“People have different tastes in games. There are totally different genres. There’s very little overlap,” said George Woo, events organizer at Intel. “They are truly unique communities.”
— “Could New Gaming Titles Unite eSports Fans?” by Ethan Gach
As an increasing number of consumer brands enter the eSports fray, the race to capture the attention and favorability of its audiences begins in earnest. As is the case in traditional sports, the nature of fandom in eSports is tribal. However, these tribes of fans aren’t grouped neatly by a handful of leagues, and their teams. Instead, as research from Blicx illustrates, 57% of eSports fans define their leading emotive driver as the video game itself.
By relation, since eSports consists of multiple game titles, its estimated 292 million fans are quickly segmented. To avoid being rejected and ignored, non-endemic brands must utilize the power of eSports organizations as ambassadors to these tribes (see: communities) of enthusiasts.
As a medium driven by massive Internet connectivity, electronic sports are natively global. So it is the competitive ecosystems surrounding games like League of Legends and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CSGO) – attracting millions of players, viewers, and fans – which drive team participation; as opposed to stringent regional or specific league affiliation. Accordingly, multiple teams – focused on different game titles – are typically amassed under the flag of a single organization; very similar to the European model of sports clubs, which house teams in different athletic vocations.
Several multi-gaming clubs have already been able to fashion eSports brands of their own by achieving success across several competitive game genres. These “clans” are a valuable channel for spanning the inherently fragmented eSports landscape of various games, and their fans. Simply put, they offer brands membership to different game tribes.
For example, a long-standing competitive gaming organization, Team EnVyUs, recently entered the League of Legends professional scene in North America. After success in other game titles like Call of Duty, EnVyUs has presence in the world’s most popular eSport game title and the nationally televised ELeague, among others. Sponsorship strategies must leverage these multiple assets (teams) offered by a single partner (gaming organization), towards increasing the reach and effectiveness of eSports programs.
Joining the tribe
In traditional sports, large audiences flow to a select few multi-billion dollar leagues that draw regional allegiance from top teams, stocked with the world’s best athletes. Top leagues are unchallenged sources of sports entertainment – leaving fans essentially zero consumer choice. This exclusivity is a neatly organized model around which sponsorship strategies can be built for a stable set of events, teams and competitive structures.
However, the opposite is true in eSports today, and while it might change in the future, present opportunities are colored by this reality. Accordingly, brands must avoid conceptualizing eSports as a homogenous whole, directly comparable to NBA or NHL fans.
“It’s about the power of the tribe; you and your friends pursuing your passions together. OpTic Gaming shares this same sense of community and energy.”
— Mandy Mazzeo, brand manager for Brisk, explaining partnership with eSports organization OpTic Gaming
Sponsors must learn to target discrete tribes of eSports fans – and their unique passion points – to provide value through sponsorship. Whereas endemic brands maintain a direct link to the core gameplay experience that echoes generally across different segments, e.g. gaming peripherals are typically purchased independently of eSports interest.
On the other hand, non-endemic brands lack the same advantages so must gain earn the attention of various tribes of fans. Hence, ROI from partnerships with multi-gaming clubs can’t be simply measured by impressions and CPMs. Instead, it is the cultural bridge to scattered eSports crowds – allowing brands to engage in a meaningful way – that is central.
Creating brand value in eSports
Value is the currency for any healthy relationship. The key to authenticity in eSports is bringing value through active participation. Likewise, brand sponsors must focus on enhancing experiences from the perspective of a fellow tribe member, not as an obligation. After all, sponsors play a critical role in delivering what eSports audiences want – whether better events, polished coverage, or sometimes even existence of the competition itself.
Since sponsorship is a vehicle for increasing brand value, it makes sense to understand how to achieve as much in eSports. Whereas traditional sports sponsorship remains geared towards association between brand and property, the highly advertising sensitive nature of eSports enthusiasts requires more impactful forms of integration; deeper than just emblazing logos on jerseys and/or buying naming rights.
In eSports, traditional forms of advertising can’t compare to the ROI of sponsorship investment into its unique values and culture. That is what sponsors are paying for: recognition of shared affiliation and the sentimental tie that comes in tandem. To realize this, sponsorship activation must connect to the power of the tribe, and its almost immeasurable upside.