The meteoric rise of eSports and professional gaming is nothing new, but as the industry starts to mature, we are seeing a dramatic shift in the tried and tested global sports formula. This shift affects multiple areas of sports including arguably the two biggest areas; viewership and sponsorship. As marketers, we are all very familiar with the shift from static broadcast channels to more dynamic and fragmented viewership, but you need go no further than eSports to see the pace of change and the impact this will have on the sports marketing industry.
We have recently watched two dramatically contrasting sports events unfold at different ends of the sporting spectrum; The Wimbledon Championship tennis tournament, and the Fortnite World Cup. These two unlikely tournaments have a lot in common despite their differing background and audiences, let’s look at some data:
|Wimbledon||Fortnite World Cup|
|Tournament heritage (years)||133||2|
|Total Prize Pool||$46,312,000||$30,000,000|
|Spectator capacity||39 000||23 000|
|Participants (incl qualifying)||790||40 000 000|
|Online Mentions*||164 991||276 527|
|Final Viewership**||9 600 000||1 300 000|
|Primary Platform||Television Broadcast||Twitch Streaming|
*Mentions on twitter using related hashtags, sourced by Crimson Hexagon
**Wimbledon TV viewership calculated as total viewers, Fortnite Online viewers calculated as total concurrent viewers (CCV)
Despite the similarities in scale, the format of these events could not be more different. Tennis follows the traditional sporting mould, primarily focused on television broadcasting, while eSports makes use of online streaming platforms like Twitch. These streaming platforms provide their own fair share of problems, similar to the early days of internet advertising where everyone has different measurement parameters and tracking, making it difficult to compare viewership. This fragmented viewership makes it harder for brands to buy exclusive broadcast rights without angering fans, who are accustomed to the ease and availability of their favourite gaming streams.
The key difference with eSports is the accessibility, while I can easily count the number of times I have stepped onto a tennis court in the last year, I have played a significant amount of competitive games. We have a generation of players now who have grown up with gaming. They watch people play and they think they can get to that point when they play professionally themselves. If you watch a Wimbledon game, there are very few sane people who believe they can beat Novak Djokovic, but when you are at home and watching pros playing Fortnite or FIFA, a lot of people think, “I could beat that guy.” We can see this reflected in the 40 million players that tried out for the Fortnite World Cup qualifiers.
Of course, there are plenty of commercial sponsors and a never-ending array of opportunities, but the sports sponsorship takes on a different shape here. eSports fame is ephemeral. Players can be good one year and completely irrelevant the next due to gameplay changes, coaches leave to attend college and team names and ownership shift dramatically and often. All of this makes traditional sponsorship and team management difficult.
The players have grown up through internet fame and have tens of millions of subscribers before even reaching the heights of winning a big tournament. This results in a strong loyalty to those followers driving a stronger focus on authenticity, intimacy and content than in any other traditional sports setting. Brands that are wanting to wade into this world of endorsements need to be wary and ensure they do so in an authentic manner or risk alienating their prospective audiences.
As with all sports, commercial success is what drives the sport forward. Fortnite has a distinct advantage here with the underlying game (Fortnite) being owned entirely by a single entity, Epic Games. With over 250 million players globally, the game is an entertainment behemoth in its own right without the need for sponsors or broadcast partners. Epic Games have committed to investing over $100 million in prize money for Fortnite competitions this year alone.
With the world of eSports continuing to grow and the global scale and impact matching or even surpassing more traditional sporting activities, it’s important as marketers to keep abreast of these changes. The shift in broadcast channels, viewership patterns and mass participation lie at the core of the blossoming eSports industry, directly contradicting many of the established sporting monopolies. Grab your strawberries, cream and maybe a Red Bull to settle in to watch this fascinating era in sports viewership.