E-Sports: Why You Need To Care.
Like it or not, video games have become a professional spectator sport. You can make all the jokes you want about the fans and players being jobless basement dwellers who live with their moms, but in the end, the joke will always be on you. In the last 10 years, video game tournaments have routinely sold-out arenas in major markets like Seattle, Vancouver, Los Angeles, Manila, and Shanghai. Online broadcastings of the matches often reach the 500-700K viewer mark.
Teams are sponsored by big businesses like Intel, McDonald's, Geico, Red Bull and more. One of the most popular of those games, Valve’s Defense of the Ancients(DotA), holds an annual tournament called The international, and the prize pool this year is a staggering 24 MILLION dollars. This is the 8th edition, and the prize pool has been over 10 million for the past 5 editions.
Even after all these points, why should you care? Think of who watches these events. It’s the elusive 18-34 millennial male market that every business is trying to get a hold of. Even more so, they’re a HIGHLY engaged audience. The 24 million dollar prize pool I talked about? It’s not provided by Valve and sponsors, it’s a CROWD FUNDED PRIZEPOOL.
Every year, Valve releases an in-game item that costs real-world dollars to purchase, it allows players to essentially play a fantasy league for the tournament and rewards them with in-game items if they win. Half of the proceeds of that item got to the prize pool for The International. Those viewers are so involved in their love for the game that they’re ready to give money to reward the pros. Show me another sport where that’s the case? Interested yet?
There are several video games that qualify as e-sports, but for the sake of simplicity, we’ll focus on DotA. It’s a 5 on 5 team game, each team picks from a pool of over a hundred characters who each have their own unique abilities, roles, and play styles. They all get put into an arena with two heavily fortified bases, the overly simplified goal is to kill the other heroes and their units to gain levels and buy items, ultimately destroying the enemy base.
The beauty of that video game and the reason why it’s so popular is how well it relates to traditional sports. Each player has a “role” they’re known for, just like players are quarterbacks or goalies. Some players are known for their mechanical skill, literally their hand-eye coordination allowing them to master certain characters. Others are known playmakers who have superior game awareness.
Teams have “captains” in charge of picking the heroes for their team at the beginning of each game, and they too become heroes in their own right for their drafting skills and game knowledge. Some teams are known to be a group of lesser individual skill, but that have such good chemistry that they dominate the game. Certain teams are known for an offensive playstyle, others for their defensive prowess. Team nationality even comes into play: Russians are known for aggressive and fast-paced games, Chinese teams have incredible teamwork and individual skill and North American teams have always used off the wall and unpopular heroes to confuse their opponents.
The games have play by play commentary and analysis, often with retired pro players offering their insights. Fans have a favorite team that they’ll follow religiously, even when the roster changes and their favorite player leaves. They even gather in specialized bars that broadcast tournament matches. And increasingly, they’ll form large groups and rent out a traditional bar on the condition that they play the game of their choice.
The Business Opportunity
The reason why these video games are interesting to businesses is that they were designed as spectator sports. This was always Valve’s goal for DotA. Not only are teams sponsored by big companies, there are several opportunities coded into the game for these sponsors to display their logo. The drafting phase for example, when teams pick their heroes and ban some they don’t want their opponents to pick, is a prime opportunity to display sponsor logos, since the process usually takes about 15 minutes.
These banners also appear at several places on the map during the game, the typical pro match lasting anywhere between 35 minutes to an hour, and every encounter between teams in a tournament are usually best of 3 affairs. That’s a lot of different ways to get your logo out in a very organic, top of mind marketing kind of way.
There are also two prime spots for potential advertisers in the interface of the game to display content, although the 4 yearly Valve sponsored events don’t allow them, there are tons of other tournaments that allow them.
Another interesting e-sport advertiser perk is appearing in the player’s names. Graphics card maker AMD currently sponsors the South American team paiN Gaming, so all players have added it to their name, for example, paiN.w33.haa.AMD. Since a player’s name flashes on the screen every time they kill an enemy hero, this small detail ends up being a surprising amount of visibility for the sponsor during the game.
The Rise of E-Sports
This is no longer an isolated, unexplainable movement like it used to be. First person shooter games like Call of Duty and Counter Strike have always had fans because it’s a very relatable sport to watch, but it wasn’t supposed to be a spectator sport. However, video game companies are catching on to e-sports, and are increasingly adding features geared towards e-sports, or outright designing them with that mindset. Blizzard recently released three games with that very goal, Overwatch, Hearthstone and Heroes of the Storm. All three now have large online followings, and Blizzard even invested heavily into creating a traditional league of city-based teams for Overwatch. For Heroes of the Storm, they created a league focused around university specific teams akin to the NCAA.
You no longer have the excuse that these audiences are “fringe” and that the events are too disorganized for you to engage with them. In fact, teams and tournament organizers in the e-sports field are extremely hungry for corporate money and are ready to get creative with you to collaborate to find new and creative ways to rep their sponsor’s names. Similarly, fans are ecstatic that large corporations are finally paying attention to their beloved sport, and see those brands in a very positive light for that reason.