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eSports: The brand race to the top

Last year, eSports globally drew 385 million spectators, reaching €419 million in brand investment. Rocketing from the living room to the stadium and turning gaming into a spectator sport with year-on-year growth of 41.3%, it’s becoming increasingly attractive to brands worldwide.

Like video gaming on steroids, eSports takes the form of organised competitions with multi-player teams competing for fame, prizes – and sponsorship opportunities. What began as arcade competitions in the ’70s has since exploded into a mainstream phenomenon: eSports draws 100,000-strong crowds to international tournaments, with millions more watching online. And just like any sport, it has its own teams, leagues, championships, stars and passionate fans. With colleges offering sporting scholarshipsto gamers and countries providing them with athletic visas, eSports is fast legitimising its growing influence.

This evolution has enticed brands like Arby’s, Audi, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Gillette, Bud Light and more to invest in the industry, with many seeing huge results. The allure of eSports is the ability to reach a difficult demographic (males aged 21-35) that doesn’t respond well to traditional advertising methods.

Spectators – as well as gamers in general – have been shown to respond positively to brands that benefit the eSports space they occupy. It’s important for brands to speak the language of the audience, as seen during Arby’s sponsorship of ELEAGUE in 2016. As a brand that counts eSports fans in both its team members and customers, Arby’s used its affinity for this environment to its advantage. They showed Arby’s sandwiches being physically blown up along with references to the eSports title, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.

The content was created with the games in mind, which naturally resonated well with gamers; fans were even chanting “Arby’s” at the eLeague final in Atlanta. This idea of leveraging highly relevant content can be difficult for brands to master, as gamers are a savvy bunch, punishing brands that are seen as exploitative.

And it’s not just the games themselves that have fans: like with any sport, gaming stars are influential in their own right. Twitch, the Amazon-owned streaming platform, is how many leading gamers amass their following. It is a tool used by players to rise to fame, and also by competitive teams to recruit new players. Streamers can interact with viewers in real time and answer any questions or partake in any challenges the community faces.

Such an engaged community makes Twitch a great place for brands to start conversations with the audience. The ad revenue model used by the platform is also unique: top streamers can choose what ads to display and when to display them. If they want to take a break from streaming, they will often ask their viewers to watch an ad while they are gone. This honest relationship between streamer, advertiser and audience is a fantastic way for brands to gain respect among a loyal and willing audience.

A prime reason for the interactivity of the gaming community is the accessibility of the competitions to anyone. Imagine 11 friends, who all play soccer, deciding to join forces and enter the Champions League in the hope of victory. Not possible? Well, in eSports, that is exactly what can happen. Open competitions, with prize funds of over €20 million, can be entered by teams of five for about €37. The accessibility of eSports makes it an attractive and exciting opportunity for just about anyone, with a unique promise: they might not be Cristiano Ronaldo, but they could be the next star.

As gaming makes the transition from online to traditional – and lucrative – media, it all suddenly becomes a lot more real. Leading eSports countries like South Korea, USA, Japan and China are investing heavily in this area, creating purpose-built stadiums for competitions with prize pools of tens of millions. eSports competitions are popping up all over the world – including Dublin’s 3Arena, later this month.

Video gaming has transformed in the last 20 years, exploding from a solitary hobby to a booming eSports industry that’s expected to generate $1 billion a year by 2021. It’s this latent potential that we strive to uncover in every industry, every brand, every challenge we meet; we’re always searching for the seam of gold in the mine. Every brand has the opportunity to listen to their audience, to find out what fuels them and to bring that passion into the light. By creating thoughtful and relevant content, brands can capitalise on a highly engaged, responsive and rewarding audience – and there’s still time to get your head in the game.

Cian McIntyre is an Account Manager at McCann Dublin.