The five key lessons esports can teach marketers about virtual experiences


By Joss Davidge |

Insights, Sports

Empty stadiums. Cancelled tournaments. But here's a silver lining.

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Life without sports is tough. I miss football, golf and cycling especially, but I can sympathise with sports-lovers everywhere. Covid-19 has caused widespread devastation, and the sports industry and fans haven’t been spared. However, esports has reacted differently – it has stepped up to the plate and taken up some of the slack of its real-life sports peers.

Even before the spread of the virus, esports was already pulling in surprisingly high viewing numbers, and drawing in new sponsorships. In 2019, the League of Legends World Championship Finals in South Korea drew 100 million unique online views, which meant it beat last year’s Superbowl audience online, and that was before the lockdown. Almost 80 percent of current esport enthusiasts say that esports is taking up the hours they used to spend on traditional sports. It’s becoming so popular in fact that the gaming companies are striving to make esports an official secondary school sport (universities have long had teams on their rosters), and to include it in the Olympics. 

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If you’re still sceptical, here are some more hugely compelling numbers to convince you: The projected revenue of esports in 2020 is £880 million, and £1.8 billion by 2022, and participation looks set to be around 560 million people by the end of 2020. That’s bigger than the PGA, World Rugby, and the NFL. The number of professional sponsored esports athletes has tripled in five years, from 8,000 to 25,000. The prize purse for the winner, Bugha, of the Fortnite World Cup Finals in 2019, was £2.4 million, more than Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, and the Tour de France. 

Gaming is here to stay, and it’s only going to increase with a continued lockdown and the advent of 5G. With almost 70 percent of Americans playing a game on at least one type of device daily, the U.S. market is already unbelievably massive, and esports is a large slice of that pie. Not only do people play and spend money within the games, but they also watch professional gamers via streaming networks like Twitch and YouTube Gaming, and interact on message boards. According to Cassandra, 74 percent of U.S. youth consider esports to be a real sport. 

Formula 1 has already had two races replaced by virtual ones, and even though it’s not for actual championship points, it’s proving to be popular for fans and racers. Other sporting codes have followed suit, and as a result, most major sporting entertainment already includes pixels and not just turf. Sponsorships have followed, and brands without esports plans are now losing out on this captive market. Crucially, the longer the lockdown lasts, the more new customers esports will garner globally.

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To tap into this digital phenomenon, brands need to consider these five guidelines.  

1. Put your customers in the game.

One of the biggest drawcards in esports is that you can pit nobodies against number ones, and location, budget, and logistics aren’t obstacles. The Formula 1 Virtual Grand Prix has replaced the real F1 races up until the end of May, and it pits the top racers against celebrities and pro-gamers. During non-race weekends, Formula 1 hosts online exhibition races where fans can battle head-to-head with F1 drivers, and that’s just one type of online racing. Also, one of the biggest names and streamers in esports, Ninja, partnered with musician Drake to play Fortnite, but he also regularly interacts with fans on his different channels.

Lesson: Give your customers a truly extraordinary experience

Marketers can pit customers against, or partner them with, brand advocates, influencers and pro-gamers – the closest they’ll get to the real thing – or create customised events and competitions. These can be set up quickly and on a relatively small budget. From FIFA to Fortnite, there’s a wide variety of games, platforms, and competition formats you can choose from. You can bolster these experiences with AR or VR, and even have the audience bet on the results.

2. Push the right buttons.

The sponsorship and advertising opportunities in esports are not limited to endemics or traditional advertising; there’s a broad mix of options and bespoke opportunities. In esports, everything is up for grabs: streaming platforms, players, teams, venues, competitions, fans, and digital assets are all up for sponsorship, or can be used to leverage your brand. Fashion brands ranging from high street fashion houses like Louis Vuitton through to sport-style specialists PUMA are involved, and have helped to design in-game digital outfits, character skins, trophy cases, as well as apparel lines for the players. Red Bull sponsors one of the best gamers, and as a collaboration, created a unique gaming contest and a limited-edition Red Bull can. Mac Cosmetics created a stall with a gaming-specific make-up range at the huge gaming convention, TwitchCon, and pledged to help gamers look better after a long night of playing. The core demographic of esports is deeply connected to the game they’re playing and watching, so the advertising has to be customer-centric, provide an excellent experience, and be authentic.

Lesson: Focus on real authenticity and creativity

You need to choose the right game, platform, and channels that work for your brand – there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. You need to know your RTS (Real-Time Strategy) from your MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game), and you need to decide on what suits your audience and marketing goals best. There are hundreds of ways to get involved: playable ads, branded character and game skins, product placement in games, creating an esports team, mobile ads, bespoke tournaments and events, sponsoring individuals or teams, augmented reality ads, creating brand avatars; and a whole lot more. It can be incredibly overwhelming - this is where Because can help.

3. Don’t make assumptions about your audience.

Contrary to common belief, gamers aren’t pale, spotty male teenagers living with their parents. The truth, according to IAB, is that 43 percent of players are in the 21 to 35 age bracket and are middle-class working professionals with large household incomes and spending power, and 38 percent are female. It’s a market that most brands want to target: young, digital, and diverse, and they include audience segments that have been increasingly tough to reach through traditional advertising. It’s also meta-sizing in the younger segments: 79 percent of U.S. youth say gaming is essential to their lives, and one study showed that 52 percent of Gen Z males prefer non-traditional sports.

Lesson: Spend time with your audience

One of the benefits of esports is its ability to define its audience in detail and their level of engagement, which is a weakness in traditional sports. Brands with almost any budget can succeed in hitting their target audience in esports, provided they have the right marketing strategies in place. Because esports fans are so engaged, they can quickly identify which brands are only in it for short-term gain, and aren’t invested in improving esports as a whole. Choose the right partner, and then plan an omnichannel strategy that uses the right channels and platforms, and which authentically engages with fans at every opportunity. Also think long-term: you should create a strategy that you can build on YOY, one which reinforces your brand’s reputation and credibility over time.

4. Influencers are levelling up the marketing game.

The top esports streaming influencers are as effective in drawing their fan’s attention as their real-life sports counterparts, but how they serve and engage with their fans is very different. Streamers create vast amounts of content daily, across various channels, and provide unlimited opportunities for marketing and advertising. Traditional athletes mostly interact with fans only on game day, while streamers spend up to 12 hours a day playing on Twitch, recording live video, and interacting with fans in live chats across YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, and Facebook. The engagement is much higher, the spread is more extensive, and it lasts longer – all of which is manna for marketers. Gamers also have longer shelf lives; gamers play for most of their life, and their lifetime value as an esports customer is substantial.

Lesson: Choose the right influencer for the right strategy

There are esports influencers for any kind of budget, but you don’t have to pay vast amounts of money for the top esports streamers, you can focus on the smaller influencers as a strategy to break into esports. The checklist you should look for: gaming skills, consistent daily content, and a constant focus on developing their community following on social and streaming networks. If your brand is new to esports, then collaborate with an agency that has done the research and understands the influencer game. Again we can help here too.

5. In-game tokens can become real-life rewards.

Digital currencies have become commonplace in esports, and streaming networks like Twitch offer ways to earn both in-game credits and real-life money. Gillette partnered with Twitch to create a unique virtual currency in the “Bits for Blades” promotion. It allowed fans to earn Bits, which they could then use to financially support streamers or buy Gillette products that were discussed and promoted by the Gillette-sponsored streamers.

Lesson: Reward your customers with custom currencies

Partnering with streaming networks or gaming companies aren’t the only ways to do digital currency – you can utilise blockchain tech and smart new digital tokens like vAtoms (new to the marketing world) to incentivise competitions or reward your customers. The beauty of these vAtoms is that they are platform-agnostic; you can embed them in digital banners, share them in social media posts, or even link to them in an email. Think of them as being a digital token you can almost immediately turn on/off, or change the value of, as you so please.

In conclusion, while the number of live action sports is dwindling fast, the opportunities for brands to entertain customers through esports are growing staggeringly fast – all you need is some creativity, and the right marketing partners. While you won’t be able to feel the real excitement of being in Wembley stadium in person, you can earn new lifelong fans for your brand by playing a smarter game digitally. And creating real connections in today’s digital world now matters more than ever before.