The definition of sport has changed. The face of the sports star is changing.
And the way that brands are engaging with sports is undergoing its greatest change since Liverpool FC became the first professional football team to get a shirt sponsor in 1979.
Though it has its critics, the sheer size and commercial value of the eSports industry only confirms that we, as marketers and advertising professionals, would be naïve to view it as a passing trend.
As an industry, eSports is projected to make $1.4 billion by 2020, and has prize pools and viewership rivalling the world’s largest sporting competitions.
But the image we hold of a typical eSports fan likely isn’t all that accurate. A teenager sitting in a dark room for hours fixed to a screen is old thinking that can cause to-market paralysis.
The millennials we hear so much about grew up playing early model gaming consoles. As life got on with itself, their childhood enjoyment never faded; it just moved into being expressed in new forms. We need to reframe our view of eSports fans: no longer isolated teens, eSports fans are typically 20 to 34 year old, middle-to-upper middle-class males with disposable incomes to burn.
But how do brand keepers take advantage of this exciting new platform?
The games themselves present little-to-no wiggle room for what’s possible from an advertising perspective. They’re owned by commercial giants, and the cost required to change a game in even a small way would be hard to justify in terms of ROI, especially if it ends up being nothing more than a novelty.
Where true value can be found is in the eco-system and cultural phenomenon surrounding eSports.
New channels. New sponsorship opportunities. The chance to create new brand associations – the heart of any meaningful sponsorship. The online chat forum Twitch, through which many eSport events are streamed, has 15 million daily active users. Sponsorship opportunities are endless and present smaller barriers to entry than traditional sports sponsorships.
Complementing its significant worldwide reach, there are a number of local eSports organisers able to deliver brand opportunities for local markets and audiences. But as with anything new, it is going to take creative thinking and ideas and bravery for brands to generate value from this platform. You can have a presence, but to be present is a different thing – especially for an audience of new kids on the sporting block, who are eager for brands to take them seriously and engage in a meaningful way.
We need only look at Coca-Cola as a success story for this: they’ve been “in the game” since 2016, leveraging events and team sponsorships that have resulted in brand loyalty and longevity among the eSports audience.
As to where it could all end up, and how quickly should we react? Well, eSports was on the table for a 2024 Olympic debut, so watch this space.