Game on: Brands and the rising popularity of esports

We explore the rise of the esports sector and how marketers can tap into this growing audience and community to build brand through the funnel

When COVID-19 led to the postponement of major sporting competitions around the globe, there was one form of contest that surged – even if some pundits might not recognise it as such.

The esports sector was the clear winner in 2020, with burge oning player participation and viewer numbers coming through on platforms such as YouTube Gaming and Amazon’s Twitch.

The scale of esports was recently demonstrated by GroupM media agency, Essence, in its report Gaming in the 2020s. The report cites statistics including NewZoo’s estimate that the global audience for organised forms of competitive gaming in 2020 totalled 495 million and is expected to rise to 646 million in 2023, with around 45 per cent of viewers watching at least once a month.

“The reality is as people became more isolated and required to stay at home, we saw that gaming came to the forefront as this thing that helped connect people,” says Essence head of business planning, Jamarr Mills.

But despite growing opportunity, many marketers are still hesitant when it comes to investing in esports. This may be due to perceptions regarding the electronic gaming sector generally, which has been the subject of negative commentary due to the antisocial behaviour of some gamers and the perceived violence of the games themselves.

According to Mills, growing realisation that esports and electronic games generally have a much broader and more complex audience than has traditionally been recognised is helping to overcome such perceptions. This ranges from the youth audience that traditionally shuns other media formats through to mums and dads who participate in casual games for relaxation and recreation.

The Essence report also cited statistics from eMarketer showing 83 per cent of all women and 88 per cent of men could be classed as gamers, with 71 per cent of 55-64-year-olds engaging in games.

“As marketers start to think about gaming, they need to bear in mind that gaming is multifaceted,” Mills tells CMO. “It is not just esports or console gaming. If you are a person that plays Candy Crush, that is you on gaming. It is really time for marketers to accept their audience is the gaming audience.”

But while the opportunities are there, they are not easily grasped. Aside from the complexity of the audiences themselves, the esports sector specifically is recognised as having a notoriously low tolerance for poorly thought-out brand engagements. Hence despite the rapid growth in players and viewers, sponsors of esports have not kept pace.

Gamers inside

One of the stalwart brands supporting the esports sector is microprocessor maker, Intel, whose heritage includes a sponsorship relationship with esports organiser and production company, ESL Gaming Network, stretching back to 2006. According to Intel’s Phoenix-based general manager for its gaming division, Marcus Kennedy, (himself a former esports competitor), 2020 was a watershed year for esports.

“Now half a billion people watch esports each year, and last year the pandemic accelerated that, both from gaming perspective, but also for those who wanted to watch,” Kennedy says.

As a supplier of technology to gamers, it makes perfect sense for Intel to be prominent within esports tournaments.

“It is a really enthusiastic community, and they have no qualms about telling you what they want,” Kennedy says. “We love engaging with the community, taking that feedback and using it to make our offerings better, and ultimately to make the entire space better.”

Kennedy concedes, however, that Intel has not always gotten its engagement perfect and has learned lessons all brands can benefit from.

“Just showing up isn’t enough - you have to show up and be authentic,” Kennedy says. “You have to show up and actually listen. And you have to show up and turn your brand into something that really stands for something.

“Any brand is looking for places where they can reach an audience, and esports and the gaming community is exploding. And it has been great to have other partners join us on the ride.”

One of those is Taiwanese PC maker, ASUS, which this year launched its first ROG (Republic of Gamers) Masters Asia-Pacific esports tournament. According to ASUS country manager for A/NZ, Emma Ou, her company looks at several factors when it comes to sponsoring and being involved within the esports industry.

“The biggest thing we have noticed is the ability for the gaming sector to create a community, especially during the last 12-18 months when a lot of people have struggled to have the interactions in person they would normally be used to,” Ou says. “If we can be involved within projects that speak to the idea of community and bring people together, then that’s important for us as a business.”

Global organisation

One of the key changes in the esports sector over the past decade has been increasing professionalism of both the leagues and the teams that compete in them. This includes the emergence of groups such as the Misfits Gaming Group, a premier professional esports organisation that owns and operates a portfolio of competitive esports teams across multiple global video games, and which gained sponsored from ASUS earlier this year.

Perhaps the strongest validation of the growth of the esports community has been the announcements of the Intel World Open, which will be held during the build-up to the rescheduled 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, as part of Intel’s worldwide partnership with the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Intel is also a key supporter of the ESL Gaming Network, which runs Australia's largest esports events, including the Intel Extreme Masters, Melbourne Esports Open, and the ESL Stage at PAX Arena. ESL Australian head of sales and marketing, Graeme Du Toit, has helped numerous brands enter into the esports sponsorships.

“The reason why you don’t see mass adoption is because it is not super easy, and there are very few people out there who are making it easier,” Du Toit says. “And the metrics by which most of the media buys are not the same.”

Despite these challenges, Du Toit is adamant the rewards are there for those brands that want to take the time to connect.

“The audience is way more engaged than the average audience,” Du Toit says. “If you win them over and you have a good product, they are going to be fans of yours and use your products, and probably evangelise your product.

“It is about finding the right people and having the patience to do it properly, rather than getting a quick ROI.”

Related: A-League clubs tap into growing esports trend with fresh consumer engagement play

Report: COVID-19 has forever changed sports marketing

As such, Du Toit says esports remains fertile territory for those brands that want to be the first movers. “The opportunity is there, it just requires doing a little bit of work,” he says.

The number of agencies and support organisations willing to help is growing however, spurred on by the size of the potential opportunity. One emerging organisation is gametech, entertainment and marketing company, Livewire, which was launched earlier this year by digital media industry executive, Indy Khabra.

“It’s a new area marketers are trying to understand and it’s complex - there are lots of different parts of the ecosystem,” Khabra says.

Khabra says the opportunity for marketers is to connect with an audience that is yet to purchase their first car, insurance policy, or home, but which has high disposable income, is tech savvy and well educated.

“It is really a part of mainstream culture now, and so marketers are starting to realise that it is something to really take into consideration when they are doing their marketing campaign,” Khabra says. “It’s hard to connect with the next generation of consumers, and if brand longevity and brand equity is a priority, you have to be where the next generation is.

“They are not necessarily engaging with traditional media channels at the levels they were before. Every industry sector has an opportunity to add value, and there is a real opportunity to be first movers in this space, the capture loyalty.

“You have to be authentic, you have to add value, and you have to understand the gaming audience as well.”

Up next: How one FMCG brand has harnessed esports to grow a new audience and brand dynamic

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