Esports: The New Sport on the Scene

The consensus amongst gaming marketers is that esports is one of the gaming sector’s biggest marketing trends for 2020. So what is esports? In short, esports is competitive gaming, organised in a sports league style. Esports teams or professional players compete against each other on some of the industry’s most popular games in order to win vast amounts of prize money. In 2019, Epic Games offered a whopping $30M for its Fortnite World Cup… a prize worthy of a dab or two.

Aside from the phenomenal prizes, a truly exciting element of esports is that it unites both physical and digital audiences, with live matches playing out in stadiums and across streaming platforms all over the world. And with such a vast reach, from Beijing to Berlin to Budapest, viewership continues to rise. Newzoo predicts that, by 2021, there’ll be 297M global esports enthusiasts, and a further 347M casual viewers (source: Newzoo). 

So, millions of esports fans are watching intently, meaning there’s a great opportunity for brands to get some airtime. Especially non-gaming brands who can profit from event sponsorships, influencer collaborations, social content on streaming channels and more. It’s all about playing the esports marketing game… 

Is esports the new football?

Amongst gamers and marketers alike, more and more people are seeing esports as a professional sport played by athletes. The hype around esports leagues is similar to that of traditional sports leagues, like the NFL and the Premier League. Gamers between the ages of 18-25 are spending 77% more time watching online games than sport broadcast on TV (source: Limelight Networks). Additionally, traditional athletes themselves are getting increasingly involved with esports. Many football teams have their own esports teams, competing not only on FIFA but also on games like League of Legends. So, marketers certainly can’t underestimate the furore surrounding this competitive gameplay. 

However, there’s a catch. While non-football players will happily tune into match after match on TV, non-gamers are not regularly tuning into esports. More complex still, esports audiences lack variation amongst gamer types. For example, people who play Fortnite watch Fortnite related esports content, like the Fortnite World Cup, while people who play Star Craft II watch Star Craft II esports content, with little crossover. This is because the games being played are highly complex, not only to play but also to witness. Esports, asides from its characteristic ‘e’, has a fundamental difference from sports like football or basketball: it’s not universal. 

The next step for esports may be to model itself on traditional sports, creating events that appeal to a mass audience – something to think about as the esports industry evolves throughout 2020. For now, however, esports is very much a competitive gamer’s world. 

Related Read: Gamers: Marketing to the Fastest Growing Global Tribe

Strategic sponsorships

While families are yet to gather around to support their favourite esports teams on a Sunday afternoon, esports players are becoming big names with a huge influence over consumers. Take Ninja, who began his career competing in esports tournaments and is now a world famous gamer with a 4.21% engagement rate (source: Influencer Marketing Hub). Since these esports gamers generate such strong engagement, supporting players, teams or leagues is a great way for brands to get noticed. 

In 2019, the League of Legends Pro League in China named Nike as an official provider of the team’s apparel. This was a great opportunity for Nike, since China is leading in the esports industry with the highest revenues and a 19% share of the esports market (source: Statista). Many brands followed (and continue to follow) suit. In 2019, Honda announced their collaboration with Team Liquid to share Team Liquid team stories through a series of content called ‘Level Up’ while BMW partnered with esports organisation Cloud9 and Coca-Cola became an official sponsor of the Overwatch League.

For more on using influencers in your gaming marketing strategy, read our related blog: Gaming Marketing: The Social Media Game Plan

Gaming gear levels up

What better way to engage esports fans and players than by releasing specially designed, esports kit? In 2019, K-Swiss did just that with their One-Tap trainers which are supposed to enhance a gamer’s performance.The trainers, featuring the official colours of an Immortals Gaming Club who compete in the game Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, appealed to both professional and non-professional players of the game. Aside from clever esports branding, the trainers were also made from lightweight material for flexibility and included vents to keep players cool. Clearly gamers were impressed; the trainers sold out within an hour of their launch. 

New events from non-gaming brands

While sponsorship and product development is key for brand strategy, Red Bull have gone one step further, introducing new esports events and touring them around the world. For example, the Red Bull Kumite, based around the game Street Fighter, took place in Japan in 2019,and Red Bull Factions, a League of Legends tournament took place in Italy at the end of 2019. Across their various events, Red Bull have achieved over 2M peak viewers, 283 hours of air time and have clocked over 5M hours of viewership – all great exposure for the brand (source: Esports Charts). 

Equally, in 2018, Doritos partnered with Twitch to deliver the Doritos Bowl, the first tournament to feature Call of Duty: Black Ops 4, and its battle royale mode: Blackout. Featuring teams of top streamers like Shroud, Ninja, DrLupo and CouRage. The event was a huge success, generating much excitement amongst the esports community. 

For more inspiration from brands using esports to their advantage, download our latest report: ‘Gaming Marketing 2020: Trends to Stay Ahead of the Game’. 

Global esports situation 

As Red Bull’s global esports event calendar proves, esports is a worldwide phenomenon, with many esports gamers tuning into the same content around the world. According to Hubspot, the industry’s most recognisable games, including Call of Duty, Fifa, Counter Strike and League of Legends resonate most with fans on a global scale (source: Global Web Index). In terms of the global viewership in 2019, the top market most saturated by esports enthusiasts was APAC, accounting for a huge 57%, followed by Europe, accounting for 16% (source: Newzoo). According to Limelight, gamers in India were spending more time watching esports than any other nation in 2019 while gamers in Japan were watching for the least number of hours.  

Indeed, esports in Japan is less developed than you might expect, due to certain domestic regulations around gambling and prize money. However, Intel are hosting an Olympic-style World Open esports competition in Japan, before the 2020 Olympics – so it’s a market to watch this year. And while Japan is making waves in the sporting arena, China are making waves in the mobile sphere. The Chinese Ministry of Culture even established the Mobile Esports Game Association – so marketers should stay tuned to the global phenomenon of mobile esports (source: Global Web Index). 

Related Read: It’s Game Time for Women in Gaming

Bigger and bolder events, huge audiences, the potential to become a professional sport… both gaming and non-gaming brands should stay tuned as the esports industry continues to rise this year. To help you seize the marketing opportunities presented by esports, make sure to read our latest gaming marketing trends report.   

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Natalie Thomas
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