The term “eSports” — like the terms “millennial,” “live-tweet,” or “binge-watch” before it — is one whose usage no longer requires a definition. This isn’t another article that implies that you need to have eSports defined in layman’s terms for you before you continue reading. This is the article that knows that you, like millions of other Americans, already know about eSports.
Maybe you’ve binge-watched a stream on Twitch.tv — maybe you even live-tweeted it — or maybe not. Regardless, eSports has reached a saturation level in popular culture that few buzzy trends ever do — critical mainstream awareness. 2015 isn’t eSports “breakthrough” moment. Instead, 2015 is eSports’ “staythrough” moment. It is not going anywhere.
And that’s because eSports was built the right way. Similar to action sports before it, eSports built its category into a billion-dollar industry, not because media companies were betting big on it early on, but despite the fact that nobody was really betting on it at all. eSports, like action sports, has made it this far on the backs of tremendous passion and engagement from millions of participants and fans worldwide, as well as the industry’s core endemic brands — video game developers, electronics companies, and of course, energy drink companies. This means, of course, no outsiders allowed.
It shouldn’t have been a surprise that eSports made its mainstream debut alongside action sports at last year’s Summer X Games. Anyone over the age of 40 remembers when the X Games made its debut on The Worldwide Leader in Sports. The chorus of complaints from traditional sports fans was, “Who are these punks on ESPN?! Skateboarding isn’t a real sport!” Just 20 years later, the chorus from action sports fans is “Who are these nerds on ESPN?! Video games aren’t an action sport!”
What we’ve seen in the past with emerging sports is that, once they’ve proven themselves viable with significant participation, sophisticated methods of organization and high levels of competition, media companies get involved. Before this point, the landscape has already largely been created organically by players, teams, leagues and governing bodies — and the media company simply partners up to introduce a community of underserved fans to better access to a sport they already love. That’s when the big sponsorship dollars start rolling in.
But eSports isn’t traditional, and its nontraditional characteristics should pique marketers’ interests. ESports skipped the media part entirely and built methods of distribution, suited to its own space. After all, aside from ESPN’s cautious toe-dip, this revolution hasn’t been televised. Instead, it’s been YouTube’d, Twitch’d, Tweeted, Instagram’d and whatever-else’d.
Broadcast TV doesn’t necessarily make natural sense for eSports, simply because there’s no keyboard. To hear eSports’ best spokespersons tell it, the biggest thing eSports has going for it is access — ’round-the-clock access. And the hyper-social, “chatroomy,” stream-based services native to eSports facilitate that. In fact, it’s built for that.
When was the last time LeBron tweeted to his followers, “I’m going to the park for a pickup game, anyone wanna join”? Never — it just doesn’t happen. For eSports’ top competitors, though — like OpTic Gaming’s NaDeSHoT, who boasts 1.18 million followers — it happens every single day. That’s just how he practices. These guys compete against fans around the world and share their lives with them. For fans who love the lifestyle — it’s hard not to get caught up into how similar the gods of their sport are to just regular teenagers. For America’s younger generations, these are legitimate stars.
ESports is still figuring out just who the industry leaders are. Even with powerhouses, like Twitch and YouTube involved, there’s no clear streaming victor. League of Legends and Dota 2 have made strong cases, but there’s no marquee competition worldwide. The space lacks the consistency of tournaments, organizers and broadcast methods that’ll attract casual tune-in. Consistency that only steady dollars from media and sponsors can provide.
But, as attendance shrinks for traditional sports, and the NCAA or MLB grapples with the way that technological advancements have altered the experience of going to games or watching them at home — eSports rises alongside the technology, as an organic part of the industry that the old heads are trying so hard to understand.
The time to get involved is now, even if the risk-reward looks a little dicey. Fans in the space are perceptive; they know who adds value and who doesn’t. An outsider brand can still be core to the experience by offering fans a new avenue of access they don’t have already — or by just ensuring that currently underfunded ones survive. Only marketers willing to really live in this misunderstood space will be capable of authentically introducing non-endemic brands to it.
At the onset of this article, I said that eSports no longer needs to be defined. You know what it means. Now use it in a sentence. If you’re a CMO, maybe that sentence should be, “I think it’s time for our brand to get involved in eSports.”