The eSports ‘gold rush’: getting ahead of the game

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The eSports market is much more than a game.

We hear a lot of talk about the future of eSports; how it is an exciting and growing market with a lot of potential for new revenue streams and out-of-the-box thinking. But do brands know how to engage with audiences, and what opportunities are out there to associate themselves with the industry?

We don’t need to dwell on the definition of eSports, it is a subject that has been covered in some depth. And yet, despite being in existence for many years eSports is still in its infancy, and brands and marketers are trying to wrap their heads around what it means for them and how they can get involved.

Similar to the dawn of the internet and the advent of smartphones and mobile digital, brands are desperate to understand how they can capitalise on this latest trend. Boasting hundreds of millions of eSports players worldwide and a rapidly growing online fan base, the sector provides a wealth of marketing opportunities. Analyst Newzoo predicts the professional video gamer market will almost double its audience to nearly 600 million people, and generate more than £1bn in global revenue by 2020.

The potential to instantly reach a captive global audience, develop creative strategies and its relative lack of regulation is clearly attractive to brands. And with BT Sport buying the rights to screen FIFA 17 competitions live and the recent launch of eSports tournament Gfinity Elite Series, it has rapidly matured from a bedroom hobby into a multi-million pound industry.

The future of competition

The format pits professional players against each other at video games such as FIFA 17, Call of Duty and Street Fighter, which are streamed to huge online audiences. Prize money can reach up to $9.1m (£7.3m), while eSports’ most popular online viewing channel Major League Gaming (MLG) welcomes almost 300m monthly unique users. Tournaments can attract 9m players worldwide.

eSports is attracting some of the world’s biggest brands. Multinational corporations such as Coca-Cola, Red Bull and Nissan have already aligned themselves with professional eSports events, teams and players. Marketing agencies such as M&C Saatchi Sport and Entertainment have launched internal eSports divisions, while others have even built their entire business model around the sector.

In many ways, this surge in popularity and the vast advertising potential it delivers echoes the rise of traditional sports marketing in the digital era. Virtually every professional club and player today relies heavily on sponsorship and advertising revenue. Brands such as Heineken, Barclays and Sony have been so successful at positioning they have become synonymous with the sports industry.

However, unlike traditional sports, eSports remains predominantly unregulated, offering unique marketing opportunities unavailable in other industries. By entering the market early, brands can avoid the inevitable red tape and increased costs, and have the opportunity to establish themselves as industry leaders by stealing a march on competitors.

Staying ahead of the game

Knowing your audience is vital to ensure brand messages reach the right target. As an online vertical, eSports fans are typically tech savvy, highly engaged millennials and ‘generation Z’ who are unresponsive to traditional advertising and marketing techniques. They want unique, immersive experiences, so rather than pushing straight advertisements through bread-and-butter marketing channels, they want brands to be relevant and authentic. Getting it wrong can severely impact on a brand’s reputation.

With authenticity in mind, one of the most effective ways to engage with this audience is through multimedia content such as video, a medium that plays directly into their interests. YouTube and popular eSports streaming sites such as Twitch, which attracts over 100m unique visitors every month, have become instrumental to the sector, so using them as a springboard for digital content is key.

For those looking to get better acquainted with this elusive audience, sponsorship also offers a good mix of brand promotion and audience engagement. It shows a willingness to invest in a booming industry, and sponsoring an eSports team or event like Gfinity Elite Series or the eSports Industry Awards will expose brands to target markets.

It is clear that eSports is destined to become one of the most popular sectors in 21st Century entertainment and it presents a new playing field for marketers and brands. Not only is it expected to compete with some of the biggest sports today, it is already surpassing many.

eSports is fast becoming a mainstream industry and soon we will see some brands become leaders, and others fail to make waves by not taking stock of their audience.

In a similar way to how beer brands like Carlsberg associated themselves with football, we will likely see tech or energy drink brands entrench themselves deep within eSports events. And while it may be difficult for brands without a clear connection to get involved in the early development of eSports, there will be an increase in non-endemic brands – PR and marketing agencies, law firms - seeking out opportunities as the industry matures.

Judging by its increasing popularity and revenue potential, it seems as though it is only a matter of time before advertising and sponsorship deals within eSports are only viable for the world’s largest corporations.

Stephen O’Malley is head of agency at Fast Web Media

Stephen O'Malley

Stephen O’Malley is head of agency at Fast Web Media

All by Stephen