Esports took the gaming world by storm starting in the 2010s and grew exponentially in 2020, on track to surpass $1.5b in revenue within the next year. It is clear based on last year’s growth (see details below) that Esports are here to stay, and they are attracting a more diverse population of both players and viewers than ever before.
Gaming companies, companies that wish to partner with Esports platforms and events, and companies that provide the technical and logistical building blocks needed to hold an Esports event should consider how Esports will influence the culture in 2021 and beyond.
Credit: Newzoo Global Esports Market Report 2020
In 2020, even though the logistics were difficult and players had to endure a 2-week quarantine, League of Legends, one of the most popular Esports games, shelled out millions of dollars to host a massive in-person tournament in South Korea that drew 3.8 million viewers.
Esports have become so popular partly due to their accessibility and ease of entry into the category. They differ from traditional sports because they do not require sports equipment or athletic talent. Rather, they are even more open than other video games since most can be played on a laptop or a mobile phone, without having to buy an expensive console. Many Esports games are completely cloud-based, and competitions are inexpensive or even free to enter. Though more and more players are discovering Esports, many other enthusiasts simply enjoy watching highly-skilled Esports gamers play against each other.
Pre-COVID, Esports drove a culture of in-person tournaments with its own industry of celebrity players, coaches, sponsors, and staff. However, when the pandemic forced most Esports participation into an online format, popularity continued to grow as the platform provided an easy way to socialize, including remote access to fun and excitement. According to gaming research site Newzoo, while growth of Esports is not expected to match 2020’s explosive levels any time soon, they will continue to steadily gain popularity and mainstream prominence.
Now that many pandemic restrictions in the US have been lifted and even international travel is opening back up, will we see a return to the excitement and pageantry of in-person Esports tournaments, or will many players remain online? How can brands effectively engage with Esports spectators and fans, and increase their presence in this innovative and growing space? A few trends in the social behaviors of Esports companies, competitors and fans give some clues to how the industry will continue to grow.
Esports were an outlet for remote socializing during the COVID-19 pandemic and now many enthusiasts want to move their game viewing and participation to an in-person format
For a long time, social scientists have been concerned that increased participation in video gaming may have a negative impact on in-person social skills and development, especially among children and teens.
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Despite the anonymity of online formats often leading to issues like bullying and harassment, gaming itself has been shown to foster social relationships and allow gamers to meet new people, providing a social lifeline especially during the pandemic.
Over the past year, Esports novices as well as more experienced players who moved their games online found that Esports and other video games became a valuable way of socializing remotely. It’s no coincidence that gaming platform Twitch’s most popular channel is one devoted to “just chatting” which often contains content completely unrelated to gaming.
Currently, a spectrum of gaming companies, from the well-established to startups, are looking for ways to capitalize on Esports’ social aspects and the newfound freedom (in many places) to gather in person.
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Tournaments provide an opportunity for a fun and exciting atmosphere with merchandise, concessions and festive attire, a mix between a sporting event and a fan event like Comic-Con. Comcast has partnered with other companies to build the 50-million-dollar Fusion Arena, a venue designed specifically to host Esports tournaments.
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The venue includes all the space, technical capabilities and media needed to host up to 20 Esports teams and over 6,000 spectators. It will also include an Esports training facility. In addition to this large facility in the US, one company in Japan has opened an in-person E-sports gym where players can come to practice, get coaching, meet others and socialize, just like a regular gym.
Esports viewers are far from “passive” – they want to feel like they are part of the action. Leverage the hype and suspense of the tournament to add excitement to both in-person and online Esports events.
In the days before home internet became commonplace, people would watch each other play video games in living rooms, home offices and basement game rooms, foreshadowing Esports’ current popularity. Past sociologists differentiated between video game playing and viewing behaviors, characterizing viewership as similar to watching TV shows. However, it’s now clear that viewers of neither TV nor video games are just passively absorbing information or entertainment. Anthropologists are currently researching 21st-century cultural shifts that have led to more active engagement among consumers of popular culture, and Esports are no exception. For example, YouTube, once the main place for players to upload content of themselves playing video games, as tutorials for other gamers or as entertainment, lacked the interactivity that video game viewers wanted. Esports spectators want to feel like they are connecting with their favorite gamers and influencers and want to find ways to be part of the action, hence the rise of full social media platforms centered around gaming, includingTwitch, among others. Esports even have fantasy leagues, yet another way that fans can feel involved in their favorite Esports.
It makes sense that the more extraverted players and viewers of Esports will be excited for the hectic, crowded atmosphere of tournaments just as much as traditional sports fans crave going to their first post-pandemic football game. However, a total loosening of restrictions around crowded venues still seems far off, and many viewers and gamers will be happy to continue accessing tournaments remotely.
Credit: Bago Games/Flickr
Regardless of the direction that in-person Esports tournaments take during the rest of 2021 and beyond, companies should look for ways to build excitement for competitions even for those who are joining remotely. Look for ways to recreate a promotional atmosphere to build excitement among even those who enjoy Esports casually. Perhaps competitive gaming won’t completely change our lives as social media and online dating platforms did earlier this century, but for millions of gamers they are a new way to engage with the games they love and compete with other enthusiasts. For new and long-time viewers, these games are an exciting way to interact with other fans and connect with gamers they admire. For these reasons, it will be crucial for brands in all sectors to begin research on the best ways to connect with key audiences now. Research and strategic decisions about how a brand identity can fit into the gaming/esports space and engage with the tech and social-media savvy consumers that inhabit it will pay off in the long run.