The recent meteoric rise of esports – or professional competitive computer gaming – is making the gaming industry an increasingly tempting prospect for brand experiences and sport sponsorships. Add to this the likes of Amazon and Facebook ramping up efforts to stream gaming and esports across social media channels and the potential for brands to interact with fans – both those taking part in tournaments and those watching play – is growing all the time.
Glenn Minerley, senior vice-president and head of music, entertainment and esports at Momentum, says that in an era when sports sponsorship is becoming ever more expensive and when activations related to leagues and teams are also more restrictive, gaming and esports in particular deliver highly customisable and flexible opportunities for brands.
Esports also allow brands to reach what Minerley terms "the unreachables": valuable, digital, high-income, high-spending, passionate millennial audiences who are less accessible through traditional sponsorships and media buys.
Moreover, he believes that esports are incredibly open to outside-the-box thinking when it comes to activations and their sponsor’s interest, citing how brands such as Mercedes-Benz, T-Mobile and Dr Pepper have each found success through integrating their products into esports, developing ownable platforms such as MVP (most valuable player) voting.
A ‘clustered tribal mentality’
Ben Callis, global creative director at Imagination, adds that, unlike standard broadcast, the concepts of gaming and esports match a global audience’s increasing expectation for more complex levels of engagement, leading to higher retention and increased revenue opportunities.
"Audience reach, length and depth of engagement for a brand are all benefits from combining gaming with live events," he says. "The live event, or aspects of the live event, become a potent context for endorsement that, accessed through technology, matches the audience’s growing expectation of quality engagement."
Gaming, he adds, feeds the "clustered tribal mentality" of sports fans, bringing them closer to the characters with whom they identify by placing them at the centre of stories. By linking gaming with live events, a brand can speak to an engaged and retained "tribe".
In August, The O2 in London played host to the 2018 Fifa eWorld Cup final, virtual football’s equivalent of the World Cup, which was also broadcast to millions on Sky Sports. Jonathan Skudlik, chief operations officer at The Esports Company, the lead agency organising the tournament, says certain brands have seen that there is potential to reach quite a special audience – one that is young, modern and tech-savvy.
"[Gaming] is not a magic place for all brands to profit from, but a platform for certain brands to reach their core customer group," he says. "We can see this at the Fifa eWorld Cup, where the Fifa partners, which are more and more focused on a young and modern audience, are investing and activating at the event. Brands like Visa, Adidas, Hyundai and PlayStation have been activating more events in different ways to reach the Fifa eWorld Cup fans."
While the bulk of the action may take place virtually for esports events, you can’t beat the buzz of an arena, so creating an atmosphere for the fans who come to watch is just as important as the online logistics of the tournaments, Jo Peplow-Revell, corporate and special events manager at The O2, adds: "In the near future, we will see plenty of sports capitalise on the esports success; any competitive games with huge followings have the potential to grow their events to arena level."
The influencer standpoint
There are also benefits for brand experiences in terms of influencer marketing. As Minerley points out, this has been growing significantly as brands continue to recognise the scale and powerful fanbases that YouTubers and live streaming platform Twitch generate, for example. Callis adds the best gaming, or gamified experiences, are those that engender "storytelling through environment": bits of information placed or clustered for audiences to pick, choose and construct the story of their experience as they explore that environment.
"From an influence standpoint, professional players are where you can make an impact," James Whatley, planning partner at Ogilvy UK, believes. "By broadcasting their gameplay via Twitch or YouTube Gaming, and soon Facebook, these ‘streamers’ have an attentive, avid audience and fanbase stretching into the hundreds of thousands."
If brands can make the partnership fit, the dividends could be well worth the investment. Skudlik believes that with virtual reality becoming more widespread, there will soon be other sports that are translated to a virtual sporting experience. "These will also become competitive sooner or later and [brands could] seize the opportunity of activating such events," he says.
While football remains the world’s biggest sport, the most successful sports brands and categories in five years' time are likely to be those that bridge the gap between the physical and digital worlds to match the changing behaviours and consumption of a growing global sports fan base.