“Esports” might be the word on everyone’s mind as we enter 2019. The immense landscape of competitive gaming continues to grow, bringing in diverse audiences internationally for interactive experiences at a rate that traditional sports haven’t seen in years. Television coverage of esports has tripled in the last year alone, and the industry now generates $900 million in revenue from the nearly 400 million fans it claims worldwide. Both of those numbers are expected to double by the end of the decade, so it’s not a surprise that brands across all verticals are asking themselves how to enter the esports arena.
But the burning question is, how?
Forbes published an interesting article in October called “A 71-Year-Old with Overwatch League Tickets Delivers Five Lessons About Esports,” and it leads us to a set of insights around the esports industry that require brands to take a new approach to stand out. In the article, the reporter followed her 71-year-old aunt to Blizzard Arena in Los Angeles to learn about what someone who’s clearly outside of the expected demographic would enjoy from being at a gaming competition live.
She drills it down to five key points:
You don’t have to be a gamer to enjoy esports.
There needs to be a longer on-ramp for non-gamers or non-genre fans.
We need to do more with the personalities in the sport.
We need to do more to get women into the game.
We need to do more to show just how tough the feats on screen really are.
What do all five of these have in common? Accessibility. The biggest challenge facing all esports leagues is whether they can not only extend their appeal past avid fans of the game, but also welcome new members of the audience with open arms. Many games have a large learning curve where, unlike a sport like soccer, where the goal is very clear, it requires quite a bit of explanation to get the flow of each individual game. Having trusted personalities, voices and even just basic facts and figures seem to be lacking in the industry’s broadcast and live experiences, which traditional sports provide in spades.
The major obstacle in widespread accessibility, however, may lie in the lack of representation for various genders, races, ages, etc. Brands that want to fix the massive gaps in fan-to-player relatability can be at the forefront as esports looks to drop the “e” and lose the stigma of being a novelty. For example, Nielsen Games recently reported that the U.S. fan base for esports is roughly 25 percent female, yet that percentage is much lower when it’s focused on professional players.
So, how can brands bridge the accessibility gap, on many levels, to break through? We’ve seen several partnerships in this space that take the approach of “It’s cheaper than traditional sports, and look how fast it’s growing.” While that may be true, it sells a brand’s leverage short. Throwing money at a new frontier can occasionally turn into a masterpiece like a Pollock, but for a brand to truly penetrate with its messaging and be thought of by the esports community as a trusted partner of the games they love, there are three key tenets to follow:
Specify your audience. A general esports strategy will no longer maximize a brand’s investment. Given that different games are attracting different demographics, with different ambitions, it’s critical to ensure the target audience is indeed playing and engaging with that specific title. More than three times as many women cite “real-time strategy” games (e.g., Warcraft) as their favorite type of esports game, while 63 percent more men say first-person shooters (e.g., Counter-Strike) are their go-to. Brands need to recognize these types of disparities, and plan accordingly, just like they would if they were targeting tennis vs. basketball fans.
Advocate for growth. Despite significant progress, esports have yet to obtain broad mainstream recognition. Leading sports marketers can leverage the industry’s rise and serve as an authentic, global advocate for esports, providing opportunities and incentives that traditional sports take for granted. Esports leagues are already ponying up million-dollar prize pools worldwide, but can a brand come in and provide paths for people to join the sport and go pro? Nearly 81 percent of League of Legends fans aspire to become professional gamers, but many of them worry about the stigma attached, so the push for mainstream acceptance can breed a new level of support for the audience.
Cover your bases. Just like traditional sports, esports and its surrounding leagues and players can go through peaks and valleys of popularity and attention as new games arise. Brands should engage with a range of tournaments and teams, focusing on smaller bets that don’t favor a single game and adapting to the new landscape. Half of 2017’s top 10 esports games — by tournament prize money — didn’t exist in 2013; which makes an investment in esports one that a brand must monitor regularly.
If brands follow these principles, they can provide more access points for fans of all ages, and therefore create the opportunity to integrate themselves into the fabric of the industry, where they can be synonymous with esports. Traditional sports have many brands that reach this level of synergy (i.e., DirecTV and the NFL), but esports currently has an open sandbox for brands to get more strategic and creative in the next year.
Ross Lipschultz is an account supervisor at Taylor, working with P&G and Fox Sports. Prior to joining Taylor, Lipschultz managed corporate communications for the Chicago Bulls and worked as a reporter for Sports Illustrated and Bleacher Report.