Two teams of five, blasting each other with heavy weapons for 30 minutes: welcome to the sponsorship opportunity that is attracting some of the world’s biggest brands, from Intel to Gillette.
Esports, competitive playing of video games, is becoming a prime way for brands to reach twenty-something males - a young, free-spending demographic that can be hard to reach through other channels. Revenues are expected to grow more than 40% to $696 million in 2017 according to market intelligence firm Newzoo - and are predicted to double by 2020.
Andras Papp, a communications manager at Gillette believes the industry is at a tipping point.
“Esports is a rapidly growing industry, and we think it has big potential to develop into a global phenomenon,” says Mr Papp. “The structures and bodies of the sports are still in formulation, but I have no doubt that very soon we will see a very organised, well run industry.”
Gillette’s sponsorship of the Intel Extreme Masters World Championship in Katowice, Poland, has already yielded “very positive” early results in terms of purchase intent as well as brand recognition and recall, he says.
With all these brands getting involved I could certainly ask the question ‘could the bubble burst?’
However, Mr Papp warns esports is still “a very turbulent, quickly changing environment”.
Dominic Sacco, content director at the British Esports Association, echoes this, saying “With all these brands getting involved I could certainly ask the question ‘could the bubble burst?’.”
The biggest money is attached to Dota 2, a game in which two teams of five warriors with names such as Phantom Assassin and Bloodseeker battle to destroy each other’s base. The winning team at the 2017 world championships held in Seattle picked up more than $10 million in prize money - more than twice the £3.4 million total collected by Arsenal for their winning 2017 FA cup run.
Yet the lack of diversity at the top of esports is glaring and has the potential of holding the sector back from its full potential.
“There is a serious lack of top tier female talent in esports,” says Mr Sacco. “Some people say it is because the games are not marketed that well towards women, other people say it may be because of harassment some girls get online.”
Jaycie ‘Gillyweed’ Gluck is one of a limited number of high profile women within esports. The commentator for the Heroes of the Storm game struggled when first embarking on her esports career.
“As one of only a few female talents in the industry I did often feel separated from the pack even though everyone was very welcoming to me and I still will even sometimes struggle with having ‘imposter syndrome’,” says Ms Gluck.
She believes that because esports is part of online culture there will always be some level of abuse but “as esports becomes more mainstream and more culturally accepted that is going to have to go down.”
More female role models will help in changing perceptions, according to Ms Gluck.
“I don’t think it is anything we can instantaneously change but I think over time we will see a lot more representation of genders within esports,” she says.
Industry and sponsors alike are working hard to remedy the situation with measures including AnyKey, the Intel and ESL-backed diversity organisation.
The most popular esports involve elements of violence. The vast majority of games are ‘multiplayer online battle arena’ (MOBA) games or other testosterone-filled war games involving strategy or role play. Footballing game FIFA 2017 only just manages to break into the top 30 grossing esports games, while NFL and motor racing-based games fail to do even that.
The International Olympic Committee’s top official has suggested virtual football games or other sporting games would be considered for inclusion at future Olympic Games, but those involving gratuitous violence went against Olympic values.
Two aspects the world of real sport that has already come into the virtual world is accusations of match-fixing and substance abuse.
The Major League Gaming (MLG) esports division of games publisher Activision Blizzard is attempting to build the business infrastructure that will make esports a safer investment for brands.
It has created a series of NFL-style city-based franchises for its Overwatch League (a six vs six team-based shooter). The London franchise has been bought by esports organisation Cloud9, while Arsenal’s largest shareholder Stan Kroenke has taken on one of the Los Angeles franchises.
Former Fox Sports veteran Pete Vlastelica was hired by Activision to head the MLG division as part of its ambition to create the ESPN of esports.
Mr Vlastelica says the average esports fan is in their early 20s and half the age of traditional sports audiences.
“The average age of an NFL fan has gone up from 40 to 50 in the last decade,” says Mr Vlastelica. “I don’t necessarily think that is because the content is inherently unattractive to young people, a lot of it has to do with the fact that that content is on television and young people don’t watch much television.”
Intel began its partnership of ESL in 2006 and Steve Shakespeare, EMEA enterprise solutions director at Intel, says the company is in esports for the “long term” because it views it as a huge opportunity.
“I was at this Katowice event and when you sit in the stadium and have twenty thousand people cheering and doing Mexican waves you suddenly realise that yes, people are sat next to a PC but the excitement and energy and passion is not dissimilar to a classic sporting event,” says Mr Shakespeare. “What I love is the enthusiasm and the passion.”
Three big brands that have plunged into esports
Gillette, owned by Procter & Gamble, entered the market with a bang this year through the sponsorship of the world’s biggest esports event, the Intel Extreme Masters World Championship in Katowice. Activity included signing up esports superstar Enrique Cedeño, known as "xPeke", as a brand ambassador. He featured in a 30-second film that closely mirrored Gillette ads featuring more traditional sports stars such as Roger Federer. Meanwhile, Gillette offered attendees custom-built razor handles created by 3D printers, alongside grooming sessions.
This summer McDonald’s signed an Australia-only deal to become the first commercial partner of the StarCraft 2 World Championship Esports Series. Sponsorship includes naming rights, on-ground activations, and content and branding opportunities. Its Swedish operation created burgers themed after esports team Ninjas in Pyjamas in 2014, while earlier this year it sponsored the US tournament for Madden Bowl, a virtual NFL game.
Intel is one of the longest-standing major brands in esports and its relationship with ESL stretches back to 2006. It is the headline sponsor of ESL’s Extreme Masters World Championship. In the UK it is headline sponsor of the ESL Arena, the esports venue at the EGX gaming conference where it partnered with influencers including Sacriel 42 and past Streetfighter world champion, Ryan Hart. Its stand featured a variety of influencers involved in its global ‘world is watching’ esports campaign.