Twelve months ago, esports and competitive gamers were clamoring just to get a seat at the table. Today, no single industry is riding a greater wave of buzz.
More than 600 brands signed recent esports sponsorship deals with teams, tournament organizers, leagues, and prominent pro players. And it’s not just brands endemic to the video game category making noise. Big players in automotive, food and beverage, telecom, even the U.S. Armed Forces have taken notice, with market intelligence firm Newzoo estimating more than 60 percent of esports sponsorships completed today are by nonendemic brands entering the category.
The value? Direct access to the hard-to-reach Millennial, cord-never audience.
Esports will soon reach a tipping point. As more and more brands seek to enter the category, the opportunities to authentically connect with the gaming audience are shrinking. It’s an arms race to find white space. Brands that forge an alliance with a top personality or carve out an ownable approach to social-first content are the clear front-runners. Who will be next?
Tapping into a built-in audience is the bet made by the likes of Red Bull, Bud Lite, and Uber Eats. Each signed as a sponsor of a 27-year-old Fortnite player and streamer named Ninja to support him year-round and at key events, en route to making Ninja (real name: Tyler Blevins) the 14th most marketable athlete in the world in 2018.
Other big brands like Gillette have taken a similar approach: Align with a single player or streamer and give them the keys to creating brand-right and audience-right content. In the case of Dr DisRespect and his nearly three million Twitch followers, a year-long, tongue-in-cheek courtship played out on social media between athlete and brand before the Gillette deal was struck. And yet, volatility in esports and the online rumor mill are a constant force. Within months, Reddit users were questioning the brand’s true commitment to the popular pro.
Dr Pepper recently dove into esports as a sponsor of Team SoloMid, one of the most winning esports organizations in North America. The Richards Group helped guide the soda brand’s foray with esports by following a not-so-secret winning formula to campaign development: The only creatives, strategists, and account people with a say in the work would be those that play the games themselves. No strangleholds of tenure or hierarchy making decisions; the work depended on category expertise. Esports fans are quick to call out an imposter, and it’s only too easy to get flamed.
The result? Digital and social engagement rates for the soft drink brand skyrocketed, and Dr Pepper was nominated for the 2018 Esports Commercial Partner of the Year award.
For franchises in the city-based Overwatch League from Blizzard Entertainment, standing out among a sea of sameness in the league’s inaugural season was paramount. The Dallas Fuel, our hometown Overwatch heroes and clients at The Richards Group, took a smart approach to joining PR and social content strategy at the hip and introduced the first-ever jersey rights sponsorship deal in the Overwatch League, in partnership with challenger brand Jack in the Box. Fast-forward to prep for the 2019 season, and the Dallas Fuel is the most-followed team in the Overwatch League while Jack in the Box saw a 98 percent positive sentiment for jumping in with gamers.
The days of gaming as a secret subculture have passed. Esports has arrived. And with it, esports brings its own set of rules. Its own inside jokes. And its own dos and don’ts. While many brands will succeed, some will certainly fail entering the category. Brands considering an esports or gaming partnership must do their homework and build the right teams to authentically activate.
Want a seat at the esports table? It’s getting crowded. 2019 might just be your last chance to get in.