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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Capturing Culture

Capturing attention of a consumer is one thing. Maintaining it is quite another. And making it connect in such a way that your brand becomes meaningful in the shared human experience, perhaps the hardest part, is another still. There’s nothing new in the challenge, but as we are increasingly bombarded with marketing and advertising in every possible channel, it’s getting harder. We can easily be ignored, overlooked, or simply dismissed. Ads are competing with blogs, memes, selfies, games, cat videos, gossip, and news. Entertainment value and sharability are now the dominant forms of currency in our lives. Content has become a constant layer of engagement with the world. So how does a brand stay relevant? It almost feels overwhelming. To compete in this increasingly fluid landscape, where every interaction with the world has the potential to become a messaging platform, brands need to focus less on traditional measures like awareness and share of voice and more on connecting with the culture of the audiences they are trying to reach. Brands must compete for share of culture.

Competing for share of culture is about shared experiences where everyone can see themselves in the stories, content, and events of the day. It is about creating meaning in a broad spectrum of interactions. Why? Because at the most fundamental and unchanging levels of our being, people seek to create culture and community around the things they care about most. Whether we’re talking about broad national cultures (e.g. New Englanders), subcultures (e.g. Punks), or cultures of practice (e.g. engineers), belonging to a culture means having a shared a set of values, shared customs and history, a common language, and common worldview. They share stories, practices, and even brands. And that shared experience means that a brand has far greater relevance if it can become a fixed part of that cultural structure. The question for a brand, is how does it go about it?

The future of marketing lies in the intersection of cultural knowledge, data, technology, and content. Insight springs from being able to craft a story that is transformative – it must react to changes in the environment, but it must also drive change through creating conversations that shape more than individual targets. Those conversations must change (or have the potential to change) worlds. To gain share of culture, brands (and agencies that support them) need to develop expertise in generating real insight. Any and every approach to a marketing problem will need to integrating cultural understanding, data, technology, and content into their platforms and campaigns. Gatorade is one example of how this comes together. They have developed an entire marketing ecosystem around the idea being a Sports Fuel Company. They use data to better understand both social and athletic trends allows them to organize their users into different audience groups and adapt the conversation at a moment’s notice. The tools on the website allow users to tailor their nutritional needs with their workout and improve their performance. And, perhaps most importantly, their brand represents more than food and drink – it represents the aspirations and needs of athletes who see themselves as a special group with a shared understanding of the world. It speaks to their dreams as well as the practical realities of daily training.

In the end, brands that focus on owning cultural moments in people’s lives, and develop the expertise to speak to them at the right place, in the right way, at the right time, will do more than capture consumer attention. They will capture something more valuable than share of voice. They will capture share of culture and become fixtures in peoples’ lives.

 

The Power of Rituals and the Bottom Line

In marketing and design, the tendency for most people given the task of figuring out how to engage more customers is to focus on the individual and his/her reaction and behavior at a fixed point in time. We gauge reactions to advertising, track eye movement for a website or record how many people stop at a display. Rarely do we take the time to understand how a product, service or brand fit into the larger picture of shared human behavior and meaning. Unfortunately, that means we overlook elements in the consumer’s life that have the potential for moving interactions with a brand from a transactional moment to something much more profound and long lasting. One element that is overlooked to our detriment is the nature of ritual and how it can be used to understand the customer. And consequently grow the bottom line.

A ritual is a set of actions, performed mainly for their symbolic value. The term usually refers to actions which are stylized, excluding actions which are arbitrarily chosen by the performers. It may be prescribed by the traditions of a community, be it the larger culture or a subset of it.  And can be as grand as a person’s first Communion ceremony or as simple as the act of brushing our teeth in the morning. But regardless of how profound the act is, a ritual activity is anything but mundane.

From a researcher’s standpoint, ritual behavior can be thought of in a binary way (of course, this is only one way of breaking it down, but being an out-of-the-closet Structuralist my inclination is to construct models this way). On the one hand, ritual is an outsider’s or “etic” category for a set activity or series of actions which to the outsider seems irrational or illogical. On the other hand, the term can be used also by the insider or “emic” performer as an acknowledgement that this activity can be seen as such by the uninitiated onlooker. Understanding both positions, however, is pivotal in uncovering why people do what they do.

A ritual may be performed on specific occasions, or at the discretion of individuals or communities. It may be performed by a single individual, by a group, or by the entire community. It might be performed in arbitrary places, or in places especially reserved for it. It may be public or private. A ritual may be restricted to a certain subset of the community, and may enable or underscore the passage between social states. The purposes of rituals are varied. They are used to strengthen social bonds, provide social and moral education, demonstrate respect or submission, state one’s affiliation, or to obtain social acceptance or approval.  Rituals are used to ensure that certain “necessary” actions take place to keep us safe and happy. Sometimes rituals are performed just for the pleasure of the ritual itself (I’m thinking of my own after-work cocktail).

Alongside the personal dimensions, rituals can have a more basic social function in expressing, fixing and reinforcing the shared values and beliefs of a society or a group.  Rituals aid in creating a sense of group identity. For example, nearly all sports teams have rituals incorporated into their structure, from simple initiation rites when a team is established, to the formalized structure of pre-game pep talks.

At this point I can practically hear someone saying, “Yes, yes, that’s all very interesting but why does it matter to me?” Fair enough. The reason it matters is because rituals are constant – they are acts we perform whether we think about their deeper significances or not. Rituals are actions, they are not something we tend to ponder in great detail. From a marketing or design perspective, that means understanding ritual behavior leads to creating materials that become part of the fixed, long-term pattern of a  person’s life. If done right, your brand or your product becomes part of the ritual, making it that much harder to set aside when a new product or brand comes along.

Add to that the very simple fact that human being are symbolic creatures and ritual is largely a symbolic act. Language, thought and actions are all part of the larger symbolic landscape through which we interpret the world. The instance an object or activity, not to mention a brand, gain symbolic value the more likely they are to become integral to how we interact with the world and become necessary to our lives. The Apple sticker on the back of a person’s car says a great deal about the person – it’s worth noting that we rarely (if ever) see a Microsoft sticker. The brand has gained a symbolic relevance and is as much an element of identity as the clothes we wear for a night on the town.

Finally, understanding ritual allows you to uncover new, analogous areas for growth. A seemingly unrelated ritual or set of ritual behaviors may, in essence, be transferable to a different brand or product category. For example, if you want to understand how hydrating before and after a game can be ritualized, it makes sense to understand how “pre-gaming” takes place when groups of young men prepare for a night of drinking on the town. There are parallels related to shared ideals, male bonding and the establishment of group affiliation. That potentially means new ways of messaging and promotion.

Rituals of various kinds are a feature of almost all known human societies, past or present. They include not only the various forms of religious experience or rites of passage, but also modes of shopping. Many activities that are ostensibly performed for concrete purposes, such as the Black Friday rush to the mall and hitting the car lots the last day of the month, are loaded with purely symbolic actions prescribed by tradition, and thus ritualistic in nature. If you come to understand that, you come to understand new triggers and can develop a long-term relationship with your customer.