An Intersport Perspective: Esports 101 for the Brand Marketer

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Across the country, the esports industry is making its way into mainstream media and capturing the attention of corporate CMOs. Many are intrigued and searching for ways to become involved in the esports spectacle while educating themselves on the myriad opportunities available to their companies in this space. They ask themselves, “How do we leverage this fast growing market?” and most importantly, “What is the potential ROI?” These questions are precisely the ones we answer daily at Intersport as we help brands navigate the rapidly evolving esports landscape.

When consulting with clients about their potential role in esports, an important step is determining their familiarity with the industry and the areas in which they envision their involvement. For example, traditional sports involve so many separate entities. A marketing plan for football would be vastly different than one for golf. Esports is the same way. The esports landscape includes a diverse group of communities separated by genre and then further separated by titles within the genre. I find that there are a few basic principles that brands need to understand in order to enter the esports space successfully.

Content is King

Traditional branding options are a shot in the dark when trying to reach the masses tuning into esports events and cheering on their favorite teams and players. Who knows how many people are actually watching those ads for game marketplaces and the latest headset? It’s just casting a net into the ocean. The best way to reach the masses of esports fans is by combining smart branding with a sound content marketing strategy. Like many of the other nerds in the world, I have been playing the new Zelda way too much, and just like the Hyrule hero Link, brands need to know exactly which specific ingredients to use when concocting the perfect elixir to help them on their journey. When a brand’s marketing strategy in esports consists solely of a sign making station with a branded header/footer and putting their logo on a website, that brand is well on its way to making one FOUL elixir that many esports fans, (and Zelda players) would not be the least bit interested in consuming.

In esports marketing, content reigns supreme. Fans have an insatiable appetite for any form of consumable media that peels back a layer from what is presented live on Twitch. Take, for example, HTC and what they’ve done with Team Liquid. Breaking Point was a riveting documentary that pulled back the curtain on the downturn of a professional team’s season, focusing on the relationships between players and coaches while examining the stresses of professional esports. Storytelling is crucial, and although there will always be great highlight videos and interviews, the opportunity always exists to dive in deeper and make a stronger connection between your brand, the team or player you’re activating, and the fan consuming that tasty elixir of content you’ve created.

Be Authentic

It is amazing to think that it was just a few years ago when the biggest international competitions had $50,000 prizes and were held in hotel conference rooms where the spectators were mostly comprised of eliminated teams and managers. Now, those same competitions have $1,000,000 prizes and are held in arenas in front of more than 10,000 screaming fans and hundreds of thousands more watching online. It’s stunning to see how esports has evolved over the past few years and exciting to imagine where the path will lead in the years to come.

As esports has grown over the last few years, a handful of tier-one brands have become involved in the space. Yet, with all that growth, there are still basic-level activations being done by brands that totally miss the mark. The average consumer that actively plays an esports game title with a major competitive element is very intelligent and, to be completely honest, dislikes being used as a pawn in a marketing scheme (ugh…Millennials!). Good luck trying to get that box checked for a newsletter subscription. It won’t happen unless you’re going to keep giving away free “swag” for the next five years (enough lanyards already; please stop). Instead, brands should find new ways to engage with an esports fan base that appreciates their intelligence and speak directly to their passion.

An example I use way too often is how GEICO entered the space during recent years. They are building a bond with the audience like nobody else. They’re the first insurance company to embrace the esports space. Just take a look at GEICO’s booth during any of the enormously popular PAX gaming conventions and the coinciding live stream statistics being generated. There’s some tremendous brand awareness being created for GEICO, and it continues to grow. It might not be resulting in a mass of immediate conversions, but give it some time and I’m convinced esports enthusiasts playing Hearthstone or that are fans of TSM/Cloud 9’s talent will be considering GEICO favorably over their competitors. If one of GEICO’s competitors tries to overcompensate for being too late to the dance and enters the space with a plan that is inauthentic to the interests of esports fans, the bond GEICO has created will likely be strengthened even further.

Patience is a Pendant, uh, Virtue (sorry, another Zelda reference)

Brands should not be advertising a product they want fans to buy at this very moment. Instead, they should focus on how they can get fans to care about their brand in six months or a year. This task is much easier for brands that are endemic to esports. There’s a difference in the way an endemic brand like Razer can connect with an esports fan compared to how Audi (non-endemic) can. Getting a fan to buy a mechanical keyboard or mousepad? Makes sense. Getting that same 18-year-old to buy a $48,000 SUV? That’s a way harder sell and clearly requires a different perspective. Non-endemic brands should not expect immediate success marketing in esports by simply product placing their brand, especially if it is not actually being used by a majority of gamers.

Brands that think about product placement simply to get involved with esports should instead use that money to invest in a time machine to travel back to 2009 when that sort of tactic still might have stood a chance of being effective. Instead, look to the opportunities surrounding relevant activations, where a brand’s players can connect with their fans. This strategy is key and should be at the forefront of a prudent esports marketing plan.

On a recent flight home from PAX South, I found myself annoyed by people sitting in the window or aisle seat who also felt entitled to take the middle seat’s reserved armrest. With esports on my mind, this led me to start thinking about how being as non-intrusive and willing to coexist with everyone else in your plane’s row is pretty similar to how brands can achieve success in esports. It’s not only a strong tactic if you’re a categorical first-mover in esports, but it also shows that you are willing to invest in a relationship with the parties surrounding you. Investing in developing that bond is how brands get to make the first brand-to-customer interaction. With the right ingredients, your brand can successfully concoct their own personalized, and useful, elixir…..and like Zelda’s main hero Link, maybe even save Hyrule. – Intersport Executive Director of Esports, Kurt Melcher (kmelcher@intersportnet.com)

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