An Overlooked Audience for Digital Marketers: E-Sports Fans

We’re living in unusual times. The NBA, MLB, NHL, PGA, and MLS seasons are all canceled or postponed. March Madness is out. Formula 1 has been delayed. The 2020 Olympics have been pushed. Every time I revisit writing this, another major sporting event has been canceled. That’s a massive audience to which advertisers simply aren’t going to have any access for an indeterminate amount of time. Where can we find those eyeballs now? What’s a media buyer to do?

How about looking in your pocket? Bear with me.

Here’s a fact about me: I like sports. As a former college athlete, I have a deep respect for the determination and dedication it takes to become the best at any sport. Even if I’m not necessarily into a sport, I can still appreciate it. But that’s something you’d expect from a 30-something guy, right? 

What’s more: I play video games. Again, not really that unexpected. As a late-stage millennial, I grew up with console games, and when I hit my 20s, I kept playing, but being a working professional, I switched over to mobile games at times because it was convenient. 

So how about this: I’m a fan of e-sports, or watching others play video games competitively. Has your visual picture of me changed? If you’re like most, it probably has. According to psychological studies about stereotypes, gamers are seen as “unpopular, unattractive, idle, and asocial.” 

However, like many stereotypes, the predominant image of gamers is reductive. Like sports fans and people drawn to a wide range of hobbies, those who like e-sports simply enjoy watching competitions, supporting their local team, being part of a community, or any combination of these things. 

My home city of Dallas, for instance, has the Dallas Fuel for Overwatch League, and the Dallas Empire for Call of Duty League. I went by the Fuel’s opening weekend games last month (which featured six total games over two days), and I saw a lot of people in the audience who looked like they’ve never played a video game. The man next to me, in his early 50s, was wearing a Dallas Fuel shirt but admitted he doesn’t play; he just wanted to support a Dallas team. I also saw parents who clearly were not players but were attending with their kids as a bonding experience. The e-sports fan base is diverse, and it’s growing: These numbers don’t lie

So if e-sports is not only a viable audience in terms of demographics, but it’s also quickly growing to include hundreds of millions of both casual viewers and outright enthusiasts, how do you as an advertiser effectively reach this audience?

The most obvious way to date has been through sponsorships. In a move that took the advertising world by surprise, Louis Vuitton (LVMH) partnered with Riot Games to sponsor the League of Legends World Championship trophy gear, just as it does for the FIFA World Cup and Australian Open. Coca-Cola, Intel, Mountain Dew, Comcast, Airbus and Red Bull are front and center at esports events. Major brands are clearly on board.

But what if you’re not a Fortune 500 with millions of dollars to spend on sponsorships? Just like the “meat-sports,” the Overwatch League canceled its in-person games (or “homestands”) for March and April and moved to online matches, the same way League of Legends has. And that hasn’t made a dent in its value for advertisers. And what if you, like many today who are seeing all these event cancellations, don’t want to waste dollars on unseen impressions?  

It’s time to look in your pocket — the mobile device.

The esports audience, whether they be players or just fans, are also playing mobile games. Take Call of Duty as an example. If you’re an upscale streetwear brand looking to reach an audience with disposable income, you wouldn’t sponsor a CoD league team; you would want to advertise in the mobile version of the game because that is where your audience is. And there is a lot of crossover. According to Apptopia, the average age for a Call of Duty mobile player is a little over 30, with more than 20% female. Hearthstone, League of Legends, and Overwatch all skew significantly more equal on the viewer and player gender mix. And they all have mobile games installed on their phones, too. 

How do we know this? Because of data. Mobile gaming companies and the ad networks that work with them know their audiences, and if you did want to target esports fans specifically, they can build models of “likely esports viewers” for you to advertise to – just in the mobile gaming channel instead of on Twitch. 

So if you’re not big or small, but medium-sized, like the 200,000 businesses today that are struggling to find that middle ground between the expensive (massive ad buys and sponsorships) and the too-small (local advertising), mobile games might be the perfect fit.

Jonathan Harrop is Senior Director of Global Marketing and Communications at AdColony.

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