The Borderless Nature of Gaming
There's a quote I like to say to myself when I need some encouragement: "After making all the mistakes, every player has a chance to turn the outcome of the game by making the right moves next."
It sounds like it could have been said by a Premier League soccer player or NFL star; but it's actually from Zoltan Andrejkovics, professional esports player of the popular multiplayer strategy game Dota 2.
In the last few years, esports teams, competitions, and players have emerged into mainstream consciousness. Consequently, brands are increasingly looking at the business of esports in the same way they view traditional mainstream sports: as a great opportunity to engage with young sports fans at scale.
Despite its reputation for packing stadiums and arenas around the globe, esports is well placed to adapt during the COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike traditional sports, live esports tournaments can run fully online effectively. Despite the lack of its usual live audience at the IEM Katowice CS:GO tournament earlier this month, its broadcast set a new viewership record, making it the most-watched non-Major tournament of all time.
Earlier this year we saw major brands including Nike, BT and Kia Motors all unveil partnerships with esports teams competing in the 2020 League of Legends World Championships - a tournament sponsored this year by Louis Vuitton.
Although spectators are no longer allowed to attend the tournament, it will go ahead. The roster of influential global brands competing for a share of the spotlight in one tournament for one specific game (albeit a hugely popular one; it garners more views than the Superbowl) demonstrates the appetite of mainstream brands to get involved in the esports industry. With traditional sporting events on hold, fans will be seeking a new form of live sports entertainment to occupy their time and they may well find it in esports. The brands that sponsor sporting events may want to follow these eyeballs and explore a new territory online.
But why are brands only committing now, when they could have enjoyed a first-mover advantage?
Player [BRAND NAME] has entered the game
One of the things that I've observed that surprises people the most about the industry is just how long the sport has been around. For many, it appears that esports exploded onto the scene out of nowhere. But competitive gaming leagues have existed for decades, and the growth of the genre through the 1990s and 2000s - thanks to the rise of popular tournaments and games that are now considered core to the esports world - set the category on a path destined for huge scale.
In their little-known early days, esports leagues, teams, players, and fans alike were not well understood outside of the gaming community. I've heard my fair share of questions like "How can playing video games be a job?" and "Why would anyone want to watch this?" This lack of understanding limited esports' perceived legitimacy, in turn limiting its ability to appeal to a mainstream audience, as well as to commercial partners.
Therefore, when commercially ambitious esports leagues came to build their brands, they clung to a point of reference that everyone could comprehend and be proud of, moulding themselves in the image of traditional sports brands. To establish esports' legitimacy, they mimicked league brands from the likes of baseball, soccer and football.
Across the board, as a result we saw red, white and blue logos, time-honoured tournament terminology, and big shiny cups become the category norm across all kinds of esports. An example of this was Major League Gaming (MLG), which mimicked Major League Baseball (MLB) in name and appearance despite having no association with the league.
This approach has undeniably helped esports seep into the mainstream consciousness. But it also has had unintended consequences.
Watch and learn
One such side effect of this strategy is the adoption of a Westernised approach to esports' development - as evidenced by MLG, brands have learnt upon familiar sporting imagery and visuals that align esports with traditional sports. Since their inception, video games have never necessitated geographical or cultural associations but instead have spawned borderless global communities of like-minded gamers.
However, by imitating Western sports leagues - established and developed on the back of territorial tribalism and national pride - esports has inherited a new set of rules and associations. This is evidenced in the fragmented gaming communities, which mirror the world of traditional sports. Just as ice hockey fans have a separate identity from football fans, the Fortnite community is vastly separate from the CS:GO one.
The shifts towards this approach - which didn't exist in the early days of gaming - set the expectation that esports would develop in the image of its bat and ball cousins, rather than charting it own path.
This imitation strategy has been hugely successful on the commercial front: An estimated 1.57 billion people were reportedly aware of esports in 2019, with a 13.8% growth in the number of viewers through 2018, translating to 335 million viewers tuning in. By 2021, this is predicted to exceed 550 million. It is no understatement to say esports represents one of the hottest new sponsorship opportunities for non-endemic brands.
But has this commercial success come at the expense of esports' authenticity?
In recent months and years, we have seen divergent responses to this question by leading esports brands.
On one side, several disruptive new entrants and revitalised incumbents - for example ESL and Blast - have displayed a new confidence. They recognise that esports is like nothing that has come before, and that they should act accordingly. They have boldly created a new genre of truly international brands that authentically represent today's passionate population of gamers as a set of global tribes, united in mindset rather than location.
On the other side, a new set of esports leagues, recently created for freshly minted game-titles - for example Overwatch League and Call of Duty League - have doubled down on the western sports model, diverting from the category norm of no geographical allegiances. These leagues use city-based teams, to increase esports' appeal to a wider audience than ever before, by building strong localised followings driven by territorial tribalism, a commonly used tactic in traditional sports.
For all brands in the space, it is vital that they continue to evolve with one thing in mind: the fans. Esports would not exist without the communities around them. Therefore, fans must be kept at the heart of everything for brands to succeed in the space. As the phenomenon continues to evolve, esports brands must be confident in what they can offer to these communities that is unique to them and them alone. This is what will drive continued meteoric growth.
As Zoltan noted in that quote of his, "Every player has a chance to turn the outcome of the game around by making the right moves next."
First published in Quartz.