To say that the global popularity of competitive gaming is exploding is an understatement. Live esports tournaments all over the world are filling stadiums with captivated crowds who are notably off their phones and at rapt attention. Meanwhile, 15 million people are tuning into Twitch to watch live gaming content on a daily basis, there were over 1 billion gaming-specific tweets in 2018 alone, and Fortnite, the game phenomenon of the last year, saw over $2.4 billion in profits – purely on brag-worthy cosmetic items. Cord-cutters, cord-nevers and all the other segments of the Millennial and Gen Z landscape are forging a new kind of fan experience through esports.

Despite a steady growth of non-endemic sponsorships worldwide, many brands are still hesitant to dive in. Esports is a fragmented and complex space but if you seek out those early adopters who have taken the leap — or at least dipped their toes into the test & learn pool — you will hear success stories that speak to an intense, passionate and engaged affinity group that represents the ultimate moving target on advertiser radars.

The old cliché that gamers are either kids with no purchasing power or social misfits still living in their mothers’ basements is long outdated; 69% of worldwide esports fans are the highly coveted, digital-first 18-35 year old millennial audience with significant purchasing power. They spend an average of 11 hours per week watching or playing games, and half do not have a paid TV provider.

Due to the significant value, whitespace, and maturation of esports, now is the time for brands to get involved. Here are some tips on how new, non-endemic brands can succeed in this vibrant space.

Creating Notable Value

Brands should first and foremost ensure that they are additive to the overall esports scene. Often in esports, we see brands settle for media deals and standard logo placements, which forego the opportunity to cultivate first-of-its-kind branded assets that will drive deeper engagement and enthusiasm with the fanbase. Not only is there exceptional flexibility in esports that is difficult to find in traditional sports, but esports audiences are extremely receptive to sponsorships. As such, brands have the opportunity to support and legitimize the core passions of each community, through a combination of social, in-broadcast, on-site and talent assets to deliver what esports fans love: exclusive products, rewards, VIP experiences, and behind the scenes content.

Some great examples of win-win activations already succeeding in the space:

  • SAP partnering with ESL to analyze player decisions during Dota 2 tournaments, presenting stats within live broadcasts for data-hungry fans
  • Nike developing exclusive team-branded Air Force One shoes for NYXL’s Pop Up Shop for an audience driven by exclusives and merchandise
  • Gillette rewarding viewers of top influencer’s Twitch channels with Twitch Bits when buying their products, so fans can continue to show support to their favorite influencers

The Whitespace in the Live Experience

The great news for advertisers is there is significant whitespace in esports for brands to come in, create value, and develop completely ownable engagements. While tactics like social integration and content development are vital, the live esports experience is the standout opportunity with deep potential that many brands still have not recognized. According to Momentum Worldwide’s We Know Gamers whitepaper, 70 percent of esports fans believe sponsorships are good for the gaming industry; however, that same percentage is unsatisfied with the quality of sponsorships at live events.

Attending major stadium events like League of Legends LCS Finals or Overwatch League Finals, you’ll notice a mass gathering of passionate and completely engaged communities, who have traveled from all over the country to indulge their deepest fan passions – albeit with very little brand engagement. It offers a fantastic opportunity for a brand to come in and enhance these experiences. According to the same We Know Gamers study, esports enthusiasts want to see insider/VIP access, exclusive merchandise, entertainment, and social meet-ups. And that’s just the tipping point of activation opportunities.

Moreover, with the millions of viewers engaging on these digital platforms, there are opportunities for brands to add gamification, second screen experiences and interactivity through the live stream. A great example of this was seen during the Twitch stream of the Game Awards, which featured “Twitch Extensions” (i.e. interactive pop ups), where fans could predict the winners of each game category in real time.

Use Fragmentation to Your Advantage

The landscape of esports – featuring multiple titles, leagues, tournaments and teams – may appear complex to navigate. However, this fragmentation can actually be to a brand’s advantage. With multiple entry points, marketers can secure the right partners, ideal assets, and points of flexibility to activate in a way that is more robust. Key KPIs can be boosted by a multi-faceted program whether the brand is pursuing a test & learn or making a larger play in the space.

For instance, brands like Dr. Pepper and Audi have taken a strong team approach for multiple title relevance, wider access to talent, and an always-on credibility. Meanwhile, Coca Cola and State Farm have engaged in larger title or league deals, which can deliver broadcast rights, on-site activation, and in some cases IP rights.

Customize the Approach

The term that every brand who is interested in getting into esports will hear is “authenticity”. However, this challenge is no different from traditional sports and entertainment partnerships. All subcultures have barriers, but if brands are identifying those points of value, publishers, esports organizations, and agencies will take an active role in ensuring the communication, voice, in-jokes, real time engagement, and individual tactics are resonating with those individual audiences.

My advice to brands is to not fear the space, but embrace one of the fastest growing competitive sports in the world.

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