The International, an annual Dota 2 tournament. (Picture by Jakob Wells)
The International, an annual Dota 2 tournament. (Picture by Jakob Wells)
A view from Haran Ramachandran

How brands can step into the burgeoning world of esports

Esports is still an underground culture to many, but they're having a growing impact on real-world sporting events, writes Haran Ramachandran, head of digital at M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment. Brands will have to offer serious value if they want to to participate.

Esports is now at the tipping point of mainstream awareness.

Key to this has been broadcasters taking the sport seriously. In the UK, Sky Sports, as is often the case, have been the first to innovate – broadcasting their first two esports events, including live coverage of the FIFA Interactive World Cup three weeks ago. 

Making the experience better

For the esports industry, this represents an interesting debate. When big broadcasters and brands become involved, the most immediate benefit is scale. The issue is esports doesn’t need scale, as the 14m people who watched the 2015 League Of Legends world final could testify. Twitch clearly does a good job of delivering content to the audience.

Broadcasters and brands should combine elements of the esports community with their own editorial style

When Sky announced its broadcasts, its involvement in esports saw mixed reactions.

Some were happy that Sky was shining a light on their community while others were opposed, wary of mainstream media changing their sport. So how should broadcasters and brands get involved? Credibility and authenticity, mainstays of marketing buzzword bingo are a given, but what it really comes down to is making the experience better for fans and players. 

This is the only way to attract a community which lives online, whose second screen is their only screen, by offering something compelling.

A parallel in 'traditional' sport is MMA and its transition, through promoter Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), from underground cage fights to mainstream events that out-perform boxing for pay-per-view revenue. Reebok, the principal sponsor, has not only helped legitimise the sport but in doing so has not tampered with the core culture of MMA while helping bring in a new generation of fans.

What broadcasters and brands must do

To replicate this, what Sky Sports and any brands they partner with must do is add broadcast-level quality to the spectacle.

Take Sky Sports’ Monday Night Football programme for example. The format has absolutely improved the experience for football fans and is now something they look forward to.

A similar format would work for esports, and brands like Red Bull and Monster already produce something akin to this online. 

Broadcasters and brands should combine elements of the esports community with their own editorial style. 

For example, someone like Spencer Owen (of YouTube channel Spencer FC) has successfully crossed over from online to traditional media, having been part of the analysis team for Sky's FIFA coverage.

Combining someone like this with an ex-pro footballer in a MNF –style show would tick all the right boxes for a brand or broadcaster, while remaining engaging to the existing esports community and attracting new audiences. 

EA launches competitive gaming division

A potentially exciting way in for brands and broadcasters alike could be through recent news from EA Sports.  In December, the developer of the FIFA series announced its own competitive gaming division headed by CCO Peter Moore. This is a big deal as it means titles like FIFA, Madden NFL, PGA Tour and UFC will open up and new competitions will be created.

Gamers are already the biggest spenders on 'gated content'

These titles replicate traditional sports, so are far less daunting for brands or broadcasters than popular esports titles like League of Legends or Counterstrike. How this unfolds in 2016 will help shape the mainstream adoption of esports, especially in Europe.

A pay-per-view feature?

Coming back to the UFC template, it shouldn't take long for packed arenas and passionate fans to translate into regular broadcasts and even pay-per-view events.

Think paying to watch people play games on your TV is a ludicrous concept? Consider that gamers are already the biggest spenders on 'gated content', through DLC (downloadable content) and premium subscription options on Twitch. 

The key is getting the offer right so die-hard fans don't feel slighted and new audiences can easily participate.

Could we see a FIFA event on Sky Box Office in the near future? Why not? Over two million people watched this year’s FIFA Interactive final and soon, alongside the online streams we could conceivably have a PPV broadcast from Sky Sports that offered expert analysis, behind the scenes access and commentary from Martin Tyler. (That last might be too ambitious yet).