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AirAsia’s newly promoted e-sports head: ‘We see ourselves as a giant start-up’

Allan Phang (pictured) who was handling Allstars engagement and internal branding, people and culture at AirAsia, has taken on a new role to build up AirAsia’s e-sports unit. In his new position, Phang is in charge of educating the different departments about e-sports and embracing the community, as well as ensure the airline is connected with Millennials and Gen Zs.

Phang told A+M during an interview that his role covers all the countries that AirAsia has presence in, including Singapore and Indonesia, and will work with local marketing teams to integrate e-sports into their brand marketing campaigns. He added that the airline aims to work with the Malaysian government to support e-sports events.

His appointment comes at a time when many brands are tuning their attention to this arena. In fact, according to a 2016 report by Newzoo, the number of e-sports enthusiasts in Southeast Asia will grow with a compound annual growth rate of 36.1% between 2015 to 2019. This is especially so in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines, which are known as the “Big Six”. Phang said:

Currently, there is sports tourism and medical tourism. We foresee that e-sports tourism will take off, especially in Southeast Asia since it is the sweet spot and has the fastest growing fanbase.

According to Phang, several non-endemic brands are still trying to “play catch up” when it comes to jumping on the e-sports bandwagon. This is because they are being met with resistance by their senior management who are resistant to change, and are hesitant about venturing into the e-sports industry. Phang added that AirAsia had a head start because it received backing from the airline’s forward thinking group CEO Tony Fernandes, and chairman of AirAsia and CEO of the Tune Group Kamarudin Meranun.

“I feel we had an advantage because our leaders were open to change and were willing to empower employees,” he said. Thereafter, Phang’s next move was to convince the middle management, because receiving backing from the “big bosses” did not fully guarantee that the whole organisation was on board with the airline’s venture into e-sports.

This was done by launching an internal survey to find out which employees were interested in e-sports and subsequently forming an e-sports team to represent AirAsia in external tournaments. Jerseys were also given out to the management to get them hyped up about e-sports.

“While it usually takes about two years for companies to enter into the e-sports space – one year for education and the other for budget approvals – we did it within six months,” Phang revealed. But of course, ROI was always a topic of discourse.

But like all new investments, Phang added that with e-sports, it is not about obtaining instant returns. Rather, it is about connecting your brand with the Millennials and Gen Zs, “so that when they grow up to have the spending power, they will remember the brand.” As such, companies should look five to 10 years ahead rather than focus on now. Otherwise, they risk being left behind.

While he declined to reveal the monetary value of AirAsia’s investment into e-sports, Phang cited examples such as sponsoring the World Electronic Sports Games, the Mineski Pro Team and acquiring a majority stake in professional e-sports team, Team Saiyan (now known as AirAsia Saiyan) as some of the e-sports initiative the airline has taken on.

“Our bosses want us to be an innovative company that is always at the forefront,” he said, adding:

We see ourselves as a giant start-up and don’t wish to just get caught in the day to day business.

“So, we are always looking for new opportunities to get involved in different spaces,” he explained.

[A+M will be hosting NEXT Asia conference on 21 November 2018 in Kuala Lumpur. To keep abreast with leading trends and technologies, check out the event here.]

Read the rest of Phang’s interview here:

A+M: When discussing the topic with Tony Fernandes, what was your first impression of e-sports ?

I had no idea what e-sports was. Then, I heard about Twitch and was amazed to find out that Amazon bought it for US$970 million in 2014. It hit me that e-sports is an emerging industry which cannot be ignored. So, we did plenty of market research, spent hours connecting with the e-sports community by having one-on-one coffee sessions with them, attended events and spoke to people in the US and Europe.

For non-endemic brands, they have to go on the ground and witness what’s happening in the local e-sports communities and understand how they can add value to the space and the communities will appreciate you for that.

You need to engage the right audience, those who are going to consume your content or strategy, you need to get on the ground and interact with them. Without that, it’s going to be difficult because gamers are different. It’s a different ball game altogether. For example, they have their own lingo, such as “GLHF” which means “Good luck, have fun” and I learnt it by interacting with them.

A+M: Besides being on the ground, what other tips do you have for marketers who are hesitant about going into the e-sports space?

I think they need to engage the publishers such as Riot Games or Blizzard Entertainment. You need to know who are the right parties and the legitimate organisers that have a good track record when it comes to e-sports. Also, these publishers call the shots about the type of games that gamers play. The type of games can be quite volatile, in a sense that you don’t know how long the game is going to last – three years or five years.

So, that’s why marketers need to really go on the ground and find out what’s happening. Some games might be popular in the US and Europe, but that might not be the case for Southeast Asia, which is a fragmented market due to the language differences. So, marketers really need to adjust and adapt to such differences.

A+M: According to statistics by Newzoo, 48% of gamers in Southeast Asia are females as of 2018. Do you think the industry is doing enough to engage them?

I feel there’s always room for engaging this market of female gamers. I believe Sephora did an event recently and it gained plenty of traction. Perhaps more female brands can get involved in this space. That would really be helpful and empower female gamers, as well as give them more recognition they deserve.

Female gamers show that the industry is embracing diversity. This is similar to AirAsia, where we have a campaign titled “Girls Can Do Anything” and many females in leadership positions. So, we embrace diversity and always look forward to empowering the next generation of female leaders.

A+M: Do you ever foresee Malaysia becoming an e-sports hub?

Yes, because of the current direction that our Minister of Youth and Sports, Syed Saddiq, is taking. He is a proponent of e-sports and is working to bring industry stakeholders together. He is also very active on the ground and listens to feedback from the community about e-sports. E-sports will be a major news for Malaysia, especially next year because we are hosting The Kuala Lumpur Major, the first major status tournament for the Dota Pro Circuit 2018/2019 season. It is hosted by Astro’s eGG Network, PGL and Imba TV. Also, companies are now heading towards mobile games, especially telcos such as Telkomsel and U Mobile. They see the value of it because Southeast Asia is a mobile-first region.

A+M: What is the future of e-sports tourism?

We foresee more events happening around the region and many fans will want to travel to watch their favourite teams. E-sports tourism might involve things such as promotions, hotel packages or even meet and greet sessions with star players. There are plenty of opportunities out there, it’s just a matter of bringing them together and connecting the dots. Companies which know how to ride the wave of e-sports will end up being the market leader.

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