In recent years, viewership of competitive video gaming has skyrocketed, forecasting growth in the global audience to nearly 729M by the end of 2021. Once a niche relegated to hobbyists and passionate fans, professional gamers from around the world now compete for cash prizes as large as $35M. That said, while this cultural phenomenon has exploded in popularity, many companies still haven't moved on this growing opportunity that could someday rival professional sports.
With major tournaments taking place year-round, much of the gaming industry has shifted their focus to developing the next online craze. Game developers including Blizzard Entertainment, Riot Games and Valve now relentlessly promote new offerings, at times even removing the price of admission entirely. By transitioning to a free-to-play model, the potential player base is maximized, fostering a vibrant, passionate gaming community where a player can put in hundreds of hours of practice to earn a place at the top.
You're probably wondering: What does this mean for your company?
Considering that current barriers to entry are quite low, advertising rates are still affordable and figures in the community are on the fast track to fame, your marketing team may have an incredible opportunity!
Get to Know the Gaming Community
Just like viewers of traditional sports, fans of popular streamers and E-Sports Athletes tune in on a regular basis to cheer on their favorite personalities in popular games such as League of Legends, Counter-Strike and Rocket League. So accordingly, as we observe an uptick in E-Sports viewership, it is absolutely imperative not to overly generalize the broad range gaming fans as you devise your marketing strategy. This intensely authentic community doesn't hesitate to point out and mock tone-deaf advertising. If your plan is to just throw together stereotypes and tropes of the "professional gamer", your campaign will be made into countless memes.
On one hand, you have "core" gamers. These viewers generally gravitate toward first-person shooter (FPS) or Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) video games, which are largely the most structured genres. When watching their favorite team play a match, the viewer can see the score perfectly delineated on the top of the screen, matches are a consistent length, and the fast-paced action keeps their attention. Take an FPS like Valorant, for example. Developed by Riot Games, the game is built from the ground up to encourage tactical play, often resulting in close, nail-biting victories. Delivered in short ~2 minute rounds, players must work together to either move into one of two points to plant a bomb or prevent the other team from doing so. With each in-game environment offering different angles, nooks and crannies for experienced players to exploit, as well as several unique characters with special abilities, the game can be extremely unpredictable, which makes it so enticing for the viewer. As teams remain neck and neck for most of the game, a single bad play on the part of one team member could result in the prize pool being lost to their opponent. With such high stakes being attributed to many of these games, this segment of the market behaves very similarly to viewers of leagues like the NBA or NFL, meaning similar advertising strategies would be quite effective. A great example would be energy drinks. Much as they advertise on professional baseball, established companies including Red Bull or new players such as Game Fuel have taken the initiative to directly involve themselves with the "best of the best", sponsoring teams participating in major tournaments.
Not all viewers are looking for that adrenaline rush, however. While major platforms such as Twitch thrive on their promotion of competitive video games, there also exists a substantial community of casual gamers, who prefer commentary or challenge content. When observing many popular streamers on most platforms, they are often not necessarily professional players, but personalities whose mannerisms and quirks earn them extensive viewership. Sandbox games such as Minecraft or Grand Theft Auto V offer extensive customization to the player, resulting in over-the-top outcomes that allow fans to enjoy exciting or even comedic reactions. In fact, as the largest independent content creator on YouTube, gamer PewDiePie originally garnered most of his fanbase making reaction videos to horror games and playing sandbox games with user-created modifications.
Reach Players Where They Are
The prime demographic for E-Sports differs from your average sports fan. As a younger, more tech-savvy cohort of consumers, their consumption of traditional media (i.e: TV) is fairly low, preferring instead to stream most content, including just about everything video game-related. This means that developments such as ESPN carrying E-Sports content should be largely ignored, barring a seismic cultural shift in sportscasting. Not only that, but the demographic's use of more traditional social media platforms is less pronounced, meaning advertising on Facebook and Instagram likely won't even net you the attention of proper E-Sports fans.
However, that's not to say they aren't active on social media. Platforms such as the discussion site Reddit and social platform Discord are extremely popular among gamers, with their use sharply increasing even among young people in general. Being a hub where users can configure whole communities to their liking to discuss their favorite games, gaming fans are able to congregate and share their experiences and opinions on the latest developments.
When it comes to Reddit, it's fairly straightforward. With the largest games, there are not only communities set up for casual players, but also many for competitive players and viewers to discuss new tournaments and events. This allows companies to purchase sponsored threads that can be easily inserted into search results for the community and get users' attention. Even a smaller company can simply create an account and network with fans of a specific game or create a community for those seeking to do business with your brand. Keep in mind, however, that individual communities may have rules against recruitment and sponsorship discussion in the fan forums.
Discord, however, is more intricate. Built on a separate desktop client and mobile app, it's not built to display advertisements. That said, there is a significant advantage: creating your own community. Discord is likely one of the most malleable apps available for communication today, with dozens of open-source bots that can make managing interaction between users on a given server much easier. The app uses a layered, Slack-like interface clearly dividing each community into its own server, and each server into relevant channels. Versatile security and server management features also allow the owner to have near-total control over how members interact. In addition to this, the use of roles can allow for the easy distinction between what each user is seeking, whether it be a fan of a team or an up-and-coming player.
Network at the Source
While certain competitors such as YouTube Gaming have attempted to build a strong user base, the premier streaming platform is still Twitch. With many of the most popular influencers choosing to remain on the platform due to the benefits appropriated through the Partnership Program, many diehard E-Sports fans watch it as their preferred platform.
The format of Twitch is quite simple, according to the individual creator's schedule, they will stream for multiple hours at a time on multiple days (or even every day) of the week. For example, "Tfue", the second most-subscribed user on the platform, streams roughly 4-5 times a week for variable durations, usually 6-8 hours. With such long sessions being relatively common, there are many intermissions placed for ad revenue throughout the livestream. While advertising on the largest channels may be in high demand, there is a significant number of up-and-coming streamers that are in need of sponsors to grow their operation, either to stream full-time or release merchandise for dedicated fans.
Forming partnerships with these content creators could prove beneficial as the platform grows over time. Not only do you have greater access to the E-Sports audience directly, but these ads can be facilitated by Twitch themselves thanks to their marketing arm. Be weary of churn in popular games, however. With so many games being released in a given year, there will occasionally be a new, viral game that immediately attracts the attention of competitive gamers. But considering the existence of established E-Sports, it's fairly unlikely a new release will become a staple of tournaments.
The Players are Your Prize
Just as in a traditional sport such as football or baseball, sponsorships have grown to become an integral part of major league gaming. When looking at some of the top teams worldwide, you'll see familiar names including the comic czars at Marvel, the fashion giant Levi's and the Miller brewery enthusiastically sponsoring.
Take Marvel, for example. One of the first major entertainment brands to enter the E-Sports market as a sponsor, they partnered with four-time League of Legends World Champions Team Liquid to promote official apparel. Being a professional gaming organization, the team was able to reach their millions of fans right at their screens to promote the apparel, and sell it on their store. This is but one of the successful partnerships they have made, which include other companies such as tech firm HyperX and even Jersey Mike's Subs, the latter of which used the team to distribute coupons via Twitter and Twitch.
While this may be an example of success with a multinational team, there is no shortage of local teams searching for a sponsor. With video game tournaments becoming commonplace anywhere from universities to hobby shops, your business could easily approach a competitive group to sponsor them, or even create a whole new team to compete in higher level regional competitions. Furthermore, the existence of massive-scale competitions put on by developers or established leagues could give both your team and business publicity depending on their performance.
Participate in the Community
We've spoken at length about reaching out and connecting with players, but the most effective way for a business to prove their authenticity in the world of E-Sports is to host an event of their own. Common for companies in physical sports, the hosting of an official event allows the company to brand itself in accordance with the sport and gain further loyalty among players.
An interesting case would be Kraft Hockeyville. Created by the company long considered the standard-bearer for boxed macaroni and cheese among consumers, Kraft Foods began hosting an annual ice hockey competition where small communities across the Canada and parts of the United States competed for the chance to host a pre-season NHL game. Running since 2006, the contest is wildly popular, with many small towns vying for their chance at the national spotlight. This annual commitment allows Kraft to claim a reputation of being a strong supporter of the sport, earning them credibility with not only officials in the league, but the countless fans in the Midwest and Canada. In similar fashion, Tim Hortons has also committed to hockey by running the Centennial Cup and numerous other sports through their "Timbits" youth league. These events have allowed companies to directly integrate their brand with the sport in question, and building a stronger reputation overall with the community it represents. As a result, they can authentically brand themselves as the "official" product of hockey.
As it stands, few companies have pursued this strategy for E-Sports, with the exception of developers and those producing niche products specifically geared towards players such as Game Fuel. With the audience on the rise, this could be a golden opportunity for your brand. The current gap could allow your business to integrate itself more closely with local community E-Sports and work your way up to a greater level as the scene continues to grow in popularity. For example, hosting a local tournament, whether for prize money or to support charity, would be seen as a fantastic reflection of your firm's commitment to E-Sports and allow you to build the authenticity the E-Sports fan craves in a sponsor. We can already see this angle working in many ways for Anheuser-Busch, which announced the creation of the Bud Light Beer League for the arcade fighting game Tekken. This venture seeks to create a more casual environment for in-person social gaming, much like a "beer league" in baseball would allow those who enjoy the sport to participate in friendly competition, even including a prize of automatic entry into a pro tournament. At face value, it seems odd for a beer company to sponsor E-Sports, considering the community currently favours energy drinks over alcoholic beverages. However, this makes becoming the "official" beer of E-Sports a fairly easy task, while also drawing outside attention to the community. This proves that by making an authentic effort, an otherwise unlinked market can find new consumers and effectively demonstrate commitment to a growing sport.
To summarize, here's what your business needs to do to find success in the surging world of E-Sports:
- Know Your Audience (Be Authentic, and Show You Care)
- Advertise and Market on THEIR Platforms (Twitch, Youtube, Reddit and Discord, NOT Facebook or TV)
- Build Relationships with Content Creators (Twitch Partners, E-Sports Teams, Influencers)
- Focus the Bulk of your Attention on Established E-Sports (Stay ahead of the churn common in new releases)
- Maintain a Presence at E-Sports Events and Tournaments
- Hold your OWN Events to Maximize Authenticity