“This is my first esports event and it’s great! Now I understand why people watch sports.” A surprising and resonating comment from a young female audience member at the ESL One New York tournament for a game called Counter Strike at the end of September.
Although I have seen plenty of esports, I shared her sentiment. The good ol’ effect of crowd mentality, seen time and time again, has a way of building a sense of community, and its presence at this esports event was no different.
The two-day tournament took place at the Barclay's Center in Brooklyn, New York, and almost filled the whole arena. It was a big weekend for esports event-goers -- while ESL, a company owned by the Swedish conglomerate Modern Times Group, hosted its event in New York, Activision Blizzard’s Overwatch League (OWL) held its grand finals in Philadelphia at the Wells Fargo Center.
Many news stories are describing OWL's event as “the Superbowl” of esports, with many news headlines saying something to the effect of “esports shows there's a there there with big tournaments.”
Let's be clear for a second. For anyone not paying attention to the gaming scene (of which there are many), this is a fair statement. However, if you are even remotely checked in to the happenings in sports and entertainment, you should know that esports has demonstrated its mass appeal and impact before.
In 2016, Riot Games, creators of the massive esports title and hit "League of Legends," sold out Madison Square Garden’s approximately 20k seats for its semifinals of two Korean teams. On Sunday, OWL sold out the Wells Fargo Center to around 12k in-person viewers, after having only two competitive seasons, compared to "League of Legends," which has been around for much longer.
This is a testament to the success of "Overwatch," to be sure, but more importantly the comparison to the "League of Legends" 2016 Semifinal illustrates that the pull and influence of esports is nothing new, and people should stop acting like it is.
To be fair, I suspect the reason for the continued surprise is due to the lack of concrete, reliable data in esports. During Twitch's esports summit at Advertising Week 2019, Nathan Lindberg, director of global sponsorships at Twitch, asked if anyone in the audience felt they had the information they needed to go out and get people to buy into esports. When a few audience members raised their hands, Nathan said “Liar!” while sitting right next to Nicole Pike, head of Nielsen's esports and gaming unit. With a laugh, Nicole remarked that she better get back out there and get the data the people need.
So, when an esports event has twenty thousand people sell out a stadium, wait in lines for hours to get in, and engage with sponsorships from massive corporate brands like Coca-Cola, T-Mobile, and Toyota, it's easy for people to say “Oh, gee, there must be something going on there.” Regardless, it’s time that people stopped describing the emergence of esports as “new” and “shocking.”
People the media industry describes as “cord-cutters” are more often “cord-nevers.” This year, Nielsen reported that over 60% of Twitch esports fans do not watch any linear TV, and 50% of them do not have any sort of paid TV subscription. Esports, and the gaming world in general, have the ability and power to captivate the younger generations, and the sooner the data supports that more concretely, the more genuine outside interest in esports will be.
Marketers and advertisers often don't understand what it means to interact with esports or gaming fans in genuine ways. You hear a lot in the industry about how gamers don't take any BS, and will cut off revenue in a second when annoyed by a marketer. However, I was drawn to the ways that ESL's sponsors and advertisers helped foster that sense of community I mentioned earlier in unique and engaging ways, just as Blizzard and its sponsors did at OWL's grand finals.
While I was sadly unable to attend the OWL finals, I did take stock of what was on display at ESL One’s Barclays event. Here are some few brand activations I found particularly interesting for marketers to take note of:
AT&T: By far my favorite, AT&T designed a wristband (watch-esque) that mimicked lighting associated with the action of the live game itself. In the game "Counter Strike," one team tries to plant a bomb (the Terrorists) and the other team tries to stop the bomb from being planted or disarm the bomb (the Counter-Terrorists).
Whenever the bomb was planted, all the wristbands would blink red alongside the countdown beeps in the game. Whenever a round was won, the color of the corresponding team would flash (orange for Terrorists, blue for Counter-Terrorists). It was amazing to look around the arena and see the same flashing colors in unison, which usually coincided with uproar from the crowd at the game’s events.
T-mobile did a similar play at the OWL finals, giving audience members a wristband that pulsed with the beats of famous DJ Zed's opening performance, as well as the game events. On top of this, AT&T also had a gaming booth at Barclay's, allowing people to play console and PC games, including "Counter Strike" itself.
DHL: As an international brand, DHL stood to gain a lot at this event. With approximately 100k to 200k viewers of the tournament at any given time on Twitch, DHL was reaching a lot of people. However, I was unsure how DHL, a packaging/mailing service, could connect with esports fans.
Aside from a creative spot showing little DHL cartoons as official sponsors of ESL, transporting the big ESL One trophy around the world, DHL wisely brought in a popular streamer/influencer to wear DHL gear and do giveaways. It also had a booth, lining up folks for hours to play a virtual reality box-stacking game.
In addition, DHL printed out long, rectangular signs for attendees to write on and carry around, allowing them to participate in the “!DHLDROP,” a nod to gaming lingo, that awarded an attendee with collectables and merchandise from the event. In this sense, DHL enabled fans to express themselves through their signs, enhancing the community's interactions with itself.
Betway: Last but not least, Betway, a sports betting app based out of Europe, that allows fans to place bets on esports matches.
While everyone keeps talking about the legalization of esports betting in the U.S., it seems Betway has found a way around that, enabling players to bet on all sorts of esports content and acting as official sponsors of ESL One's Counter Strike events.
Although more endemic to esports than AT&T and DHL, Betway also put together a relevant creative spot that gave voice to the infamous chicken (yes, a chicken) that runs around various "Counter Strike" maps during the chaotic bullet action.
Across the board, I was impressed by the ways that AT&T, DHL, and Betway interacted with the fan base in ways that felt organic and relevant to the gamers present, that also lent itself to the continuation of the gaming community. At OWL's Grand Finals, Bud Light and other companies had a similar effect, which only adds to the presence and importance of esports.
Even for a game that I have never played or watched previously, I was engaged with the content and swept up in the great energy of the crowd. Marketing to these hard-to-reach audiences needs to continue in this fashion-- relevant, organic, and thoughtfully -- to allow advertisers and marketers to capitalize on this unique and un-ignorable community.