Very few of us had heard of Fortnite a year ago. Now it boasts an obsessive fanbase of hundreds of millions of school kids, teens and adults. eSports, meanwhile, is increasingly a cultural phenomenon, with 20 million people entering the 2018 Fifa eWorld Cup. We look at how gaming went mainstream.
At this year’s Asian Games, athletes from all over Asia won medals for pushing the boundaries of physical strength and sporting competition in disciplines from swimming to sailing to sprinting. For the first time, however, joining these chisel-bodied champions were champions of an altogether different nature – of the console and keyboard rather than the track and field.
The 2018 Games featured eSports as a demonstration sport, showing how far this unlikely sector has penetrated the mainstream. While its champions are unlikely to claim a place at the Olympics any time soon (the International Olympic Committee claims eSports contravene the values of sport) the discipline is well on its way to acceptance and many argue that the likes of Bang ‘JJonak’ Sung-hyeon (Overwatch), Dennis ‘Svenskeren’ Johnsen (League of Legends) and Kuro Salehi ‘KuroKy’ Takhasomi (Dota) should be as admired by kids as Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt or Gabby Douglas.
Yasser Bin Ismail, the new senior strategy director at Essence, credits the popularity of eSports with opening up a new way of experiencing games and legitimizing gaming generally. The advent of eSports teams and their player stars has added personality to the sector, he says. “Increasingly, it’s seen as a viable career path for talented gamers. It is also key in preventing older gamers from moving to newer titles – look at Dota 2 which is five years old but regarded as the most popular eSports game in the world.”
Epic Games’ Fortnite meanwhile attracted 125 million players within a year of launch. It’s estimated the game averaged $1m a day in player spend on mobile before its official Android and iOS releases.
Irene Yang, mobile ad network Mobvista’s regional general manager for Asia and Europe, says games like Fortnite, Dota and League of Legends are so successful because they’re designed to maximize engagement and competition between users. This makes gaming less an individual habit and more a community activity. “Developers have adapted by paying greater attention to factors such as a title’s social functions in addition to usual considerations such as gameplay and art direction.”
For eSports players like Terence Ting, professional competition started as a passion for the gaming community. Ting, who is founder of Singapore-based Team Flash, says: “These games now have entire ecosystems. They’ve created job opportunities for gamers as well as the people and infrastructure supporting their professional careers.”
The growth of eSports has taken it to a position of cultural prominence, expanding its target audience beyond gamers to the wider mainstream. For games like League of Legends, the main competition for audience attention is not other mobile and desktop games but TV and online video consumption.
Yang notes that activities related to eSports have also become hugely popular, with eSports competition shows now one of the highest revenue-driving activities within the business. She points out that 20 million people from 60 countries entered the first round of the online equivalent of the Fifa World Cup, with 30 million viewers across the three-day period and a peak of 322,000 concurrent views.
“Industry-wide conventions, such as E3 [the Electronic Entertainment Expo trade event for the video game industry] have become major consumer highlights, while game developers such as Blizzard and Riot Games organize their own world championships which mirror traditional athletic events in terms of scale and spectacle,” she says. “For example, Epic Games announced the inaugural Fortnite World Cup at E3 to much fanfare, the event set to culminate in a $100m prize pool in 2019.”
Merchandising has also become big business says Ismail, who notes that teams like FaZe regularly sell out of replica team jerseys. He also points to the success of brands promoting controllers, keyboards and gaming chairs tailored for competition.
“As games with eSports elements enjoy greater marketplace longevity, you will see audiences engage more with the characters and content of these games,” he says. “This provides further opportunities for merchandise, such as gamers buying T-shirts featuring their favorite characters.”
Ting echoes Yang and Ismail’s opinions, and suggests the sector will only become more lucrative as it crosses further into wider culture – Fortnite, for instance, has celebrity fans in pop star Drake and footballer Dele Alli. “The opportunity now is to find more of crossover opportunities to further legitimize and brand eSports. It is already one of the largest consumer entertainment markets in the world.”
According to research by eSports marketing intelligence company Newzoo, the first quarter of 2018 saw Amazon-owned livestreaming video platform Twitch generate 2bn hours of gaming content, 11.6% of which (228m hours) was eSports.
Ismail says the popularity of Twitch and YouTube streaming has spurred the growth of eSports as a spectator activity because gamers love watching other gamers. “Popular streamers have millions of views daily from gamers all over the world,” he says.
“The best Fortnite player in the world, Ninja, not only sells out events across the world – he even does streams with celebrities such as Drake.” More than 600,000 people tuned in to watch.
According to Yang, the next step in expanding the influence of eSports is to harness the power of online communities in offline events. Game developers are already working to boost interest in gaming in general through conferences and competitions.
So despite origins as an online, virtual endeavor, and despite the scorn of the Olympic Committee, the future of the sector could see eSports take a giant leap into the real world.
To find out more about the world of marketing for and with kids, grab a copy of The Drum's November issue, where we learn about the trials and tribulations facing a generation growing up in today's pixelated world, the value of the 'kidult' market, and discover what children really think of advertising.