There’s a quote I like to say to myself when I need some encouragement: “After making all the mistakes, every player has a chance to turn the outcome of the game around by making the right moves next.”
It sounds like it could have been said by a Premier League soccer player or NFL star; but it’s actually from Zoltan Andrejkovics, professional esports player of the popular multiplayer strategy game Dota 2.
In the last few years, esports teams, tournaments, and players have pierced mainstream consciousness on a new level. As a consequence, brands increasingly have been looking at the business of esports in the same way they view traditional mainstream sports like basketball or football: as a great opportunity to engage with young consumers at scale.
Earlier this year we saw major brands including Nike, BT, and Kia Motors all unveil partnerships with esports teams competing in the then-scheduled 2020 League of Legends World Championship tournament, sponsored this year by Louis Vuitton.
With the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, esports now shares another trait in common with the mainstream sports industry: mass cancelations of live events and all the disruption that ensues.
But one difference with esports is that, despite its rising reputation for packing stadiums and arenas around the globe, it’s comparatively well positioned to adapt during a pandemic climate. Unlike in traditional sports, live esports tournaments can relatively easily be shifted fully online. Even with the absences of its usual live audience, IEM Katowice, the annual competition for the game Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) in early March set a new viewership record, making it the most-watched non-major tournament of all time.
For the millions of fans whose traditional events are now on hold, esports may be just the answer. And advertisers are taking notice. But why are brands only starting to come on board now, when they could have enjoyed a first-mover advantage?
There’s a common misconception that esports exploded onto the scene out of nowhere. Competitive gaming leagues have existed for decades, and the growth of the genre through the 1990s and 2000s set the category on a path destined for huge scale, thanks in part to the rise of the many popular tournaments now core to the genre.
In their little-known early days, esports leagues, teams, players, and fans alike were fairly misunderstood outside of the gaming community. I’ve heard my fair share of questions like “How can playing video games be a job?” and “Why would anyone want to watch this?”
This lack of understanding limited esports’ perceived legitimacy, in turn limiting its ability to appeal to a mainstream audience—and by extension, to commercial partners.
When commercially ambitious esports leagues started to try to establish their own legitimacy in mainstream sports commerce, they gravitated to widely-accepted points of reference, molding themselves in the image of something that everyone could comprehend and be openly proud of: traditional sports like baseball, soccer, and football.
As a result, across the board we saw red, white, and blue logos emerge, along with time-honored tournament terminology and big, shiny trophy cups. We were introduced to Major League Gaming (MLG), which mimicked Major League Baseball (MLB) in name and appearance (the two have no association).
This approach has undeniably helped esports become profitable and legitimate as far as sports categories go. But it’s also altered the core of what historically made the culture of esports so unique.
Like MLG, gaming and esports brands started to lean on familiar Western sporting imagery and visuals. Since their inception, video games have never necessitated geographical or cultural associations, but instead have spawned borderless global communities.
By imitating Western sports leagues, established on the back of national pride and colonialism, esports effectively inherited a new set of norms, including in the development of fragmented gaming communities, which now mirror the world of traditional sports. Just as ice hockey fans have a separate identity from football fans, the Fortnite community is now distinct from the CS:GO one.
This approach and segregation between gaming communities did not exist in the early days. And it set the expectation that esports would develop in the image of its bat and ball cousins, rather than charting its own path.
This imitation strategy has been hugely successful on the commercial front: An estimated 1.57 billion people were reportedly aware of esports in 2019, with a 13.8% growth in the number of viewers through 2018, translating to 335 million viewers tuning in. By 2021, this was predicted to exceed 550 million, making esports one of the hottest new sponsorship opportunities for non-endemic brands.
But has this commercial success come at the expense of esports’ authenticity?
In recent months and years, we have seen divergent responses to this question by leading esports brands. On one side, several disruptive new entrants and revitalized incumbents—such as ESL Gaming Network and Blast—have recognized that esports is unique and unprecedented, and that it should act accordingly. Esports has boldly created a new genre of truly international brands that represent today’s passionate community of gamers as a global tribe, united in mindset rather than location.
On the other side, a new set of esports leagues, recently created for freshly minted game-titles like Overwatch League and Call of Duty League have doubled down on the Western sports model, diverting from the category norm of avoiding geographical allegiances. These leagues use city-based teams to increase esports’ appeal to an ever-wider audience via the common tactic in in traditional sports of building strong localized followings driven by territorial tribalism.
But with the unexpected development of the coronavirus pandemic, this question has become more or less moot.
While the world of mainstream sports reels with the impact of coronavirus cancelations, esports has demonstrated a resilience to global crises that definitively sets it apart. Although spectators are no longer allowed to attend tournaments, most major esports events will proceed with relatively painless adjustments to being fully virtual. And for tournaments like the already hugely popular League of Legends Global Championship finals (which garners more views than the Superbowl), brands will likely still be eager to break into the industry.
For any sport, it is vital that a game evolves with one thing in mind: serving the fans and communities who celebrate it. As an unprecedented number of sectors stutter and brace for still worse to come, gaming is seeing an uptick in players, and esports a surge in online viewership. While physical travel and contact are so greatly restricted, the inherently borderless nature of gaming may also come into play in a new way.
Mimicking the status quo and changing your profile for the sake of fitting in is sometimes necessary and prudent for growth. But there’s a potential lesson in here: that staying true to your innate traits and talents pays off, too.