We put esports under the microscope to explore the ways in which brands and brand engagement can support the growth of this unique industry.
Packed out stadiums where iconic players battle it out in front of roaring crowds; a familiar scene to any sports fan, but this isn’t a football match or basketball game. This is an esports tournament, one of the hundreds of events that celebrate the very best in competitive gaming. It’s spectator sport the likes of which we’ve never seen before and, like it or not, it’s here to stay.
Tapping into the psyche of a new generation, the esports industry is going from strength to strength. With massive brand partnership deals and prize pools worth millions, the meteoric rise of esports shows no sign of slowing down. The Olympic committee is even rumoured to be in talks to include esports as a demonstration game at the 2024 Olympics.
With this in mind, it’s time for brands and wider audiences to start taking note and harnessing the almost infinite possibilities of the sector.
For those already enlightened, esports is and always has been a huge form of entertainment. Yet look away from the impressive figures and you’ll find a wealth of untapped potential in the form of unengaged demographics that the esports industry needs to speak to in order to be embraced by popular culture.
Diversification is a particular challenge for this industry, so aligned that it is with the outdated view of the unsociable, teenage, and predominantly male gamer lurking in a darkened bedroom. This is where branding and brand engagement can really make a difference and up the cool factor of the industry. In turn, investment in esports offers the opportunity for big brands to increase their brand awareness and commercial potential.
Having worked with Chelsea FC on a project that launched in February 2019, the newly announced ePremier League is particularly exciting to us and we can’t wait to see the impact of the iconic league’s involvement on attracting a wider audience to the community. The forward-thinking innovation of the esports industry, backed and validated by the legacy of the Premier League, looks to be a coming of age moment for esports where obsolete perceptions can finally be shifted.
Esports in numbers
The gaming industry has huge potential, but to really make the most of that potential it needs to tackle its issues with image perception.
At the lowest level, barriers are being put up by parents and teachers who don’t see gaming as a viable profession, yet these same people will encourage their children to play football when their chances of becoming the next Cristiano Ronaldo are less than one percent. In contrast, the reach and commercialisation of professional leagues and gamers will open up more and more possibilities for gamers looking to go pro or work within the industry.
The industry needs a positive repositioning and PR drive that helps it to appeal to the masses and encourages new talent. The narrative must change to highlight values such as community, teamwork, problem-solving, and competition that esports and gaming in general promote, and the industry needs heroes to promote and elevate its image.
Take a look at the landscape and you will see that the overall vision is much the same. We want to see a shift in the quality of design, visuals and the brand narratives that run from players, teams and leagues. We want to see esports evolve from its hobbyist roots and reposition itself as a premium, professional industry whose emblems and merchandise any savvy dresser would be happy to sport.
The development of brand sponsorship is also crucial. Imagine if, at the 2024 Olympics, star esports players such as Faker, Coldzera, or Dendi step out wearing the latest in specially developed Nike esports performance wear or a Supreme limited edition drop, with a plethora of sponsors from Tesla to Converse All Stars. In turn for their investment, sponsors gain access to a huge and ever-growing community where they can influence a hard to reach demographic.
But brands beware – the esports community is a hugely socially connected group that grew up with the internet, live-streaming and the concept of belonging to communities that span the globe. The community has built itself from the ground up and are harshly critical of inauthentic or ineffective attempts at brand engagement. The employment of experienced creative agencies and dynamic in-house teams is required to ensure your brand doesn’t end up the subject of a very public thrashing on the esports boards of Reddit.
Yet with the combination of these two elements, it really isn’t hard to see a future like the one we imagine. With heightened financial incentives for players, industry rebrands, and image right sponsors, esports can position itself as something truly innovative, aspirational, and diverse.
Think Big, Think Brand
LET’S GO BIG ON BRAND TO UNLOCK THE ENORMOUS COMMERCIAL AND CULTURAL POTENTIAL AROUND ESPORTS.
With global fans, followers, viewers, and players, teams and leagues aren’t just influencers, they’re brands in their own right and need to view themselves through this lens. Equally, established brands – especially sports teams entering the esports arena – should take this opportunity to position themselves to a new generation of fans who have limited preconceptions of their traditional brand or entertainment models.
What if the esports Premier League saw Tottenham Hotspur simply become Spurs, and Man United take to the stage as the Red Devils. With some creative thinking and premium, purpose-created design, teams can use elements of their legacy whilst creating something entirely new for the esports community – thus avoiding lazy ‘logo-slaps’ and showing respect to and enthusiasm for the industry.
We expect to see teams work with branding experts to define a clear pathway, vision, and identity as the competition and their reach grow. Serious teams must work out how best to engage fans and become household names, and how to become accessible to new fans without alienating their old ones. It will be a delicate balance for more established teams both ways.
We’re talking to multiple teams, leagues, agents, and organisations who agree that branding needs to play a key role in maturing esports into a billion-dollar business. We need to put serious thought into predicting future trends within the sector and also focus on understanding the wider world and how fashion, entertainment, media, and traditional sport will play a role in shaping esports. All this must be done whilst respecting the grassroots community who built the industry from the floor up, and who is not known for responding kindly when a new investors’ approach misses the mark for authenticity (ex. Bud Light All Stars).
We’re putting in place brand visions that aim to capture and commercialise opportunities by accepting and anticipating the rise of esports and its growth in popular culture. Our mission is to excite people and get them to think big and to think long term. How will your brand get involved and transcend between esports, fashion, and entertainment?
We are hosting brand workshops to drive industry and brand awareness, whilst consulting with big brands to help them to find their feet in a more mainstream world for esports. We’re challenging sponsors and non-endemic brands to look beyond the tried and tested solutions and prepare for a new world, a world where esports belongs.
Expert Insight: How do you see the role of brands and brand engagement in the future of esports?
Kieran Holmes-Darby, Managing Director of UK Esports team Excel
“The esports industry is unique in the way that it has embraced globalisation and connectivity quicker than any other new-age sport, and this has resulted in the creation of a number of globally recognised esports brands. Despite this, esports continues to be a growing industry that has not yet reached the consciousness of the mainstream. In order to grow the influence of the industry, esports brands need to find ways to tie themselves to consumer values to create fandom.
One of the key developments today is that of regionalisation and that is why we at Excel have been so keen to develop a truly authentic British esports team that the whole of the UK can align with. Investment to teams and leagues from non-endemic, region-specific brands will bring in new audiences and create team loyalty, whilst also generating consumer loyalty from fans towards the brands that support their team.”
Tom Love, Creative Director of LoveGunn
“Kieran makes an important observation regarding the development of teams as big brands and I think it’s critical that all teams start recognising this and plan for the very near future where purpose, values and identity will become ever-increasingly important in order for teams to grow fandom as well as partnership and sponsor deals.
Through our strategic brand work with Excel, we were able to define who Excel are and what they stand for. By giving them a clear brand manifesto, they are now able to create engaging content, seek partnerships and sign players which align with their values and their global view.
As we’ve seen in more traditional sports, once corporate money starts flowing into esports there’s really no limit as to its growth, both as an industry and as a recognised form of mainstream entertainment. We’re already seeing big, non-endemic brands securing partnership deals within esports, from sponsoring teams (visa) to the actual events themselves (Mercedes-Benz).
The question, or challenge as it appears, is how these brands activate engagement. Traditional methods of engagement alone will not be enough to unlock the commercial potential within the esports demographic. Non-endemic brands need to get creative and produce compelling and tailored content whilst delivering experiences designed for this specific audience, always making sure they ask the question “Is this for them?”. If brands can do this successfully, then everyone will win.”