It is a phenomenon whispered about like “MMA” was a decade ago, “eSports” the must have, must figure out platform that marketers craze to find that elusive young demo. Millions watching the NFL and World Series? That’s nice, but how about all those tweens following DOTA2 on Twitch? We want them, even if we don’t understand what it is we want or how we can engage with them.
That was one of the hot topics at the first-ever Hashtag Sports Conference in Brooklyn, NY this past week. While there was the general buzz around traditional marketing combined with the latest news on the ever-fluid fantasy sports mix, eSports found its own way into the conversation, with panels on fantasy eSports, engaging millennials, and how to activate in the space.
The activation impetus has been led lately by traditional sports business consultancies launching offshoots to try and understand the growing field and try and explain the business and its potential opportunities to brands who look at gaming the way a pioneer from the 1600’s may look at a Ferrari; with awe, confusion and probably more than a little fear. This past week mega consultancy GMR Marketing held what was essentially an upfront for the eSports business, bringing together some of the major players in the space and traditional brands to try and explain the business. On Tuesday in Brooklyn, one of the panels was led by industry veteran Dan Ciccone, no heading up the just launched eSports consultancy for rEvXP, a division of revolution Sports, another group looking to gain a foothold in the eSports business. “The access to eSports athletes and the passion of the players, along with their brand loyalty is what makes this very special,” Ciccone said. “However there is a steep learning curve brands, traditional brands, have when trying to engage in the space, and that is what we try to help explain.”
Companies hear of valuations in the millions, hundreds of thousands of downloads and views and sold out arenas around the world and all come running to see what the noise is all about. The question most have is how do buyers, mist at least thirtysomething, relate and understand what a teenager wants and expects from activation in what is basically a virtual world. Brands like Coke and Snickers, Ciccone said, have looked for ways to engage to varying degrees of success. “Coke is a great example of a company that found a way to make it work,” he added. “They created a social activation platform tied to some in arena events, and saw that their brand and products resonated. Snickers on the other hand made some big mistakes and really failed in what they were trying to do.” The snack company made the assumption that gamers like theirs and similar products, and selected teams of gamers to consume while playing live. The problem, Ciccone said, is that they didn’t understand many of the nuances of sponsorship in the game and underestimated what their immediate return would be. The activation was canned after a few months. “Understanding the culture, the game environment, and the players themselves is so key to making this work,” Ciccone said. “It is totally different from what works in traditional sports in many cases, and it can be pretty cost-efficient if the brand does well, understands the objectives and where and when to enter the space. If it isn’t done right, like any poorly thought out platform, it won’t work.”
Whether any of these new consultancies can effectively master the entry points, learn the positives and negatives of eSports and solve the growing mystery of brand activation remains to be seen. It took brands years to fully understand how to work in Mixed Martial Arts, with millions wasted by some who saw a gold rush and never took the time to understand the business. eSports will have many of the same opportunities, and an equal number of failures as it finds its viable place.
For now, the education continues, with new brands and media platforms entering and growing in the space by the week. Who will succeed? Like the games themselves, it will take a lot of work, coordination and dedication.