I’m sitting towards the back of a cinema — the smaller ones, not your IMAX or V-Max-type screens. It’s been about two hours, and a grouping of brand managers, marketers and executives have been taken through the basics of what esports is, what a professional gamer is, and what games “qualify” as an esport.
And then a slide comes up. It’s the Blizzard Arena, in Burbank, California. The speaker pivots: this was the studio that Johnny Carson hosted The Tonight Show in for 30 years.
It’s the first time I’ve heard the legendary Tonight Show host mentioned in connection with esports. It’s not something you’d bust out in general gaming conversation. If you mentioned The Tonight Show at a gaming night or a place like Beta Bar or Spawn Point, people would think Jimmy Fallon was doing another promo for the Switch.
But for the crowd at an esports panel in Sydney — bluntly called the “No Bullshit” tour, designed to inform attendees about “opportunities, sponsorship costs and returns for your potential investment” — that’s an angle that makes a lot of sense.
“Fast track your esports knowledge without the bullshit,” the tagline said.
The crowd’s told early on in the first panel: we’re not pitching our esports brand or company to you.
We’re pitching esports.
Part of the fun of this job is that you hear a lot of conversations. What’s fascinating in this job is how often you hear the same conversations, year after year.
One of those conversations: What is esports?
It comes up more often than you’d think, and on a much more simplistic, basic level.
Is it a team-based game? How do people compete? Is there esports on your phone? Where do you go to become a part of esports?
There’s a whole heap of graphs, from analysts like Statista, Newzoo, PwC. There’s a Steve Jobs quote towards the end of the day about people not knowing what they want until you show it to them.
People are cynical about brands; people are overwhelmed by an excess of choice.
But in esports, the crowd is told, fans like brands. There’s a quip told about one of the CS:GO players for Chiefs Esports Club. He talks about his Logitech mouse so often that it’s become part of his identity.
Esports fans don’t mind money, OVO Mobile founder Matt Jones says. “If they show genuine intent,” he qualifies.
The word authentic gets thrown around a lot. Don’t dabble.
“This community, their bullshit detectors are set to high alert, they’ve built an amazing thing and they’re seeing a lot of people chasing the gold rush,” lawyer Mat Jessep says.
For a talk about stripping the bullshit out of esports, the main takeaway is really a challenge: if you’re not really interested, if you don’t know whether this industry is a fit, then consider not being a part of it at all.
Not the words aspiring players or team owners would immediately like to hear.
But it’s realistic. Small industries like esports — at least in Australia, despite almost two decades of history and the obvious flood of money into the industry overseas — require sustenance to survive. Many local teams still thrive on the generosity of private investors, the (not especially) deep pockets of their founders, or through the meagre sponsorship deals and commercial arrangements they can capitalise on after some tournament wins.
The funny element, as someone who’s seen countless introductions to esports (and made some of my own) over the last 15 years, is that all of this is still deeply necessary.
It’s not hugely surprising when you consider video games, by its very nature, tends to be insular. Communities focus on their own games. Teams concentrate their efforts on the scenes in which they invest. Developers grow their own patch. Third party organisers gravitate towards what’s popular amongst their audiences (and whoever will volunteer).
Is it any wonder brands, marketing managers and advertisers are so damn confused?
It’s not if major companies don’t have people who don’t understand video games, or esports. But that’s not quite the same as having an entire department with a basic grounding in the cycle of video games, the support of upper management, or the courage to invest in a nascent industry.
And that’s often the main hurdle: a lack of institutional knowledge, from top to bottom. A few tales, told by Chris Smith at the start of the session, illustrated the problem.
In one firm, the boss decided they wanted to become involved in esports — so they found the resident gamer in the office, and made them responsible for overseeing their investment. Another company invested had a staffer pour time and money into esports, getting involved enough to sponsor a team and maintain a short-to-medium term involvement in the sector.
But that knowledge wasn’t shared throughout the company. So when the point person left for another job, the company’s entire knowledge of esports went with them. And when the team’s contract renewal came up, the managers remaining had no grounding to judge the value of the deal they’d signed, or what a future deal should look like.
The evangelists of the scene, the early adopters, are adamant that it’s invaluable to get in at the ground level early. “The volume of integration you have with the athlete is different to anything else I’ve ever seen,” attendees heard, highlighting the increased value — or willingness to participate in marketing, if you’re being cynical — of esports players.
One speaker noted that Muselk — the Australian streamer who found himself the target of a Daily Telegraph cover page — helped an album launch as part of a co-branded campaign. Another said players and teams could be used to help authorise or validate a brand, citing an example where players attended a JB Hi-Fi sales conference.
Someone even mentioned talk about having Fortnite matches at AFL games before a match to increase family engagement.
The audience is huge, too. One speaker mentioned having access to “private data” that identified around 300,000 gamers in Victoria as being fans of esports, with the fans defined by way of analogy as those who actively watch esports content once a month, supporting a team or player and able to identify multiple teams/players. In the Greater Melbourne region alone, that figure totalled 130,000.
But those visions were a little out of step with the crowd.
Were there any instances where a game could “glitch out” and cause a team to lose, one person asked. After an initial back and forth trying to clarify the question, one of the speakers replied that this sort of thing was sorted by rulesets, penalties and restarts.
Another member of the crowd — a Blizzard staffer who’s been supporting the local esports scene for around a decade — explained that developers have special builds designed for tournament play, builds that aren’t accessible to the general public.
The question wasn’t actually about rulesets or policies or tournament administration.
It was a question of trust. Can the game be trusted to remain a level playing field?
All the talk of long term, decade-long investments sounded good as well. But it also lacked the finality the brand managers, executives and curious folk in the crowd needed now.
What was a good investment? What would you do if you have $10,000 or $15,000 — what would you invest it in?
There were no firm answers.
And it seemed like that’s still the crux of the problem facing a lot of esports. The industry has moved well past the point of acceptance. Players and fans are more than willing to invest time and money into the hobby, and they’ll spend big dollars under the right circumstances.
But those circumstances don’t come together often in Australia. Gamers might drop a few hundred dollars at a major event like IEM or the Melbourne Esports Open — but how often will they buy the jerseys of a local team, or donate to upcoming talent?
That’s the position a lot of brands and advertisers face right now. Where is the return on investment — and what avenues are actually good to invest in? It’s nice to hear about benefiting five, six, seven years down the road, but few have the luxury to look that far ahead. Most budgets are monthly, quarterly, half-yearly.
Returns in five years makes sense if you’re a venture capitalist. And Australia doesn’t have many of those.
Even for the people in the right places that get it, there’s still the dearth of knowledge around them that has to be overcome.
So that’s where a lot of the esports pitch still lies. It’s educational. It’s peeling back the veil, offering some transparency and guidance about where the value truly lies.
For most brands right now, there probably is none.