There are already over 227 million esports viewers in APAC, and with those massive online audiences, esports players are fast becoming the new rock stars and sporting heroes. With millions of generation Z fans, it’s not hard to see why, for marketers, epsorts influencers offer compelling appeal.
Sensing the scale of the opportunity – especially in Southeast Asia which is now the fastest growing esports region globally – earlier this year, Ampverse, a new media company representing leading gaming & esports talent opened with offices in Singapore and Thailand. Their goal is to better facilitate opportunities for gaming talent to partner with brands, game publishers and agencies in the region.
Charlie Baillie, co-founder and CCO of Ampverse, says that esports influencers have highly engaged audiences which brands can utilise as part of their marketing mix for relatively modest investment levels.
"Esports influencers can be incredibly effective in Asia Pacific given the sheer scale of reach and engagement they receive from audiences," says Baillie. "The opportunities for brands to partner with this talent range from gaming influencers creating branded content which are syndicated to their online fanbase, to incorporating product placement into their live streams – both of which are simple and cost-efficient starting points."
For more in-depth partnerships, Baillie says these could involve brands partnering with multiple influencers when creating their own bespoke online esports tournaments, creating branded content video series that utilise gaming talent or partnering with entire esports teams for longer term sponsorships.
Some of the world's top consumer brands are already exploring these avenues taking esports just as seriously as they do traditional sports, launching sponsorship deals with events, teams, and players. For example, this year Nike signed a four-year partnership with the Chinese Tencent League of Legends Pro League to outfit the teams and sell team merch. Nike previously collaborated with League of Legends player Jian “Uzi” Zihao for an ad campaign last year that also starred LeBron James (see mini-documentary below). Meanwhile, Nike’s local competitor in China, Li Ning, outfits the Newbee esports team.
"Esports is becoming just as important to brands as basketball or football," says Liz Flora, editor, APAC research at L2 Digital. "But it’s not just the typical “sports” brands like activewear companies getting involved — it’s also become a very exciting space for beauty and luxury brands like MAC or Louis Vuitton."
Attracting a broad range of brands is no accident. Unlike other sports, esports was built specifically for social media connectivity and a digital-first world which gives esports influencers some advantages over traditional sports influencers.
"The one major advantage esports influencers have is that they allow for fans to essentially observe and interact with them during their practice via streaming," says Remer Rietkerk, head of esports at research firm Newzoo. This gives esports influencers an ability to reach out and touch their audience in a way that surpasses the reach of traditional sports influencers."
Rietkerk says that stream integration and content integration which allow fans to form a connection to your brand at the same time they're building a connection and relationship with the esports influencer is the best way to maximise the competitive advantage esports influencer advertising has. “Have your esports influencer use your product where organic, have them talk directly to their fans about your product in a natural way, and integrate your product in their content.”
Given that esports players are all live streaming and connecting directly with the fan base on a very regular basis, if not daily, this provides more enhanced digital opportunities for esports teams and players to add value to their sponsors while maintaining a very authentic relationship with their fan base.
"Streaming really is a unique platform for influencers that we work with because it allows them to be in constant contact with their fans," says Drew Holt-Kentwell, founder and managing director of Catalyst Esports Solutions. "Those watching are able to purchase a product within two or three clicks of the mouse; that’s why companies are turning away from traditional media and exploring options in esports where you can spend a much smaller budget but expect many more impressions."
In Asia specifically, unlocking new fans through influencers is one of the easiest ways to target this new Gen Z or Millennial esports demographic via the smartphone. "Esports fans in Asia play Mobile Legends, Free Fire, Call of Duty: Mobile, PUBG Mobile and these fans are more accessible than ever before because they consume nearly all of their content on mobile," says Holt-Kentwell.
But experts point out that influencer marketing within the gaming and esports space is a lot more nuanced than traditional sports marketing. "Within the esports demographic there are an array of different niche markets. Knowing your audience is key, and that’s something that we do to help our clients in the planning and strategy stage that you absolutely must get right, otherwise you risk the entire programme falling apart further down the line," says Holt-Kentwell.
For example, if you’re targeting a slightly older demographic of say 25 years or older that has more income to spend, you would want to focus on PC games like Dota 2, Counter-Strike, or Overwatch says Holt-Kentwell. "There is also a difference between players and streamers as influencers. For example – one commands a more fanatic and engaged fanbase, whereas the other has a more casual group of followers."
For gaming influencer talent agency Ampverse, their portfolio offers a mixture of talent ranging from what they call "purist gamers" who live stream themselves gaming on a very consistent basis across Facebook and YouTube as well as game specific platforms such as Nimo or Twitch, to gaming & lifestyle crossover talent where gaming is often in their DNA and an important part of their content output but not exclusively so.
"For purist gamers, these sorts of talent lend themselves well to collaborations with game publishers to showcase new game releases or software updates," says Baillie. "They also work well when showcasing hardware such as partnerships with handset manufacturers as well as other natural product integrations including snacks or energy or soft drinks."
For crossover talent, Bailie says these influencers tend to appeal to a different set of brands depending on the nature of their content, tone of voice and positioning. "A good example of this is a gaming collective called Rubsarb who have a very well-known and popular gaming review format called Gameboys but who subsequently went on to also launch their own cooking show called GG Cooking (see below) which has had equal levels of success. A recent episode has had over one million views on YouTube."
Opportunities for brands to partner with esports influencers are both wide-ranging and wide-reaching. This looks set to continue.
"Because of the growth of mobile esports titles and games like Mobile Legends or Free Fire, as well as the slow rollout of 5G in the future, we’re going to see a gigantic pool of potential customers – accessible only through influencers or teams who compete in those titles – that brands can tap into, and that will inevitably attract more mainstream and non-endemic brands as well," says Holt-Kentwell.
"We’re also seeing a significant shift towards a balance in male/female fans – as well as younger fans – in the campaigns we’ve run, based largely on the fact that esports appeals to more people now because of how accessible it is on the phone."
Already more than a US$1 billion global market, all signs suggest that esports is on a clear upwards trajectory, especially in APAC. At the 2019 Southeast Asian Games, competitive esports games were made medal sports in a bid to boost overall viewership. Meanwhile, winners of major esports championships like The Fortnite World Cup and The International Dota 2 tournament took home more in their 2019 prize winnings than Tiger Woods at the US Masters or Novak Djokavic at Wimbledon.
"It is increasingly common to see esports and gaming influencers earn five or even six figure (USD) sums a month here in southeast Asia," says Baillie. "I’m incredibly optimistic about what the future holds for esports in both Asia Pacific and globally. The fact that esports is able to transcend not just geographies or demographics but other popular cultures demonstrates that we are living in a fascinating period of cultural convergence and I for one am very excited to see how that plays out."