The Rise of eSports

Since the advent and growth of eSports giants like Dota 2 and League of Legends, the gaming community has called for mainstream recognition regarding legitimacy. Take Colin Cowherd’s 2015 rant against esports for example. There are undeniable similarities between professional gaming and conventional sports, but the arguments have generally been ineffective in dispelling traditional beliefs formed by the collective generations of sports fans prior. While it is easy to dismiss playing video games as anything resembling an athletic endeavor, it is more complex than just noting the relative lack of physicality and declaring  as non-sports.

At their very essence,  are video games played in a competitive environment. Sometimes the games can be played one-on-one, other times, teams will square off against each other. But the key point in all of this is that  are competitive events. They are all about opposing players or teams doing battle in a real-time competition.

What’s In A Name? The traditional definition of professional sport is: all forms of competitive physical activity which, through organized participation, aim to provide entertainment to spectators and provide an income for the athletes, who in turn devote time training to increase their skills and experience to modern levels of achievement. But physicality alone cannot be the mark by which we measure “sport”. After all, look at poker. Poker is frequently broadcast on ESPN and other networks. This is equally true for chess and the National Spelling Bee. Is there anything remotely physical about playing poker? Or chess? Or a spelling bee? No.

And yet, all of these events are considered sporting events by probably the most recognizable sports network on the planet. Furthermore, players of  employ a strategies that play to their strengths while exploiting the weaknesses of their opponents. If the game being played is a team-based game, then teamwork is essential. Like any other athlete, players have tremendous reflexes, dexterity, and problem-solving skills. So, what exactly accounts for how we define “sports” and what does it mean for marketers?

The Conceptual Breakdown. Judging another culture solely by the values and standards of one’s own culture is termed ethnocentrism. People born into or surrounded by a particular culture begin absorbing its values and behaviors and build a worldview centered around these principles as the norm. Within the context of , this concept explains the psychology behind a lot of mainstream dismissal. Quite simply  don’t fit easily into our cultural definition of what sports should be. We do the same thing with other cultural categories all the time. For example, people in the U.S. struggle to classify crickets as food even though they are healthy, tasty, and plentiful. So, the struggle, whether it’s crickets or esports, is a reflection of cultural norms.

While ethnocentrism lends to maintaining the cultural status quo, generational gap is a concept referring to the differences between people of younger generations and their elders. It is the conflict between these groups which has catalyzed a lot of recent cultural change. This allows for members of the younger generation to form their own identities and cultures outside of older and mainstream influences. This is important to the development of  because despite its young age, its rapid growth foreshadows a change in the mainstream attitude towards it. The younger generation is growing up participating in and watching , thus making them part of their cultural norm. Within the next five years, there will be enough members in the community to challenge the mainstream dismissal of  and even gain the respect of the older generation regarding its legitimacy. And that should have everyone involved in marketing thinking.

Going Mainstream. Regardless of how you view , they are growing in popularity every year by leaps and bounds. Esports are on the verge of breaking out of their niche communities into mainstream focus. According to Newzoo, a company specializing in esports analytics, it’s estimated that the global esports economy will grow by 41% by the end of this year to $696 million and reach $1.49 billion by 2020. Keep in mind that includes more than the game itself, it includes media rights, advertising, sponsorships, merchandising and ticket sale. Like any other sport, it means reach extends well beyond the game.

The numbers speak for themselves, but also consider this: The renowned IMG Academy, an elite boarding school and training program in Florida geared for athletes in basketball, football, and other traditional sports, recently added an esports training program that includes physical, mental, and nutritional aspects. In other words, one of the most successful and prestigious sports-focused schools in the country believes so much in the future of esports that they have developed a training program around it. The outcome of generational gap is something IMG has identified and they are betting on significant changes in how we think of sports as a society.

Legitimacy also continues to be added as traditional sports team owners such as New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and the organization that runs the New York Mets, Sterling Equities, have begun to make multi-million dollar investments in esports leagues. Cities like Washington D.C. have even outfitted their professional basketball arenas for live esports taking a well-calculated gamble that esports are here to stay.

That growth and investment around esports has started catching the eye of big-name brands including Arby’s, Coca-Cola, Audi, and Gillette to name a few. That’s because they see an opportunity to reach a demographic sweet spot, namely males between the ages of 21 to 35. They have cash, they’ve grown up gaming, and they are increasingly hard to reach via traditional advertising. Newzoo estimates the current global  audience at 385 million people, including 191 million enthusiasts and 194 million occasional viewers.

It’s estimated that the global eSports economy will grow by 41% by the end of this year to $696 million and reach $1.49 billion by 2020. Keep in mind that includes more than the game itself, it includes media rights, advertising, sponsorships, merchandising and ticket sale. Like any other sport, it means reach extends well beyond the game.

The numbers speak for themselves, but also consider this: The renowned IMG Academy, an elite boarding school and training program in Florida geared for athletes in basketball, football, and other traditional sports, recently added an esports training program that includes physical, mental, and nutritional aspects. In other words, one of the most successful and prestigious sports-focused schools in the country believes so much in the future of esports that they have developed a training program around it. The outcome of generational gap is something IMG has identified and they are betting on significant changes in how we think of sports as a society.

Spending by eSports still falls decidedly short of traditional sports. Enthusiasts will spend an average of $3.64 per person following the sport this year, according to Newzoo. Compared against basketball, on which fans spend an average of $15 each, and the short-term gains aren’t there for many brands. But like all things with esports, the numbers don’t tell the whole story. One reason for the discrepancy is that esports content is largely available for free and the money spent on merchandise remains relatively small. But spending is rising and expected to reach $5.20 per fan by 2020. Another reason is that eSports are drawing a younger crowd with less disposable income – for now. And this is where thinking about the long game becomes important. Building brand affinity and share of culture means building connections that last a lifetime. 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.

In the end, it doesn’t matter if eSports are seen as sports. People in the industry can identify similarities and use conventional sports as an example to adapt and grow the eSports culture. Growth in target audience involvement is currently more important than acceptance of members outside the base. And for brands hoping to remain relevant, having a presence in the eSports environment is extremely important.

 

 

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Post Pop: Identity as Brand

How Brands Shape Identity (And Why It Matters)

Coming out of anthropology, I have always been interested in social and cultural interaction, identity, and how we display ourselves in a public venue. This interest was driven to the forefront of my mind again recently when attending Indy Pop Con, an event dedicated to cosplay, anime, comics, and gaming. Because brands that have the most resonance and sustainability are focusing more and more on cultural groups as significant points of marketing, it becomes increasingly important to understand the nuances of who is actually speaking and being spoken to in specific contexts. Whether it’s cosplay, choosing your next car, or even buying beer, there is a central question we need to ask ourselves: how do self-presentation strategies impact who people choose to be in a given context and how does that shape marketing?

Identities Change. Anthropologist Erving Goffman used the imagery of the theater to portray the importance of social action. But unlike others who have used this metaphor, he took all elements of acting into consideration. A person’s main goal is to keep his coherence, and adjust to the different settings offered him. In other words, whether in the real world, the virtual world, or the juncture where the two meet, we negotiate what we let people know about ourselves and by extension, how we feel about a brand. Take gender, for instance. Marketers frequently target based in part on gender. We build campaigns with women or men in mind. However, for many people, especially younger people, the notion of a binary gender construct is becoming a thing of the past. And in virtual environments, players to switch genders fairly freely. Whether we’re talking about cosplay, gender, or anything else, what this means is that how people perceive themselves is more fluid than it has been in much of the past. Companies that don’t take these notions of identity into account in their marketing and advertising efforts do more than miss an opportunity. They risk alienation through irrelevance. Now, here’s where shit gets nerdy – yeah, I’m putting that out there. For those who aren’t that excited by the nerdy, skip the next paragraph.

Importantly, we don’t simply adopt personas as a façade; it’s much deeper than that. Identity is constructed according to context. The theoretical model used in anthropology and sociolinguistics is rooted in the idea that we construct identity – that we create or adapt both inward and outward expressions of ourselves in accordance with the moment. Think of it as a form of high-stakes theater. In a social interaction, as in a theatrical performance, there is an onstage area where actors (individuals) appear before the audience; this is where positive self-concepts and desired impressions are offered. But there is, as well, a backstage – a hidden, private area where individuals can be themselves and drop their societal roles and identities. This backstage makes it no less “real” – it simply means different notions of identity apply.

As we communicate with people, we share different parts of ourselves, adopting slightly different personas, so to speak, to reflect the context. We display and act upon sides of our personalities we want to stress with one person but conceal with another. That doesn’t make us less “authentic.” Rather, authenticity is dependent on the situation. In a nutshell, communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.

Now, back to the less geeky stuff. What this means from a marketing and advertising perspective is that people gravitate toward brands that they can adapt to a given context. People (because we’re talking about human beings, not consumers) will choose brands that are congruent with their self-image. In this particular way each person on an individual basis will try to reflect his or her own identity through choice. When part of a larger social group, those choices tend to converge to a certain pattern thus forming the basics of contextual identity.  For example, a woman may choose to buy a pair of Doc Marten’s as an act of ubiquitous self-expression. If the she considers herself a post-punk soccer mom, the boots are also a visual expression of being part of the middle-aged-once-a-punk tribe. Individuals try to express their identity through all means they have at their disposal. By choosing a particular brand, a person reaffirms both her own and her tribe’s perception about her desired identity. As a result, people use brands both to reassure themselves and to signal others what kind of person they are. In other words, the brands we chose send a message about who we are in different contexts. The brands we chose are communication tools we use to express our different personas.

Putting It into Practice. So what is a brand to do when it comes to marketing and advertising? What do we do with this idea of the fluid, contextual self? Simply put, think differently:

  • Think in terms of building your share of culture. The stronger the associations people have between your brand and their cultural affinity, the more likely they are to see your brand as inseparable from their own identity. That builds more than loyalty, it builds an unbreakable link between your brand and how they see the world.
  • Contextualizing the brand. This doesn’t mean abandoning a consistent brand message. Rather, it means creating a brand, campaign, or messaging platform that can adapt according to the contexts in which it will be used. Know the cultural standards of your audiences and design a plan that fits their worldviews in a given context.
  • Build flexible strategies. Brand and campaign strategies should be thought of in terms of ecosystems, not pillars, where every channel plays a unique role in relation to the audiences. This allows your message to remain relevant as people shift from one contextual persona to another.
  • Don’t throw out the segmentation just yet. Segmentation schemes are still useful for speaking to macro-behaviors and broader cultural patterns. That means they represent a good starting point when developing a marketing plan. But they are a starting point. Don’t let them become the end all and bee all of your strategy.
  • Mediocrity breeds indifference. Be willing to create buzz, even if some of that buzz is occasionally negative – it’s better to be loved by many than to be liked by all. Learn to be comfortable with the fact that depending on the context, a brand is interpreted and used differently. This isn’t to say it’s a free for all, but it does mean that much of the conversation around the brand will occur in unexpected ways. Turn that to your advantage.
  • Finally, remember that people want a reason to embrace your brand and will find a way to do it if your brand helps them reaffirm their identity.

While only a generation or two ago one’s identity was prescribed according to traditional groupings of class, religion, nationality, region, race, etc., the world has today rapidly become one enormous, fluid and unstructured mass where identity is more nebulous. Brands have become badges, controlled as much by the buyers we don’t understand as the ones we do. A brand’s strength is semiotic in nature. It provides a message for an individual as much as a product, retail setting, service, etc. A shopper isn’t just buying a hammer or a pair of shoes.  He is buying an adjective, a sense of self, a membership pass into one of several “tribes” to which he belongs. Knowing that gives you significantly greater power in the marketplace.

 

 

AI Marketing: Can the Matrix Buy Milk?

AI is the continued topic of discussion in 2017 and will no doubt remain so for the foreseeable future.220px-HAL9000.svg.png Enabling machines to learn, make decisions, and adapt to circumstances without input from people (rather than simply obeying pre-programmed instructions) is the reality of the post-modern world. And while it presents tremendous advantages to society and businesses, there are just as many disadvantages. Being a product of a certain generation, I can’t help but conjure up memories of Terminator and The Matrix with self-aware, self-programming machines running amok.

But there are probably more people who subscribe to the more optimistic view that applying a more restrictive, less autonomous form of machine learning to the wealth of data could help identify correlations and patterns that were impossible for humans to see before. And the potential advantages are limitless – new ways of treating illness, quicker response times for emergency services, etc. From a business standpoint, offers will become more personalized, more relevant, and potentially involve less direct interaction (imagine your home being able to order groceries based on what it has learned about your tastes, habits, or medical needs). Imagine HAL 2000 with a heart of gold.

That said, there was quite a stir last year about customer service chatbots last year, but most of these were actually very limited, merely guessing the most likely answer to fit the question. Impressive to a point, but hardly the breakthrough we’ve all come to expect from SiFi. Real AI, underpinned by natural language processing, neural networks and machine learning, will understand how humans think, talk, and categorize concepts, making it smarter and easier to interact with. It’s simply a matter of time and processing power. And the more we use it, to depend on it, the better it will become. So we will no doubt see a proliferation AI buddies in the year to come, such as Alexa, Google Assistant, Cortana, etc. .

With AI, we have the opportunity to build decision-support systems that see, hear, understand and collaborate with us to help make decisions faster, more relevant and better informed. Which brings up an interesting idea: to whom do we market? Human beings are the obvious, unchanging element in the process, but are we on the verge of having to think about how to market to the machine? And if so, what does that look like?

If AI has the potential to act without our involvement and on our behalf, then we need to be ready to “sell” to the machine. And if AI can learn to make judgements about our personalities and those things to which we have an emotional or culturally grounded response, then our virtual assistants will be targets for marketing. For example, milk is more than a commodity. My assistant will be able to discern that I have a taste preference for glass-bottled, clover-fed milk. But it will also know that consumption aligns with my workout schedule, that I need to reduce my fat intake due to my age, and that I have a dinner party coming up where milk is likely to be used in cooking. It will have to weigh all of these variables, just like I would, and make decisions about what to buy. And that’s just milk. Now apply that to a car, a medication, or a vacation. The implication is that we will need to consider the possibility of marketing to a device that is weighing the same sorts of variables a human being would way, but which has a very different way of conceptualizing, categorizing, and responding to the world. Welcome to the brave new world of marketing to machines.

 

More Truth in Advertising

There is a strong belief out there that the interruption-disruption model in advertising is dying out, thanks to shifting consumer trends in behavior and technology. Because shoppers and consumers are increasingly in control of their media content they can and do simply skip those ads they don’t want to see. Social media has further altered the landscape – people are now creating their own content be it in the form of a testimonial, a simple tweet or a video homage. But it’s important to remember that the interruption-disruption model is not a product of a post-industrial world.  It dates to the earliest civilizations, with merchants calling out to passersby the quality of their goods. Something to keep in mind.

Thus the story goes that marketers and advertisers who want to maintain a meaningful level of engage will need to completely rethink what it is they do. They will need to turn advertising into content.  Not only products and brands need to be sold, so will the means by which we promote them. Advertising will need to be so compelling that people seek it out, promote it and help create it. The new ad model is about creating great content and finding ways to make it part of the larger social and cultural dialogs.

But how true is this model? Is there a fundamental shift that is so dramatic that the old way of doing things no longer has a place? Forgive me, but I’ve heard similar things before – the TV would cease to exist by the year 2000; the invention of Internet would democratize the world and open-source would change the nature of capitalism. When CP+B declared that the model had changed by saying that the “big idea is boss,” they were simply repackaging the big idea. Yes, consumers have gained more control through social media, DVRs, Hulu, etc. They will no doubt continue to change the landscape. But only to a point.

The truth be told, I don’t believe the notion that consumers are or ever will be totally in control of the ads they are exposed to any more than I believe that war will cease to exist because of Twitter. Magazines, online and off, will not stop printing ads.  TV advertisers will not do away with the 30-sceond spot for product placement exclusively.  Not every campaign will need to be guerilla marketing. Yes, the technology changes and the techniques we use to promote on brand over another, but there is no reason to assume the old model will simply vanish.

Again, the interruption-disruption model is not new and though it will change, it isn’t going to vanish.  Advertising is about capturing attention.  It is and always has been about telling a story and getting people to stop, look and listen. Add to that a simple fact that the technology wonks out there seem to overlook: people simply don’t care. They don’t want to exert much energy or time learning about the range of products available to them or the hundreds of outlets in which to buy them.  People are lazy about most things.  They have better things to do with their time than spend 4 hours on CNET.  Yes, there are those that do, but they simple do not make up the majority.

In addition to basic disinterest, people love (and respond to) advertising far more than they’ll ever admit. We are trained to say we dislike advertising, but is it true?  It’s a sociolinguistic construct, just as asking a person how they are doing (something that in truth we don’t much really care about). The fact is that the old model will be modified, but it certainly won’t die.