Progressing the Esports Narrative at CES 2020

New Year, New ‘E’: Progressing the Esports Narrative at CES 2020

Esports is no longer an unknown entity. Spurred on by explosions in tech that show no signs of stopping, more and more people are taking up gaming, while casual gamers are increasingly tuning in to esports at a time when the landscapes of both spaces are becoming democratised.

In our industry, CMO’s are being brought into the fold as their kids turn on Fortnite or their young colleagues discuss the latest round of their favourite tournament. This is being reflected in the money that is changing hands. Global esports sponsorship grew from $359M in 2018 to $470M in 2019, whilst ad revenue shot from $174M to $220M in the same years. Esports has ceased to be an ace in the hole that will give brands a leg up over their sleeping competitors in the battle for influential, digitally-focused demographics.

The inclusion of esports at renowned industry trade shows and conferences like CES and Cannes Lions was a huge step for awareness and credibility, but for too long the conversation has stagnated on what is esports and who is its fanbase, busting the myth of the overweight kid playing alone in his basement. Now we need to move beyond what esports is, to what esports can actually do for brands.

At CES 2020 it was great to see this subject tackled with vigour. On review, three main themes stood out:

  • Comparisons to traditional sports
  • The approach for brands
  • The evolution of esports

 Comparisons to Traditional Sports

Traditional sports such as football and rugby are no strangers to brand investment. Their structure is familiar, their demographics plotted and their potential to reach specific audience has been fully researched. Esports is uncharted territory, so if marketers continue to look for comparisons between it and these traditional sports, it’s important to set the scene and manage expectations.

First and foremost, many esports leagues have a higher rating of 18-34 year-old viewers than their traditional counterparts, a highly desirable and difficult demographic to hit.

Secondly, esports fans have a deeper connection with their chosen league or player as there are fewer barriers and a clearly defined pathway to becoming pro. Fans can watch and converse with their favourite player online, then break down their gameplay to learn and improve in the comfort of their own home. The dream of one day playing and beating their favourite players on the pro circuit is entirely achievable. These fans, according to Kristin Connelly, Senior Director of Marketing at the Overwatch League, still have traditions and consumption habits that your average NFL or Premier League viewer will also possess. But the passion and positivity in how they engage with esports and embrace partners sets them apart.

There are also less geographical barriers. Traditional sports see a lot of geo-based fan groups, for example football fans in London, Madrid or Berlin will often support teams from those cities. In esports this isn’t the case. For example, a Counter Strike team in the US also has a large following in Europe, meaning activation in one market does not necessarily lessen the appeal in another.

Finally, flexibility. Whilst esports has looked to take the best structural elements from other leagues, its infancy and digital grounding facilitate an agility to adapt, learn and improve that traditional sports can’t offer.

The Approach for Brands

Esports currently presents a huge opportunity to marketers. First mover advantage may be gone, but synonymous associations (like Guinness’ association with rugby) are yet to be established, leaving ample room to create a name for yourself.

Ben Howard, SVP for CBS Interactive Games and Entertainment, believes the best way to understand esports is to look at the fan base itself. To respect them and to learn how to be relevant, whilst innovating and implementing products or services that facilitate better experiences for these fans. The audience is young and passionate, so anything that will help them get closer to playing and watching their favourite games in the best way possible will be well received. Jump in, test, learn, listen and revamp.

But what does this relevancy look like? ‘Authenticity’ is a word mentioned a lot in esports and it has the potential to scare off non-endemics struggling to find their place in the ecosystem. In truth, the esports audience reacts positively to brands that support their passion. Partnerships don’t need to be complex, in fact simple activations have been proven to drive results. Activision Blizzard Esports’ Head of Global Partnerships, Josh Cella, explained how Coca Cola’s act of giving away Twitch All Access passes for the Overwatch League to fans drove sentiment through the roof.

Any brand unsure of the best course of action should trust their esports partners. They understand esports’ nuances and where authenticity and relevance can be found better than anyone else.

The Evolution of Esports

Now that esports has established itself as a primary target for sponsorships and partnerships, there are key priorities the industry must consider ensuring that it doesn’t just become another flavour of the week.

Esports remains a digitally focused entity and should continue its expansion into linear TV platforms in order to reach mainstream audiences and better root itself in popular culture. Coverage such as the Overwatch League going toe-to-toe with the NFL on ABC and FIFA eWorld Cup’s scheduling on Sky Sports should be built upon.

Another issue esports must focus on is the treatment of female gamers. They are growing in prominence within the space and need to be provided with a safe environment to discover gaming and hone their skills, away from the toxicity that is still unfortunately present in some male-dominated online communities.

When it comes to proving effectiveness to brand partners, perhaps the biggest topic of discussion at CES was data. Johannes Waldstein, Founder and CEO at FanAI, believes esports has been overhyped, unable to currently prove the value it claims to deliver, and Jake Phillips, CRO of Stream Hatchet, believes an overreliance on tracking views needs to end. As a metric, it’s difficult to quantify, with different rightsholders and platforms unable to agree on what counts as a ‘view’. Focusing on hours watched or the newly introduced AMA (average minute audience) metric, which allows brands to better compare esports with traditional sports, is more accurate. It hopefully marks the start of a level of standardisation needed to compare investment opportunities across the entirety of the sports ecosystem.

A level of collaboration between rightsholders and partners is also needed to develop toolsets that best service their campaigns. For brands, they want to go beyond delivery metrics and know how esports can deliver on the three core data pillars, engagement, ROI and retention. Rightsholders have a duty to offer tools that deliver in these areas but must also steer their partners away from pitfalls such as placing too much value on views.

Ultimately, an underdeveloped data offering is not something associated solely with esports. Many traditional sports rightsholders with decades more experience are in the same boat. In an age of shrinking budgets where every penny matters, data-driven marketing and it’s ability to inform change and identify areas of highest return has never been more crucial. Esports isn’t there yet but it’s agility, digital first nature, openness to learn and ability to effect change leaves it well placed to tackle this in the future.

Tom Mellor is an Account Manager at Fuse, read more from Tom on the gaming industry in this article looking at what could be learnt from 2019’s E3.