Sport is about tradition. Parents teaching their kids to play the way that their parents first taught them; rooting for the teams that our families rooted for. Banners that are hung in every arena, reminding us of past championships and past champions. Throwback jerseys, collectible cup giveaways, tailgating every weekend: history and consistency are a huge part of sports.
It follows, then, that this is a category in which newness is often dismissed out of hand. Usually, we’re against those new things that don’t conform to our own tradition-steeped version of what sport really is. “That’s not a sport,” we say-but what we really mean is, “that doesn’t feel like a sport.” And yet, what we should be saying is: “that doesn’t feel like a sport…yet.”
Professional basketball wasn’t fully embraced by Toronto when it first arrived–as hard as that may seem to believe now–because to generation after generation raised on hockey, it simply didn’t look or feel like what they thought pro sports was. “There’s too much easy scoring” and “why do they even play the first three quarters?” and “why is there so much music when they play?” were common early reactions to the Raptors. But the definition of a sport is pretty simple: an activity that we like to play, or watch, or both; with players or teams in conflict; with a scoring system, and winners and losers.
That’s about it.
And that’s esports.
We hear people saying. “It’s video games.” It is video games–but it’s video games in competition, with star players and massive prizes and local teams and international leagues and global contests. Video games with huge audiences following their favourite teams and favourite players. Video games that are competing with traditional sports leagues in a way that we might not have thought possible but is, quite simply, the new reality. Esports are video games as pro sports, period.
As “traditional” sports viewership declines, especially with younger people, esports are on the rise. And while this is an important trend to follow it its own right, it is especially important for marketing managers and brand stewards who should be engaging with this category immediately. If you’ve got a brand–especially a youth-directed brand–you need an esports strategy.
Millennials and Gen Z Love Gaming. 84% of Millennial males and an incredible 91% of Gen Z males are regular video game players, which is obviously huge. But what matters even more is that 68% of Gen Z males say that “gaming is an important part of their identity.” Repeat: more than two-thirds of Canadian males 21 and younger recognize that their very identity is being connected to gaming.
That’s more than just participation or affinity; identity is an order of magnitude more significant for a brand. And that young people are aware of how much gaming matters to them and are able to express that so clearly is perhaps the most important attribute that this particular sub-set of sports possesses for partner brands. Identity brands are amongst the most powerful brands.
At Diamond, we’ve had the opportunity to work in this space already, as Overactive Media’s agency of record rebranding their teams-Overactive is the first global esports entertainment organization to own teams in the three biggest franchised leagues.
We’re finding that the growth is enormous and that there are tremendous opportunities for brands entering the space early—but we’re just getting started. Some of the best practices are clear, and some are still being developed.
We know that brand integrations of all sorts are being embraced in esports–if done correctly. In fact, leagues, teams and players are developing and redeveloping their own brands with a keen focus on what this means for their commercial success; it’s also clear that partnerships, sponsorships, influencer marketing, and integration into the games and events themselves are already a part of the esports landscape. And we’re just getting started there.
What is equally clear is that because gaming is so important to identity–and because esports have such a strong grassroots presence and developed culture and community–there is some skepticism about how mainstream brands will play in the space, as well as a sense of protectiveness around that community and culture. Brands looking to play in the space will get called out for a lack of genuine support, as well as for executions that feel as if they’re more about the brand than the space.
We know that digital is critical here, too—we’re talking esports, after all. Online communities are critical hubs of activity and the typical esports enthusiast is mobile first. But success here absolutely involves an offline component, too: people get together in person to game or to watch. We think this area, in particular, has potential to be special as young people who have so many ways of forming digital connections place increasing value on activities that can also bring them together IRL. What matters is that the offline experience is different from and better than just having an online experience in the same geographic space. This, too, is a huge opportunity for brands, who can activate for their Esports partners in a way that makes viewing parties can’t-miss events.
Lastly, there is something special about this category in how much design matters and how strong the sheer artistry is in gaming. This generation of esports fans has been raised on cutting-edge graphics and outstanding design (not to mention incredible storytelling and award-winning actors providing motion capture and voices, with enormous budgets to bring it all to life). It’s design and look and feel that really matters here, maybe more than anything else, because of how much great design the esports consumer has experienced in this category. And because we’re dealing with an identity category, it’s especially critical–gamers will proudly wear the same hoodie their favourite gamer or team wears, or slap a sticker on their console.
We’re about to enter a golden age of esports; brands that are looking to forge strong connections with the ever-elusive Gen Z need a strategy for engaging with this new-ish sport. But as with any developed, grassroots category it isn’t simply about getting it right – it’s also about not getting it wrong. If we can help you navigate the esports landscape, give us a holler.
Josh is co-founder and CCO at Diamond Marketing Group. In his executive role, he helps build his clients’ business. Equal parts strategic and creative, Josh and his team have won over 20 awards including Best of the Best at the Canadian Marketing Awards.