Esports are still in their infancy when compared to the lengthy traditions of traditional sports. Hell, it’s debated whether they even are a sport (though I would be inclined to say it’s not really relevant – just tune into ESPN’s multitude of channels and there are any number of things being broadcast they may or may not be “sports”). To my mind there are a couple of interesting aspects to the emergence of esports: the growth or the industry itself and, perhaps more importantly, what we can learn and apply to other categories.
The structure of Activision Blizzard’s Overwatch League sounds like what you would expect from the launch of a modern professional sports league. There are city-based teams with a high-cost entry that ensures serious ownership, player support in the form of good salaries and benefits, plus housing and training facilities. Weekly regular season matches with featured primetime matchups between top teams along with yearly tournaments. However, Overwatch League is an esports league, and its foundation may not only further normalize the public’s perception of esports, but also raise the standard for future esports leagues after it begins its first season later this year.
Nine city-based Overwatch League teams have been created with owners including Robert Kraft (New England Patriots), Jeff Wilpon (New York Mets), and Andy Miller (Sacramento Kings and NRG esports). The international league has teams from LA, New York, London, Shanghai, and Seoul. Season 1 will be played in an LA studio, but this is where things start to get really interesting – plans are for teams to have home and away games as soon as facilities are available in host cities.
Esports traditionally have regional-based competitions that culminate a few times a year in international tournaments (or majors) where a global audience comes together to watch teams compete for millions of dollars in prize money, and, in turn, generate ridiculous viewership numbers. Popular tournaments range from hundreds of thousands of viewers up to the standard-setting 43 million people who watched the 2016 League of Legends World Championship finals, peaking at 14.7 million concurrent viewers. Overwatch League’s city-based approach should, ingeniously, generate a global following for these regular season games in addition to major tournaments, with both growing fan loyalty for local teams as events are hosted in team cities.
It’s important to note that, according to Newzoo, Overwatch is only currently ranked as the 5th most viewed game on Twitch.tv, the popular streaming site owned by Amazon. As such, it is still more of an up-and-comer than a proven franchise. The Overwatch League is a major play to expand its fan base, but its innovative operational standards will certainly influence the future structural approaches of more established esports like League of Legends, Counter-Strike: GO, Dota 2, and for a variety of future games.
Beyond the Overwatch League, we’re already seeing cities like Washington D.C. investing in esports by building a $65 million, 4,200-seat multipurpose arena and sponsoring NRG Esports in order to appeal to tourists and its younger population. Sponsorship and advertising opportunities will run the gamut, from ads playing during event broadcasts or in-venue, to multiple levels of involvement including individual players and teams, as well as the leagues and video games themselves. TBS, CW, ESPN, NBC, and Disney XD have all aired esports events on their broadcast channels and apps, and they are adding more to their slate in the future as they see the success achieved by online platforms like Amazon’s Twitch.tv and Alphabet’s YouTube.
It’s not to say that the continued growth of esports hinges completely on it evolving into a more traditional sports model. It’s definitely a route that has to be explored as esports tries to more aggressively expand into a mainstream audience that has yet to validate it on the level of traditional sports. While traditional sports consumers may temporarily question the equivocations of esports on their television screens alongside poker and their favorite sport, esports long-term audience is not in doubt. Younger viewers aged 21 to 35 make up 53% of the esports audience and, statistically, enjoy watching esports as much as “real” sports. Esports have already normalized for this group and you can rest assured that the next generation will not need any further validation either.
And this is where thinking about the long game becomes important. Building brand affinity through cultural integration means building connections that last a lifetime. It’s a long-term commitment, not a gimmick. The earlier you bring a population into the fold, the sooner you become essential to the deeper cultural conversation. You aren’t reacting, you’re creating. For brands hoping to remain relevant, having a presence in the esports environment is extremely important, but so is learning from esports fans and competitors. We are watching what was once a fringe activity enter the mainstream; esports are becoming more concrete and reaching broader audiences. They are shifting culture. They are creating it. How they do it is something worth taking note of regardless of what it is your brand does.