Last month, Sports Shorts blogged about the rise in popularity of eSports and the wealth of commercial opportunities this presents. In the intervening weeks, eSports has again hit the headlines on both sides of the Atlantic. In the US, the NBA’s 76ers have purchased two eSports teams (Dignitas and Apex), and market research company Newzoo reported that eSports is drawing viewers away from traditional sports, with millennials now viewing as much eSports as they view traditional sports like baseball or hockey. Closer to home, France has legalised eSports and will soon be televising the first official French eSports league, and, earlier this year, Bundesliga’s FC Schalke 04 purchased a European League of Legends team, ‘Elements’, which it will rebrand in Schalke 04’s name and image.
Perhaps the most noticeable aspect of these headlines is the appearance of traditional sporting organisations, such as football clubs and basketball teams, in the eSports arena. What is also interesting about the purchases made by the likes of FC Schalke and the 76ers is that they are not buying up teams which compete in electronic versions of their traditional sports (although some, such as Manchester United, have done so). Indeed a number of ‘traditional’ sports organisations are reportedly exploring similar opportunities. This begs the question: why are traditional sports so keen to diversify and secure a slice of the eSports market?
As ESPN puts it:
“Gaming is what every traditional sports league is desperate to become: young, global, digital and increasingly diverse.”
Whilst electronic versions of traditional sports remain popular, they are unlikely to overtake or compete with digital native eSports such as Counter-Strike and League of Legends, which are free to develop without being confined by ‘real world’ rules and norms. In other words, the publishers of games like League of Legends can write whatever they please in order to make the game more fun, more challenging, and more spectator-friendly (think supernatural powers, creative rule changes, and more). Conversely, although a game like FIFA becomes increasingly realistic with each iteration, as a concept it is ultimately confined to the rules of physics and Football. Thus, whilst the affinity between an NBA team and a League of Legends team may not be immediately apparent, the key appears to lie in the potential to reach new fans (particularly millennials) through eSports.
The eSports market is continuing to grow and develop at pace and it is clear that traditional sports and sponsors are keen to partake in the action. Yet, there is reportedly a sense amongst some sports marketers that traditional sponsors are still in an “education phase” in terms of the market’s opportunities and demographics. The suggestion is that sponsors still have some work to do to get to grips with the market’s potential and to understand and engage with the fans (a recent Newzoo report has found that, if eSports generated as much revenue per fan as the NBA, it would be a $2.5 billion business, suggesting that there is still plenty of unrealised potential for brands). As the fans (both spectators and gamers) appear to be such a fundamental motive for entry into the eSports market, this may well prove to be the differentiating factor between the successful and less successful investments. Regardless, the dramatic diversification of high-profile traditional sports franchises like the NBA will no doubt attract much excitement as well as scrutiny. The extent to which other traditional sports organisations will follow suit remains to be seen.