This past year, esports’ biggest crossover star, Ninja, appeared on the Ellen DeGeneres show, and Ellen even jumped onto his Twitch stream to return the favor. The story isn’t so much that a gamer is making six figures streaming himself playing games, but that one of America’s most trusted brands turned to him, probably to expand her audience base.
Ellen isn’t the only one. Pro-sports owners Bob Kraft and Stan Kroenke, gaming publishers like Activision Blizzard and Riot Games, and brand names like Mastercard have all committed to supporting esports by creating their own products, leagues and teams, or creating meaningful brand integrations. According to New Zoo research, the global games market was projected to reach $137.9 billion by the end of 2018, a 13% increase compared to last year, and is estimated to reach $180.1 billion in 2021.
Esports captures adventure, escape, fantasy and competition for digital natives suddenly owning their increased buying power. The most engaged fans spend more than seven hours a week consuming esports content, often via new nontraditional media, according to the latest reports. And Twitch boasts an engagement rate from its active daily viewers of 106 minutes per person per day.
However, esports is not the holy grail for brands just looking to reach new audiences or investors looking for a quick return. The industry is complex and varied. Even with improvements, there is no cohesive global infrastructure, central organizing infrastructure or governance. Fans and players are scathing in their attacks on inauthenticity or policies they dislike, and the mainstream press hasn’t figured out how to cover the arena. Even with these challenges, however, an investment in esports can provide brands with an innovative marketing opportunity.
Here are a few simple steps we’d recommend taking, based on our experience of consulting with clients on how to play in this arena:
Is esports right for your brand?
Esports is not a catchall for reaching every millennial around the world. However, brands — especially non-endemic ones — need to prove that they understand the fanbase, the game and the culture tied to the game. You need to ensure that your audiences overlap and that your brand offers something the industry and its fans need in a way that fans appreciate.
For example, Nissin Cup Noodles teamed up with a video game to offer fans limited-edition prizes, including a trip to Japan, for purchasing its limited-edition packaging. The brand got the message, as fans felt the natural correlation between gamers’ snack of choice and the brand. American Express, on the other hand, didn’t: It started charging for a card product that used to be offered for free to an esports league, even though their sponsorship lent credibility.
Know your goals and audience.
Esports offers incredible opportunity, provided that its audience matches your audience.
Know what your goals are. Are you looking for greater product awareness or a brand halo? Framing your approach around clear, direct goals will focus your efforts. There are solutions in esports for scopes large and small. Make sure your goals are also reasonable — not just “sponsorship to drive awareness,” but if you’re looking for product consumption, is the league or target equipped to help you get there?
Treat it like a partnership, not a sponsorship.
Dropping brand dollars to place your name above a championship is, in my opinion, the easy way out, with low ROI. The key to successfully marketing to an esports audience is to deliver a message with authority and confidence — to talk with (and not to) the audience.
You can sponsor a league with a “presented by” or naming rights, but you can also look for long-tail product integrations, such as placement during tournaments or social support. Work with your esports partners to determine what their needs are too, such as tech infrastructure.
The industry is looking for the validation that mainstream sponsorship brings, but it’s also looking for ways to integrate products beyond just a label.
Esports fans are hyperaware that sponsors can have a hugely positive impact on one of their main passions. And because of this, they want brands that want to move the community forward.
Brands that market to the most authentic, passionate fans in the community will reap the most rewards, but dipping your toe in for one-offs sends the opposite message.
A touchstone example is Intel, which has not only taken on naming rights of the ESL Intel Extreme Masters tournaments but has done so over the long-term while also acknowledging the endemic tie-in for their products.
The best brand partners in esports continue to show their allegiance to the community again and again — this is an audience that values loyalty. Despite a game-first passion, these fans have an overall positive attitude toward brand involvement, with 50-60% leaning positive and less than 10% leaning negative, but they are quick to react if brands provide a negative experience.
Grounding an esports partnership in a thoughtful, step-by-step approach can position any brand to take advantage of the considerable opportunities that this emerging vertical represents. The chance to connect to a hard-to-reach audience that spends twice the amount of time gaming each week as they do watching TV is certainly a challenge.
With the right approach, there are numerous opportunities to think outside the box. Most importantly, you have an audience that really wants to play with you.