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Is the UK About to Catch the Global eSports Wave?

Wesley Mathew

Jul 17, 2019

Star players, big sponsorship deals, massive live events and a huge – and growing – fan base. Surely the time has come for esports to be regarded as part of the marketing mainstream in Britain?

It seems remarkable that there’s a form of entertainment which is already viewed as bigger than the UK video and music markets. Yet, marketers and advertisers remain largely unaware of it, or simply see it as a niche-market netherworld inhabited by stay-at-home teenagers and geeks.

Some experts even believe that esports, or competitive video gaming, could become more valuable than the movie industry as younger consumers, around the world, embrace a radical new era of digital entertainment.

According to the latest Esports Report published by Newzoo, which specialises in games and esports analytics, by the end of 2019 there will be 454 million esports participants worldwide and revenues of US$1.1-billion. This is up 26% on the previous year.

By 2020, it is estimated that the number of participants will rise to 645 million and revenue will be approximately US$3.2 billion. The number of people who play video games (not necessarily competitively and therefore not classified as true ‘video gamers’) is even higher, at an estimated 2.2-billion people.

“This is not just a few geeky kids playing in their attics. This is a generation that is redefining what is considered sport and what is entertainment,” says John Clarke, Global Brand and Marketing Communications Officer at Gfinity, the UK-based esports company.

In a May 2019 column written for The Drum magazine, he notes: “Brands need to understand the scale of this change because the danger is they underestimate the differences of this community of gamers – or make the mistake of thinking of them in terms of traditional sports fans.

The esports community is something entirely different. Quite apart from being hard to reach in more conventional ways, the level of engagement and immersion in the games they are playing or watching is on another level to that of a traditional fan. Hard to imagine. But true.”

Clarke continues: “Like it or not, esports and competitive gaming have become a way of life for hundreds of millions of young people. It will continue to grow; the only question is by how much and how quickly?”

eSports in Britain

According to the British Esports Association, the UK is the world’s fifth biggest market for games purchases, but has historically lagged behind many other countries when it comes to esports. But the association is working to change this and is pushing esports not as a rival to traditional sports, “but as a credible activity in its own right which can have positive cognitive and other benefits when done in moderation. eSports promotes teamwork and communication, develops communities and provides jobs”.

Not that British esports is insignificant. The ESL One Birmingham 2019 event which took place at the end of May, for example, had a total of US$300 000 in prize money  and attracted 13,4 million views across platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitch TV, a global live streaming platform for gamers.

This year also saw the start of the ePremier League, an esports competition based on the remarkably successful English Premier League. All 20 Premier League clubs hosted a live playoff round, giving two EA SPORTS FIFA 19 competitors, one for PlayStation and one for Xbox, the right to advance to the ePremier League Final.

The Grand Final took place in London in March, and the event was broadcast live on Sky Sports and the Premier League’s digital channels. Statistics published by Esports Charts indicate that the final attracted 9,63 million views.

“It [the ePremier League] has the potential to do so much for esports in the UK, providing jobs/careers to talent, providing entertainment for viewers and helping to spread awareness of competitive gaming and show everyone it’s a viable activity that’s here to stay.

I swear you’ll never see anything like this ever again,” said Dom Sacco, UK Editor for Esports News when the competition was announced last year.

Although it isn’t purely a UK-focused competition, the Formula One eSports Series has also proved popular. Conceived as a way to market a sport that has been struggling to reach a younger audience, it attracted more than 4 million viewers in 2018.

Brandon Leigh, a 19-year-old from Oxfordshire who won both the 2017 and 2018 Formula One eSports Series, is now signed up with the Mercedes-AMG Petronas Esports team. “They have literally employed me to play the game,” he explained in a recent interview. This certainly seems to indicate the level of seriousness that professional sports teams are now showing to their esports imitators.

The eSports Marketing Challenge

“For marketers, esports promises access to the sought-after 18-34 male demographic, with over 100 million die-hard gamers playing each month and millions more following on free streaming platforms,” says Michael Goldman, a marketing professor at the University of San Francisco in the US. “Relative to the global online population, research suggests esports enthusiasts are more likely to have full-time jobs, have higher incomes, spend more on digital media and download more mobile games.”

So the potential is there. The question for marketers and their agencies, therefore, is how to leverage this to effectively promote their brands and products?

“Despite its rapid rise, esports is still a small fraction of the digital advertising market. The commercial sponsorship model that’s so ingrained in traditional sports, with the legitimacy that big mainstream brands can deliver, is yet to be adopted by esports,” observes Seb Joseph, Brands Editor at Digiday UK, an online publication covering the media and marketing industries.

In an interview with Joseph, Charlie Beall, Senior Consultant at London-based digital sports consultancy Seven League, noted:

“As a brand, it’s not always clear which is the best property with which to align yourself. You can sponsor players, who are often young and commercially naïve; a team, whose managers who are equally young and commercially naïve; or a competition, which have few trustworthy and established players. However, ultimately it’s the game publisher that controls the IP created around esports and the trouble is that they can shut it down at any point.”

Clarke believes that one of the key trends for brands to capitalise on is the growing desire of the target audience to extend beyond just watching tournament play, either live or via a channel.

“There is an appetite for new types of shows and competition formats, bringing more of an entertainment approach to gaming. More people on the esports channel, Twitch, watch live streaming of their heroes playing popular games than watching the ‘best of the best’ in live tournament play,” he writes.

The next step, he predicts, is the growing involvement of professional athletes from the worlds of football, NBA and NFL, as well as entertainers from the worlds of television, film and music who love gaming, pulling their game-loving fans into the broader esports space. This is where the opportunities for new ideas and content are endless – and where the white space exists for brands to play.

“Imagine you like playing the FIFA video game and you get the chance to watch one of your favourite Premier League stars like Dele Alli play the same game against his team mates or star players from rival clubs anywhere in the world. Or for that matter a music or entertainment star. The picking of the teams, the banter, the forfeits, innovative game-play formats and so on. The game-play is peripheral. The level of engagement is unbeatable. This is where brands can play and add value.”

Although global brand giants such as Coca-Cola, Red Bull and McDonald’s are already seizing the esports opportunity, there are hurdles that must be overcome in order to attract more big-name corporates, warns Jodie Fullagar, Managing Director of M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment in London.

“The industry is still largely unregulated, which is problematic for brands, particularly when large sums of investment are involved, and particularly for over-zealous in-house lawyers who, despite the best persuasive intentions of a passionate brand team, will ultimately make the call on risk,” he says.

In summary

The last word on esports as an emerging marketing opportunity goes to Clarke, who notes that some brands want to dip their toes, try a small-scale esports event and evaluate it through a traditional ‘media buy’ lens. Others believe in what is happening and are investing ahead of the curve for the long term.

“The winners and losers in this industry will be those who have their fingers on the pulse of the consumer and those that don’t. And while in marketing that is nothing new, the challenge is not to approach this industry by looking back at what has happened in the past, or through the rearview mirror. Foresight is needed. In the gaming world the rules are still being written and models created.”