Esports continues to grow. And while it’s certainly a distinct area of the gaming diaspora, it nonetheless still represents a huge opportunity to reach core gaming audiences – whether your brand is endemic to gaming broadly, or if you’re a non-endemic and looking to reach similar demographics.
“Esports has developed exponentially, we can see that,” Heaven Media’s Mark Reed tells us. “Has it transcended obscurity and arrived in the mainstream? Not quite,” he admits, “it’s still pretty niche in some key areas.”
However, that’s not the main problem with esports marketing, he explains: “The main issue here is that the mainstream doesn’t really know what to do with it; especially from a commercial point of view.”
And that’s not from want of trying, the demographics esports reaches often hard to access via traditional channels, making them very attractive to many kinds of brands. However, buying into such a space effectively isn’t as straightforward, and in parts that’s because esports truly global reach is ahead of the curve when it comes to how most contemporary campaigns operate.
“Traditional sports are almost purely regional in structure,” Reed points out. “This allows monetisation from regional sponsorship and local merchandising — while players are recognised in promotional activations. For instance, seeing someone like Harry Kane do a shaving ad has a positive impact on the UK market, but it means very little to people in Russia, the US or China.” And that’s name checking a top talent in one of the most globalised sporting leagues.
“I often use the example of how Ford sponsors College Football in the US to promote their F150 pick-up truck. Ford doesn’t sell the F150 much outside the US. So, now imagine what Ford would achieve if it were to sponsor the Dota International. This would equally help it reach millions of viewers — but in what countries?
“If Ford wants, or indeed needs, US eyeballs then it doesn’t work for them,” he notes. And adds that even if the product was a global one, then many brands rarely have their budgets organised in that way, so who would pick up the bill, North America?
“Ah but what about Coke? I hear you ask, which is sold the world over,” he notes, heading off our next question. “Well, yes it is, but outside of the Olympics they do hardly any international sponsorship deals. Their foray into esports was paid for by a North American marketing budget. This could be considered the emperor’s clothes of esports.”
So does that mean that esports marketing will struggle until brands become more global in how they spend their budgets? “This may sound a little negative, but I assure you it’s not. In more than one way that problem will be solved over time.” And that’s not only on the clients, as grass roots growth in competitions will also help with local targeting.
“To me, it’s obvious that esports will continue to evolve over future years and we’ll see esports leagues for popular games cropping up in every local city, town, county and state. It may be a few years away but I’m one hundred per cent convinced it will happen.”
To which Reed adds: “Hopefully in time to save GAME & Gamestop, as this would play into the strategy of Belong and GameStop’s Centers, beyond parties for kids.”
STEADY ON APPROACH
Coming back to the present, though, how best should any brand approach esports marketing? Well for starters don’t think about them as traditional sports for starters.
“Brands have to understand how best to leverage esports; instead of simply applying traditional sports methodologies. Ultimately, brands using it as an ‘ad buy’ do get value on a geo-targeted CPM basis but that doesn’t really achieve great ROI.”
Esports audiences aren’t mass market consumers, they need something more than simply being shown the product. “Wrap it up in a story and tie your message to the audience, show how much you believe esports matters to you as the brand… just speak to them, as one of them.
“Esports audiences are, unsurprisingly, hyper-social and connected. If you get your strategy wrong, you’ll probably live to regret spending in this space. If you spend a little time on Reddit and you can easily see the impact on brands when it all goes wrong. However, get it right and you are welcomed into the brand hall of fame.”
Reed sums it up with a pithy statement: “Esports marketing is simple but also really hard.”
“To be more precise, those of us familiar with esports can navigate that market and find value for brands. However, the problem is no longer just knowing the esports scene; it’s navigating a scene littered with alleged experts, consultants, and thought-leaders. Many of these have been in esports for ten years but have little commercial experience; or have commercial experience and have been in the scene for one or two years.
“As it often does, such a market progression has added layers of complexity which aren’t always entirely necessary. Disinformation springs up and sometimes there’s just a need to peel those layers back and rediscover the basics,” Reed advises.
THE BIG QUESTION
“Sometimes it starts with the question: is esports even right for the brand? Unfortunately, with the esports hype train having now left the station you are unlikely to hear that question. Certainly not before we’re all making unnecessary stops on a journey that could have been shorter, more pleasurable — and definitely less expensive.
“A well-drilled, experienced marketing agency, working on campaigns in sports sponsorships and helping FMCG (Fast Moving Consumer Goods) brands or large consumer electronics brands, can often struggle to adapt to esports.
“Those aforementioned complexities arise when they want to treat esports like football or basketball. Firstly, esports is not like conventional sports; each game has a different community, different access points, different demands. Making it unlike any one sport — it’s not football, it’s not cricket or tennis, it’s not even surfing, sailing or cliff diving.
“Brands like Bud with Bud Light, even Mercedes, have made big fumbles with this because they have used tried-and-tested formulas for successful sports sponsorship activation on esports.
The key is in understanding the audience, says Reed: “Unfortunately, almost without exception, they got the audience wrong. It’s not simply a case of positioning yourself within an esports fandom; there is a prerequisite that you are there to enhance esports and gaming.
“You need to be part of the culture. Red Bull is honestly the only brand that has done it well and really only by virtue of the fact that they were already a part of that scene and that culture – before spending a single dollar on marketing.”
That sounds like a tough act to follow admittedly, but the rewards are worth the effort. “Marketing in esports is a battleground, yes, but — largely because of how hard it is to navigate — there are genuine opportunities for brands to make a lasting impact, in a very cost-effective way.
And while that opportunity will become easier, it will also become more expensive. “It won’t always be the case; each successful activation, and brand finding the right formula for esports, raises the cost of entry for everyone else. Like every marketing activation it is about knowing your audience and, just as importantly, knowing how to pull the right levers to have that audience find genuine affinity with your brand.
“Heaven Media has had 12 years working in and around esports, all the time striving to improve that formula. The results we’re achieving for our clients in that space prove, beyond all doubt, it’s worth the time and effort.”