Esports Has Grown Thanks to a Mix of Ardent Fans, Live Events and Smart Brand Integrations

Marketing decisions need to be driven by data, not just by gut

Esports is nearly a billion-dollar business that has grown at an extraordinary speed. - Credit by League of Legends
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The first Esports Activate showcase featured some of America’s leading esports organizations who presented their digital, media, experiential and sponsorship inventory to marketers and buyers this morning in New York.

There were also a number of panels featuring high-level media executives who spoke about their work with esports and why they feel it’s so important to foster partnerships.

Esports is nearly a billion-dollar business that has grown at an extraordinary speed, particularly over the past five years.

Yes, male millennials and Gen-Zers are the core audience for the rapidly growing genre, but not all. In fact, 1 in 3 esports fans is female, and it’s increasingly becoming a social experience one can share with friends and family.

“Esports now has two different audiences,” said Guy Costantini, Skydance Media vp of global interactive marketing. “There are the people who have ample time to play games for hours on hours per week, and then there’s an audience who want to watch people play at the highest level, but don’t have the time to dedicate multiple hours to a game.”

Esports interaction is happening at a wide array of venues, not just in front of a screen.

“Yes, esports combines digital and entertainment, but this is an audience that values social interactions at gaming conferences and live events” said Craig Levine, chief strategy officer for ESL, the world’s largest esports company. “Live events are a big piece of esports’ success, and an important way for brands to successfully integrate.”

When it comes to esports, social interaction and conversation are significant. This is a digital sport for a digital generation, said Hi-Rez COO Todd Harris, and it attracts an audience that is engaged, sophisticated and discerning when it comes to brand integration.

“The esports audience has a nose for BS. They don’t like ‘logo slaps’ but they do like value exchange with a brand,” said Harris. “When there is good content within the game or on YouTube, then they will support that brand tremendously.”

Shi Deng, co-founder of the Big Blue Esports team, Boston’s esports management and events company, echoed Harris’s sentiment.

“Slapping your logo on a broadcast is a weak way to engage with your audience,” said Deng. “It’s almost like selling out your community, and we want brands to contribute to the community.”

Some of the most successful and high-profile brands in the esports space include lifestyle brands like Red Bull as well as Coca-Cola, T-Mobile and Toyota.

The line between esports and traditional pro sports leagues appears to be blurring, so much so that 17 NBA teams will be part of the upcoming NBA 2K league, a competition it created in partnership with Take-Two Interactive, the developer of the popular NBA 2K series. The league’s first season begins in May, and NBA teams will begin drafting their esports players in the coming weeks.

Once each franchise selects the five people who are going to represent it, they’ll be official members of their respective organizations in April. The players will get a proper contract and sponsorship deals, just as NBA players do.

“What’s happening in the traditional sports world only helps us, and the fact that NBA and NFL teams are getting into the space is having a positive impact on business,” said OpTic Gaming president Ryan Musselman.

Because esports is still relatively new, it has a unique opportunity to leapfrog how other industries use data, particularly the traditional pro sports leagues, said Jon Gosier, a venture capitalist who recently founded AudiGent, an audience intelligence platform which provides artists and other influencers with new ways of monetizing data.

Early on in the esports era, data wasn’t even being considered by many brands. According to Octagon vp of insights and strategy Noah Kolodny, a good deal of his agency’s clients were interested in getting involved because esports was new, different, and there was a lot of buzz involved.

“But then we saw spending $45 million, and as more non-endemic partners came into the space, it became harder for our clients to go to their chief marketing officers and say, ‘Esports will sell products,’ without having any data to prove it,” said Kolodny.

TV is also transforming esports and pro gaming in general. As pro gaming continues to grow, so has interest in televising esports among the broadcast and cable networks. TBS has aired 21 esports telecasts since the summer of 2017, which is more than Disney XD (13), and ESPN2 (five). ESPN and NFL Network have also aired esports.

@ajkatztv A.J. Katz is the senior editor of Adweek's TVNewser.