The conference circuit is rife with people preaching about disruption and missed opportunities. Did you hear how Apple redefined the music industry? How about how Uber rearranged the business of personal transportation? I bet you have.
Well, what about that time when the marketing world sat on the sidelines and missed the video game revolution?
Yes, that happened, even though we don’t like to talk about it. As early 8-bit console gaming grew into a $140 billion global juggernaut that captured millions of eyeballs for billions of hours, we never quite figured out the role of advertising within a gaming environment. Aside from a few cool award-winning integrations (e.g., Verizon’s Minecraft phone) and a niche market for in-game programmatic logo placements (think, billboards in car racing games), the gaming landscape is littered with dead pixels from ham-fisted, force-fit attempts at in-game branding that annoyed gamers and disappointed advertisers.
We have a second chance to embrace gaming. One extra life, in the form of eSports.
Marketers’ reaction to eSports is typically rather black and white: overt enthusiasm or adamant incredulity. Rest assured, fans really do fill professional sports arenas to watch organised competitions among skilled teams of video gamers. With a projected $1.5 billion market next year, a global audience of 385 million people and an inordinate amount of money being invested by the NFL, NBA and NHL along with big-name former players (Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Shaq), many would argue that eSports is already the next big thing.
When one peels back the veneer, there’s actually a lot of familiar territory for brands to explore in eSports. The model of event/broadcast/influence prevails in every major traditional sport; eSports is no different, other than using screens in place of a playing surface. The eSports world revolves around a growing network of tangentially aligned teams, leagues and tournaments. Like their counterparts on the ice, parquet and grass, eSports stars wield a great amount of social influence. Feeding off social currency and monetary value from posting videos on Twitch and YouTube, gaming stars are rising fast. The best earn millions of dollars a year from their craft and have followings that eclipse even the most popular analog athletes.
Brands can participate via advertising, sponsorships and creative activations much in the same way already they do with any analog sport. There’s no pressure to solve the conundrum of in-game advertising; the value lies in the surrounding media and opportunities. eSports should be a slam dunk for advertisers: Fans pack into arenas, devotedly follow their favourite gamers and watch competitions at home via TV and online streams. That’s right in our wheelhouse.
So why aren’t brands and agencies flocking to eSports?
To be fair, some have found their way. Endemic industries and some brave consumer-focused brands have jumped in feet-first. But the gold rush is not on yet. eSports suffers from a stigma passed down from video gaming, the misperception that fans are reclusive tweens and unemployed teens who spend their days worshipping at the altar of Xbox or the sanctum of PlayStation. It’s a popular belief that happens to be wrong. eSports fans skew older (traditionally males between the ages of 21 to 35), and with higher income than marketers generally give them credit for.
There is a generation gap in perception, perhaps a bit of cynical generation gap. The tone used by people who don’t understand eSports is similar to that which is directed at snowboarders in that sport’s early days, as if it were somehow an abomination just because it was new.
We blew it with gaming all those years ago, but let’s not do it again with eSports. Now is the time for us to take this growing industry seriously. There are only so many multi-billion-dollar trends that come around.
We’ve got that extra life. What will we do with it?
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