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How Brands Can Engage Gamers by Understanding the Esports Community

Gamers are not one-size-fits-all.

Video gamers in a row

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Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of Rolling Stone editors or publishers.

Video game playing has exploded amid the pandemic and with it, an increase in brands interested in connecting with an audience that is more inclined to test new products — and has more discretionary income than the general public. Stuck at home and gaming more than ever, they’re presumably a captive audience ripe for the taking.

As a former professional gamer who competed for over 10 years, I’ve had a front-row seat to this evolution, and while it’s personally exciting to see the industry getting the attention I’ve long felt it deserves, it can be a minefield for even household-name brands to reach this audience.

Modern-day esports has been around since the 1990s and is surpassing many traditional sports in viewership, but it’s still a fragmented community with thousands of subcultures that change rapidly as new games, gaming platforms and technologies are introduced. This means brands need a healthy respect for the idiosyncrasies of the gaming community and a targeted approach to reach them.

But don’t let that stop you from tapping into esports. It can be a hugely rewarding audience for your brand if you adeptly navigate the market and avoid souring the community with a false start.

Invest resources into building engagement versus blanket exposure.

Because of a heavy focus on competitive tournaments and streaming events, esports brand engagement often involves sponsorship or advertising deals. There’s limited visibility into ROI beyond a vague calculation of “impressions” you received as a one-off during a fixed-duration streaming event. The industry has received a lot of deserved flack for the dubious provenance of these metrics.

Accountability is improving in this respect, so determining ROI isn’t impossible, but you’ll need to take a highly customized approach no matter what. You shouldn’t expose your product to gamers through passive and generic content. Sparking a participatory dynamic with the right message and delivery mechanism is essential.

In December 2020, Wendy’s executed a genius campaign with Uber Eats that promoted Twitch streamers’ favorite Wendy’s meals. Anyone ordering takeout off the menu was entered into a prize pool for swag and gear. It was a great way to combine gamer-centric content with Wendy’s core product (munchies), creating a meaningful and lasting impression.

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You can’t use traditional mediums to reach gamers or shoehorn other promotional content into the esports community.

Reaching gamers is increasingly difficult. They typically don’t watch TV, and they prefer to stream content. They often stream their music via YouTube or Spotify, so radio isn’t a fit. Digital advertising doesn’t work well either because content must be bite-sized and splashy to capture their attention, and it must embed itself seamlessly into their hobbies and interests.

As a result, the brands that prosper in esports often build out a special arm of their business to approach it. That could include something as simple as creating a separate social media presence just for the gaming community or designing brand creative targeted to gamers.

High production value is not necessarily needed. Geico did a cheeky Covid-beard campaign with TSM star Bjergsen that was filmed as a Zoom-style group video chat. On the pricier end of the spectrum, luxury brands like Gucci and Louis Vuitton have created capsule lines and limited-edition products specifically for gamers, according to the New York Times (paywall).

No matter the level of resourcing you have to invest in esports, listening to gamers and believing in the community needs to shine through any campaign.

You don’t need to have a huge budget to build an engaging esports campaign.

In my decades of experience advising businesses on esports, I’ve worked with budgets as low as thousands of dollars up to millions. It is possible to stretch your budget if you want to test the waters.

When my company, Repeat, which runs large esports tournaments, works with brands that are new to esports, we laser focus on specific game platforms, geographic regions and age groups to narrow the scope of a campaign to test engagement. We also A/B test different types of content to see what sticks. It’s these sorts of controlled experiments that can help you determine whether you’re going in the right direction and prevent you from blowing your budget.

Another strategy is to be the first or only company in your category on a game or platform. When mattress brand Casper was starting out, it saw an opportunity to be the first prominent sleep product in esports by partnering with popular team Fnatic. Coca-Cola, BMW and Red Bull also took early risks on esports and now have thriving communities and partnerships that were years in the making.

Gamers aren’t only interested in gaming-adjacent products or services.

Many brands have the misconception that gamers only care about games, but in reality, gamers are humans who need insurance, banking, cars, mortgages, food, furniture and everyday necessities. If you take the time to align with their interests, they’re more likely to spend digitally and associate your brand as one they trust and have had a lot of exposure to.

Geico’s heavy investment in gaming is proof positive of this. Or you could take car detailing products purveyor Turtle Wax, now one of the most prominent nonendemic brands in esports, which tapped into gamers with a passion for cars by executing targeted campaigns and grew its social channels by 25%.

Gamers are not one-size-fits-all, nor do they fit into common stereotypes or tropes. If I could pinpoint the heart of every mistake brands make when marketing to an esports audience, it’s an assumption that they can create the culture without needing to adapt to it. Put aside your preconceived notions of what a gamer looks like, and instead, keep an open mind as you home in on the esports communities and game properties that align with the values and spirit of your brand. It’s the only path to engage this dynamic audience of potential fans.

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