Every year marketers look for the next big, untapped frontier of opportunity. We want to introduce our brand to a group of people large enough and passionate enough to buy our products before our competitors get there first.
ESports — or competitive video gaming — is one of the fastest-growing entertainment industries. What used to be seen as a novelty endeavor made up of basement-dwellers cut off from the rest of the world is actually an internationally celebrated activity comprised of 2 billion gamers. And yet, this $100-billion industry has garnered little interest from major brands, beyond those that make eSports-related hardware and games.
There is a huge opportunity if we focus on creating meaningful connections and experiences between gamers and brands and several reoccurring selling points that can be used to convince CMOs to take the industry seriously. Here are a few that should make you start thinking very seriously about investing your marketing dollars into eSports.
It’s one of the oldest and largest social networks in the world
People were playing online games long before MySpace was even in diapers, and the average gamer spends 6.5 hours each week playing games, which is 178% more time than Facebook users spend on the social network. With 2 billion gamers worldwide, this consumer group is far ahead of Facebook’s user base, which is why this definitely isn’t a fad. This category obviously has staying power since it has already outlasted any social network that exists today. And now that it’s starting to shed its taboo moniker thanks to the exponentially-growing audience, you can expect it to further solidify its place in sports and entertainment.
The viewership rivals the NBA
In 1998, the Chicago Bulls beat the Utah Jazz in Game 6 of the NBA Finals, thanks to a Michael Jordan jumper with five seconds left. That game was the most watched game in NBA history with 39.9 million viewers. Earlier this year, the League of Legends championships, held in Berlin Germany, garnered 36 million viewers. That’s more than the College Football National Championship, the Final Four and most World Series. And though the vast majority of those viewers are watching the matches online, major media publishers like ESPN and USA Network are starting to feature eSports content and tournaments.
The teams and players will soon become household names
There’s a great story about the Korean national soccer team getting a pep talk from some of the top eSports pros before they played in the World Cup. And while this may seem like hyperbole here, overseas, many eSports organizations and players are starting to make the same money, get the same star treatment and become as widely recognizable as other sports stars. Just recently, game developer Activision announced it was going to create a professional league for its popular title “Overwatch” in which it will have coaches, team owners, contracts and health benefits for players as well as signing bonuses and prize money similar to what you’d expect to find in the NFL.
Investors are flocking to the category
Perhaps one of the scariest (in a good way) things about eSports is how successful it has become with a seemingly grassroots growth strategy. Up until now, it has been hard to attract major investors to take the category seriously. However, many VCs are starting to take notice. Professional sports teams are also buying large shares in eTeams.
Recently, the Philadelphia 76ers purchased a majority stake in an eTeam, Mark Cuban invested in an eSports gambling company and many others such as Magic Johnson, Rick Fox and the owners of the Sacramento Kings have all put money into eSports companies and teams. If eSports has already amassed this level of popularity and success without much infrastructure, imagine how quickly it will explode now that serious dollars are being poured into the category.
So with all that said, eSports is going to be part of your brand’s future marketing plans and the only question is whether you’ll be managing it. And though your initial gut reaction will be to dismiss it as you did social media when it first broke onto the scene, I’d encourage you to spend some time this holiday break playing video games. Learn the popular titles and, more importantly, why they are so prevalent. Just because your brand doesn’t have a direct tie to the category, doesn’t mean you can’t find a meaningful integration.
Just look at Fitbit, which recently announced a partnership with NBA2K17 in which they’ll reward gamers who rack up 10,000 steps in a day with an in-game power up. If a fitness brand can find a way to be naturally relevant to gamers, then so can you. Your brand’s marketing success in this category won’t be determined by how many logos you can put on a shirt, but instead by how well you understand and contribute to the culture.
Editor's note: This article originally appeared on Dec. 1, 2016, in Marketing:Sports.