What is an eSport?
In case you haven’t heard of eSports before, they are defined by Wikipedia as:
A form of competition that is facilitated by electronic systems, particularly video games; the input of players and teams as well as the output of the eSports system are mediated by human-computer interfaces.
More simply, eSports are video games that have organized, professional competitions.
How Big Is It?
If you aren’t already familiar with eSports either as a fan or from a business perspective, I can almost guarantee that eSports are bigger than you think.
In 2015, 17.2 million people tuned into game 5 of Major League Baseball’s World Series, the most popular game of the series.
That same month, 36 million unique people tuned in for the World Championship Final of League of Legends, the most popular eSport. In fact, throughout the tournament, fans watched more than 360 million hours of live broadcasts, not including on demand rebroadcasts.
Viewership of the MLB World Series has been steadily declining since the 80s (from a high around 36 million), whereas viewership of eSports has been nearly doubling every year.
When you combine all eSports, the audience is estimated to be 225 million unique viewers around the world.
As with a traditional sport, there are a lot of different entities that make up the eSports ecosystem, with different implications for advertisers.
At the highest level, eSports are organized around specific games. Bringing a game to market typically involves 2 primary companies. The developer hasthe technical people such as artists, programmers, and game designers) and a publisher (the business people in charge of marketing and distribution). In some cases, one company may perform both of these roles.
The most popular eSports right now are:
- League of Legends developed by Riot
- Counter Strike: Global Offensive developed by Valve
- Defense of the Ancients 2 developed by Valve
- Hearthstone developed by Blizzard
- Starcraft II developed by Blizzard
Just as there are different basketball leagues based on gender (WNBA), level of play (NCAA), country (FIBA), and other factors, each game may be played in more than one league. Right now, some of the biggest leagues are the NALCS (North American League of Legends Championship Series) and the MLG (Major League Gaming) Pro Circuit.
Leagues are responsible for providing the tournament logistics, referees, prize money, and similar functions.
While there are a few individual eSports (most notably fighting games like Smash Brothers and Street Fighter), most eSports are cooperative games that require a team. Most traditional sports franchises stick to a single sport (e.g. the Bears just play football). However, many eSports franchises have built multiple teams to compete in multiple sports under the same name. eSports teams also include coaches, analysts, sports psychologists, managers, and other support roles.
Popular eSports teams include Evil Geniuses, Virtus.Pro, and Cloud9.
Everyone loves a good world class athlete, and it’s no different with eSports. Some of the most notable eAthletes are Faker, pasha, and Peppey.
Though not necessarily relevant to this article, many esports athletes make over $50k per year in salary, and a few make over $1m per year in total compensation.
Just as traditional sports has produced ESPN, in addition to being carried on broadcast networks, eSports have produced some networks of their own. The biggest game streaming platform is Twitch.tv, which includes broadcasts by both professionals and amateurs. YouTube also has a dedicated game streaming platform. Internationally, Azubu is another big game streaming company.
Traditional sports have fan forums, sports talk radio, and other communities. Similarly, eSports also have thriving communities. Some of the more popular community activities include fan art and fan fiction, Cosplay, news reporting, and skills coaching.
How Can Advertisers Participate?
Let’s start from the bottom and work up.
One of the easiest places for advertisers to enter the eSports market is by engaging prominent community members to share paid content. “When I’m playing Game X, I love to eat Brand Y.” “When I’m making costumes based on the characters in Game X, Brand Y is my favorite place to get craft supplies.” Because a lot of community members are doing this is as a hobby as opposed to a full time business, you can find some really good value here.
Working with broadcast networks like Twitch.tv to distribute your video ads is basically the same as working with YouTube and other online video platforms, which in turn is not very different from TV if you’re used to working in that medium. Because this kind of advertising is fairly mature, you’ll find it costs about the same as it does everywhere else.
In the same way that you can sponsor an individual professional athlete, you can also sponsor an individual player. Because eSports is so young, you may find that some players don’t have an agent, and that some agents aren’t deeply familiar with this type of negotiation. Overall, while the audiences are growing, you’ll find that most sponsorships are less expensive than prominent traditional athletes, and if you structure the deal right, that the value is even better. The same is true of eSports teams, although as you might expect, they are generally more sophisticated than individual athletes. And just as with traditional sports, you’ll want to be aware of how sponsorship agreements between leagues, teams, athletes, and networks can and can’t overlap.
One way to really jump into the eSports world is to start a branded team of your own. Last year’s League of Legends world champion team was SKT T1, a team sponsored by South Korea Telecom. Other brands that have sponsored teams included Samsung and LG. To be competitive at the highest levels, a team would need to be capitalized with several million dollars for player salaries, support staff, and overhead, but a positive ROI could potentially be achieved for much less, maybe a few hundred thousand. Just don’t expect to win any championships out of the gate.
Another opportunity for marketers and advertisers is to participate at the league level. You can certainly go the more traditional route of simply sponsoring an existing league, but there are other ways to get involved as well. Some big brands have hosted their own tournaments, such as the Intel Extreme Masters. Brands could also start not just a tournament, but a whole league from the ground up.
At the top of the chain is the opportunity to partner with the game maker. Each different game is going to have different ways that brands can interact with their audience. Games may feature unique ways to dress your character, weapons and items, unique game modes, and maps/ levels in which the game takes place. Accessing bonus features typically costs the player money, but can be obtained for free when sponsored by a company, generating huge gratitude in the player base.
Lastly, many brands have made games of their own. While we’re all familiar with game tie-ins from entertainment properties (like movies and TV), non-entertainment brands have also experimented with releasing branded video games, including Doritos Crash Course, Yaris (the game simply had the Toyota car’s model as the title), and Burger King’s series of games Sneak King, PocketBike Racer, and Big Bumper. None of the aforementioned games aspired to be competitive eSports. In fact, I don’t think most of them aspired to be more than “good enough” to take up a few hours of your time. But a brand that is really committed to creating a great gaming experience that is intriguing enough to stand the test of time and draw competitive gamers could see brand awareness and loyalty reach new heights.
There you have it! Marketing with eSports offers practically everything available via traditional sports, frequently at a discount. It also has some advertising opportunities that are totally unique to eSports. Chances are eSports can offer something to your brand. Good luck!