With esports currently taking the world by storm, some estimates put the number of participants and spectators for the activity at 500 million worldwide by 2020. The live spectator audience alone—the people who watch professional stadium events—has grown to 150 million worldwide, according to gaming data company Newzoo, and China accounts for one-third of that audience.
There are massive marketing opportunities still waiting to be tapped in this fast-developing sector. In fact, globally, gaming is a bigger business than professional sports, argues Peter Warman, CEO and co-founder of Newzoo.
"In esports, you cannot just blast your logo everywhere; it doesn't work like that"
—Allan Phang, AirAsia
But, in esports, "you cannot just blast your logo everywhere; it doesn't work like that," Allan Phang, head of esports at low-cost airline AirAsia, tells Campaign Asia-Pacific at last month's Marketing Pulse seminar organised by the Hong Kong Trade Development Council.
AirAsia has been advancing a new trend of brands using esports to attract young recruits, who consider AirAsia as a springboard to progress to larger full-service airlines later in their aviation careers, Phang says. About 2% of the 21,000 staff in AirAsia's payroll are enrolled in this employee engagement initiative, reveals Phang in the video interview below.
"Esports is really meant to connect with Generation-Z digital natives, because esports is the sport of this generation." Marketers who understand the potential of esports will be clear winners of this sunrise industry, states Phang. For starters, try to at least understand esports slang like GGWP ('good game well played').
In August 2018, AirAsia's 'Allstars Esports Club' (an in-house club formed for employees who are also esports enthusiasts) brought on Razer, Alienware, and Secretlab as sponsors for its gaming space located at the airline’s global headquarters in Malaysia. Not many airlines are talking about esports, because their executives are "senior", says Phang, hinting at an age-related apprehension of gaming affiliations they consider shifty. "Esports actually creates a very sticky layer around franchises that keeps fans engaged even after they stop playing," he counters.
Frank Sliwka, chief operating officer at ESL Gaming, attempts to answer the question of whether it is expensive to be a sponsor of an esports team. Brands with smaller budgets can sponsor smaller local teams, and it costs less than sponsoring other sports, he says. However, Clearence Cheung, head of business at Emperor Esports Stars, is more pragmatic about the Hong Kong market. "To be frank, viewership for local Hong Kong esports tournaments is very low, only in the hundreds. Unless a brand employs a gimmick in its esports activation, there won't be much ROI, because HK consumers simply don't pay attention to local tournaments due to easy access to international ones."
Cheung offers a different way to get in on the action. "If brands are thinking of owning a team outright, I strongly advise you not to, because good teams need good players that command very high salaries, so it's really tough for a brand to earn money this way," he says. "It makes more sense to act from the entertainment-marketing perspective rather than an investment point of view. We organise community events with fanbases and that's where brands can come in and build organic influence."
Additionally, partnering with live-streamers is a sound way to test the market, advises Nicola Piggott, co-founder of The Story Mob. For example, Ninja (featured below), a streamer first famous for streaming the survival-based game Fortnite, exemplifies the fact that there is a media type better than TV for advertisers, Piggott says. Typically, consumers are less encumbered by restrictive TV broadcast rights of most Western sports leagues, which are segmented by geography and cable subscriptions.
"And it's their job to be online 24/7, so streamers do respond quite quickly to brands reaching out," Piggott says.
Indeed, potential marketing success is found not by looking at gamer numbers, but viewer numbers. If a new game is discovered by an influencer with tens of millions of followers and he starts streaming it, that game will "explode", says Warman, speaking at the China Connect conference held in Paris last month. "All our gaming clients track rising stars from the viewing perspective."
Adidas and Puma are non-endemic brands that have already embraced this multi-player video game. Nike, which seemed sceptical at first, in February signed a four-year sponsorship with China’s League of Legends Pro League (LPL), becoming the official apparel and footwear provider for the league's 16 teams. The China-only deal was rumoured to be worth US$100 million.
"Just as football is unlike wrestling, a Dota fan will not resonate with a League of Legends fan."
—Nicola Piggott, The Story Mob
The LPL, relying on a free-to-play strategy for casual gamers, is one of the 13 premier regional leagues that qualify serious teams for major global events like the Mid-Season Invitational and the League of Legends World Championship.
In 2018, the league adopted a permanent partnership system and became the first esports property in the world to incorporate a 'home & away' model. This model saw five teams 'adopt' home cities in China and play matches from their own dedicated arenas. At the start of 2019, the LPL expanded from 14 to 16 teams by adding SinoDragon Gaming and Victory 5.
' E-CULTURE' IN THE MAKING
Culture Group, an entertainment-marketing agency with headquarters in Shanghai, was the broker that closed the partnership with Nike on behalf of its existing client, Riot Games (majority-owned by Tencent). Campaign interviewed its co-founder Michael Patent.
"Our agency is built on the belief that brands have the power to shape culture. Using this mindset, we approached Riot Games and painted a vision for an apparel partnership that marries the cultural relevance and competitive nature of the League of Legends Pro League with the power of the world’s leading sports brand," says Patent.
"On the athletic side, we saw all the hallmarks of traditional sport in the LPL. As with football and basketball, there are sports heroes, underdogs and rivalries between icons. We wanted to recognise and celebrate that," he continues. "From the lifestyle angle, we saw the growth of streetwear culture and sought to intersect esports and street style—to define the look of an esports fan."
That look will, of course, be Nike-branded team uniforms and even enhanced by "holistic training programs" thrown in through 2022. Opposed to 'renting media’, a prevalent format in historical sports sponsorships, Patent claims this will "create an entirely new culture".
"Esports in China is not a cult, but culture, and this partnership proves that," Patent says, believing that the Nike/Riot deal will "naturally open the door" for other blue-chip, non-endemic brands.
The Story Mob's Piggott, who previously spent over five years at Riot Games where she led global communications for Riot’s esports team, says a common misconception is that all esports are alike. But sports is a blanket term and just as football is unlike wrestling, a Dota fan will not resonate with a League of Legends fan. A brand needs to understand each esports niche and find a fit. "League Of Legends may not be right even though it's the biggest," she says.
LOL was deemed as the right fit for Mastercard, which levelled up last year to be the first global brand getting involved in a sponsorship centred around the popular esports title—the seventh big 'sport' the payment brand entered, after golf, rugby, baseball, football, tennis, hockey. As a whole, Goldman Sachs forecasts sponsorship revenue for game developers to exceed US$1 billion by 2022.
Of course, there is still dispute over whether this sedentary activity is truly a sport. "Gaming being blamed so much for contributing to obesity and health problems feel a little bit linear to me because it should be seen as a hobby as part of a balanced lifestyle," says Piggott.
Check out Turkish esports movie Good Game (original title Iyi Oyun) about the physical exertion and intense training needed to achieve mental dexterity when playing, and you may change your mind. Didn't Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman famously state: “If you have a body, you are an athlete”? The recent Nike sponsorship of LPL certainly banked on that quote to inspire a new generation of 'athletes' by expanding its presence into the world of esports.
Pros do train for up to eight hours a day, have coaches and nutritionists on staff, and receive base salaries, just like any 'real' sports league.
“Esports athletes share the same determination and competitive spirit as all athletes; they spend their lives preparing for intense competition, working relentlessly to improve their reflexes, coordination, vision, mentality and teamwork,” defends Eric Wei, vice president of category marketing at Nike Greater China in an earlier press release.
Despite the friction, it works in favour of both endemic (PC/console hardware manufacturers) and non-endemic (companies not usually associated with competitive gaming) brands. Fans become "very willing to accept smart commercial content" because they believe validation from big brands can lift up and improve the sport.
"They [fans] are incredibly open because they want this sport to continue for generations," summarises Piggott. Plus, esports fans are usually early adopters as 'normal' consumers.
Time for brands to go get their FWotD (first win of the day)?