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Essence’s strategy director on uncovering esports’ true potential

Esports has actually been around since the 1970s. Its first tournament – Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics – had 10,000 participants and was widely covered by mainstream media. However over time, these tournaments lost their mainstream appeal while still being supported by fans and loyalists.

Throughout the years, the age-old custom of passing your controllers down to younger siblings or friends was eventually lost, as more adults stopped retiring from gaming. This led to an influx of new games with mature themes such as Doom, Halo, Quake, Grand Theft Auto, and many more. Technological advancements also contributed to games that were more realistic and immersive for everyone, leading to more competitive games joining the mix.

My involvement in the world of esports was purely by chance, and my game of choice for the past 20 years is FIFA. My love for football, coupled with my inability to play, was the driving force for my countless hours playing FIFA. What I did have in spades, however, was a passion for the game. Years went on and I found kindred spirits in other FIFA fans, which was when I got more involved in the local FIFA esports scene. I still help with team-building, identifying partnerships and marketing opportunities on a consultative basis. Being in close contact with an esports gaming team has personally allowed me to understand the many unique challenges that professional gamers go through.

The life of a professional gamer is extremely complex and challenging. The prime age of a gamer is usually young, between 16 and 22, as most games require reflex speed and muscle memory. At that age, they are also expected to be mature and professional beyond their years. Esports in 2019 is poised to be even more lucrative for marketers versus previous years due to the advent of a new genre that is taking the world by storm. The numbers are truly staggering: Apex Legends had 50 million users just a month after its launch. Fortnite had its first-ever in-game event/concert with DJ Marshmello, with more than 10 million in-game viewers at the same time. Now is definitely the best time to be part of the esports movement.

So how do marketers become a part of all of this? Well, patience with ROI is a start. ROI is what most marketers are always held to. However, when it comes to gaming, there is a need for delayed gratification. Gaming cycles are pretty short, so the wait is not extraordinarily long. However, when it comes to player or team sponsorships, it is key to take the time to identify rising stars that are increasing in popularity. Be there at the start, provide support that builds their careers and go on a journey with them, and brand-building will be a win-win for both parties.

Having content is also key. It is important to invest in esports personalities and teams that have an eye for content creation. There is an opportunity in building great stories around their daily lives and obstacles, which are relatable for the Millennial audience. Twitch streaming, in particular, is fantastic for brand-building as fans spend a daily average of at least two hours watching their favourite streamers. When aligned with the right content makers and personalities, it is a great way to build brand association.

At the end of the day, brands need to identify a role they can play as esports teams and personalities, who are very much like most of our Millennial audience, are still finding their way in the world. Duncan “Thorin” Shields, an esports historian that is revered by the gaming community, said it best: “At their highest level, all competitive disciplines become vehicles for the expression of one’s human potential.”

So maybe it is not just about uncovering the potential in esports, but it is also up to us to help support and grow it.

The writer is Yasser Ismail, senior strategy director, Essence. The article first appeared in Marketing’s April print edition.