46 fan engagement lessons traditional sports can learn from esports
First off, what is esports? Esports is basically playing any video game competitively. Just like traditional sports, anyone on any level can do it. Amateurs compete against each other, celebrities compete for entertainment purposes and highly skilled gamers play for prizes in tournaments as Pro Esports players.
As with traditional sports, big events are held and watched by people from all around the world. The events have sponsors like Coca-Cola, Gillette and KFC just like other sport clubs. Audiences have grown big enough to sell out on humongous events. The ESL or Electronic Sports League recently brought together 174,000 fans. Although that number seems like a lot, it pales in comparison to the additional 232 million online viewers.
Streaming platforms like Twitch or YouTube Gaming have played a big part in the industry’s rising popularity. You may wonder what is Twitch? It is the 26th most popular website in the entire world, and 13th in the USA with over 404 million hours of content being streamed in the last year. It has created a new type of celebrity ideal for the gen Z’ers looking for a relatable and accessible content creator.
Video games and esports have succeeded in capturing and maintaining the engagement of younger target groups. An overflow of freely available content makes it hard for traditional sport teams to stand out and maintain the engagement of younger fans. As 55% of gen Z’ers say they would rather engage with video games than watch television or even Netflix it seems sport clubs can definitely learn how to create a better, more digital experience for their younger fans.
Below we listed 46 lessons traditional sports can learn from the esports when it comes to creating explosive fan engagement.
👉 It all starts with great content
Just like any form of entertainment, the fan journey starts with great content. Luckily for people looking to engage younger audiences, there are lots of possibilities in the esports and gaming industry. Red Bull was one of the first brands to fully commit to esports. They produce related video content, sponsor players and esports teams alike. This gives Red Bull not only many possibilities to distribute beverages and goodwill but also to harvest a ton of exclusive content.
The secret to Red Bull’s success in the esports market is their captivating storytelling. In August 2019 Red Bull’s gaming channel posted an 80 minutes long documentary called Against The Odds. The documentary tells the story about the OG’s esports team comeback after losing the Dota 2 tournament the year before. Since launch, it has received over 2.4 million views and 53K likes with people in the comments praising Red Bull for their effort to the community.
👉 Use the power of storytelling to add value for fans
For the release of Blockbuster movie King Arthur, Warner Bros. integrated itself into the livestream of Dreamhack Tours in France, aligning key themes of the movie with authentic and engaging content formats that resonated with fans. Alongside the live stream they also produced video content where they interviewed the “King of the Match”. The activation worked because it added value to the esport event and its fans.
👉 Find what truly motivates your fans
While some esports tournaments like the Fortnite World Cup can go up to 30 million dollars in prizes, it’s not the only incentive to participate. League of Legends, Overwatch and other games offer variable rewards to players just for playing the game. At the end of every season, players are awarded for their ranking. This makes players committed to the game by working towards a goal and contributing to the community. It comes as no surprise that some of these players will enjoy watching competitive play as well.
👉 24/7 engagement in esports competitions
What if you could keep your fans engaged 24/7? That’s exactly what the international esports platform Kayzr does for over 100,000 gamers. Kayzr is a platform where people can compete in online tournaments and win virtual coins which they can exchange for sponsor prizes in the online shop. As part of their partnership with StriveCloud, Kayzr shifted from a tournament system to a League system where users can compete around the clock. The launch boosted daily active users with 60% and got 1 year of 24/7 eyeball time in just a day.
👉 Scalable long term engagement vs expensive loyalty programs
With the new League system in place Kayzr needed a more scalable way than physical prizes to keep their users engaged. Thanks to StriveCloud’s knowledge in gamification they were able to shift motivation from rewards-oriented to experience-oriented. By adding elements of surprise with lottery systems and guaranteeing peak times with “Hotzones” where rewards are doubled, made the game experience in itself better. Finding what truly mattered to their audience helped them achieve a 350% jump in users without increasing loyalty spendings.
👉 Know your fanbase community
Swiss esports agency eStudios noticed how important it is to understand your audience’s behavior. After hearing FIFA players being unhappy about the tournament system on their gaming platform GameTurnier, they decided to partner up with StriveCloud to create a better experience.
“It’s important to understand the needs and challenges of your target group and fanbase. It doesn’t matter how big the obstacle, if the challenge is a specific button, take it seriously even if it’s as simple as changing a word to make the experience less confusing.” Tobias Egartner, CEO eStudios
👉 Discover new broadcast and distribution channels
Engage fans who aren’t present on match day. The live stream of a tournament can considerably amplify an audience and with that, the participatory factor. What the digitally natives like millenials and gen Z’ers like is interaction and feeling part of something. This approach worked for leagues like the NBA, NFL and Premier League as well when they started streaming on Twitch.
“We really believe that live interactive video with chat works for any live video, works for any genre whether its sports, politics, music… It’s just a matter of figuring out the right format, the right recipe to bring it to that vertical.” Emmet Shear, CEO Twitch
👉 New engagement models
Unlike traditional sports, every single esports match is available to watch on digital platforms free of charge. Some organizers even reward audience engagement. The Esports Championship Series organized by Faceit even rewarded viewers on YouTube with ‘loot drops’. Loot drops are points that could be exchanged for tangible prizes including gaming hardware, apparel and automobiles.
👉 Move your fanbase online
As a response to the COVID-19 outbreak, Belgian sports broadcaster Proximus and the Belgian Football Pro League decided to partner up with StriveCloud to win back eyeballs for clubs using esports. Fans could register to represent their favourite team in FIFA tournaments. Players could win points and prizes to incentivise them to play more matches. Gamers could compare ranks to one another and socialize through the general chat. Clubs had the opportunity to connect with fans at home while simultaneously being introduced to a new esports audience that was out of reach in the classical business model.
👉 Low-cost and highly scalable
Coca-Cola which is a big sponsor of Olympic games and soccer worldwide is also invested into esports. Coca-Cola’s partnership with game publisher Riot Games allowed them to do brand activations at its tournaments. They soon realized fans from all around the world are interested in watching these tournaments. What started as a small test program to broadcast the tournaments in cinemas, quickly became an extraordinary event with over 200 simultaneous viewing parties on screens across the entire world.
“We’re not looking to do ‘takeovers’ with these in terms of exposure and branding; people know Coke, we don’t need to promote the name, but what we want is for them to have this great experience with Coca-Cola.”Alban Dechelotte, Senior Manager-Entertainment Marketing and Head of esports at Coca-Cola
👉 Enable tournaments & fan entertainment
On TwitchCon 2018 Doritos organized an esports brand activation called the Doritos Bowl. Four Twitch streamers – Ninja, DrLupo, Shroud and CouRage were invited to participate in a live stream tournament of Call of Duty to bring awareness to their brand while offering entertaining content for the fans.
👉 Strong sense of community empowers targeting possibilities
There is a very strong sense of community in the gaming audience. While younger generations might show more resistance against intrusive ads, they are more receptive to it than you think. Esports players often have a bigger online presence than their traditional sports counterparts. They can reach their target audience with a multichannel approach which allows for new and exciting ways to build awareness.
“I hear words like ‘mainstream’ around esports, and although it’s getting there, it is still very much niche, but it’s a huge niche and an extremely engaged community.” Craig Barry, Exec VP-Chief Content Officer for sports Broadcaster Turner Sports
👉 Fans value authentic brands that are immersed in the community
Finding sponsors for esports is not just about exposing the brand name. For new fan generations doing a logo slap is not enough to be remembered. These young consumers actually prefer when brands are immersed into the community. Credit card company Mastercard for example made itself cool by sponsoring branded content gaming influencers instead of disruptive advertising.
“We didn’t want to over commercialize it because it was about [building] trust with these fans,” Brian Lancey, VP and global head of sponsorships, said of Mastercard’s fledgling esports marketing program. “We’re a financial institution … we’re not a Nike, we’re not a Red Bull — we’re not a really cool brand.” Brian Lancey, VP and Global Head of Sponsorships, Mastercard
👉 Be inclusive and empowering
Although many believe esports only attracts millennial males, they actually reach an entire spectrum of target demographics. Dating site Bumble committed to bringing an all-female team to the Fortnite League in cooperation with esports agency Gen.G Esports. The team stands as role models for young girls who want to get into professional gaming. What makes this activation so great is the fact that they are the first all-female team that are inspiring younger girls to break the stigma.
👉 Find where your target audience lies
After you have figured out your target audience, it’s time to find which channel they are using. Esports is a great place to reach the younger generations but not only. The market is rapidly growing and opens lots of opportunities to create branded content and experiences.
👉 It’s not about the competition, it’s about the fans
When you go to an esports tournament you will notice it’s not only about the competition.First and foremost an esports tournament it’s a place for the fans to connect with their favorite gamers and content creators, participate in tournaments and meet up like-minded people of the community.
👉 Gaming influencers for integrated content
As professional athletes are seen as celebrities today, the same counts for gaming influencers. This offers a lot of possibilities in terms of content creation such as unboxing, reviews, partnerships, trailers and many more. It’s important to find the right personality that fits both your brand and message. Since the lockdown American esports team 100 Thieves started a partnership with audio company JBL was a perfect match that created continuous exposure for JBL.
“Our partnership with 100 Thieves highlights our drive and commitment to launching the world’s best lineup of gaming headsets and speakers to date. These are some of the top competitive gamers in the industry, so we are proud to offer the JBL Quantum Range to help them reach countless more victories.” Ralph Santana, Chief Marketing Officer at Harman, JBL’s parent company
👉 Traditional sports as esports
The way leading gaming company EA elevates esports through the association with traditional sports resonates with the leading brands. Under EA SPORTS they have published games like FIFA, Madden NFL, NHL, NBA 2K and even the UFC. It’s a great way to engage existing audiences while also reaching entirely new target groups. Since the COVID-19 lockdown many sports clubs turned to esports as an alternative to entertain their fanbases.
👉 Leverage partnerships to create experiences for your target audience
Counter Strike, is a first person shooter game that requires quick reaction times, precise aim as well as constant teamwork and communication. It has long been the favorite game of current and former members of the Armed Forces. When esports organization Cloud9 announced their partnership with the US Air Force it was a perfect match and one of the greatest brand partnerships in esports so far. The US Army got exposure to their ideal audience and the fans got some amazing entertainment.
“We think that esports and the digital plane is going to become the number one lead generator.” Frank Muth, Head of US ARMY Recruiting
👉 Gain exposure in entirely new target markets
To promote its new Hershey’s Reese’s Pieces mashup bar, chocolate company Hershey’s gained huge exposure to an engaged audience of game influencers Ninja and DRLupo. What made the campaign so successful was the unique collaboration between the two game influencers and their clever cross promotion on Twitter and Instagram.
👉 Putting the social in media
Another partnership by esports League Cloud9 and PUMA illustrates how much more engaged digital natives are. Using social listening tools, research company Nielsen found that social media sentiment around the partnership was 700% higher than the traditional sports industry norm for similar campaigns. That’s because they didn’t just post for likes but to engage in conversation. And with the fans actively participating in creating the apparel, engagement skyrocketed.
“Esports occupies a large and growing percentage of our audience’s media consumption. But more than that, PUMA has witnessed the nature of sports and sports culture change over the course of the last decade, and it has become apparent that esports has a valuable role to play in how the next generation shapes sports culture. We are a brand that charges itself with driving sports culture, and so this is naturally an area we feel we must lead.” Matt Shaw, Team Head of Digital Marketing, PUMA
👉 Don’t sell. Speak the language of your community
It’s important to be on the same wavelength as your audience if you want to keep them engaged. Just like Michael Jordan is the number one ambassador of his shoes, some influencers in the gaming space have tremendous amounts of loyal followers. Having esports influencers unbox or review your products in their own un-scripted style is a perfect way to get it in front of your target audience and gain some brand association while you’re at it.
“Everyone today feels like Gen Z millennials are anti-advertising … They just want transparency.” Nathan Lindberg, Regional Vice President Twitch
👉 Highly engaged audience with lots of goodwill
Just like traditional sports the main revenue in esports comes from sponsorships. Additionally you have advertisements and media or streaming rights, ticketing and memberships which all capitalize on the eyeballs of a hard-to-reach target audience: millennials & gen Z. The average gamer spends an average of 7 hours per week on gaming with almost 10% over 20 hours. For some streamers the goodwill is so high that fans spontaneously donate money to support their favorite gamer!
👉 Always keep it fun
When KFC first started their gaming channel it became clear they would provide funny and relatable content. To promote their new vegan esports Performance Burger they created another comedy style parody which would redefine the industry forever as eating it would make you the perfect gamer.
👉 Millennials and Generation Z need instant gratification
Esports targets a young audience that broadcasters are afraid of losing to other on-demand video platforms. Platforms such as Netflix and YouTube Gaming have millions of viewers all around the world and are available for personalized experiences 24/7. When consuming digital media, the fans are in control of what they want to see and what not. With over 140 million monthly users a platform like Twitch captures an average of 95 minutes per day. During the COVID-19 lockdown they broke a total of 3 billion hours watched on the platform with a 23% increase compared to the previous quarter.
👉 Personalization and interaction is key
With an oversupply of content and media, marketers must adapt to the power shift and use technology to learn more about their target group so they can better serve them. As sport audiences are growing older, sport clubs are looking for ways to engage younger fans. The reason platforms like Twitch and YouTube Gaming are so popular is thanks to their interactive and personal experience.
👉 Low-entry barrier & fun to watch
Esports is probably one of the most accessible competitive leagues in the world. It’s fun and often doesn’t require a lot to start. Besides being able to play, esports has also stood its ground as a spectator sport. Filling out entire arenas and garnishing millions of views. Game developers have worked on creating a more interesting game to watch and the esports entourage has perfected it through live commentary, behind-the-scenes content and easy to follow gameplay.
👉 Participation creates engagement
Esports fans are very active in their community. Most of them started out playing the games they watch as well. The social part of the community is more important than it seems. As people are naturally motivated to compete against one another, the mechanisms in esport communities often make for a truly engaging experience.
👉 Be authentic
Esports fans can smell fake from miles away. They prefer brands that are immersed into the community and are trying to add value. For example by supporting their favourite content creator or adding value to the live tournaments or streams. Think about what content your audience wants to see and how your brand can relate to it.
👉 Bring your ideas to live
Electronics company Lenovo believes that gaming is for everyone. And they put their money where their mouth is when they introduced a Swedish team of elderly people to compete in Counter Strike all over the world. Swiftly the news became a global cultural phenomenon which created PR-wave worth over 10 million dollars in earned media and over 1 billion, unique media impressions. It’s through their inspiring message and unique approach they ended up becoming the PR campaign of the year.
👉 Esports is global
Due to its globalised and online nature, viewership for esports is significant, making it comparable to traditional sports. In 2019 League Of Legends brought in over 100 million viewers, beating every sporting event, even compared to the Superbowl in 2019 which was watched by 98.2 million people. Nearly all esports tournaments are streamed for free on platforms like Twitch and Mixer. It allows fans to watch their favourite team or gamer while chatting with other spectators.
👉 Enable real time interactions between streamers and viewers
What’s great about streaming platforms is the real-time engagement going on between fans and streamers. Old Spice took advantage of that with their “Old Spice Nature Adventure” marketing activation in which they let Twitch viewers control a man’s life for three days. Hundreds of gamers swiftly helped the adventure unfold in a funny and highly engaging way.
👉 Leverage the brand and fanbase of esports influencers
Streaming platforms like YouTube or Twitch have created a new type of celebrity. These are often gaming influencers that a young target audience can relate and feel close with. Dr. Disrespect, one of the most viewed content creators on game streaming platform Twitch took on a partnership with natural energy drink G FUEL to create his own drinking cup. The brand has been wildly popular among gamers, largely due to the relevancy of their ad campaigns.
👉 Building anticipation through branded content
Mountain Dew created a native hub to raise awareness of their esports League. On the platform fans could discover branded content like weekly League Recaps, custom videos with exclusive predictions for the Global Finals and integrated links to the gamer hub. The fan engagement strategy focused on creating season highlights to build anticipation for the Global Final.
👉 Provide exclusive behind-the-scenes content
As part of a partnership between Toyota and Overwatch League partnership a branded content series called “Access Granted” began. It was a behind-the-scenes look at an esports competitor’s journey in the League. Every episode one of the players joined a host in a Toyota C-HR for a casual interview. The series gave fans an inside look at some of the biggest stars in the League while building goodwill for Toyota.
👉 Integrate your brand into the fan experiences
As one of the sponsors in the Overwatch League, Sour Patch Kids did not just give away products at tournaments but also drove brand awareness by using its sponsorship to create short-form, shareable social video content around its brand slogan “Sour, Sweet, Gone.” The video series featured players in-game moments while turning a sour situation into a sweet one.
👉 Crossover with celebrities
While esports has been gaining popularity over the years, mainstream celebrities will always bring in tons of new traffic. When Canadian singer Drake and rapper Travis Scott dropped in to play Fortnite on the live stream of pro gamer Ninja they broke the world record for most live viewers in a single-player stream. The record almost doubled from 388,000 viewers to 628,000 viewers and gained over 13 million additional views on YouTube.
👉 Create a central hub for fans
As an effort to better capture the attention of their fans online NBA created an app to boost digital fan engagement. With a flawless onboarding process it’s easy for fans to get started. The app serves as a central hub for fan news, videos, games and interaction between fans. It also boasts an in-app store with merchandise and apparel. Fans can participate and compete in games which boosts the amount of interaction and engagement.
👉 Connect fans with each other
Esports fans are enthusiastic and passionate about the games they are playing. That’s also why they enjoy watching others play as entertainment or purely to hone their own skills. Bringing all these fans together online creates great moments of sharing to further fuel the community with user-generated content.
👉 Ever-evolving gameplay
What’s so entertaining about esports is the fact that those games are often optimized to be fun and exciting to watch. Compared to traditional sports, game developers are constantly trying to improve their game by adding new elements or layers to it and making it a greater experience both for players and spectators!
👉 The power of content
After the success of the League of Legends Championship in 2016, online betting company Unibet wanted to gain more awareness in the gaming community. They created a branded platform called Esports Champions that tells stories about the highlights of gaming and its growth over the past few years. The platform includes information on the top earners, most played games and viewership stats in shareable, interactive graphs. The goal of gaining coverage was met with 3,767 total shares by Yahoo, Mashable and The Mirror.
👉 Solve the problems of your fans
As the international crowd of esports continues to grow, some large, multi-day tournaments bring in lots of tourists. One challenge for many of them is transportation. Taxi-service Citymobil anticipated this by organizing transportation for the tourists and offering discounts to anyone going to the event. Besides a booth presence at the tournament finals, they also provided premium cars to pick-up and drive competitors to the tournament.
👉 Become part of the fun
One of the brands that really immersed itself in the experience is shipping company DHL. As part of a video series DHL’s automated warehouse robot called EffiBOT came up as a character in the game Dota 2 to deliver equipment to players on the battlefield. The video series strongly resonated with the fans even creating a DHL chant at the ESL arena.
“For ESL it is always important to create something that has value for the fans. Working together with DHL for a year now, we are very happy they share the same approach on this. “Kristina Müller, Head of Strategic Partnerships ESL
👉 Gaming is a social activity
What people often forget due to the digital nature of gaming is that it’s a social activity. It’s about doing something with and against your friends or like-minded people in the community. Games like Fortnite or World of Warcraft bring together fans and players from the whole world to collaborate and have fun together.
👉 A wide range on in-game data
What digital experiences such as video games do really well is collect data. Of course they won’t straight up ask for your data. As a matter of fact the signup-process is often low-barrier and usually as simple as giving up a name or email address. Once you’re in the game though, they start gathering all kinds of information such as the dates and times spent on games, scores, money spent and so on.
“Achievements act as recognition of a player’s video gaming prowess and these trophies are facilitated by complex surveillant algorithms and code built into the architecture of contemporary videogames, gamers are basically rewarded for taking the actions gaming companies want the to take” Alex Cybulski, Researcher Information Security and Game Studies
👉 Bring your community to life
During a tournament of Counter-Strike in Denmark, McDonald’s had matched a lign of street signs with items from the game. The signs quickly spread around the esports world, taking a local activation global through social media.