Tapping into the esports opportunity
In February 2019, 16 teams from around the world descended upon Montreal, Canada to compete for a $2 million prize purse at the Six Invitational, the world championship event for Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Siege video game. According to Esports Charts, the event — organized by Ubisoft, the maker of the game, and the ESL pro esports league — posted a combined 8.4 million hours watched by gameplay streamers across platforms like Twitch, Facebook and YouTube.
While impressive, those figures pale in comparison to the 137 million hours watched during 2019's League of Legends World Championship, or Dota 2's main event, The International, which had 88 million hours watched in 2019. The Six Invitational, however, remains an undeniable example of how esports can bring attention to a video game title. According to The Esports Observer, viewers watched six million hours of gameplay streams for Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Siege during the week of the event. "It's more than six times the viewership the title received in the previous week," the Observer notes.
These accolades can be attributed to the hype brought forth by the esport tournament and Ubisoft's ongoing efforts to connect to their online gaming community. “When they launched that game, it was kind of a dud… I think after the first few days they had 10,000 active players, which in 2015 is not that many," says Jeremy Jackson, an analyst at Newzoo, a gaming and esports analytics and market research firm. “But before giving up, they put a lot of attention into it and listened to their community through forums."
Participating in forums is a critical element of customer experience in gaming. In Ubisoft's case, developing its relationship with the player community helped turn their game into a blockbuster.
Esports breaks new ground
The global monthly audience for esports is around 167 million people, according to a report by Goldman Sachs. That makes it more popular than the viewership of Major League Baseball and National Hockey League games. By 2022, that number is estimated to hit 276 million esports viewers a month, which will put it on par with the National Football League's audience.
“I think that we will continue to see growth within the sector because it's professionalizing and developing into something that's very exciting for people," says Jackson. “And, being involved in that community will heighten their experiences with certain games."
There is also significant opportunity for game companies to tap into esports-related revenue streams, says Jackson. That's because esports can improve gaming company brand awareness and bring new players into the ecosystem. According to the Goldman Sachs report, of the 15 PC and console games with the highest amount of player engagement through in-game purchases, seven are also in the top 15 esports titles as measured by total prize money paid out to players.
The secrets behind the rise of esports
From a customer acquisition perspective, esports is a cost-effective marketing tactic. Take for example the Overwatch League, which in 2018 launched with 10 million viewers. “To otherwise reach 10 million viewers would cost an estimated $300,000 for a minute-long ad," write the authors of Goldman Sachs report. “But through esports, a publisher can reach an audience of 10 million+ viewers for hours at a time at little to no cost."
A survey done by EY in 2019 examined sentiments surrounding the role of esports for games companies. Of the executives polled, 70% say they believe the medium draws new customers to games, and 72% say esports make a strong contribution to the brand and image of the firm. Nearly half (47%) say an esports capability will be critical to a triple-A gaming firm's competitive position in the coming years.
Any games company looking to get into esports needs to understand, however, that the foundation lies in building a community. Jackson points to popular esports titles like League of Legends and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive as examples. These titles were much-loved games before they became esports events and the competitions were a natural evolution built around an organically developed community.
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Experimenting with esports
Esports has come a long way in such a short timeframe, but despite its global popularity, it still is very much a new concept with no defined model for engagement. While some gaming companies are actively involved in planning events and leagues, others take a franchise model, licensing their game for certain events.
“Right now there are companies that are trying to build their game around esports and build it directly into their game, but that can definitely prove to be challenging," Jackson says. Instead, it may be better to focus on fostering that community around the game, providing excellent customer support and looking to how they might want to engage with the game competitively.
While it requires a lot of experimentation, Jackson suggests some best practices for player support and content moderation to ensure a positive community experience for both game's “foundational" audience and newcomers alike, including:
- Tap into expertise. Use moderators and community managers that fully understand the nuances of esports and how community members interact with each other.
- Be proactive. Clearly define terms like abuse, hate speech and sexual harassment in your community guidelines.
- Know your brand's voice. Where do you draw the line? What kind of toxic content could have a serious impact on your brand?
- Find the right balance. Drive positive discussions and balance filters with human-led moderation. “It's very important to ensure that the discussion doesn't steer towards something that's very toxic," says Jackson. “However, if you're moderating too harshly, then people might also feel apprehensive about that."
- Have a process. Make sure there is a plan in place for handling risks and uncomfortable situations delicately, especially surrounding esports when engagement may be at its peak.
- Ensure always-on support. Esports is an international phenomenon with events happening all over the world in multiple languages. It's important to be prepared to offer native-language customer care to tackle challenges and provide loyalty-winning player support.
For all the comparisons to other sports leagues, esports carry the distinction of being born online, and that community can be a gaming company's greatest asset.
“If you're a (soccer) team like Arsenal, you can't really be in complete control of your brand in some bar in Australia," says Jackson. “But with esports, the community lives online, so it's really easy to not only track but also be a part of that conversation in an organic way. You can adapt to the sentiment of your community and really build a strong relationship with them."