The founder of the esports agency Play The Game shares his insights on why brands work with esports and how they create ROI though sponsorship in esports
In 2017, when someone asked me which brands I saw going into esports in the short and medium term, I would always answer the same: all of them! All except funeral homes and luxury brands. I was 50% wrong, as, so far, I haven’t seen any funeral homes; although I’m afraid it’s a matter of time….
So why are brands like Burger King, Louis Vuitton, Mercedes-Benz or Adidas signing sponsorship in esports? Very simple: to reconnect with new audiences. We even see other, less mainstream brands doing this for the same reason, such as the Italian National Tourist Board and DHL.
It’s not about connecting; it’s about ‘reconnecting’. Let me explain. They already have brand awareness. Does anyone not know BMW or Coca-Cola? I bet your brand awareness is over 99%. The problem is that just because your audience knows you doesn’t mean that you’re interesting for a new demographic. Brands have to go back again to being attractive, to being relevant, to an audience who knows them but is not interested in them, in order to generate engagement. The holy grail of brands is to engage; and esports and video games allow you to do just that.
The bad news for believers in the comfort zone is that generating engagement is not about putting your TV commercial on Twitch or your logo (big, obviously) on the jersey of an esports team. That doesn’t make you cool; it doesn’t destroy you either, but you aren’t contributing. And that’s the key: to contribute value.
The chief marketing officer of a well-known brand told me when we discussed this topic: “I don’t want to add value; I want to receive it!” And I replied: “Sure, and I want to be tall and handsome.” I don’t know if the world of traditional marketing still works like that, or not; I only know that the world of gaming and esports does not work with something that was planned 20 years ago.
To generate return on investment (ROI) in the short, medium or long term, you need to give value to the fans first; I know this is not an easy assumption, but if you aren’t willing to do this, it won’t work, I can tell you. When the communities understand that you’re contributing something valuable, don’t worry, they’ll give it back to you. Otherwise I can give you a list of more than 20 brands that haven’t understood this and are currently no longer in esports.
How do you generate this value? Well, the most important thing is undoubtedly to understand the fan, and this is not about taking the classic audience growth graph and the mainstream Gen Z infrographic. Understanding the fan is about immersing yourself in their favorite video games, enjoying the content they follow, deciphering which promotions work and which do not, among many other topics. The gamer is a 30-year-old computer engineer and a chubby, pimply 18-year-old college student, yes; but he’s also an electrician who’s the father of two kids, a VP of a multinational, or a transgender who works in retail. Very different profiles, right? What is it that unites them? It’s a certain type of video game or esports. Therefore, first you have to understand them in this context and from there to see what type of value you’re interested in giving them, and what type of value they’re interested in receiving. When you make the match, it is already much easier.
At Play the Game we read papers and do research; we hold round tables with gamers and esports fans every month; we launch small, quantitative research projects with them; we’re immersed in one of the first global, large-scale research projects with gamers… but the research is only one part, even thought it may be an important part. As I said before, understand the fans and ‘enjoy’ them; build something valuable for both parties – whether a semi-professional tournament, fun content, a unique experience or an attractive promotion. And roll it out!
Obviously it’s very important to know how to deliver that value, since this will undoubtedly generate and shape an intrinsic value in itself. But first look for the ‘where’ and then the ‘what’. It’s like adjusting an XL garment for a very thin person… you can, but isn’t it better to start the other way around, with the size of the person?
More and more players are reaching out to esports fans with relevance. Of course, one of the most common ways of transmitting value is through the sponsorship of esports clubs, leagues or tournaments. There are many opportunities of sponsorship in esports, at all levels; from sponsoring titles to specific partnerships. But let’s not forget that you can find more assets: publishers, broadcasters, new communications platforms, streamers, academies, events, among many others. And soon the NFTs, the metaverse and what remains to come will join.
For a TV media plan, will you propose to first do a campaign on a specific TV channel? Then, what creativity do you have to bring (and the TV channel does it for you)? And, in the end, what are the KPIs (and the data reporting is also done by the TV channel)? Neither the sequence nor that the same asset does everything makes sense, right?
At Play the Game we’ve worked on more than 200 projects with more than 30 brands since 2016 in consulting, in sponsorship in esports and in projects, including performance-seeking projects. Many of them are multinationals, such as Nike, Burger King, Magnum, Chupa Chups, Citroën among many others. But always from an independent perspective (we aren’t part of any global communications group, nor part of any stakeholder group from within the esports framework) and of course from the perspective of value, both for our client and the esports community, since we know that the value of the fan will create value for our client.
I know that I have emphasised the word ‘value’, but if you discover value or allow yourself to be helped to discover value, you’ve won half the game.