Why Esports Is The Next Frontier For All Brands, Regardless of Industry

Apr 19 2018

Major brands, from Facebook to Nickelodeon to Mercedes-Benz, are making sure they don’t miss the massive marketing opportunity that is esports. We talked to an ESL executive to get the full download on how this industry is blowing up, how brands can get involved, and more…

From Drake playing Fortnite to sold-out esports stadiums, competitive gaming has a larger audience of young consumers than ever and any brand still sitting on the sidelines is missing out. We’re not just talking about obviously endemic brands like Doritos or Red Bull, but non-endemic brands too. Not only is esports entertainment a place that young gamers are giving their full attention to, but it’s a platform where they actually want to see more mainstream advertising. How do we know? They told us so. In our Quarterly Trend Report: Esports Levels Up, over nine in ten 13-35-year-old esports fans said that they think more brands should get involved in the space. And there are more eyes than ever to capture via esports streaming, as Facebook, Nickelodeon, and other media giants bring the once-niche pastime to new, expanded audiences.

But, as we’ve mentioned before, esports marketing isn’t a place to just slap a sponsorship logo on a virtual billboard or the back of a player’s jersey. Instead, there are plenty of opportunities to get creative with experiential activations, playful social campaigns, and more. Case in point: the marketing campaign from Mercedes-Benz that targeted Dota 2 players and became a viral meme.

At Esports Activate, we got insider intel from Paul Brewer, the Senior Vice President of Brand Partnerships at ESL North America, one of the strategists behind Mercedes-Benz’s big win, and an executive who’s been on the ground floor of the rapidly growing world of esports since the days when the largest tournament might fill a hotel ballroom at best. Now, it’s a world in which selling out 173,000 seats in a stadium-size arena isn’t unheard of (it’s happened) and an industry that NewZoo estimates will rake in $1.1 billion in 2019.

We asked Brewer all about the current state of esports, what it’s been like seeing it boom, how brands can get involved, and more:

Ypulse: You’ve seen and experienced esports growth over the course of your career. Can you talk about its current boom in popularity?

Paul Brewer: Ten to twelve years ago, I was working with who is now our CEO and other giants in the ecosystem, literally carrying in monitors and Xboxes to hotel ballrooms to host competitions. I remember late nights of plugging in network cables to computers and renting U-Hauls. Now, we have a team of 200 people who go into a sports arena and create a massive stage, and we create a broadcast element that goes out to tens of millions of people. Now, esports is the size of the internet, where there’s 30 million people tuning in.

And it’s really exciting to see the advancements not just in the consumption, but in the game play itself. It’s been amazing to see how far the level of competition has come and the global nature of it. Last week, we had a Swedish team compete against teams from North America, Germany, Poland, and more to win an event. Ten years ago, that might happen once a year, and now it’s happening every other week.

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YP: How is an esports fan unique? What sets them apart from a traditional sports fan for instance?

PB: Overall, the esports audience is incredibly text-savvy, they have high IQs, and they have higher household incomes then some traditional sports fans. We’re seeing a sophistication of consumer in esports that has always been thought of as a young kid in their basement who just eats Doritos and drinks Mountain Dew. The reality is it’s not that. It’s actually someone who has a job and has kids and is super tech-savvy and could be tomorrow’s C-level innovator.

YP: How can brands get involved in esports marketing outside of sponsorships?

PB: I think that’s been one of the challenges: What is the entry point? There’s an ecosystem where there are so many different touch points and nobody owns it. It’s not like the NFL where you work with the NFL and you have access to teams and content. It’s all over the place. What I always recommend is to be a part of where the biggest audiences are, where the scale is, and where the real return on investment is. Our perspective is to be around the big events, the big moments, the big leagues, and the best players, and to do it in creative ways. It obviously has to be a little more 360 than just, “We’re going to throw a logo up on the wall or on the stage.”

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YP: Does experiential marketing play a part in esports?

PB: Absolutely. It’s one of the tent poles that is really important. It’s fine to be a part of a broadcast and reach millions of fans that are watching. It’s fine to work with an influencer and have them speak on stream about your product or your brand, but I think that not doing the experiential piece on-site is a really big misstep. We’ve seen lots of studies about Millennial audiences and how receptive they are to brand integration. That experiential piece for us is a very key piece. Don’t sponsor. Activate. And for us, that means being on-site and being able to provide an additive experience for fans. That’s where you create memories and where you create brand affinity.

YP: How can entertainment companies get involved?

PB: We know that this is a digitally-first audience, so when we look at some of these linear networks that have tried to introduce content, it’s really challenging. The nature of esports alone doesn’t necessarily lend itself to a linear model. It’s not four quarters with timeouts and breaks in the action for media. And for some of the audience, we use the term “cord-nevers.” They’re not even cord-cutters. A lot of them have never had cable. So to get them to try to consume content on Disney XD for instance can be part of the challenge.

I think the other challenge is the nature of some of the biggest, most scalable content, specifically Counter-Strike, is not necessarily something that a Nickelodeon wants to put on their channels. But just because you might not like Counter-Strike, maybe you like League of Legends and that’s very brand friendly, brand-safe, and family friendly. And overall, I think it’s hard for entertainment companies to pick a lane because esports as a whole has too many different types of content in order for it to be distributed in a scalable fashion.

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YP: Can we talk about the differences between traditional sports and esports?

PB: At the end of the day, the way that fans operate in this ecosystem is not entirely different from the way that fans operate in a sports ecosystem. The only thing (and this is a good thing) that’s different is that they’re more engaged because they grew up playing video games. Not everybody grew up playing hockey, but you still watch the Stanley Cup finals. Most esports fans are actively playing the game, but also consuming the competition.

We’re also seeing that what was once a very anti-brand approach from the consumer is now, “We want brands to be in the space.” The reason is that fans like brands helping to fund things. Having resources actually creates that opportunity for esports to exist. Traditional sports still make a lot of money on media rights and tickets and merchandise while esports is not developed enough in all of those revenue streams. So, sponsorship became such an important part but with that, fans and consumers are becoming a lot more receptive and starting to open their minds about the importance of other marketing approaches.

YP: Do you have any predictions for the industry as a whole?

PB: I think that the industry as a whole will start to consolidate. There’s been a lot of people getting into the space, a lot of frothiness. You’re going to start to see that there are only so many titles out there for this audience to adopt. I also think that there’s going to be a lot more organization in five years. Right now, there are lots of leagues out there trying to be ESL. We’ve been in the space for 18 years, but there’s a lot of people out there organizing tournaments and realizing esports is really expensive and takes a lot of expertise. And realizing that there’s only enough out there for a few players.

Millennial research, Millennial insight, Millennial marketing, Gen Z research, Gen Z marketing, Gen Z insight, youth research, youth marketingPaul Brewer, Senior Vice President, Brand Partnerships, ESL North America

Paul Brewer is SVP, Brand Partnerships at ESL North America. ESL is the world’s largest independent esports company. In this role, Brewer is responsible for driving sponsorships of ESL’s global assets with both endemic and non-endemic brands and properties.

Prior to ESL, Brewer most recently served as Turner’s Director of Sales Development and Marketing, where he worked with blue chip brands across Turner Broadcasting’s digital properties including, Bleacher Report, NBA, NCAA, PGA and NASCAR.

Brewer joined Turner in 2010 from Samsung Electronics, where he served as Senior Marketing and Operations Manager for Samsung’s World Cyber Games. During his time at Samsung, Brewer oversaw operations and partnerships for the U.S. branch and worked closely with partners from major global brands, including Samsung Electronics and Microsoft Xbox. Before Samsung, Brewer started his career at ESPN in their Special Events Marketing department.

Brewer holds a Master’s Degree in Sports Business from New York University.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

To download the PDF version of this insight article, click here.