Understanding the eSports community: What brands need to know

To succeed in the world of eSports, brands need to understand how to engage its hyper-social, millennial fanbase.

Gillette eSports
Gillette eSports brand ambassador xPeke at the IEM tournament in Katowice, Poland.

Brand interest in eSports is set to reach new levels of excitement in 2018. High profile brands from Mercedes-Benz, Gillette and Red Bull to HP and Intel have all carved out sponsorship and partnership deals that are helping their brands reach the highly engaged and largely millennial eSports fanbase.

It is hardly surprising this sector is of such interest given global revenues are set reach $905.6m in 2018, up 38.2% on last year, according to data from eSports market intelligence specialist Newzoo. By 2021 global eSports revenues are predicted to rocket to $1.65bn, $1.4bn of which will come directly from brand investment.

READ MORE: Why brands are seizing the eSports opportunity

It is, however, crucial for brands to understand that each eSports game is as distinct as football, rugby or tennis, meaning each has its own fanbase which is loyal to a specific genre or format.

“Dota 2, Counter Strike, Starcraft, Hearthstone could be equated to rugby league, tennis, cross-country skiing and darts – they are very different sports,” says Harry Lang, founder of integrated marketing consultancy Brand Architects and interim acquisition director of Genting Casino.

“Fans follow their game of choice, maybe two, but largely they are loyal advocates of one particular eSport, so you can’t just lump them all together under one banner. A separate targeting and communications strategy is needed for each game and audience.”

You can’t just do a standard media buy and shove a load of ads out there. It has to be very targeted and engaging.

Yvonne Hobden, HP

A few games typically dominate the top tier of eSports. League of Legends is the world’s most watched eSport. According to Newzoo, League of Legends clocked 274.7 million hours watched in 2017, followed by Counter Strike (232.9 million hours), Dota 2 (217.9 million hours), Hearthstone (76.9 million hours) and Overwatch (25.2 million hours).

League of Legends is the game most closely associated with Gillette, which first started working with eSports company and tournament organiser the ESL on its sponsorship of the Intel Extreme Masters (IEM) tournament in February 2017. The shaving brand chose League of Legends due to its popularity as one of the longest running eSports and ability to reach a young, male audience.

Overwatch, by contrast, is considered one of the most gender diverse games, boasting 16% female players in 2017, according to eSports website DBLTAP. One of the oldest and most established games, Counter Strike is popular in North America and Europe, and DBLTAP suggests it attracts a slightly older audience aged between 25 to 35.

HP has opted to align its brand closely with Overwatch, through its sponsorship of the Overwatch League franchise in the US.

Speaking at Advertising Week Europe in March, Yvonne Hobden, consumer marketing lead at HP UK, explained the importance of picking games based on the audience brands are attempting to target.

“Each different game is a different type of sport. Our PCs start from £850-£900 basic, so you need a bit of disposable income, you need to have a game that needs high power graphics and we want a mixed demographic,” she explained.

“Overwatch attracts girls as well as guys. It’s very much like you’re going after a sport, you’d be looking at the demographic.”

Speaking of the eSports community in general, Hobden suggests it is crucial to take a nuanced approach based on offering the audience added value, or your brand could be put at risk.

“This audience is a particularly hard one to reach, so you have to be more clever. You can’t just do a standard media buy and shove a load of ads out there. It has to be very targeted and engaging,” she stated.

“I would say buyer beware, go into the space and take advice because this audience is so quick to judge. You get it wrong and that’s it – it’s game over. You’ve got to take your time to understand it, don’t rush.”

Lang advises any brand looking at eSports to find a game that shares its demographic reach and look for teams offering long-term commitment or alternatively work directly with networks like the ESL or the game creators around their tournament schedule to achieve a “huge live event presence”.

“The current growth curve for participation and viewership goes beyond any hockey stick I’ve seen for a new sport and the investment is getting into serious media spend territory,” adds Lang.

“So even if you look at investment in this realm as a calculated risk, the upside could be enormous.”

The TV perspective

In the UK, Ginx is the leading eSports TV channel, and it runs 24-hours a day, seven days a week. Globally, the network is available in more than 55 million households across 40 countries and 11 languages offering dedicated feeds to suit the eSports culture in different countries.

Ginx creates its own programmes, talk shows, debates and documentaries, as well as acquiring content from event organisers such as the ESL by licensing tournaments. In 2016, Ginx recorded 280 million viewers, which rose by 20% in 2017 and is expected to rise by 14% in 2018 to an audience of close to 400 million people.

Marketing director Solenne Lagrange argues that the interest from big global brands such as Intel and HP, as well as non-endemic brands like Mercedes and Renault, will help the eSports scene grow and mature. A significant draw for such brands is eSports’ millennial fanbase.

“On Ginx we see that three-quarters of our audience are millennials and they are a target that brands love,” says Lagrange. “They are young, active and they have on average higher income than other demographics. They are the largest demographic in the US, so it’s key for brands to be able to target, talk and engage with them.”

Lagrange also believes it is important for eSports to shake off its image as a world of loners playing for hours in their basement.

“It’s far from the truth. It’s a very social activity, people talk a lot together, they engage and share opinions and they do a lot of research when it comes to buying things, so you have to get it right because people will be talking about you. If you get it right, it’s perfect. If you get it wrong the entire audience can turn its back on you and you’re pretty much done,” she observes.

Be in it for the long haul; don’t think you can dip in and dip out, because that isn’t going to work for your brand.

Scott Gillingham, Intel

From a TV channel perspective, Ginx aims to create in-depth content that differs from the live streaming element seen on Amazon-owned streaming site Twitch. The network is focused on ramping up the storytelling element of eSports by interviewing players, creating documentaries about their lives and going backstage at live events like the Intel Extreme Masters.

“People who know about eSports know about the players, but to attract people and make eSports even bigger we need to tell the stories and help people understand what eSports is,” says Lagrange.

She argues that eSports is big and new enough that there is still room for brands to make their presence felt, as long as they add value and help eSports grow.

“I would say Intel is one of the biggest achievements in eSports,” Lagrange notes.

“To me the IEM is bigger than any concert or sport event I’ve ever seen. The people stay for seven hours. The final stopped at 1am local time on a Sunday night and people were still there.”

The community

The eSports community is growing by the day. This year alone there are expected to be 165 million eSports enthusiasts worldwide, defined as people who watch professional eSports content more than once a month. This is up 15.2% year on year, according to Newzoo statistics.

Furthermore, the global average annual revenue generated per enthusiast is predicted to rise by 20% this year to $5.49.

Once you add in occasional viewers the total number swells to 380 million people watching eSports content in 2018, up 13.5% on 2017.

Scott Gillingham, UK gaming and eSports lead at Intel, explains that eSports fans are unique in that every game they are watching, they are also playing themselves.

“They’re watching the IEM final on their PC and then they will flip to play the game they have been watching. That helps drive the engagement because they are able to watch the pros and learn from them and then try it themselves,” he explains.

READ MORE: What’s the value of being an early sponsor of emerging sports?

Four million people, or 7% of British adults, have watched competitive video gaming in the UK alone, according to YouGov research, with 57% keen to do so again. The statistics are however dwarfed by viewership in China (45% of adults), the US (12%) and Germany (11%).

The UK will be seeing significantly more activity in the eSports arena with the launch of the Omen UK Open, a UK exclusive six-month long Counter Strike tournament created by HP with a $30,000 prize pool.

Red Bull is also backing eSports with the opening of the UK’s largest public eSports studio. Unveiled in London in March, the Red Bull Gaming Sphere welcomes aspiring gamers to play in weekly tournaments and learn from professionals. The space also contains a number of different PCs and consoles for fans to practice.

Looking globally, eSports fans tend to skew significantly younger, with a fifth (21%) of those aged 18 to 24 in Britain having watched eSports, compared to less than 1% of people aged over 55.

YouGov profile data suggests that eSports fans are more likely to demonstrate certain characteristics compared to a nationally representative sample. They tend to be more introverted (70%), early adopters of new tech (78%) who believe that technology changes your life for the better (92%) and are big fans of artificial intelligence (82%).

Some 20% of eSports viewers say professional gamers are athletes, 42% consider eSports a real sport and 44% say gaming will become as popular as traditional sports.

Luke Cotton, director of consultancy Code Red Esports, agrees that the eSports audience tends aged between 14- and 30-years-old. While age is an important factor, Cotton argues that what is more significant is this community’s desire for brands to be completely authentic.

“eSports fans can be very unforgiving, but equally they will embrace and love brands. If you sponsor Manchester United you might get exposure, but nobody loves Chevrolet because they sponsor Man United. That’s different with eSports. The fans appreciate that brands enable them to get a load of really high quality free content and enable their favourite players to play as a career,” says Cotton.

“If you do things right the positive brand equity that can be created is huge and it’s more than just the exposure. eSports is still pretty cheap to get involved in right now and that will change, so you don’t need to be a massive brand, but ultimately the most important thing is to do things in an authentic way.”

Intel’s Gillingham agrees that brands must consider how they will add value to eSports over time, or be prepared to feel the community’s wrath.

“If you’re not authentic they will let you know. They are able to get onto Facebook, Twitch and Twitter and voice their opinions. They’re very happy with putting their gaming and their lives online, and expressing their opinions,” he explains.

“I think brands are learning to make sure they’re listening to the community. [But brands need to] be in it for the long haul; don’t think you can dip in and dip out, because that isn’t going to work for your brand.”