Picture this: a superstar athlete enters the arena to thousands of screaming fans, millions more watch at home, legions following along on second screens or live-tweeting the experience — high stakes, high engagement. You wouldn't be faulted for calling to mind an image of LeBron James, but you wouldn't be inaccurate in thinking of a superstar competitive gamer like Seth "Scump" Abner, either.
The superstars of competitive gaming offer scale and recognition amongst their fan base, not unlike those seen in traditional sports. It is well-documented that eSports’ championships have similar viewing attributes as do MLB, NBA and NHL playoffs or championships. By some metrics, the only major American sport that eSports viewership has not eclipsed yet is NFL football, and eSports are predicted to eclipse that by 2020.
The eSports audience is ravenous and represents the new generation of sports enthusiasts, engaged unlike any before it, their consumption untethered to traditional media outlets like ESPN. They turn to YouTube and cutting-edge platforms, such as 120 Sports, Snapchat, Whistle Sports or Twitter, to get their fix. The coveted 18-to-34 demographic — both male and female — is driving the explosion in eSports popularity, and is embracing the category because of a unique aspect that eSports offer which other sports can't or don't. It is a simple concept, really, and one every content marketer strives for. It boils down to two words: accessibility and authenticity.
Like the top teams and athletes in traditional sports, the top teams and athletes in eSports boast millions of fans across social channels. But unlike traditional sports, eSports put social at the center of the experience. In a very real sense, social media is where eSports lives. Athletes practice and compete online for all of the fans to see, but more than that they live their lives online, as well. When they win, they celebrate through YouTube streams and Twitter. When they lose, they post their own "press conference"-style videos of self-evaluation, then, often invite fans to continue that conversation on Twitter.
Be it jubilation, frustration, mundane moments, or outright tears, fans are invited to share it all with their favorite eSports athletes. And while pro athletes are obligated to their formulaic post-game press briefings, forced smiles and reserved feelings, eSports athletes do not wait for reporters. They engage fans in real time as if the fans themselves are both press and audience. They are accessible, they are authentic, and they are always on — 24/7.
When professional eSports athletes promote a product, it is done on the channels they've built. Discussing with fans why the sponsor is important, they illustrate the value that the product brings to their lives. The promotion resonates because the definitions of consumer and promoter never existed; athletes are the target market as much as the fans. In return, sponsors are often embraced and welcomed, and even seen as offering validation to the eSports community.
LeBron James knows the power of accessibility. On Christmas Day 2014, he launched the Uninterrupted platform in collaboration with Bleacher Report. The platform's aspirations read like simple descriptions of what has been going on in eSports for years. According to Re/Code, "Uninterrupted is essentially a reality show, a way for athletes to record short video diaries from their smartphones and say whatever they want without having to answer to a scrum of reporters dictating the conversation."
When talking about Uninterrupted, LeBron himself had this to say: "I want to give [my fans] the uncut, unedited version right then and there of what my thoughts are.” LeBron may have nailed the accessibility portion, but with handlers to please, he’s still got work to do to match eSports’ authenticity.
The takeaway here is to open the floodgates. The modern athlete, or content marketer, will be rewarded for building their own channels and standing behind them. For having conversations with their fans, away from the established media. Fans will high-five you when you win, and they will pick you up when you fall. They know authenticity when they see it, and they will reward athletes and their sponsors with similar support.
So, if you're looking at content marketing, take a hard look at eSports. Approach fans as well as players, as potential ambassadors not as a target audience. It's not enough to be present, you've got to be authentic. After all, the entire world of eSports — and LeBron — can't be wrong.