An ongoing guide to watching esports as a smarter marketer.
This article can also be know as, A Frank Guide by a Guy Named Adam.
Esports is a reality. A big reality. If a round of esports playoffs can yield nearly $17 million in sponsorship value, then it’s no wonder Newzoo forecasts that sponsorship spending will reach $655 million by 2020.
But before we really get into it, we’ll need to do some housekeeping. This isn’t Super Mario, Tetris or Candy Crush that we’re talking about. Esports is an organized competitive sport structure (like a league, for example) where game developers and grassroots fan communities build around popular games. They call it esports because it broadens the spectrum of sports to include those played electronically.
The term “esports” has been buzzing for longer than most marketers may think. Since the year 2000 to be exact. The Korean e-Sports Association, an arm of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism created it.
It became “E-sports” globally, then “eSports” to a lot of journalists and business reporters. But it’s actually “esports” now. Yes. Adding the hyphen or capital ‘S’, according to the Associated Press, is like writing “email” with a hyphen or capital ‘M’. Don’t do it. The world of esports has been accepted. Demystified.
To further demystify things, look at it this way: Physical activity is to traditional sports, what video gaming is to esports.
Traditional sports and esports are part of the same spectrum. The organized, competitive structure we build around something, makes it a sport. On a turf, screen or otherwise. The parallels between esports and traditional sports are clearer especially because one is modeled after the other, which brings us to why we’re here.
The focus of this issue of the guide, is on viewing experiences. To simplify how we talk about viewing esports, we’ll dive into the parallels that three popular esports—from three of the many varying genres—have with traditional sports. As we get deeper, we’ll uncover the aspects of esports that affect the visibility of sponsors and the popularity of games.
1) League of Legends (Genre? MOBA: Multiplayer Online Battle Area.)
When a player’s character representing the “tank” position on a team takes the top lane in League of Legends, it’s similar to a breakaway in hockey or soccer. They’re going in for the advantage. They just happen to do it by destroying the opposing team’s tower with a magical sword. Watching it happen is as exhilarating as watching an epic offensive sports moment because there are always defenders that aim to stop the momentum.
League of Legends plays are incredibly strategic. They have to be. In some cases, millions of dollars are on the line. The game itself requires the utmost coordination between teammates. There are dozens of characters and actions occurring on the screen at any given time.
When strategies are put into motion, the teams battle it out in matches that are comparable to the length of traditional soccer (football) matches. Sponsors’ brands have a lot of time to be visible during the broadcast or stream.
Because of the amount of strategy and coordination required by League of Legend players, some brands, like Gillette, have taken their sponsorship as far as sponsoring a talented team, not just a broadcast.
By sponsoring one of China’s top teams in 2017, EDward Gaming, Gillette aligned its brand with a team that is as committed to precision and performance as they are—who display it under competitive pressure no less.
It’s decisions like this that showcase how similar esports teams are to traditional sports teams and how the viewing experiences of both can be paralleled. League of Legends is by design a very strategic game, which rewards viewers with big moments and even bigger esports athletes, gaining the attention of international brands.
Popularity: 107,528 avg. viewers (on Twitch.tv)
Viewing complexity: HEAVY
Similar to: Soccer
Screen time for brands: LONG
2) Overwatch (Genre? Team-Based FPS: First-Person Shooter.)
This year, the Overwatch League Grand Finals are at Barclays Centre in Brooklyn, New York, on July 27th and 28th. Watching Overwatch is a very special experience. It’s one of the newest esports leagues created. Modelled after sports leagues like the Major League of Baseball, the emphasis is on teams representing major cities.
These major cities aren’t exclusive to the US like the MLB is with one Toronto team. They’re international. Cities like London, Seoul, and Shanghai are represented in Overwatch League, generating a worldwide viewership culture for fans to get behind their city’s team.
Because of the fast-paced nature of Overwatch, brands have the opportunity to own replay segments. Sour Patch Kids, for example, owns the turning point/comeback segments in Overwatch League, repeatedly giving a nod to how the candy changes from sour to sweet—just like how the gaming moments they’re highlighting do.
Even though matches aren’t as long as League of Legends matches, Overwatch League is smartly structured with teams playing multiple sets, with multiple game modes—from escorting a payload through the opposing team’s defenses, to a king of the hill variation.
With traditional sports, the game mechanics only really change when in sudden death or shootouts because of a tie. In esports leagues like Overwatch League, things change for the sake of viewing a more entertaining set of games and to, seemingly, lengthen the viewing experience. This is all thanks to the Overwatch game being designed with multiple ways for teams to compete in the first place.
With more than one way to compete, and more than one way to win a set of games, Overwatch League is definitely a very interesting esport to watch. It’s nice to see a brand like Sour Patch Kids are present in a relevant way.
Popularity: 39, 583 avg. viewers (on Twitch.tv)
Viewing complexity: MEDIUM
Similar to: Hockey or Basketball
Screen time for brands: LONG
3) Street Fighter V (Genre? Fighting.)
This franchise is one of the oldest. It predates Overwatch and League of Legends because it originated in the days of arcades. Before PC gaming. Before online matches. Before the internet.
Unlike other esports, Street Fighter and others in the fighting game genre naturally distill the viewing experience down to which player’s character are visibly on the offense or defense. It’s as clear as night and day. Health bars show which character has the advantage based on how many attacks they have avoided. They also show which character is at a disadvantage because of how many attacks they’ve received without blocking.
It’s the esports equivalent of watching UFC. You see when one fighter is on their feet. You see when one gets knocked down.
In some respects, Street Fighter is easier to watch than UFC or boxing. You can’t see the stamina as an indicator when watching real life athletes throwing punches. You need to look at their bruises and read their body movement to predict what’s next.
Because matches only average about 3min, multiple sets are played in tournaments. The amount of sets played in one Street Fighter V tournament outweigh Overwatch League completely. That’s because the time it takes to watch a full Street Fighter V match with multiple sets and rounds is about equal to the time it takes to watch a single set of Overwatch League. Time matters. Brands have less time in SFV matches to be visible so they traditionally own visual real estate on the commentators’ desk.
A Japanese brand like Cup Noodles doesn’t ever hold back, playfully utilizing visual real estate while commentators recap the events of specific matches or the current standing of a tournament bracket.
Even though Street Fighter V is an extremely accessible esport viewing experience, it may not be as drawn-out or varied as brands need it to be. The action is so fast, the matches are so short, that viewers don’t have time for anything other than the game content. What’s also important to note, is that viewers may only tune in to watch the finals instead of the entire tournament because of the viewing experience being so repetitive.
Popularity: 3,169 avg. viewers (on Twitch.tv)
Viewing complexity: LIGHT
Similar to: UFC
Screen time for brands: SHORT
The world of esports is as varied as the world of traditional sports. This guide is just a small sample of what’s out there. It’s important to note that brands are more visible when the viewing experience is prolonged and/or varied through match types. It also makes for a more watchable experience anyway.
Watching League of Legends, as detailed in this guide, generally feels like a huge event because the strategic plays put into motion require so much effort from players giving viewers more of a reward. These slower, drawn-out matches with more viewers baited into watching due to anticipation provide bigger opportunities for brands to be present during a broadcast or to go as far as sponsor an entire skilled team for their values.
Watch. Learn. Assess. Your brand can actually get in the game, whichever it may be.
Check out the second article in this series here.