Whenever Music Ally has to define esports for someone who hasn’t followed the sector, we tend to say it’s ‘competitive gaming with an audience’, citing tournaments using games from League of Legends to FIFA, and the tens of millions of people who watch them online on platforms from Twitch to YouTube.

One thing we’ve picked up this week at the Cannes Lions, though, is a desire – in some quarters of the esports world at least – to reframe it as ‘competitive entertainment’. Not least because that’s something that may help win over some of the brands who haven’t yet explored the space.

(One speaker earlier this week even referred to existing sports like football and baseball as ’t-sports’ – for ‘traditional sports’ – although we’re not sure how serious they were.)

Anyway, there are a growing number of teams, tournaments and professional gamers in the esports world, and a growing number of brands involved. Could music companies join them? This afternoon in Cannes, Music Ally went to a session convened by esports firm ESL titled ‘Telling Your Brand Story Authentically in Esports’ in the hopes of finding out.

On its panel: tournament organiser ESL’s chief marketing officer Rodrigo Samwell; Mercedes-Benz’s sponsorship and product placement manager Caroline Pilz; and branding agency Superunion’s UK CEO Alex Clegg. Fast Company’s Jeff Beer moderated.

The panel kicked off with a question about the current landscape for brand involvement in esports. “There was never a better time for brands to get involved in esports than right now,” said Samwell, who described a 50% uplift on brand spending in esports in 2018, compared to 2017. He added that brands like Mercedes, DHL and Vodafone are now getting involved, rather than the traditional computing brands that were early adopters.

Pilz agreed. “There is still a lot of chance to be present as a non-endemic player,” she said. “Now you have the chance not to be a logo sponsor besides several others, but being the first one to enter and the first one to co-create in the community, as well, the activations.”

Clegg said esports is an increasingly dynamic, rich world “with stories, personalities, culture, creativity” which gives brands a big opportunity. “The visa to get in to this country is to be authentic,” he added.

“Some brands do that well… This is a world where people are really committed and passionate. They’re passionate citizens: it’s built by the community. So you need to be respectful of that. But there’s a massive opportunity to tell stories, to engage, to find entry points… that are going to be really appreciated by the fans, and by those involved in esports.”

What are the most common ways brands have been getting involved so far, and what have been the most creative ways?

Samwell said that the traditional sports scene is one parallel: brand placements, sponsor walls and so on, as well as branding and merchandising. “But what we see happening more is brands trying to connect to the community,” he said. “We see amazing activations from segments within the show itself, to using influencers to connect to the phenomenon.”

Examples include a Mercedes-Benz campaign around a competition in Katowize, where the opening ceremony featured a video with some characters from the game concerned stealing the tournament trophy, then making their escape in a Mercedes-Benz car, before the trophy was ultimately delivered back in the same car, and the tournament started.

He cited DHL too: it got an influencer – a player at a tournament of the game Dota 2 – and dressed them up as a DHL worker, with a storyline set before and during the event as he delivered the equipment to fellow players, to running around the event’s stadium followed by a DHL-branded robot, distributing sweets to fans.

Clegg compared esports events to traditional sports events. “Unlike traditional sports, esports weren’t or are not born on a pitch or a field: they’re born on a screen. And it’s also the incredible audience you have through platforms like Twitch which give it a huge dynamic,” he said, praising a campaign from Snickers, which partnered with some professional gamers to stream on Twitch:

“As they were playing, they were getting hungry and their reactions were slowing down, and they were making mistakes. And people on the Twitch chat noticed,” he said. The players then transformed into virtual characters, then revealed their Snickers bars.

“It’s a nice example of a brand talking about its own very-much authentic way of doing things – ‘you’re not yourself when you’re hungry’ – but in a way that the audience appreciated,” he said.

How can a brand decide how to get involved in esports: which players or teams to work with, for example, or which tournaments? Samwell compared it to traditional motorsports. “One of the key insights that brands need to think about… esports is not just one community. A bit like motorsports: we have Formula 1, rallying, motocross – different sports that have some similarities, they all have motors and wheels, but the communities are different. In esports, there are many communities: they are different,” he said.

“When brands want to get in to esports, they need to think about many communities, and work with partners who understand the field, to reach the right communities.”

Pilz talked about her company’s path. “We had to analyse the market. We hired experts who explained us the market,” she said. “It was hard to understand at the beginning. We analysed the opportunities, and the targets we have as a brand… and the opportunities there are for acting globally. This was a highlight: this is a global sport. Other sports, for example soccer, are always national. Yeah you can do the world championship, but that’s every four years… but there are no real national differences or specialities in esports. It’s a global community… This is what made it so interesting for us… Twitch is a global network, Facebook is global. It doesn’t make any difference if you’re from Germany or from the UK.”

She added that the market isn’t as fragmented or complicated as it seemed in the beginning, however. “It’s just different,” she said. Clegg added that the language around esports is also evolving, including the reference to it as sports, which can be misleading.

“In ten years time, people will still be playing football, and they’ll still have Wimbledon… but in ten, twenty years time they may very well not be playing League of Legends or Dota 2 or the games that are huge now. These games come along, like Fortnite, and create these huge inflection points in the system, which change the dynamic very seriously.”

Comparing esports to traditional sports can be unhelpful, in that regard. “You’re going to need to be flexible, you’re going to need to iterate and experiment: it’s a very fast-changing ecosystem,” said Clegg.

What questions should brands be asking themselves before considering getting in? “You should ask yourself what is the benefit you can bring to the community?” said Pilz. “The community somehow owns the platform: it’s their platform… They’re very educated, and they’re not into flat marketing stories. But they really respect if you can add value to the platform you want to activate with… You can’t just take a campaign that you created for everybody else and put it on the esports community.” Clegg agreed: “There’s little room for lazy marketing.”

Samwell repeated the point about many esports communities not just one – “one size fits all just does not work” – and said that it’s vital to understand the basic concept of gaming being fun. “Brands that are successful are the brands who are able to laugh about themselves, and laugh about the jokes of the community, and maybe run with them,” he said. “Don’t take yourself too seriously,” agreed Pilz.

Can there be hostility from the community towards brands? Clegg said that the relationship between fans and the best esports players are very close, and that’s crucial to understand.

“They come from that fan community in the first place,” he said. “The team members that really become the heroes for their fans, they started out like that from the very beginning. They really came from that fanbase… It’s like if everybody in the football audience was a professional football audience, in terms of the level of engagement.”

“So you need to know those stories and understand those personalities. You need to celebrate that, and enjoy and revel in that… If you make a mistake in terms of being unaware of something that the fans are very aware of, it’s quite easy for fans to spot that you’re not really an insider, or part of this community.”

The panel talked about other ways brands can creatively engage with these communities in the future. “The advent of more non-endemic brands coming in will continue. We have seen over the last year that every couple of months, the best activation is the last one… There’s a lot of creativity being unleashed, and we are just at the start of a journey,” said Samwell.

He highlighted two elements: first, that some of the most popular games now did not exist two years ago. “Look at Fortnite: 125 million players worldwide. It was launched at the end of last year and it’s the biggest thing today. As new IPs, new games come along, there’s a lot of opportunities for brands to associate themselves with them in a very creative way.”

Samwell also said that mobile esports are growing – already in China but soon in the west too. “We think that once that happens, anybody with a mobile phone can be actually a target for some sort of brand activation around gaming and esports,” he said.

Clegg talked about demographics shifting. “There’ll be older players, I think there’ll be more women involved as well. I think that’s inevitable, and will change the landscape quite significantly,” he said. Pilz suggested that 18-35 is the core demographic currently, getting younger for something like Fortnite. “They are male, but it’s very interesting. It’s still growing. The chances are there especially to be creative… And I think we have to take care that it’s not sold out pretty fast… Esports has the chance to be pretty authentic and to avoid the faults that have been made in other sections of sports in the past.”

The panel fielded a question on the emerging revenue streams around esports. Samwell: “Esports is very dependent on audiences, both for brands and for tournament operators, so one of the areas that will grow the most and drive a lot of revenues is around data. Knowing really well who our customers are, and really targeting contextual marketing to those customers,” he said.

Pilz agreed that data is going to be a key revenue stream, and also suggested that merchandising is growing fast, with Clegg nodding agreement. “Esports is busting in to the mainstream: it’s less and less a niche world,” he said. “In-game merchandising, as technology facilitates that and makes it more appealing, that is a massive growth area as well.”

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