Can brands become digital all-stars?

Five reasons why it's worth migrating marketing dollars this year to the digital sporting forum.

The bellowing cheers and jeers from millions upon millions of passionate sports fans have fallen silent, as a pandemic brings live sporting events to an abrupt halt for the coming months—and potentially for the rest of 2020. But listen carefully, and you will find the vigor of sport has switched from live venues to the virtual arena, as pro athletes, fans and broadcasters plug into the already thriving business of online gaming and esport.

If you tune into dedicated sport channels now, you will notice an uptick in esport coverage. In fact, ESPN recently ramped up its live esport exposure, announcing a deal with Riot Games to be the official streaming platform for the 2020 League of Legends Championship Series (LCS) this April. Sky Sports has just started airing virtual Formula 1 races featuring drivers Lando Norris and the retired Jenson Button. 

Pro athletes are already channeling their sporting spirit and competitive edge from the comfort of their homes by taking to the virtual realm. On April 10, 16 England soccer players, including Marcus Rashford and Lucy Bronze, kicked off a friendly virtual match on the new Fifa 20 game. On the same day, Major League Baseball (MLB) announced the first online tournament, called The Show Players League, drafting in 30 pro and retired athletes to compete in a 29-game regular season; and on April 3, 16 NBA players began testing their virtual dribbling skills for the NBA 2K20 Players Tournament.

Sports fans have been tuning into live-streamed online gaming tournaments with increasing enthusiasm since self-isolation regulations were first announced. Amazon’s live-streaming video platform Twitch reports that its February and March 2020 viewing figures were nearly double those for the same period in 2019. In the first quarter of 2020, YouTube Gaming Live’s average concurrent viewership increased by 15.5 percent, while Facebook Gaming’s increased by 23 percent, since the last quarter, according to analytics by Stream Hatchet. 

With sports networks, players and fans swiftly making the leap into the virtual arena, this presents a perfect opportunity for brands to pivot from live sport to esport. Below are five reasons why it’s worth migrating marketing dollars this year to the digital sporting forum. 

1.     It’s a billion-dollar business

Even before the outbreak of COVID-19 and the consequential home quarantines, the gaming industry was growing in popularity across the world. GlobalData estimates that online gaming as a whole will be valued at $300 billion by 2025, and the esport market is expected to reach $3 billion by 2025, according to a 2019 report by Research and Markets.

2.     Esport draws in more viewers than the Super Bowl 

The League of Legends World Championship 2018 finals drew in almost 100 million unique viewers, whereas the Super Bowl that year had just over 98 million tuning in. During the COVID-19 outbreak, self-quarantine has led to a spike in live-streamed games. In lieu of live events, audiences are finding solace in digital tournaments—as evidenced by the rising viewership numbers.

3.     Major brands are already investing

Forward-thinking brands have already leaned into the digital play with esport and video gaming sponsorships. Last year, Adidas entered a multi-year partnership with gamefluencer Tyler Blevins (aka Ninja) and Nike became the official apparel partner for the top online gaming league in China: League of Legends Pro League (LPL). Louis Vuitton partnered with Riot Games, expanding its fashion collection to the digital forum by releasing in-game skins designed by Nicolas Ghesquière. Other brand sponsors include Coca-Cola, Mastercard, Mercedes-Benz, Chipotle and Spanish lollipop brand Chupa Chups, which made its debut in the esport business by announcing the sponsorship of Vodafone Giants this April.

4.     Pro gamers + pro athletes = sporting success

Who better to draw in crowds than established sporting champions? Retired pro athletes are resuming gameplay in the virtual domain for friendly matches, drumming up a larger fan base and audience reach.

5.     The show goes on

Unlike traditional sports, where the in-person event is the heart and soul of the game, esport play-offs can relocate to a virtual stadium without affecting the overall experience. Many esport tournaments have paused global tours and announced online replacements already; the Call of Duty League began online-only games on April 10, China’s King Pro League announced on February 18 that it will move its Global Tour online, and the US Apex Legend Global Series has already started online competition.  

Whether online competitive gaming has moved into the mainstream is no longer a matter for debate, as an unprecedented global lockdown propels this industry into the spotlight. What’s more, esport has not only shown its resilience and agility during a pandemic, but also proved it can grow and thrive.

Emma Chiu is the global director of Wunderman Thompson Intelligence.

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