• Van Hawke Sports

Esports: the challenges and the opportunities missed

- By Harrison Davis

In what has been an extremely uncertain time for the sporting industry due to the numerous hurdles that needed to be navigated following the impact of Covid-19, the position esports found itself in was rather unique. Due to the nature of esports being online, it was near enough the only sporting entity that was running throughout the initial stages of the global pandemic. There was of course, changes that needed to be made to the format of esports as it was no longer possible for players to convene and play on stage in front of audiences like we have become accustom to seeing in recent years. Esports had an unparalleled opportunity as it was the only competitive sport that was operational at a time when everyone was crying out for something to watch.

So, the question becomes did it take that opportunity? The straightforward answer would be 'NO'. Whilst it would not be fair to say that esports did not see a significant increase in both interest from brands looking to enter the space and fans alike. To say that esports filled the void that had been left by traditional sports would be a stretch by anyone’s imagination. Esports had the potential to launch itself into mainstream channels of media which had never previously been possible. Whilst many, I included, hold the belief that it will not be too long before we start to see Esports appearing on television channels, much like they do in eastern cultures here in the west. The timeline for that goal could have been accelerated massively following the fallout of Covid-19. 

Instead we saw the validity of esports take a serious hit with what was presented to the viewers. Nothing sums this sentiment up more than the decision of Formula 1 to launch the Virtual Grand Prix Series. The frustration here for many, was in the decision to put on an event with celebrities and drivers competing in a virtual race instead of using the opportunity to showcase the talent on display in the Sim racing community. What is the most perplexing aspect of this is Formula 1’s inability to promote Sim racing. Due to Formula 1’s involvement in Sim racing you would expect there to be an interest on their part to see Sim racing succeed. In making the decision to put on a token event rather than allowing fans of Formula 1 to see high level competitive action from Sim racing professionals, it fails to capitalise on the opportunity to generate a huge amount of Sim racing fans that can appreciate the talent on display. Instead we were subjected to musicians and golfers attempt to navigate the tracks. Actions such as this take a huge step backwards in the progression of esports. 

Formula 1 is not the only sporting entity that is guilty of failing its esports products. The Premier League decided to host the ePL Invitational with a player from each club competing against each other in a FIFA tournament.  Whilst on the surface this seems fine, it once more takes the focus off the ePremier League. A tournament arranged but the Premier League showcasing the best professional FIFA players in the world. This was an opportunity to expose the huge fanbase that traditional sports have to the very best that the esports world has to offer. 

The frustration that is generated from this is in what could have been achieved regarding the esports industry. It is in everyone’s interest that operates any esports entity to increase the viewership of esports to attract brands to buy into the project. So, the decision made by Sports entities not to promote esports at a time when it had the opportunity to be centre stage is one that baffles me. 

Moreover, there are other issues that are created by hosting events such as the ones I have previously mentioned. It muddies the water from fan perspective as to what esports is. One of the largest issues that faces Esports is in the public perception of gaming. Many are confused as to why Esports has any appeal as a spectator sport and hosting events like this and branding it as esports further enforces the confusion as to why people invest time into watching esports. 

So, what could the esports industry have done differently? Whilst I concede that there were mistakes made at an organisational level by traditional sports organisers such as Formula 1 and the Premier League. The esports industry did little to capitalise on the situation. There are a range of differences in what makes Esports appealing from a marketing perspective for a brand. Esports has a platform which no other sport can hope to replicate. The fan experience in traditional sports compared to Esports are vastly different. Esports needs to leverage what makes it unique whilst learning off traditional sports and capitalising on what it can do that other sports cannot. 

The Esports audience is like none other. There is no sport that has a more refined viewer than Esports does. It is overwhelmingly male dominated, and the age rage is mostly 16-35. With an estimated 3 billion hours of Esports content in 2020 the audience is always engaged. The value in being able to advertise to such a precise audience is something which is not seen anywhere else in sport-based marketing. This audience is the life blood of Esports, and brands want to tap into the market to access a fanbase where they know who is on the other side of the screen. The access to this viewer base it what makes Esports such an appealing prospect to brands. Especially when we see events like the League of Legends World Championship with over 100 million concurrent viewers, dwarfing that of the Superbowl.

The major stumbling block that is facing the esports industry is understanding how to value their product. Understandably this is something that traditional sports has perfected due to the longevity of the market and the consistency in which the product has been delivered. This is something that Esports is still trying to figure out. Standardised pricing for their assets and what they should be correctly valued at. This lack of clarity is off putting for brands, if an Esports property does not know the value of their brand and are either undercutting their competitors too much or over valuing their organisation this serves as a red flag. Particularly for brands entering the space for the first time. 

This lack of set pricing is something which the Esports industry needs to address before it can take big strides forward in increasing the stature of professional gaming to the level of traditional sports. Whilst there are definite positive signs that are being made in relation to sponsorship from so called ‘non-endemic’ brands. The challenge that Esports needs to conquer is Esports itself. It needs to learn from the strength of traditional sports and package its assets in a way that brands are familiar with.

Whilst there is no doubt that brands are taking an interest in Esports due to the high viewership numbers, the rapid growth of the sector and most significantly the audience that it has. Esports properties needs to convince them to move into the Esports sector rather than sticking with what they know on a traditional sports sponsorship front. Especially in a market where sports sponsorship prices are falling drastically.  

The lack of innovation in unparalleled times and the challenges in on boarding brands due to an unrefined marketing package have hindered Esports from taking full advantage of the situation that presented itself following the outbreak of Covid-19. It was not pushed down any conventional media channels when the schedules were open waiting for something to come forward. Combined with the difficulty in brands becoming involved in Esports from a confused market that is extremely inaccessible when compared to traditional sports sponsorship Esports missed the chance it had to thrust itself into the area with established sports and challenge their viewership and sponsorship opportunities. 

Whilst there was some success generated in the world of Esports following Covid-19, the full extent of the opportunity was not taken and from the perspective of a fan that wants to see the industry succeed, it was difficult to see.  

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