Creativity Marketing Transformation

eSports and the Elusive Millennial Male Audience: A History

6 Minute Read

There is a holy grail of an audience out there just waiting to be reached—millennial, skewing young, male, plenty of disposable income—of upwards of 148 million people. If you’re a director of marketing, it almost sounds too good to be true. But eSports, or competitive gaming, is a thriving world that’s still growing. Despite the sheer potential, most brands are unsure of how to approach this burgeoning, global crowd that’s as every bit as vibrant as the games themselves. The rewards are rich, and to the victor goes the spoils.

As a marketer, you’re always looking to the cutting edge or the next big marketing transformation on the horizon, but targeting a millennial audience is pretty difficult. Not only do you have to find them across many social and content platforms, but you also need to come across as authentic. You can see plenty of examples as brands marketing to millennials by posting memes on social media platforms. Instead of being welcomed with open arms, they are mocked.

You have your eyes set on eSports after seeing other large brands, sports teams, and television networks investing in the world of competitive gaming. But, your colleagues still think of Tetris as culturally relevant. There’s also the challenge of figuring out where to start in the ever-evolving world of competitive gaming.

Welcome to Competitive Gaming

The tide has, mostly, turned on the image of a gamer. Starting in the 1980s, you had the disbelief of adults over children spending hours, and quarters, at arcades. The first world records on machines such as Donkey Kong or Galaga were set during that time, and media coverage usually featured a mix of bemusement and disbelief that such a trend would last.

Donkey Kong arcade machine from the 1980s.

In the 1990s, video games at home matured into a multibillion-dollar business, as experiences and graphics became more lifelike. In the latter half of the decade, competitive gaming began solidifying into the scene we see today. Sure, competitions and local tournaments, with the occasional national or international event, have been around as long as there have been video games. But, events such as Evolution Championship Series, beginning in 1996, and tournaments involving Quake, Counter-Strike, and Warcraft happened with greater frequency with large enough prize pools to make playing games a viable career.

There’s an incredible advantage to entering a new market early. First launched in 1987, Red Bull saw huge success as a drink positioned to give you a much-needed boost during your day. As the company expanded internationally, Red Bull was marketed to young males through extreme sports. In 1994, windsurfers Robby Naish and Bjorn Dunkerbeck were the first international athletes sponsored by the energy drink. From that point forward, Red Bull would sponsor snowboarding events and athletes, BMX riders, Formula 1 Grand Prix teams, cliff diving events, and now, music festivals. Red Bull capitalized on the emergence of extreme sports into the mainstream by creating an organic trust with enthusiasts through event and player sponsorship.

A New Sport Emerges

It was not until the dawn of the new millennium where competitive gaming started to flourish. More specifically, countries such as South Korea embraced competitive gaming. Some of the biggest StarCraft II tournaments were big hits on television, and top players became minor celebrities, with some even signing endorsement deals.

After 2005, competitive gamers began to see increased paydays. Players such as sAviOr earned hundreds of thousands of dollars playing tournaments. Major teams were established, providing infrastructure, a place to train, and extra support for top players. Fast-forward to today, and world championships for League of Legends or Dota 2 feature multi-million dollar prize pools. Established teams and top players can easily make a living as a competitive gamer.

This man is kissing a trophy.

The Modern Gamer

For a long time, gamers have had a bad reputation. Media attempts to understand a previously unknown phenomenon led to simple sketches of the scene and players involved. Other times, newscasts wanted color, so they found interesting characters. But in the modern age, almost everyone can be described as a gamer.

YouTube has made many gaming celebrities who have millions of subscribers watching as they play the latest games. There’s a whole cottage industry built around Minecraft. Last, but certainly not least, smartphones and tablets have opened the world of mobile gaming. Chances are, you’ve crushed some candies or flung a few birds during your commute at some point.

The best competitive gamers are athletes and influential to their fans. Arguably the best League of Legends player, Lee Sang-hyeok, better known as Faker, launched his first live stream on Twitch. On his first day, in the early morning for most people, Faker’s stream had a record 245,000 concurrent viewers for an individual stream.

Gamers are also incredibly social. Take Søren Bjerg, a top League of Legends player, on Twitter. Bjerg has close to one million followers, and the first thing many of his fans see is a banner with all the brands that sponsor him. That’s a level of recognition that any marketing executive can understand.

Budweiser, Coca-Cola, Samsung, Nissan, Intel, Microsoft, Sony, and Red Bull invest in competitive gaming. The Intel Extreme Masters (IEM) hosts some of the largest tournaments in the world, and the finals of IEM Katowice 2016 was viewed by 34 million unique viewers online. Intel, Red Bull, and Coca-Cola have all built a strong loyalty within competitive gaming through these types of sponsorship. Any brand entering the space should take a slow-and-steady approach to gain more widespread acceptance.

Playing Nice

Professional basketball teams, including the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers, and some of Europe’s biggest soccer organizations, including Manchester City and West Ham, have their own eSports teams and players. ESPN has a vertical that covers competitive gaming as it would the NBA, NFL, or MLB. Turner Sports invested in “ELeague” and airs live Counter-Strike: Global Offensive tournaments in prime time. There’s a great reason why so many sports teams are investing in this new market: there’s plenty of overlap with male fans, and many who watch a League of Legends stream will also watch a traditional sports broadcast.

Twenty-two percent of US eSports fans also watches other sports, according to NewZoo. The audience also has several online subscriptions for services such as Spotify or HBO. Fans watch hours of related content. Use this time to build an organic relationship with your audience.

While competitive gaming’s revenue is dwarfed by traditional sports’, its projected reach is $696 million this year—a number that could grow to $1.5 billion by 2020. If there’s one thing to learn from marketing to millennials, it’s understanding who is in control. Youths and gamers understand authenticity and can quickly spot a brand looking to cash in on a fad. By realizing the player and the audience have the power, you can craft your message to reflect their needs and desires.

Gamers can be loyal to a fault, so a first impression is incredibly important. Brands can use that passion and overlap their audiences with traditional sports fandom to build an experience that is more than just a cheap imitation of what they already love. As a fun takeaway, don’t be afraid to pick up a controller or watch a tournament to see what all the fuss is about.

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Featured image attribution: Gabriel.gagne

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Charles Poladian is a journalist by trade, but a true creative at heart. The New York-based storyteller has covered health, space, tech, video games, eSports, breaking news and trending topics for various websites, including International Business Times. At IBT, Poladian drove traffic through smart SEO, keyword integration and engaging content with an average of 300,000 unique visitors a month.

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