereotypical “Robotics Kid.” These themes aren’t really helping me sell the program to students on first impression.


I voted that the themes are too nerdy.

I felt the games 2008-2011 were the right mix of action for a crowd to easily watch.

StrongHold wasn’t bad but the SteamWorks theme is kinda off putting to me.

If FIRST could go back to marketing as the “Varsity Sport of the Mind”, that’d be great. Maybe I’m biased because I saw that video as a freshman at Champs, but they have not made a cooler video than that to date. Maybe I’m just out of touch with today’s youth.

I feel like the title of your post and the post explaining how you feel about the themes is going to affect the results of this poll.

Playing games with a common game piece that everyone can relate too is an easier pitch to sponsors and guest I have found.

I find myself talking about designing a robot that can “play soccer” or “shoot basketballs”.

Typically when we pitch to a new sponsor, it’s easier to relate in the manner you are saying.

Explaining Stronghold, was hard last year…so I typically, in a suit and tie meeting, refrain from that style of a pitch and go for a common general “sport” pitch. I have had good success calling upon old history as you have mentioned.

Here comes grouchy me.

I have a bunch of reasons why my reaction to the themes ranges from distaste to hate. Here, I’ll list them:

  1. Least important, my team chooses it’s OWN theme every year. It is one of our team distinctives, and grew out of the number of art and theater students who have historically joined our team. Since FRC started theming their games three years ago, we have just ignored them and done what we were going to do anyway. This has diminished our chances to win the Imagery trophy, which is annoying, but oh well.
  2. The FRC themes are nerdy to an extreme. Like you, Akash, I think this defeats the (now forgotten, apparently) goal of reaching areas of our society that typically don’t engage with robotics and engineering. Now, we are just celebrating our own cloister, I guess.
  3. What do we say to our sponsors? How do we explain these games to them? Oh, for the days of saying “this robot plays basketball”. Now we don’t even bother trying to tell them what the game is; we just say “it climbs a rope and picks up game elements off the floor”.
  4. The games are becoming complex in ways that hinder, rather than enhance, technical prowess. When you have to work the game design around themed constraints, there will be sacrifices in terms of making the game functional.
  5. What a phenomenal waste of money! We are spending team resources to pay for each event we attend, and what we are paying for is increasingly expensive custom fabricated theater machines. This is aggravating.

The title is supposed to be click-baity. That’s part of marketing techniques typically used in industry :slight_smile:

I quit 3 Varsity Sports to join Robotics in High School.

The sports themes were super important in convincing me that Robotics was still “cool”.

I can say, without a doubt, I would not have joined my HS team had they presented me with video of Steamworks and Stronghold. It’s just too much for my taste. Quitting 3 sports teams to join a team who builds medieval and steampunk themed robots? I would have been the laughing stock of the school.

Now that I’ve been involved for a few years and continue to Mentor, I can look past that and focus on what REALLY is important, but I really do not like the themes.

I agree that I don’t like the themes. I would prefer more of a “the varsity sport of the mind” as the theme. I actually think that 2012-2014 is probably the best three year sequence for broader audience accessible and exciting games. All three were pretty easy to explain and for people without a lot of inside knowledge.

On the other hand, the professionals in advertising and marketing that I know (a couple of whom were either on my team or were parents of team members) say that it is effective marketing. So while I am not a fan I am not letting it bother me much. I do not think the theme has had much impact one way or the other on my getting kids to participate. Kids see the competition or see video of it and decide whether it is cool or not. The theme doesn’t seem to matter much because the theme is mostly important in the preseason and the reveal video. Plenty of people I know (including a lot of teaching colleague) watched many matches online last year without knowing there even was a theme. Stronghold was a fairly exciting game from an on the field play standpoint. I think that in a lot of discussions here we mentors tend to project our like or dislike of a game, a rule, a practice… into one that will negatively impact the experience of the kids. I have coached long enough (16 seasons of FRC, two and a half decades of track and cross country) to realize that my attitude is the single biggest factor in how the kids experience the game.

As for explaining the games to sponsors and others. Last year we said something like “the robots have to shoot balls in 8 foot tall goals or ground goals, after navigating an obstacle course.” Most people seemed to get that pretty easily.

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FIRST is Bad at Mainstream Marketing for this one WEIRD reason!!! :wink:

In all seriousness, I agree. I don’t bother explaining the actual game to sponsors, parents, or coworkers anymore. I stick to “shooting wiffle balls”, “climbing/hanging”, etc. Unfortunately, saying you build robots for fun still sounds really nerdy. Add in airships, boilers, castles, blah, blah, blah, and people start to give you looks.

Great input! Thanks for the perspective Greg!

In my opinion, I think the themes make the games more exciting than the slightly corny “sports for bots”. Although the game may be harder to understand from an audience perspective, FIRST always has some obvious part of the game that scores points. In Stronghold, flinging a boulder into the tower was pretty hard to miss, and was a major aspect of the points. Even if you didn’t know the point values of everything, alliances that climbed or scored lots of boulders were pretty clearly good.
This year, climbing and fueling the boiler are obvious point-awarding things. Gears (If the rotors turn like they’re supposed to, unlike the flags from last year) should also be fairly clear that they’re points.
As for the themes themselves, I find it easier to get people excited about “medieval tower defence” or “steampunk airship construction” than it is for “robot frisbee golf” or “putting inflatable shapes on hooks”. Robots doing sports has become more normal over time, and doing something unique and (kind-of) story driven. As for talking to companies, I think that “robot sports” has also become a bit too common. Integrating art or themes into the game could help keep companies interested in contributing.
That’s what I think at least.

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Nerdy is cool now, though. I don’t think the problem is the nerdiness or stereotypical “robotics kid,” because those stereotypes have much less connotation nowadays. A lot of the students I see on my team and other teams are your typical, every day students.

FIRST games have been difficult to explain for a couple years now. As long as there is one element of the game that can be watched and understood effectively, I think the games work. Additional complexities only add to the awe for the spectator and for the experience of the student.

As examples, game elements that are easily understood and exciting:
2013 - shooting frisbees
2014 - shooting balls
2015 - seeing large stacks of totes
2016 - shooting boulders
2017 - shooting fuel

Inversely, things that I found were “too complex” for a regular joe to get excited over:
2013 - Dumping frisbees at the end
2014 - Assists
2015 - Capping & pool noodles
2016 - Crossing defenses
2017 - Gear delivery

Finally, I like the themes and I think it helps stimulate the imagination. Disney was the one to pitch the whole idea of theming and having a story as far as I understand. I think once it’s more established that each year is a different theme, newcomers will get it and not think that it’s steampunk or medieval every year. It also helps emphasize that the game changes every single year.

I know FIRST is making progress towards this, but I’d love to see the resources we spend now on branding being refocused towards higher quality webcasts across all events, and some formalized analysis show, like they had for the CMP stream last year (almost ESPN style), but maybe a couple groups to better cover more events at once, and more official content from FIRST about behind the scenes, tours of team shops, team profiles, etc. It seems like a better way to market the program would be to have high-production-value content to show people who are new to the program.

I feel if they were going to do themes anyways we all knew medieval and steampunk are inevitable so they might as well get them out of the way

FRC Community: “We think the themes are getting too nerdy”

Next year Star Trek/Wars theme


At least that would be more mainstream…

If you’re gonna have Disney be involved…use that for some sick licensed theme.

I like the themes, but then again, I’m a nerd. As a game in and of itself I love Steamworks, but I find it very difficult to explain to people.
We’re running thin on sports that we can use for themes, so I think the end goal should be themes like we have now, but that doesn’t mean the games can be made a bit easier to explain.

“Nerdy is cool” now… but only specific kinds of nerdy.

Batman, Marvel, Star Wars? Cool.
Medieval/steampunk LARPing with robots? Not as cool.

Over the last three years, I have realized what FIRST wants this program to be and what I wanted this program have dramatically diverged. Between the way Einstein was handled last season and the implementation of the theme in this game, it showed me that FIRST no longer sees FRC as being about mainstreaming STEAM competition and normalizing the idea of robotics and engineering.

The decision to brand games with cheesy themes does a great job at scaring away kids that have a passing interest in STEAM and pushes it toward an audience that is already going to be receptive to the goals of the program. What made me initially interested and continues to make FIRST great is the fact that this is a way to soften and normalize the idea that STEAM can be cool and interesting. By forcing games to fit a theme they are trivializing STEAM education by making the games and program more cartoony and lighthearted.

I like that FIRST is a place where kids get to have a good time by dancing and are surrounded by people that they identify with. But that is going to be the case whether there is a theme or not. I wish that FIRST would try to go back to trying to expand the program to kids that don’t fall into that bucket.