Esports hotels, gaming gyms: how the fan experience is evolving
Fortnite has huge live events. Call of Duty can fill stadiums. But while the pandemic puts paid to such gatherings, how can fans continue to be part of the esports experience? We find out as part of our Experiential Marketing Deep Dive.
While the prospect of esports again filling stadiums is largely on hold, the pandemic has nevertheless accelerated the popularity of competitive gaming.
Despite physical fan engagement being hard to come by, the number of users consuming livestreaming and on-demand content around professional esports tournaments has drastically increased.
Professional gamers are responding by engaging with fans through livestreamed casual gameplay and non-gaming content, with platforms such YouTube Gaming and Facebook Gaming aiding creation and monetization and helping drive the industry forward.
That isn’t to say all esport experiences are now online. As Misaki Sato, regional deputy head of creator growth at AnyMind Group, points out, Japan opened its first ever esports gym earlier this year while 2020 saw an esports hotel open in Osaka.
In addition, she says mentions of esports at corporate earnings announcements has reached a record high due to the pandemic as companies realize it is a key channel for interacting with their target audience.
In Thailand, she says, a host of local organizations are providing support to further the industry. ”Network operator AIS, for example, is providing education for game developers around esports, as well as seminars and training for gamers, and of course its 5G network.
“The Thailand Esports Federation, meanwhile, has an academy program to groom the next generation of esports talents. Both are preparing themselves for what will be an increasingly competitive space for viewers, talent and content.”
In any sport, there is nothing like the energy of live fans and the interactivity with the players. And since esports and competitive video games are born and bred online, the excitement of the games and the feedback from fans is in digital channels, which enjoy more personalized inputs, says Ferdinand Gutierrez, the co-founder and chief executive officer of Ampverse.
“In many ways, digital interactions are a more honest way to cheer or jeer teams as fans’ voices are heard individually, with the collective experience a combination of these interactions,” he explains.
“The Covid-19 pandemic has made the online experience even more intense as we see dramatic increases in viewership and participation. Take the popular Mobile Legends League in Indonesia, for instance; it has garnered over 300,000 average views concurrently, despite not being in the top five English-language esports broadcasts. Esports and gaming are starting to become a universal language.”
Creating an immersive and interactive fan experience
What we are witnessing right now is a seismic shift in how we consume entertainment and how we socialize. This means gaming has become the biggest entertainment industry on the planet – bigger than music, movies and TV combined.
For brands, it is a no-brainer to get involved, says Jamie Lewin, managing partner and chief strategy officer at Mana Partners. He does however caution that the ecosystem is complex and that understanding where to start is a challenge.
“From building your own hypercasual game or leveraging character IP for packaging through to sponsoring an esports tournament or running gaming influencer marketing campaigns, there are myriad ways to get involved,” he says.
“The key thing to understand is who your audience is and what is the best way to ingrain your brand authentically into the right environment. You need to get this right and you must understand that this is a culture, not another channel.”
Brands engaging with gaming culture include PUBG’s partnership with Mountain Dew in Singapore and Malaysia, as well as with footballer Son Heung-Min to produce the ‘Content with Son’ series.
Sato points out that brands also need to understand the difference between professional gamers and casual gaming creators.
Professional gamers can more easily draw brand sponsorships and sell merchandise and subscriptions, and have an arguably wider exposure to fans and non-fans. Apart from their team’s brand, they also have their own personal branding as professional gamers.
Casual gaming creators – whose numbers are steadily growing – are individuals or groups who livestream or create content around gameplay experiences, hints and tips and game reviews. One of their objectives is to create content that entertains or educates viewers and influences how their follower base grows.
“In Thailand, Krit Ngi (originally กิตายย) is a professional gamer and King Soyer is a gaming creator,” Sato tells us. ”Both create content mainly around gaming but also have other content around lifestyle and general entertainment and have opportunities for brands to deliver fan engagement within their content and on top of their content.
“The way they deliver branded content to their audiences is different, with Krit Ngi preferring to build a storyline around the product while King Soyer opts for a more blatant promotion – for example introducing a new game, feature or gadget by doing reviews.”
Crucially, says Gutierrez, it is important for brands to remember that gamers are not fond of advertising, evident in their savviness in getting around ads in general. Instead, he says, value that brands could deliver might be in empowering fans to get closer to their favorite talents through exclusive access or content, or giving special digital and non-digital items to the community that can impact their life positively, or partnering with game publishers to deliver in-game items to hardcore fans.
“In short, the main driver for successful brand engagement is to deliver experiences and/or items to fans that make a tangible difference in their life,” he adds.
The future of fan experience in gaming
As living with Covid-19 becomes a real future that every industry will need to consider, it may be difficult to go back to the scale of events that was held in the past, especially in the Asia Pacific regions, where governments and societies take a cautious approach towards safe distancing measures
Bryan Huang, the head of video for Yahoo TV and esports in South East Asia says the future will be a bit of a hybrid model, and the collectibles and exclusives will continue to draw audiences to offline events, as well as the opportunity to meet and interact with people they traditionally only see through their screens.
"As networks get more advanced, 5G will definitely allow for a smoother and higher quality experience, and especially for those who can’t join in-person for various reasons in what are very close communities that value ties and camaraderie, fuelling a more inclusive event," he explains
Despite the threat of the virus, there are people who plan on attending events post-pandemic, which means attendances are set to compete with traditional sports. This includes young people who grew up with gaming and esports and who will be able to spend money on events.
With brand activations in and around the stadiums, Lewin says technology will allow for greater interaction between entities and elements within the venue. Innovations in holographic technologies will play a role in making AR even more captivating, so it won’t only be viewed by glancing at the LED displays at the venue or on stream at the moment.
“A new generation of VR/AR glasses and interfaces, similar to Google Lens, may be utilized to display information, stats, and insights throughout an esports tournament. RFID will also be used in visual effects such as lighting – think Coldplay’s Xylobands at concerts – that are connected to the gameplay experience,” he explains.
“It will be interesting to see how VR devices will fare, such as the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive. A home audience will be able to attend as if they were physically at the venue, or in the metaverse.”
For example, Japanese mobile company NTT Docomo established a domestic esports league brand called X-Moment in 2021 and is already running several leagues, notes Sato. Docomo is proposing a way for viewers to enjoy esports using 5G communication. It proposes to use wired lines for the games themselves and capture the facial expressions and gestures of the players through 5G-enabled devices, which are then distributed using 5G lines.
“By using different lines it will be possible to bring about a more comfortable playing environment and video distribution,” Sato explains. ”In addition, by using 5G to capture and distribute facial expressions, it will be possible to see the emotions and expressions of the players with little latency and watch the game at a whole new level.
“Similar to the esports hotel in Japan, we may well see campuses that house esports professionals and provide space to train, to hold tournaments, and even spaces where these professionals can train the next generation of professionals.”