Market research and insight firm SuperData Research estimates the worldwide viewing audience for eSports at over 134 million. Similarly, the 2015 North America market is projected to generate $143 million, in terms of revenue, 81% of which is indirect: That is, revenue from corporate sponsors.
Figure above courtesy of eSports Market Brief 2015, SuperData Research
Yet, the eSports marketplace is only at the beginning of its initial growth phase. Research from Newzoo and Repucom shows that eSports fans currently generate an average of $2.2 per person per year, without game revenues taken into account. Comparatively, there are 2.2 billion traditional sports fans that generate an average of $56 per year, per person. There is significant room to stimulate the spend levels for eSports fans, but a lack of according best practices and strategies.
Outside of the prize pool contributions and merchandise sales, the reality is that eSports enthusiasts do not associate involvement with competitive gaming along lines of consumer activity. Sponsors must frame their involvement with eSports around this distinct reality. Regardless, the purpose of sponsoring an eSport property is to drive a return, whether it’s traffic, sales or increased brand awareness. To achieve these ends, there are several channels through which eSports sponsorship can flow:
Platform-level: Large, tournament series with qualifying events held as lead up to a grand finale. Sponsorships of this nature yield access to a stable portfolio of events through a single vehicle. An example is the Intel Extreme Masters Worldwide Tournament (IEM). The series is a product of ESL but in 2006 Intel saw room for expansion outside of Europe, especially in North America, and provided funds for a worldwide tournament, acquiring full naming rights. IEM is one of the longest running and most successful eSports tournament series, with 2015 marking the ninth season. Platform-level opportunities will become more prevalent as the eSports ecosystem matures and stabilizes.
Event-level: Live events are the holy grail of the eSports experience. The global, Internet-connected competitive gaming community is not defined by locality. Regions, which play a crucial role in traditional sports, are not a defining factor within eSports. Live events, however, are in great demand. Sponsorship involvement can include customized banners to video series to more engaged endeavors, like Blizzard Entertainment’s Membership Milestone Programme. An Eventbrite survey of 1,500 video game enthusiasts worldwide showed 38% of respondents are willing to travel internationally for an eSports tournament. Once at the event, there are a number of outlets that sponsors can leverage for reaching attendees.
Competitive gaming also has a significant overlap with the wider video gaming scene. As a result, there is already a healthy set of events, conferences and even local events that may not be eSports focused but provide opportunities for involvement. For example, the Intel Extreme Masters (IEM) grand final was held at CeBIT, the largest and most internationally represented computer expo, up until 2013.
Team-level. In the eSports world teams are supported by organizations, and unlike traditional sports an organization can house multiple teams across different eSport titles. Organizations provide financial support, coaching and business infrastructure for one or more teams. Sponsorships can apply to the entire organization, any one team, or to individual teams. Examples include Nissan (sponsorship of Team Liquid) and Coke Zero (sponsorship of Riot Game’s "League of Legends" player development circuit -- Challenger Series).
At the team level, eSports sponsorship requires due diligence in uncovering the stability and business readiness of a supporting organization. Unlike in traditional sports, where financial and organization solvency is mostly guaranteed, eSports lacks the protections against the risks of investing at the team level. Accordingly, it’s imperative for most brands to engage a capable strategic partner to help guide navigation through the eSports landscape.
Media-level: Brands are beginning to partner with competitive gaming leagues and streaming channels to tap into the purchasing power of their audiences. HBO partnered with Riot Games and effectively promoted the launch of “Game of Thrones” Season 4 to its “League of Legends” tournament audience. Coca-Cola was charged with building credibility amongst the eSports community before engaging this new audience, and even launched the Twitter account @cokeesports to engage fans and represent investment in the culture of competitive gaming. In return, the eSports community’s reaction was overwhelmingly positive, further proving that sponsors can effectively launch campaigns that leverage eSport properties. Other brands like Pizza Hut and Red Bull have also forged paths as curators for eSports-related news and content.
Individual-level: Consists of brands connecting with the individual eSports players and/or personalities as they develop their capacities, sponsoring their efforts and providing resources. Worldwide competitive gaming has given birth to a class of influencers who are capable of reaching a substantial number of fans through streaming platforms like Twitch.tv or Azubu. However, there’s been a minimal amount of talent management across the eSports scene. This is an untapped resource for sponsors, as these influencers are a source of tremendous source of fandom and compelling media within the eSports milieu.
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