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Esports: How to Play the Game

Advertising Agency
London, UK
It’s game on as Jodie Fullagar kicks off a new esport column series from M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment’s global team, exploring the opportunities for brands to connect with esports fans.
Esports. It’s not new, it’s not a trend and it’s not niche. It’s not burgeoning, and it’s gone way beyond a tipping point. Good. I’m glad we’ve cleared that up.

This article and the monthly column that follows will not be trotting out the tropes you’ve heard and read hundreds of times before about the unprecedented growth of esports, or extolling the scale, relevance and untapped potential of this now very well-established entertainment industry.

We all know that esports has an audience of 495 million worldwide (NewZoo) and that it’s particularly popular in the US and Asia, don’t we? We know that esports (despite its slightly misleading term) is a big part of the even bigger gaming passion space and that millennial and Gen Z’ers are more deeply engaged in and spend more time gaming than doing anything else.  

We know that the audience is deceptively mixed and broad. We’ve busted the myth that esports fans are teenage boys sitting in their room because we know that 50% of the total fanbase are 21-to-35-years-olds and that there are as many 35-to-50-year-old fans as there are 10-to-20-year-olds (NewZoo).

We know that esports boomed during Covid because it provided the most vital of human emotional needs; connection and entertainment, and that as a digital first and virtual native experience, tournaments could carry on when those of traditional sports stood still. 

So, in this regular column we’re going to move beyond what we already know. We’re parking the projections and context, and instead focusing on the practical and commercial exploration of esports through the lens of brand marketing partnerships.  Looking at how brands can unlock the power of esports to reach highly engaged local and global audiences, by unpacking the various ‘ways in’.

Because whilst ‘esports’ is the brand marketing buzzword of the decade, and the early adopters are all quite frankly, ‘buzz-ing’ to finally hear it being discussed at the marketing top table, there remains trepidation about taking the plunge.

This hesitancy, according to a recent McKinsey report is largely down to a general lack of understanding and education about the space – what it is (the passion), how it works (the industry), and who plays it (the fans), as well as a concern for its regulatory legitimacy.  

In the past, esports was often referred to as the 'Wild West' – a metaphor to describe what was perceived to be (rightly or wrongly) a governance-less and law-less industry.  Are brands right to be nervous about regulatory issues and possible subsequent risk to their reputation? 

As a relatively young industry, in comparison to its sporting, commercial counterparts, the regulation of esports is certainly less established, but with an industry regulatory body, regulatory standards, sophisticated tournament legislative guidelines and multiple specialist law firms practicing in the space, the risk is low for brands concerned about potential underhand dealings and brand denigration by association. Of course, some risk still exists, as it remains in traditional sport, which recent examples such as ongoing doping in athletics, illegal betting in cricket and the Justin Thomas scandal in January, prove. Like any partnership, doing the due diligence to protect the brand, in an event of any scandal is crucial. Aligning with the right partner, asking the right questions and having legal protective measures in place is a must.

The greater risk to the brand is getting it wrong with the fans. A highly impassioned set of communities that are quick to let brands know if they’ve missed the mark and less quick to forgive and forget. Equally, get it right and the rewards go beyond those of most traditional sporting sponsorship engagement levels. 

You only have to watch the various YouTube clips of hundreds of thousands of fans chanting DHL at various intervals of the ESL One final in the UK, the demand for Louis Vuitton skins in LoL and the enduring endemic reputation Red Bull has built over 10 years of consistent support, to understand the potential impact of an authentically executed esports brand activation that resonates with fans.

For a non-endemic brand to move into esports successfully, they need to be guided by industry experts in their teams or by external consultants / specialist agency partners. People who really understand the passion, the games, the players, the industry and most importantly, the fans.

Without that understanding, there are so many misconceptions and pitfalls that could inhibit a brand’s potential for success. Such as…

  • Esports is not another sport. It may be competitive, but it isn’t sport, it’s gaming, and the fans are gamers, although only a small percentage of overall gamers are competitive players

  • Not all gamers watch or compete in esports – only 37% of those who play video games also watch esports (McKinsey, 2019)

  • The biggest games are not sports games, they are multiplayer online battle arena games (League of Legends), battle royale (Fortnite) or shooting games (Counter Strike)

  • Esports fans are not one size fits all - every game has completely different player communities with different sets of behaviour codes and preferences 

  • The competitive landscape is fragmented, with over 30 competitive titles, but fanbases and players, teams and streamers tend to specialize in one game

  • There is no one, single, truly global esports organization. Many have a significant global footprint, but are not always in every market, which means sponsorship metrics need to look beyond traditional reach to ascertain value 

So, in the following months, we’ll be exploring the right ways for brands to establish a credible presence in esports by looking at the opportunities within the different parts of the esports ecosystem, and how brands can leverage these opportunities to engage this hard to reach and extremely valuable audience. 

It’s such an exciting time to be in esports. Jump on in.

 Jodie Fullagar is co-MD of M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment London. Keep an eye out for the monthly column from the team as they take us through practicalities and nuances of navigating esport in 2021 and beyond.
Work from M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment London