Is esports a safe bet for advertisers?

NBC Sports' latest deal with Psyonix Rocket League is being heralded as innovative, but research shows that it's a conservative play.

NBC Sports will host the regional finals of a Rocket League tournament Saturday, marking the first time the network has dabbled in esports.

For the uninitiated, esports consists of video game players competing against each other to win money and prizes. Fans of competitive gaming have been growing since 2007 when launched. The audience has increased so much that Amazon bought the gaming portion of in 2011, which is now known as

In short, esports represents a huge, untapped market for advertisers. But NBC isn’t exactly ahead of its peers in its decision to focus on Psyonix Rocket League. After all, ESPN and Turner have already broadcast esports tournaments. In fact, I’d say NBC’s endorsement of the game—described as "soccer with cars"—is pretty much a sure thing.

Named one of Polygon’s 2015 games of the year, Rocket League is considered widely accessible for esports newbies and veteran enthusiasts. The action centers on snazzy, colorful, fast cars trying to get a ball into the opponents’ goal. While it is easy to understand and fun to watch, spectators can also appreciate the level of skill and talent required to play it well. Plus, Rocket League is available on Xbox, PS4, PC and now Nintendo Switch, making it easy to access.

And people worldwide are readily accessing esports. According to BI Intelligence findings, roughly 300 million people globally tune in to eSports, and that audience is expected to grow to a half million over the next three years. What’s more, research company Newzoo reports that esports is already a $500 million industry and by 2020, brands are expected to invest more than $1 billion in esports advertising.

But what do these audiences actually want from marketers? In March, Magid Advisors surveyed 1,000 consumers ages 16 to 45 in conjunction with the esports Ad Bureau. More than half of the respondents said they watched a live esports event at least once a week, and 72 percent of these avid fans said they want advertisers to add value for the entire esports community.

Fans also don’t seem to object to brand integrations—as long as they make sense. Thirty-eight percent or respondents said sponsors could create "fun, humorous or exciting content" centered on competitors. Another 35 percent wanted branded swag at live events. Thirty-two percent also favored advertisers providing product discounts to event attendees and the viewing audience.

But who should advertise during televised esports tournaments? Our study showed that significant numbers of respondents cited Samsung, Apple, Toyota and McDonald’s as being good fits. If these brands sign on, 41 percent of respondents expressed interest in trying a new product at an esports event, so it could be a ripe product testing ground.

NBC knows esports is a safe bet. Just because these games occur on a screen, doesn’t mean the competition of the players and the enthusiasm of fans is any less fierce than other sports. Advertisers whose products make sense for this audience need to get to know them better.

Stan Press is the managing director of Digital & Gaming at research-based consultancy Magid.

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