The play-by-play commentators sit at their glossy desk in the broadcast booth, and behind them the 19,000 seat Barclays Center is packed with fans. There’s analysis of the two teams about to match up against one another, with the hosts assessing the strengths and weaknesses of each. Down on the floor, coaches are interviewed about their strategies and preparedness. Then another announcer welcomes the screaming fans before introducing the teams. The players are called out one by one, by name, as they trot to the arena floor and acknowledge the adoring fans. Soon the game will begin so all the players go and….sit down at their PCs?
Yes. Their PCs. That’s because the scene I’m describing is the Overwatch League’s Grand Finals, which saw two teams—Philadelphia Fusion and London Spitfire—battle against one another to see who could escort their payload the furthest without getting shot up by the other team. No bats, no balls, no wickets, no clubs, and no rackets: the only equipment these players need are keyboards and controllers.
If you’re like me, this whole idea sounds preposterous: kids paying money to sit in a sports arena to watch other kids play video games. But, then, if you’re like me, you’re probably not rich. I see a bunch of kids wasting their money on games they’re not even playing—tickets cost $60 each to attend, and aftermarket prices went as high as nearly $300. Other, more business-minded people hear things like this and think, “Hey, there’s probably even more money to be made here.”
eSports: Influencer Marketing's Next Big Thing?
eSports Hits the Mainstream
These days, when something “hits the mainstream” that means people have figured out how to make money off that thing. eSports isn’t exactly new, but its ability to generate buckets of revenue is. In 2017, the industry achieved global revenue in the amount of $656 million—and that number is expected to be just shy of a billion this year. There are, at present, over 50 leagues hosting tournaments for dozens of games. The International 2018 tournament, which happened this past August, boasted a prize pool of over $24 million for the players involved. Last year, the Intel Extreme Masters Championship, hosted in Poland, broke records when over 170,000 fans showed up to watch the games live, while another 46 million tuned in to the livestream. And that’s nothing compared to the 106 million people who watched the 2017 League of Legends tournament.
Find more statistics at Statista
Statistics like these are why a lot of marketing-type people are angling for a way into a piece of that sweet, cash-flowing pie. And it makes total sense. Consider that the Super Bowl—U.S. Football’s annual championship game—had a viewership of 103 million people in 2018. It’s that kind of reach that made the Super Bowl the most lucrative advertising day of the year. Brands were willing to shell out an average of over $5 million for a 30 second spot during the Super Bowl’s televised broadcast. As the League of Legends tournament showed, the Super Bowl is no longer the only big game in town—and it’s poised to become the biggest. The audience for eSports is still growing; the number of viewers for the Super Bowl is on the decline.
Same Old Song, Brand New Dance
From the outside looking in, the whole eSports model looks a lot like those of traditional sports. Each game has its own league, or multiple leagues, and tournaments are played in actual sports arenas. Attendees buy tickets, and concessions, and merchandise, and gaming companies sponsor events and players the same way sporting goods companies do. Broadcasting tournaments, like any major league sport, is a matter of securing the exclusive rights to do so. When Twitch paid Activision Blizzard $90 million dollars to secure the rights to broadcast the Overwatch League’s regular season, playoff, and championship games for two seasons, it looked a lot like any other sports broadcast deal. Because this all seems so familiar, the temptation for marketers is to treat it like any other sports marketing deal.
Sure, companies can start their bidding wars now for sponsorships of elite players, or young up-and-comers. If they pay enough money, they can probably get their brand name at the top of a tournament’s bill—Unilever Presents The Overwatch League Grand Finals, for example (That’s just a hypothetical. Unilever’s not sponsoring anything in eSports that we know about, yet). Makers of energy drinks can clamor to become the official buzz of the league. Brands can buy airtime during broadcasts for actual commercials during breaks in the action. The model’s already there, but it wouldn’t be wise for that to be the sole approach. The core audience of eSports are Millennial and Gen Z—they just don’t respond to traditional ad tactics.
Have You Heard the Good News About Influencer Marketing?
This being Influencer Marketing Hub, you probably knew we were going to go there. But that’s not a case of us pushing our own agenda. That’s because, for as many similarities as there are between eSports and traditional ones, there’s a major difference in the role of the audience. They are more than spectators, they’re participants. As Forbes magazine pointed out, “eSports, and live streaming in general, are co-creation experiences.” What this mostly refers to is the chat feature on Twitch, which enables spectators to join in the fun.
The article points out that apart from being able to interact with other fans, the chat enables users to learn from the people they’re watching, as well as to pitch on on strategy and perhaps even contribute in some way. When I think about how many traditional sports fans yell at their TVs with coaching instructions for the players, being a fan of eSports starts to seem much less silly. Beyond the participatory nature of the games themselves, there’s also the incredible relatability of the players. When people watch the World Cup, or the Super Bowl, most will not look at what the athletes are doing and thinking, “Yeah, I can do that.” With eSports, anyone with basic eye/hand coordination can become great at a game—if they play it long enough. The hype around the major tournaments stems as much from the fact that anyone in the audience can become the next big star.
This combination of community and co-creation—along with the sense of accessibility to a star—is the kind of space that influencer marketing was made for. For brands that want to get in on the action, especially ones that don’t directly relate to eSports, the first step toward acceptance by the fans is going to be some good old organic and authentic content. Twitch is a great place to start, of course, and the platform has its share of influencers. Reddit, with its many communities of devoted gamers, is another platform that should see its value rise for marketers. Non-endemic brands will have their work cut out for them, but they also have the chance to get in before things really take off.
The Game is Afoot
eSports is still in its growth phase—the industry has yet to figure itself out. WIth so many competing leagues and tournaments, it’s hard to gauge at this point which ones will still be around in a few years’ time. Games are always evolving, too, so there’s no telling which ones will be popular in the future. This makes it hard for brands to build long term marketing strategies around eSports.
Despite this unpredictability, though, one thing is certain: eSports will be around for quite a long time, and looks to be a $1.65 billion dollar industry by 2021. That Forbes article we mentioned earlier refers to eSports as “The Next Big Thing” in marketing. We already used that phrase for influencer marketing, but really the two don’t look so different. Leagues may come and go, but the gamers will remain. For brands looking to market to them in the long term, they’ve got to be eyeing the social and livestream platforms that cater to that audience, and find some very non-traditional ways to advertise to them. Maybe eSports is the Next Big Thing’s Next Big Thing.