Winning with Storytelling in eSports

“Whether brands can play a legitimate role in e-sports is a question I’d love to see answered,”

— Paul Smith, founder and CEO of Repucom (SportsBusiness Journal March 28 – April 3, 2016 edition)

As electronic sports (eSports) continue to mature as a commercial platform, companies outside the immediate video game industry are beginning to question the role they can/should play. In tandem, according to Newzoo’s Global Esports Market Report, total brand spend in eSports is expected to reach $325 million in 2016. Yet, most marketing decision makers, overwhelmingly unfamiliar with general video game culture and its competitive scene, are trying to understand how to attain and retain authenticity amongst competitive video game demographics. In order to do so, brands must grasp the immense potential of eSports as a creative storytelling platform.

The value of eSports storytelling

Telling stories have played an integral part of human history since the dawn of time. Yet, brands aren’t human; they are ideas, and stories, more so than any other marketing vehicle, enable people to buy into ideas.  Storytelling is the sharing of wor​ds and images for the purpose of enlightenment and entertainment. In an era of endless distraction and noise, this form of communication helps forge powerful connections that build loyalty and trust. And eSports is home to a universe of storylines   that brands can and should leverage as the heart of delivering marketing messages.

Brands have long used traditional sports as context for sharing their own stories, and a means of creating affinity with consumers. The Olympic Games are a standard sponsorship vehicle ($1.15 billion USD in sponsorship revenues for the 2012 Summer games) primarily due to the wealth of stories that capture the world’s attention throughout their duration. Yet, competitive video games are structured as a community, as opposed to platform for commerce; a reality which requires a less overtly commercial approach. Brands can accomplish this by keeping storytelling focused on core values of the eSports narrative.

Competition remains one of the purest sources of unscripted reality, and eSports is home to a wide array of storylines which are:

  • Honest
  • Human
  • Relatable
  • Has personality
  • Visual

The above are key elements of, and invaluable to, brand involvement in eSports. The challenge is in maintaining the original spirit of eSports storylines while injecting brand identity into the storytelling process. In essence, brands must fit messaging into the story without altering its core essence. Fortunately, the competitive video game landscape of teams, tournaments, players, and personalities continue to generate strong narratives, routinely and natively.

For instance, Lupe Fiasco, international hip-hop star and amateur video game fanatic, defeated the world’s best Street Fighter video game player, Daigo Umehara, in a head-to-head matchup. This storyline features a powerful combination of entertainment, competition and celebrity buoyed by the sheer unpredictability of an amateur defeating a top pro. The underdog theme for Lupe’s victory was entirely unscripted and created an immediately popular “In Case You Missed It” (ICYMI) moment across the eSports world. Successful storytelling involves creating deep, emotional associations with these types of moments, towards realizing the chance to form lasting impressions. For non-endemic brands, especially, this is both marketing tool and cultural bridge into the world of eSports.

Storytelling ROI

Good stories give people a reason to remember. Everything about them is memorable, from the plot to the characters involved. The eSports community is connected by the power that perfecting a craft has in inspiring others. The stories depicting excellence in performance, the purity of competition and the joy of watching other humans at the top of their field are at the very heart of eSports. Brands can join the community by telling stories about eSports, in an authentic manner. Storytelling grants relevancy that creates affinity with eSports segments, and cuts through the community’s aversion to crass commercialism. Good eSports stories help brands connect to the passion and enthusiasm of competitive video games; thereby creating receptive audiences for branding/marketing messages.

Unfortunately, emotional connection is next to impossible to measure, even though it’s at the heart of every successful marketing effort. Likewise, authenticity in eSports can’t be quantified, but is very real. For brands sitting on the outside of eSports, looking to get involved, authenticity and emotional connection are gatekeepers. This represents a puzzling paradigm for companies unfamiliar with the world of video game culture. On the other hand, storytelling is more widely understood. Brands that focus on becoming better at telling eSports stories will close this gap and cut an otherwise steep learning curve, in half.

Actionable steps for eSports storytelling

  1. Education & Learning – Before tackling the subject of storytelling, brands must come up to speed on competitive video game fundamentals (history, current structure, and current direction). Next, widely recognized stories from across the eSports landscape should be examined towards building an understanding of general psychology and emotional pitch of the community. Questions to ask: Why do people care? What drives commitment to keeping these stories alive?
  2. Reverse engineer – Start by defining the desired outcome, then work back to the start. This requires visualizing the big picture and filling in the small pieces along the way. At the end of the day, storytelling is a content creation process that must fit into overall marketing objectives. Meaning, consumption of a story should positively affect leads, sales, and brand image.
  3. Think long term – Accept that while storytelling can increase brand equity, it is a long term strategy. Compared to purchasing paid media, the returns are far from immediate. Stories build human connections, which are at the heart of every marketing campaign, but they aren’t fashioned overnight. Storytelling is all about carving out an enduring role in, and relationship with eSports audiences.

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