Esports takeaway CES2020 – Trend Insights From kubik Head of Creative and Strategy

“This is no longer a ‘wait and see’ scenario. Esports is here and will only continue to grow. This is not ‘fringe’ culture… it’s mainstream media”

As a long-time gamer, arcade fanatic and father of twins who own more devices than sporting goods, I’ve had more than a glancing interest in the growing world of competitive video gaming. The increase in client marketing interest in this arena, along with my recent involvement in large scale esports event activations, prompted a full day of recon at CES 2020 in Las Vegas this past week.

A series of panel discussions ranged from the impact on technology development to understanding how audiences engage with this exciting new form of entertainment. Panelists included pro players, members of the media community, hardware OEMs and even some executive presence from the game developers and franchised leagues.

Here are some key highlights that I came away with:

The Audience:

It’s safe to say that gamers should no longer be perceived as a minority or sub-culture. The average age of players largely spans from pre-teen into late 30s and beyond; with an estimated 67% of people in the US playing video games in some capacity. This puts the consumption of video game media into mainstream levels.

The average esports enthusiast may digest hours of content per day, but a relatively small portion of this is actual game play. Most esports enthusiasts prefer to follow and watch recorded or streamed content of their favorite players, teams or leagues.

Gaming is a highly democratized activity and attracts people of all backgrounds. Esports is also highly inclusive, with fewer barriers for players of any culture, sex or physical ability to compete together at a high level. Even those with physical disabilities could potentially compete with appropriate peripherals.

Not all gamers are made equal. Someone who plays Fortnite or Overwatch can be very different from a Forza Motorsport or Madden NFL player. Know your audience!

The Tech:

Esports is having a strong influence in the world of consumer electronics. OEMs such as Samsung and Alienware commented on how the gaming community is driving hardware and UX advancements.

Examples included the creation of special display technology that could help players to better see ‘campers’. This controversial tactic, where players lie in hiding to gain an advantage, is often criticized by most advanced players.

Advanced audio technology is also being tested in certain screens that can ‘project’ sound in the direction of the screen from which an opponent may be approaching.

There was also some discussion around tools being developed to make the gaming environment safer for players… especially young girls. Profanity filters and other developments can help parents limit inappropriate content and increase safe and positive access to the sport for everyone.

The data and metrics abilities inherent in online gaming are also especially helpful in helping organized teams and leagues improve player training and in identifying young talent anywhere in the world. The path to becoming a professional esports player is far more sophisticated than their traditional sports counterparts.

Game developers like Activision/Blizzard and leagues such as Overwatch are also looking at taking the best aspects of traditional sports and incorporating elements into their own player/fan experience… with a prime focus on tools to improve online competitive and cooperative play as well as fan engagement.

The proliferation of 5G networks and capability is being touted as one of the most important factors for growing esports today.

One panelist stated that mobile gaming on handheld devices will be one of the largest areas of growth in the competitive gaming category over the coming months.

Investing:

When and how to invest in esports is probably the single biggest question I hear from clients and brands. There appears to be a lot of fear and trepidation for those exploring sponsorship and marketing opportunities… particularly with brands that are not endemic to this space.

Here’s what some of the panelists had to say:

The numbers are there. This is not an audience that needs to be grown or cultivated. It already exists.

There are a lot of opportunities for brands to get involved, particularly within some of the organized leagues such as Overwatch, Call of Duty and League of Legends. This can occur at the more regional team level or with the leagues themselves. The organizations appear to be following formats that are similar to traditional sports sponsorships, with opportunities for segment exclusivity and multiple media channels.

The reach is broad! While many traditional sports and teams may have regional or national followings, esports leagues, teams and players enjoy a much more cosmopolitan appeal. The content streaming service Twitch has its roots in competitive gaming and is the primary channel that fans use to digest this content globally.

For brands that are less endemic to the gaming space, partnering with an established content partner (like Twitch) is a great way to dip their toes into the pool while benefitting from the partner’s deep knowledge of this audience.

Authenticity is often a buzzword when brands talk about getting involved in esports sponsorship and marketing. The consensus from the experts was simply not to sweat it. Gamers are generally very positive regarding brands that want to support their passion. Just remember that it’s all about them and what they love doing. As long as your brand’s involvement can help them to better access or enjoy their passion for gaming, you’re on the right track.

Now, gamers can also be a very vocal group, but they also genuinely appreciate brands that solicit their opinion. One speaker suggested not to be dismayed if the community “tells you something sucks”. The most important thing for this audience is that you asked, listened, adapted and continued to support them.

Once you’ve tested the waters and are ready to jump in, even non-endemic brands can have deep impact within competitive gaming and esports. A great example was given about how the Wendy’s fast food chain recently took its long-time battle against frozen beef to the gaming world.

Wendy’s announced they were dropping into Fortnite to do battle with the game’s fictional Durr Burgers franchise. Wendy’s staff (donning custom skins featuring red pigtails) then proceeded to ignore other players and began blowing up refrigerators and defacing Durr Burgers advertising during a battle royale session. Soon, the gamer community jumped into the fray as well, extending the war on frozen beef. This campaign eventually led to the game developer erecting fresh burger restaurants throughout the fictional game world. Eradicating frozen burgers in the digital realm got Wendy’s a ton of press and even beat out Nike’s “Dream Crazy’ for the Social & Influencer Grand Prix at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.

So???

The main conclusions for me were: This is no longer a ‘wait and see’ scenario. Esports is here and will only continue to grow. This is not ‘fringe’ culture… it’s mainstream media. Even traditional sports franchises like the NBA are already heavily investing in their own eSports product (2K league) and the audience is native and massive!

There are great partnerships to be had and very easy ways for brands to wade into esports marketing and sponsorship.

I constantly hear clients lamenting about how to market to GenZ. I suspect one of the best answers to this challenge is ‘camping’ right behind them!