Brands like Marvel, Wendy’s and Doritos are a natural fit for games like Fortnite, League of Legends and Overwatch and the world of professional gamers, esports leagues and competitions with multimillion-dollar prize pools watched by rabid fans.
However, brands that think the play is limited to fast-food and snack brands are missing out on a winning communications strategy.
As much as the online gaming industry has grown, agency experts in the space say there’s still a prevailing attitude in some corporate boardrooms that games are mostly straight, narrow-minded guys living in their parents’ basement. This entrenched stereotype wasn’t helped by a minority of gamers forcing Twitch, the popular streaming platform owned by Amazon, to beef up its policies against hateful and bullying content on its chat feature. Yet experts stress that multiplayer online gaming and competition is truly a mainstream activity.
Just look at the numbers. In 2018, there were 2.3 billion gamers worldwide. That number is set to rise to 2.7 billion in 2021, according to analytics firm Newzoo. Young adults have embraced esports, where it isn’t about playing so much as watching the best gamers around the world practice, showcase their skills and face off against one another in team competition. Gamers between the ages 18 to 25 worldwide spend more time each week watching other people play video games than they do traditional sports: three hours and 25 minutes versus two hours and 33 minutes.
Kevin Chan, senior director for rights and partnerships for esports at DJE Holdings' United Entertainment Group, says the space is ripe with opportunity.
"Even a decade ago, the gaming demographic was pretty openly mocked in pop culture, and I think the non endemic brand space is still pretty unsophisticated because of that mentality," he explains. "You have some marketers in boardrooms who for their entire lives have quietly mocked them and are now being told they have to lean into a space they’ve never had to before."
If they can put their long-held beliefs aside, Chan asserts that in-house communications pros would see how varied the gaming community has become. "There are so many kinds of gamers, games and platforms. There is variability, richness and depth of audience, and possibilities for segmentation," he adds.
Sure, there are a lot of fanboy brand activations. Marvel, for instance, promoted Avengers: Endgame with an official skin of character Black Widow for battle royale game Fortnite. However, experts say the brand partnerships of the future will be deeper plays tapping into the esports phenomenon.
For instance in August, social and dating app Bumble disclosed plans to sponsor an all-woman Fortnite team in collaboration with esports organization Gen. G to plenty of media buzz from outlets such as Forbes, Fast Company, Engadget and CNBC. Bumble will support one of the team’s most popular players, Twitch streamer Kristen Valnicek, better known to gamers as "Kittyplays," and her community for women gamers and streamers called #TeamKitty. On the app, gamers can use a "Bumble BFF" badge that identifies them as gamers and filters their matches to other gamers.
Kellogg disclosed a deal a few weeks ago that will run through 2021 to promote Pringles and Cheez-It with Activision Blizzard’s franchised esports league. It remains to be seen what co-marketing initiatives and product integrations the partnership will produce, but Patrick Wixted, SVP of client services at Ketchum Sports, which works with Activision Blizzard, says brands should treat it like any sports league partnership.
"A lot of brands that sponsor the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball see esports just like any other pro sports league, and they see the best players in esports like they would a LeBron James because they have a huge fan base, especially among young people, who look up to them and want to watch them play. So these brands signing deals with esports leagues are just adding to their existing portfolio of sports properties," says Wixted. "Any brand adding a streamer, gamer or player needs to support it with media, and the best way to do that is with Twitch because of its scale, real-time discussion about brands, and the e-commerce play, given Twitch is owned by Amazon."
When planning for marcomms opportunities in esports, Wixted says marketers only have to look at what brands have done with pro leagues such as the NBA and NHL.
Nathan Lindberg, senior director of global sponsorship Sales at Twitch, also says that "the perception that esports is somehow vastly different from traditional sports (from a marketing perspective) is an over-exaggeration. The reality is that this is a space with nuances, but best practices from traditional sports and entertainment marketing still apply."
"That means acquiring rights and IP through sponsorship, utilizing those within reach and frequency based media buying as well as a consistent PR plan is the best way to maximize a brand’s investment in the space," he says,
But unlike some traditional sports that skew older, he also says esports "presents the perfect opportunity to connect with the elusive millennial and GenZ audience. Esport fans are young, affluent, intelligent and influential within their social circles."
"They’re comfortable with transparent marketing because they understand it is helping to directly fuel the growth of their favorite leagues, teams and personalities in the space," Lindberg adds.
Authenticity: The key to avoid misplays
Brands need to understand that they are supporting a thriving, vocal community, notes Cary Kwok, SVP of brand marketing and communications at PMK*BNC. It isn’t just about slapping an ad into the game.
"Gamers can smell 100 miles away when a brand is only trying to capitalize on the audience without a sincere effort to contribute to the community. What brands have to remember is that gaming is fan experience, it is a fan-verse, and so the question marketers have to ask themselves is how they provide something engaging, relevant and innovative to that fan experience," she says. "Because while gaming has become more inclusive, at the same time it is still a very closed community when it comes to brands. But when done authentically, those gamers will become the biggest advocate of the brand."
In other words, gaming can be a fertile ground of digital influencers, or rather content creators, ranging from those who edit compilation videos of epic Fortnite fails to esports stars who overlay commentary to game replays. Agency pros are expecting to see more surprising brand partnerships with creators, like the one State Farm brokered this year.
The insurance giant sponsored Benjamin "DrLupo" Lupo, one of the most popular Fortnite streamers in the world and an esports star with more than 3 million subscribers on Twitch and 1.5 million on YouTube. His stream included State Farm branded replays, giveaways and stunts and product integration. What made DrLupo a good fit for State Farm was his charity stream in 2018 that raised $1.3 million for St. Jude’s Research Hospital.
"Digital influencers are a massive part of the gaming world," says Chan. "That is a really low-barrier place for a lot of brands to start getting involved. There are so many different types of influencers out there."