Hacking Esports and Gaming with Brand Activations

This article outlines the neuroscience behind effective activations that inspire customer action(s) and/or loyalty in the gaming community. Here is what you should know: 

  • The estimated 474 million esports fans are a subset of 2.9 billion people who spent an estimated $175.8 billion on games in 2021
  • Effective activations ‘hack’ cognitive processes in the brain to influence positive customer actions. 
  • AT&T and Wasserman executed a branded experience on Twitch that demonstrates the key pillars and rules of activations designed for gamers. 

Why it matters

Brand activations are one of those hard to define marketing buzzwords, even though it is not a new practice. So, to clarify, activations are immersive marketing experiences which empower a direct connection with consumers. A category which includes, but is not limited to, experiential marketing. 

Meaning any campaign, experience, or event that empowers direct interaction with consumers can be considered a brand activation. Where, as the name implies, the brand is ‘activated‘ by driving awareness and engagement through interactivity. 

This creative form of marketing is particularly compelling in the unique world of online gaming. Wherein, esports – a subset of online gaming focused on competition between human players – is a wildly popular activity among Millennial and Generation Z demographics. 

The global esports audience is defined by watching other people compete at online video games, and the estimated 474 million esports fans are a subset of 2.9 billion people who spent $175.8 billion on games in 2021. In so many words, all esports fans are gamers – but not all gamers are esports fans.

Hacking the brain

Activations are a compelling marketing vehicle in esports and gaming for the same reason that dog food can pass for pâté. As in, only 16% of participants in a 2009 study by the American Association of Wine Economists correctly identified the sample containing dog food – among a selection of five dishes all prepared to look like pâté. 

Dog food can pass for pâté because the human brain does not experience taste, or any of the other senses, directly. Instead, the brain models it, in what neuroscientists call a mental model. That means when you hear/see/smell/touch/taste something, you are experiencing the brain’s attempt to reproduce the objective sensation. And while this modeling is always going on, you never notice it. 

This is important because according to Blindsight: The (Mostly) Hidden Ways Marketing Reshapes Our Brains by Matt Johnson and Prince Ghuman, “[Brands] are in the business of creating complex, enduring beliefs about themselves and their products that create a lasting impact on the brain’s basic architecture.” 

Neuroscience is critical to marketing because, while businesses and products exist in the physical world, brands only exist in the mind e.g., they are ideas and associations related to tangible items. Likewise, activations are ideal for tapping into the flexibility of mental models.  

These marketing experiences shape how brands are experienced in the brain – encouraging positive behavior towards a company and its offerings. How? By ‘hacking’ cognitive processes the same way that dog food prepared a certain way can convince most people that it is pâté.  

While the term hacking, used in relationship to the human brain, might hold negative connotations. Marketing always has and always will seek to tweak consumer experience through the senses. Towards that end, the following is an exemplary gaming activation that encourages positive customer actions by tapping into key cognitive processes

A lesson in activation

In November 2021, AT&T and Twitch launched a mentorship program for aspiring Twitch creators. According to Sabina Ahmed, assistant vice president of sponsorships and experiential marketing at AT&T, via CampaignUS, “The goal is to spotlight emerging content creators, nurture the development of their brands and fulfill their passions for content creation.” 

The campaign, created by Wasserman and Edelman, pairs 12 aspiring creators with established streamers to help fulfill their aspirations in content creation. AT&T committed to leveling up mentee’s streaming equipment, which may include AT&T Fiber or 5G wireless services.  

The activation includes live broadcasts on AT&T’s Twitch channel where mentors provide advice and guidance on subjects like developing a personal brand and growing an audience. 

Wasserman’s AT&T campaign is a leading blueprint for experiential marketing in gaming because it employs the principles listed below – all of which tap into mechanisms in the brain and influence consumer decisions. Accordingly, each of the following helps guide other activations designed for the global gaming community. 


Brands derive meaning from their relationship to the lives of customers. To the extent that effective brand building is dependent, in many ways, on association. One of the most famous examples of brand association is Nike’s collaboration with Michael Jordan. Where the sportswear company’s relationship with Jordan personified core associations with athletic performance and winning. 

Likewise, associations color consumer perception. Research at the University of Hyogo demonstrated that when feeding several groups of people soup with identical ingredients, in the same bowl, at the same temperature, tasteless dye affected reported feelings of satisfaction. Such that participants were the most uncomfortable with blue soup. 

This is because the participants’ mental model of food color influenced how they experienced identical bowls of soup. So clearly, association is nuanced. Similarly, brand sponsorship is a key channel for tapping into the power of association. But in esports and gaming, flawed association design, just like blue soup, can easily cause a less than positive reaction. 

AT&T avoids discoloration by immersing activation execution in creator culture. Where the AT&T Class of 2021 Inaugural Selection Show employed influencer relationships and giveaways to provide an engaging marketing experience authentic to the Twitch community. The inclusion of a diverse selection of aspiring creators – active in areas like chess and comic books – also amplified brand association with interests outside of online gaming. 


In psychology, habits are defined as an unconscious activation of mental associations between behavior and context. Simply put, when it comes to habit, context is everything. To the point that compulsive behaviors in one context can be non-existent in another. That is because familiar environments often provide the context that triggers habitual behaviors. 

The same was shown in a study of heroin use among American soldiers in the Vietnam War. Where only 5 percent of heroin-addicted veterans continued use upon returning to the United States – compared to relapse rates of around 90 percent among the general U.S. population. The results underscored the symbiotic relationship between context and habit.  

The brain uses memory to connect context (environment) and behavior (habit). Likewise, effective activations are memorable experiences designed to encourage consumer behavior(s). To accomplish as much in esports and gaming, activations need a relevant context that resonates with gamers.  

By activating on Twitch, AT&T’s creator program taps into a massively popular media context that amassed over 18.5 billion hours of viewership in 2021. The same context already drives habitual behaviors like watching and/or creating content on Twitch, both of which are the central theme of the activation. The related brand message, sandwiched between a familiar context and behavior, is therefore more easily lodged in memory. 


Essentialism is the view that objects have an underlying “essence” that is not directly observed but nonetheless serves as an identity. While there are serious issues with applying essentialist thinking to disciplines like science, there is evidence that people nonetheless believe essential qualities can be transferred.  

Most importantly, beliefs about an object’s essence alters perception of the related experience. Researchers at Stanford University and the California Institute of Technology hooked subjects up to functional MRI (fMRI) machines as they tasted two different glasses of wine. One glass was described as expensive and the second as cheap – despite both glasses coming from the same bottle. 

Results showed that neurons in the brain’s pleasure center fired when participants were told they were drinking expensive wine. Meanwhile there was no activity when told they were drinking cheap wine. In so many words, essentialist beliefs about expensive wine influenced the actual experience of pleasure. 

AT&T, a telecom service provider, does not provide a consumer product like wine. However, the Twitch activation transfers the same essence of aspiration – embodied by the up-and-coming creators participating in the program – to the brand. A dynamic which promotes a positive perception of the actual company and its services among the entire Twitch community. 

Key takeaways

Esports and other forms of games-based media are particularly relevant in the current era of continued cord cutting and ad blocking popularity. Where emergence of gaming as a dominant form of entertainment for the 18 – 34 age group also makes it a powerful context for immersive experiences that lead to lasting memories at purchase time.  

Online gaming offers an array of impactful consumer touchpoints for younger generations, who consume less traditional media and are increasingly wary of forced, inauthentic brand presence. Especially since, 87% of Generation Z vs. 83% of Millennials vs. 79% of Generation X play video games on smartphones, gaming consoles, and computers at least weekly if not daily. [Source]  

The previously listed principles are based on proven cognitive processes. They are also critical to effective brand marketing, which is charged with navigating the innate complexities of human behavior. More importantly, these ‘cognitive hacks’ can be employed by any brand activation designed to encourage gamers to try, buy, repeat, and refer.

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