Ben ‘Noxville’ Steenhuisen (pictured right), Senior Software Architect at Bayes Esports, looks at the overlaps between esports and ‘traditional’ sports before assessing some of the key challenges companies face when marketing the concept of competitive video gaming to new demographics of bettors.
For a long time the variety of sports available for traditional sports betting was a mostly stagnant pool. Fringe sports sometimes snuck in for the larger bookmakers, whilst others just stuck to the tried and tested mainstream titles. The rise of esports changed the status quo in a drastic way – a fundamentally different group of sports with massive overall popularity, and constantly shifting individual popularities. For both bookmakers and bettors this presented an important crossroads: to join the wave early, or wait and see.
The appeal of esports for bookmakers is obvious: a global following with thousands of matches per title per year, with easy (and almost entirely free) viewing platforms, and with coverage in multiple languages. The core demographic for esports is also a younger one, a key selling point compared to traditional sports which have had an ever-increasing median in recent decades. With analytics showing the stark contrast in media consumption preferences between traditional sports fans and esports fans, it’s hard to consider a marketing strategy applicable to both. This means that with the unique opportunity esports presents, unique solutions are required for its challenges.
Before we dive into the challenges, let’s first look at some of the ideas that do overlap from traditional sports. The most low-hanging of these are direct sponsorships for teams, something which almost all the large teams in esports are already doing. This allows valuable screen-time when the broadcast cuts to a real-life shot of the players in their jerseys (much in the same way the close-up goal celebration of a player in a football match), or when the team releases their own branded content. Tournaments are also often sponsored by a variety of companies (including bookmakers) allowing for regular background screen appearances.
Furthermore, teams host branded activation events (either directly related to esports, or a more generic social gathering with their players), allowing their fans to be engaged with by their partners. These ideas are simple and effective, but limited to those who are already esports fans – the real endgame is bringing in non-esports bettors into the fold.
The first stumbling block for non-esports endemics is simply understanding the game itself. Unlike traditional sports which people are introduced to often at an early age, many of the older generation simply never had enough exposure to esports titles.
Spectating esports can be very frustrating. None of the ‘big three’ esports titles (Dota 2, CS:GO, League of Legends) have an obvious single activity to follow (like the ball in many ball sports) – there is unpredictable action across a vast playing arena which cannot be viewed at once. Broadcasters attempt to mitigate this by having professional “observers” who keep following the most crucial parts of the action within the screen but the overall viewing experience can be jarring and difficult for newcomers. This is where esports titles which are based on traditional sports (like FIFA, Madden, or Rocket League) have an advantage – it’s very easy for non-endemic viewers to follow them.
In most other esports titles it is also difficult to even decide who is ahead: in Dota 2 and League of Legends there’s simply no “score” (teams can win when behind in all the key metrics like kills, objectives, or gold), and in CS:GO the attack/defence side swap can be confusing. This makes more casual channel-swapping viewing difficult, since viewers are compelled to spend time just to get some appreciation for the state of the game.
The crucial solution to this is education for newer viewers – simplifying the broadcast so that less experienced viewers do not feel lost. Valve has historically done a great job at this at key events for The International (the Dota 2 ‘World Cup’) by having a newcomer stream where a few games each day were broadcast on a separate, but parallel broadcast designed for newer people.
General exposure to esports is the next challenge: it’s unlikely your local sports bar will be showing tournaments anytime soon, so you need to either start following because of word-of-mouth, or because of general advertising. Bookmakers can jumpstart the advertising but, as discussed before, esports can seem completely alien and indecipherable to the unprepared.
In the long-run, it seems inevitable that esports grows to the point where it’s considered a major contender in sports betting – but creative marketing techniques can give a huge early advantage to bookmakers by letting them tap into the existing pool of potential sports bettors. Esports titles have unique challenges associated with them, but a keen understanding of these challenges can allow for successful navigation around them, whilst they also remain significant barriers for competitors.