The 2021 Guide to Esports Influencer Marketing, part 1

February 8, 2021

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Categories:Influencer Marketing, analytics, Brands, Marketing, Streaming

Note: This is the first of a four part series. Click here to download the entire report (PDF). 


According to McKinsey, electronic sports (esports) is, “a specific subset of online gaming with a focus on the competition between human players…in a video/computer game with predefined rules.”

While competing at video games is not new (think: arcade games of the past), it is a novel concept for many outside the video game industry. Regardless, the global esports audience reached an estimated 495 million in 2020 (Source).

Executive summary

The term “influencer marketing” is no secret but still poorly understood. For many, being an influencer is about taking selfies, posting them, then raking in cash from digital popularity. The truth is influencers are a diverse group of personalities who may or may not commercialize their online followings.

So, it is no surprise if you are not familiar with esports influencer marketing.
However, by the end of this report you will understand:

  • The characteristics of influencer marketing in esports 
  • How to discover top influencers 
  • The best way to identify relevant audiences  
  • How marketers can navigate challenges 

Cracking the video game code 

The world’s 2.7 billion gamers spent an estimated $159.3 billion on games in 2020 (Source). The global esports audience is less than the total number of gamers, because all esports fans are gamers but not all gamers are esports fans. 

Whenever a person plays a video game, they are gaming. That includes anyone from top esports athletes to people playing Candy Crush on their phones. Every time someone competes in esports, they are also gaming. But just because someone is gaming, does not mean they are competing. 

Esports is characterized by digital competition in the realm of video game play. So, all esports content is a form of video game content, but not vice versa. This means games-based media resonates with esports and non-esports audiences.

Gaming content is impactful due to the unfiltered dynamic with its audience. How impactful? People watched over 100 billion hours of gaming on YouTube alone in 2020. That figure more than doubled the platform’s 2018 total (Source).

Things to note:

  • Esports refers to a collection of video games, the same way traditional sports include multiple activities – basketball, soccer, tennis, etc.
  • Different games reach different audiences
  • Video game titles emerge and decline much faster than sports activities
  • Esports content primarily lives on streaming platforms, alongside non-competitive gaming content – so there is a large audience overlap
  • The global competitive video game community includes people who may be outside the target regions for certain brands

Understanding esports influence

Esports fans regularly engage with creators who are no longer, or never were, affiliated with official competition. These personalities influence esports audiences without even trying. One of the top video game streamers in the world – Tyler “Ninja” Blevins – illustrates this unique dynamic.

Ninja began his career as an esports athlete over a decade ago. However, it was not skill in digital sport that fueled his rise to fame. Instead, he became an online celebrity when clips of his personal Fortnite streams started going viral in 2018.


Butterfinger recognizes the appeal of influencers like Ninja


Shortly after, Ninja retired from competition and became a full-time video game streamer on Twitch – Amazon’s livestreaming platform. His status as a gaming phenomenon is cemented by a digital footprint of 60M+ followers/subscribers across social media and creator accounts. 

With a competitive career in the rear-view mirror, you might think Ninja is no longer relevant among esports fans. To the contrary, 58% of his social audience follows at least one esport. For brands, that is a good mix of potential exposure to esports and other gaming lifestyle audiences.

Why influencer marketing in esports?

Partnering with social media influencers is already familiar to many brands and marketers, but it is a fast-growing market. One that includes the emergence of gaming-related personalities. Accordingly, partnering with influencers to connect with competitive video game audiences deserves attention.

Esports is relevant because it attracts a hard-to-reach subsegment of the overall population. For example, 9 out of 10 NFL fans do not follow esports at all. Buying impressions is also ineffective with this audience, as 78% of esports fans in North America are not likely to be influenced by online ads.

Since esports is independent of any single digital platform, it is nearly impossible to buy followers and/or hack social media algorithms. Instead, influence is the product of organic, personal connections within the gaming community. You can join these hard-to-crack social circles in a meaningful way through relationships with the right influencers.

A shared passion for video games draws large audiences to various online personalities and is a growing phenomenon outside of just esports. Athletes (“JuJu” Smith-Schuster), politicians (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), and celebrities (Drake) have all taken to Twitch to connect with the gaming community.

AOC’s Twitch stream was one of the most watched ever

Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s (D-NY) October 2020 broadcast peaked at 435,000 viewers and is in the top 25 of most-watched Twitch streams ever. Drake’s 2018 Fortnite stream with Ninja is in the top 5.

Fun fact: On average, 77% of the social audiences for several leading Twitch streamers – Dakotaz, Dr DisRespect, Dr Lupo, Ninja, Shroud – also follow esports.

Interested in reading more? Click here to download the entire report

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