One key factor to the astonishing growth of esports is the low barriers of entry for players. Anyone with an internet-connected computer or console has the opportunity to master a game, compete in daily tournaments, move up the rankings and get noticed. The digital nature of esports adds to this democratised route to the top—with data and statistics collected for each and every game, it’s easy to analyze, rank and differentiate players’ skills. Many of the most popular esports games are also free-to-play and, with hundreds of organised online tournaments per month, it has created a continuous influx of promising players.
Prize pools reach over US$24 million, so it’s no surprise esports has become extremely competitive. The best players and teams have hired coaches, train daily, and meet up regularly to strategise and improve in-game collaboration and communication. Where energy drink brands once flooded the esports scene to fuel players on late-night training sessions, teams now take a more conscientious approach with specialised programs focused on physical, mental and nutritional aspects to improve performance, with players training much more like traditional athletes.
As the industry becomes increasingly competitive, the best teams are now more diligent when partnering with brands and look for companies that can also help impact their gaming performance—be it equipment, training, or even strategy development. Earlier this year, software giant SAP became the official innovation partner to Team Liquid, with Victor Goossens, CEO of the team stating, “Smart technology and data give us the best possible tools to analyse and improve. As a technology company at the cutting edge of innovation and with sponsorship experience across sports and entertainment, SAP is the perfect partner to collaborate with Team Liquid to create tools and solutions to fuel our competitive journey.”
However, even though tournament prize money is impressive, stakes are too high and teams need steady cashflow during losing spells, which is why sponsorship and streaming deals are a fundamental component of a successful business model, with the best teams devoting considerable effort to growing their fanbase in order to sell audience engagement to brands. It’s important then to understand how esports enthusiasts choose their teams. Of course, success breeds fans, especially when there’s no local team—often the case with a sport still in its infancy —but what seems to be the ultimate deciding factor for the young millennial and Gen Z audience is the culture and values of the team.
Not everyone gets to win in esports, yet teams still have opportunities to earn a living, even during downtime.
Building team culture
Hector Rodriguez, CEO of OpTic Gaming, who boasts one of the largest fanbases in esports, said his approach to building fans was to sign big personalities and push out content—daily videos, streams, and interviews. Then, once the organisation is more established, they refocus on performance success, which of course, brings in more fans that feed and evolve the content cycle. These days, the most popular esports teams live under the same roof and give audiences a window into their lives by offering round-the-clock content on training, tournaments and the overall world of a pro-gamer. This unprecedented access creates a much deeper connection and breeds a more dedicated fanbase. It’s something traditional sports are trying to catch up with—the most recent example being Manchester City’s behind-the-scenes docu-series, ‘All or Nothing’ produced by Amazon.
Esports teams frequently look for brands with shared culture and values to help cultivate their personality and attract fans. This is a route in for non-endemic brands, such as premium car manufacturer Audi’s partnership with successful Counter-Strike: Global Offensive team, Astralis, where both brand and team look to embody similar characteristics such as innovation, technology, precision and speed. With esports fans typically savvy and difficult to reach, this is a core opportunity for marketers to create native and authentic content. As mentioned earlier, it’s normal for players and teams to create a wide range of daily content documenting their lives, which provides unlimited creative and natural formats to get brands and products in front of millions of streaming followers.
But the esports fanbase is also passionately diverse, with each genre having its own distinctive following, usually based on the game title. For example, the two games Overwatch and League of Legends are just as different as, say, golf is to basketball—so esports should not be thought of as a single sport. One of the biggest challenges for brands in the industry is complexity and fragmentation and deciding how best to allocate resources. Marketers need to have a deep understanding of esports ecosphere and its audiences before they can devise the right team to invest in.
Unlocking local talent
Another strategy is to home in on local players. Just like all other sports, local fans have stronger affiliation and connection with local players and root for their success. Even at the grass roots of esports, players focus on creating content and building their audiences just as much as improving gameplay skills, because this equally helps gain visibility to get noticed by the best teams. Players with large fanbases increase the eyeballs, ticket sales and merchandise revenue for teams because of what they do outside of the playing arena. They authentically and consistently show their interests and side of themselves that attracts likeminded people—be it fashion, food, or travel. This makes it easier for marketers to identify players who are a good fit and can champion their brand and products in a very organic way, and who have a huge audience that are likely already interested in their business category.
These are just a few ways marketers can get behind the professionals of the industry, and those who jump in early will ultimately reap the rewards of brand integration and awareness as teams and players continue to increase their highly engaged and dedicated fanbases. With hundreds of millions of streaming hours viewed and revenue generated in this space, the potential for brands will only continue to in grow and evolve.
Look out for the next article in the Exploring esports series by TBWA, in partnership with Riot Games. Chapter three will provide insights into the diversity of the industry, and the challenges and the opportunities that this brings for brands.
Chris Tran is regional manager, Southeast Asia Markets at Riot Games
Tuomas Peltoniemi is president, Asia digital & innovation at TBWA\Digital Arts Network