Drawing on their gaming dataset, the Trends team at GWI have teamed up with us on a series of blogs diving into the potential for marketers in video game worlds.

In this edition, we turn our attention to the competitive world of esports; spotlighting those who watch them, how they compare to other gaming audiences, and how to reach them.

“Good game, well played” – often the first words to flood the chat when an online match ends. For players, it’s a sign that the hard work paid off; for marketers, however, measuring success in the world of gaming isn’t as simple.

In an industry where an estimated $844m was spent on advertising in 2020, the importance of knowing your audience cannot be overstated. This comes at a time where esports continues to go from strength to strength; Twitch viewership grew 120% on 2019 figures, while researchers speculate esports audiences could surpass 577 million by 2024.

It’s an opportunity that’s too good to miss, but for many, it’s an opportunity that’s only recently become apparent, and brands without historic ties to gaming will have their work cut out if they’re to truly tap into esports audiences.

Using our gaming dataset, we look to answer the following questions:

  • How does being an esports fan impact your relationship with gaming?
  • What do esports fans say about ads and sponsorship?
  • How can brands work with teams/players to further their campaigns?

Why it’s important to profile gaming audiences
Across 15 markets, 3 in 4 gamers say they watch esports to any extent, but treating them all in the same way can lead brands to make the same mistakes that have long-affected gaming. Not all people who play games would describe themselves as a “gamer”, so why do the same with esports?

That’s why we’re going to look at those we define as esports fans: internet users who are interested in esports and follow any of the 22 esports leagues we track. 

We’ve made no secret of how important it is for brands to build more refined gamer profiles, and while this new definition still reveals a large sample (51% of gamers), it is a more engaged one.

Esports followers hold gaming in high regard
As a rule of thumb, watching esports (to any extent) typically coincides with a greater interest in gaming as a whole – gamers who do are 3x more likely to cite being extremely/very interested in gaming than those who never watch esports. It makes sense then that esports fans are even more enthusiastic (3.5x more likely to say this.)

There are other indicators of this; fans generally play games more often (and for longer periods of time), but it’s their attitudes that reveal just how important gaming really is.

40% of esports fans agree that gaming is as legitimate a pastime as sports – a clear sign that marketers need to stop comparing the two.

It’s understandable that, in the past, esports was compared against its traditional counterpart, but it’s important to remember that brands who are serious about getting into gaming need to start treating it as such. 

This is also clear from the way esports fans are more likely to say that gaming is culturally important, or that video games are a form of art. Gaming is more than just a hobby – it’s a part of their personal lives and warrants a respectful approach.

Brands don’t necessarily need to understand every aspect of gaming to achieve this but they will need to rely on data-driven campaigns if they want to identify esports audiences in more detail. 

Gaming is built on vast communities of people playing in different ways, on different platforms, and across multiple genres/franchises. While fun, relaxation, or passing the time can be considered benchmarks of why all gamers play games, esports fans are highly committed gamers with bigger motivations in mind.

For example, esports fans are more likely to cite playing for a challenge (38%), socially (37%) or to compete (28%). Acknowledging this, brands will have more scope to build out their gamer profiles, and create more effective campaigns in turn.

Sponsorships are at home in esports
Gaming, and esports by extension, has shown countless times that a successful campaign isn’t reserved for endemic gaming brands; think of the KFC games console, Nesquik partnering with the Vodafone Giants, or Mastercard’s presence at the League of Legends World Championship.

At the same time, just as there are examples of creative campaigns, there are negative examples too. Given esports fans have such a close connection to gaming, brands are right to be cautious about garnering criticism, but our data suggests they may be more receptive to things like sponsorship – even when non-gaming brands are concerned.

For esports fans, sponsorship is something they see as beneficial; 42% say sponsorship is critical to an esports event’s success and 46% say brands are well suited to them. Given the drop-off among people who don’t watch esports, this is a comforting sign that those closest to gaming understand the important relationship between sponsorship and esports’ success.

At the same time, while just 24% say there is too much advertising at esports events, this climbs to 33% among those who watch esports every day. This is still a relatively low figure, but it’s an important reminder that brands shouldn’t rely on in-game advertising alone.

It’s vital to consider the in-game opportunities available to reach fans while they play games, not just while they’re watching them.

Compared to the average gamer, they’re 51% more likely to have purchased an in-game item in the past year. As an audience that likes to compete online, or socialise with others, standing out in a crowd is an important part of their experience. In fact, 35% say they want brands to offer personalised products, meaning in-game content is a surefire way to keep them feeling exclusive online.

There’s a more powerful message that brands can send through esports, however, esports fans largely agree that women should be encouraged to play games – being 64% more likely to say gaming is too male-dominated.

With the likes of Bumble partnering with Gen.G to support women in gaming, and initiatives like AnyKey’s “Good luck, have fun” pledge, rewarding gamers who stand against discrimination, esports has shown itself an important platform for brands to support a greater cause.

Champions of the sport can prove champions of the brand
Raising your brand awareness through esports doesn’t have to be through team sponsorship or in-game advertising alone; there are vocal advocates waiting to be found among the athletes themselves.

Brands haven’t shied away from partnering with prolific streamers in the past – Ninja (Tyler Blevins) is perhaps the most well-known – while Twitch is toying with features to help match brands with potential advocates. 

More recently, Manchester City chose streamer, Shellzz, to compete on their behalf in the ePremier League – with others even recruiting celebrities, or fans who qualified via external competitions.

In many ways, streamers themselves can be more impactful than the teams/leagues they play for, with 51% of esports fans following a player online, compared to 47% who say the same of a team.

With esports fans 83% more likely than the average gamer to support brands that sponsor their favourite players, brands can potentially reach huge audiences with less emphasis on their messaging – a huge benefit for gaming-brands, and non-endemics alike.

Moreover, 47% say they notice brands worn by players, being 80% more likely to say they purchase brands they see in this way. 

It’s important to remember here that esports coverage isn’t the only place fans will see their favourite players; following them on social media, or watching them via their streaming channels means athletes are constantly in the spotlight.

What’s really exciting is when we consider the future of esports. Though there’s no denying its popularity today, our new Kids dataset reveals 49% of gamers, aged 8-15, say they’ve watched esports tournaments online. As the appeal of these tournaments grows, so will the impact of those playing them, and brands who get involved now will potentially pave the way for others down the line.

Time to ready up?
Esports has established itself as a worldwide form of entertainment separate from traditional sporting leagues and tournaments.

There are plenty of opportunities to take note of here: sponsorship deals, partnerships with athletes, in-game advertising, to name a few – but brands will need to remember the lessons learned from other gaming audiences if they’re to strike a chord with esports fans.