The unique environment of professional gaming creates pitfalls for marketers looking to follow their regular scripts. Getting started on the right foot is important, so read on to get oriented with brand opportunities in Esports.

4 min read.

By Ben Rosenfeld, Digital Strategist, with cover art by Gerson Granados.

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The explosive growth of competitive gaming over the past few years has attracted the attention of the most forward-thinking marketers, but the unique environment creates pitfalls for marketers looking to follow their regular scripts. Professional gaming, known as Esports, has an audience estimated at over 380 million viewers, is expected to be worth $1.5 billion by 2020, and is rapidly becoming one of the best ways to reach a key 18-35 male demographic. Esports viewers have gained a reputation for both loyalty to brands that connect and backlash toward brands that miss the mark. Brands have an opportunity to reach a huge audience with thoughtful experiential, content creation, and brand engagement.  

Esports has mimicked many aspects of traditional sports and some of the same marketing techniques work in both, but Esports audiences are particularly internet savvy, often cynical, and highly likely to reject traditional video advertising. However, the digital environment of competitive gaming and the streaming scene that gives almost constant access to top competitors create opportunities for unique sponsorship models and creative marketing.

Getting started on the right foot is important, so read on to get oriented with brand opportunities in Esports.

1) Stop thinking about Esports in generalities and adopt a game-specific strategy.

The term “Esports,” as with traditional sports, refers to a widely varied host of games with vastly different audiences. The folks who play and watch Fortnite are as different from League of Legends players, as NFL audiences are from fans of figure skating, and it’s a mistake to approach them the same way. To successfully engage with your audience, get specific! One thing audiences across Esports do share is a lack of patience for outsiders failing to understand the environment. Mistaking Esports fans and gamers for a homogenous group is exactly the kind of error that Esports audiences won’t find endearing. So choose a game, understand the audience, and create a strategy specifically for them.


2)  Figure out what you can add to the scene.

If you approach Esports audiences without adding real value they will be not only unimpressed, but likely to form negative associations with your brand. But don’t be scared! We know what these nerds want. See #5.  

Your brand doesn’t need to be related to gaming to make an impact. Most of the brands deeply embedded in Esports have gaming already baked into their products. Intel, Omen, and HyperX, for instance, produce gaming computers and peripherals. These brands make perfect sense in the Esports environment, and their team & competition sponsorships are very natural additions to the scene, but brands that seem less endemic to the environment are also delivering quality experiences to Esports audiences. Turtle Wax, a company that sells car detailing products, isn’t entering the Esports ecosystem by delivering their goods to pro-gamers and asking them to vouch for them. Instead, Turtle Wax creates car-oriented content with their sponsored athletes (yes, they’re athletes) playing up their personalities beyond gaming. With relevant and interesting content creation, Non-endemic brands can reach this market in ways that traditional marketing does not. For another excellent example of a non-endemic brand making a positive mark, look to Coca-Cola, who recently partnered with Riot Games to produce viewing parties for the League of Legends World Championships, a competition that garnered over 205 million concurrent viewers at its peak.         


3) Be authentic.

This group of super-passionate fans can smell fraud through their routers. The one thing gaming audiences can’t stand is people who think their hobby is childish or a waste of time. The brands that fail to make an impact are the ones that don’t connect as fans themselves. Simply putting a logo on a jersey or a thirty second ad in a stream will not earn brand loyalty.


4) Embrace new platforms.

Every game that functions as an Esport is also played online by millions of people. Just like traditional sports, most Esports viewers are remote, but unlike TV, video game streaming services have functions already built-in to encourage participation. The largest streaming platforms like Youtube Gaming, Twitch, and Mixer all have robust chat features where viewers leave an endless stream of memes, commentary, and emotes. These open the door for audience polling, giveaways, & even interaction with the game itself. Sponsoring or creating new ways for fans to interact with a tournament stream will foster positive feelings for your brand. For example: a beginner stream that covers the basics of the game for new viewers, a listen into the in-game communication between teammates, or even an exclusive emote based on a popular player.


5) Create opportunities for Esports and pro-gamers to thrive.

We know what Esports audiences want — content featuring their favorite pros, and more competitions for their game. Brand engagement with Esports signals stability and mainstream acceptance to fans and competitors. For most of the history of Esports (especially outside of Korea), competitive gaming has existed on a knife’s edge, with only a few players truly able to make a living at the top of their game, forcing careers and even entire competitive scenes short due to lack monetization. Imagine not knowing if the NBA would be able to afford to run their season next year or if Lebron James might quit in favor of a more stable career, and you’ll have a good idea of how Esports fans have felt in the past watching tournament organizers struggle to put together prize pools. Understanding that feeling is key to understanding why Esports audiences have a reputation for loyalty to sponsors and a deep-seated need for mainstream validation.  

Competitive gaming still feels foreign and strange to many marketers, but that makes the opportunity for large scale brand engagement even juicier. To connect with Esports fans, brands need to stay relevant by creating content that’s new, compelling, and uplifts the elite players who form the core of professional gaming. Esports audiences are massively passionate, loyal, and will support brands that commit to expanding the community and further pushing Esports into the mainstream.

Ben RosenfeldComment