PlayStation or Xbox? Perhaps you’re one for nostalgia and regard the Nintendo 64 or Game Boy as the epitome of gaming omnipotence. Whatever your personal tastes, gamer or not, there is a business-marketing opportunity to be had from video games via the medium of esports.
Esports can be traced back to the 1970s, when the idea of competitive gaming was, as you would expect, rather rudimentary. Dubbed the ‘Intergalactic spacewar olympics’, the first contest was hosted at Stanford University with the top prize a 12-month subscription to Rolling Stone.
Leap forward a few decades and esports is a different beast entirely. No longer just something found on a college campus, the concept has spread globally to cater to the masses. In 2017, the International 7 tournament set a new esports prize pool record at a total of $24.6m with the winning team pocketing $10.8m. Sums like these make it abundantly clear esports is no passing fad but a sector that businesses can capitalise on. Minute Media, the online-sports community, is one such company championing the scene having tackled esports 18 months ago with a dedicated brand called DBLTAP. Observing large in-arena tournaments where thousands of fans are cheering for teams, as well as streaming platforms like Twitch and YouTube where live matches can be viewed, Minute Media sensed opportunity.
“We took a very considered approach to looking at esports before we launched DBLTAP,” explains Michael Murphy O’Reilly, head of global partnerships at Minute Media. “We saw room around players and personalities. We didn’t really know who the LeBron James or David Beckham of esports are and felt something was missing.”
From there DBLTAP sought to lift the lid on the players, providing fans with video insights on the gamers in the same way as traditional sports, with things like after-match commentary. “It’s not just about the match, we’re asking them about their worst dates, fan experiences, fantasy teams – all the stuff fans want to know about the players that they rarely get asked.”
With such a clear demonstration of how the market has changed and the passion embedded within, it’s apparent why brands are turning to esports as part of the marketing mix. Traditionally tech-centric companies would be the main parties involved in esports, such as hardware businesses touting laptops, PCs and other peripherals to players and fans but that’s changed significantly. The likes of Audi, Toyota and T-Mobile have tried out everything from team sponsorship to sponsoring a tournament series and customised product placement to in-stream messaging.
“No matter the size of the business, big or small, that marketing shift is very relevant to everyone,” says Murphy O’Reilly. “We’re moving away from endemic brands where there’s clear business value to people realising this is a highly engaged audience they might want to target their brands to.”
A cautionary tale, however – the esports audience is young and tech-savvy, so they’re wise to marketing methods and will be only too eager to tell you if you’re doing a bad job.
“There’s lots of ways businesses can get involved – investing is great but don’t just throw money at esports, do your research, become one of the gamers, become a fan,” advises Dominic Sacco, content director at the British Esports Association, the not-for-profit body increasing awareness of the sector. “The esports community is incredibly astute, switched on and can be unforgiving, so if you get something wrong and don’t know what you’re doing, they’ll see through it.”
Murphy O’Reilly recalled one such occasion where Mercedes sponsored an event to the point it was borderline excessive. With commentators – casters as they’re known – marketing the Mercedes E-Class during gameplay, Reddit forums picked it up and mocked the car manufacturer with memes. Although this could have crippled the firm’s activity, rather than taking on a corporate approach, Mercedes played along and won the respect of gamers in the process.
Moreover, Sour Patch Kids, the confectionery brand, has no obvious esports proposition and yet it became a sponsor of the Overwatch League, which would allow it to showcase sweet and sour moments from matches. “It’s that kind of stuff brands can do to align their marketing to esports,” details Murphy O’Reilly. “There hasn’t been a huge movement from SMEs and I think that will change. The moment you see big brands get involved and spend significant money, you know something is there for people to pay attention to.”
Explaining the potential for startups to take heed of esports, Sacco believes getting involved on the ground floor is the best way for marketing – especially with millennials and, increasingly, children so engaged in the scene. “Esports is a great way for companies to reach the audience who might not be watching TV or reading magazines as much as before,” says Sacco. “But they’re on Twitch watching their favourite streamers, games and tournaments – they know exactly what’s going on and don’t need traditional media. This audience is a challenge for some traditional businesses to get hold of.”
He points to sports clubs as a prime example of those in the UK taking steps to reach these audiences. West Ham was a first-mover with its push into esports in 2016 when it hired a professional gamer to represent the club at FIFA tournaments. Of course, not every startup has corporate-sized pockets, so Sacco suggests independent esports initiatives where growing companies can run in-house competitions that showcase their own products as prizes. Because in the same way startups are trying to make a name for themselves in a world full of large brands, there are small esports teams battling against household names too.
“With brands, don’t just look at the top,” Sacco says. “Grassroots leagues are a great way to get involved and test the water at a much smaller scale without a seven-figure budget and you’re helping the next level of talent.”
Noam Lawi, co-founder and COO of World of Duelists, a platform for esports betting and challenges, launched the business having spent several hours a day gaming for over 20 years. “Nowadays, you have kids making hundreds of thousands of dollars by being pro-players, so I figured we could offer gamers of all levels across the globe the chance to make extra cash while playing their favourite titles at home,” Lawi says.
He noted that while working with social-media influencers and sponsorship is commonplace, creating hubs to engage, educate and entertain esports fans is an alternative option for getting marketing messages out there. He adds: “Some TV broadcasters have also launched dedicated esports channels where startups and SMEs can purchase ad space.”
Although Lawi’s background is in online-media buying, he intends to leverage YouTubers and Twitchers to promote World of Duelists. “This results in 100% organic gamer traffic directed to my site – for a mid-size gaming channel on YouTube, we’re talking about at least two million subscribers,” he says.
Esports may seem like uncharted territory at present but companies would have once felt like that with the advent of social media advertising, which has rapidly become the norm. Game on.