Does the rapid growth of eSports show it provides a legitimate alternative to real sport for brands?
As consumption patterns of music, entertainment and sport continue to shift, so too does the approach of rights holders, brands and agencies. The growth and quality of internet access has allowed new pursuits to spawn in the past 15 years and offers huge opportunities for entrants into the leisure market.

Source: Battlefy (2014)

Internet broadcasting, through PPV platforms, YouTube channels or bespoke social networks and apps have allowed a new generation of superstars, spectators and key influencers. The rise of created sports (Slamball, Crashed Ice), Fantasy Sports and Professional Gaming has allowed brands to connect with a generation of millennials that they may not otherwise have. Professional gaming is not a new phenomenon, with Space Invaders tournaments taking place as early as the 1980s. The growth of the internet, and thus multiplayer platforms, has seen the number of participants and prize money soar, as shown in the graph above. As consumer interest has risen, so has media interest, with bespoke satellite channels, and more recently internet channels, providing widespread coverage of tournaments.

Major channels including ESPN, CBS and DirecTV have all covered professional gaming, however, internet channels such as Twitch (recently purchased by Amazon for $970m) and MLG.tv have been the major media platforms. Both platforms have huge subscriber bases, dedicated social media communities, and continue to grow exponentially. In 2013, 45 million unique users watched 12 billion minutes of video on Twitch, from six million videos, while 58% of the users spend more than 20 hours a week on the streaming site. These figures place Twitch in the same league as the top cable TV channels, while peak viewing (at 4.5 million live viewers) is comparable to major sporting events such as the Stanley Cup Finals. While traditionally appealing to a niche, hardcore community of fanatical gamers, the appeal is now spreading to more casual gamers, and thus appealing to more consumer brands. Samsung & Movistar were two of the initial backers; Samsung partnering with the World Cyber Games, and a pro team. On Monday (15th December), Coca-Cola live streamed an eSports Game-a-thon from their global HQ in Atlanta. Five renowned gamers took part in five games, streamed over Twitch, with the winner donating the prize pool to a charity of their choice. It is all part of a conscious focus from Coke, which includes support for the League of Legends, and a dedicated Twitter gaming account with 204,000 followers.

Both FIFA & NASCAR have entered into the world of professional gaming, with the FIFA Interactive World Cup (almost 2 million players), and the NASCAR iRacing series. The number of participants is relatively low, compared to the number involved in other eSports titles, however, brand involvement is arguably more advanced in this space. FIFA and NASCAR both make use of the existing partners they have in place, with Sony heavily involved in the Interactive World Cup, while car manufacturers have allowed access to ‘digital versions’ of their cars across the iRacing series. By getting in early, have FIFA and NASCAR found a niche in the market which will convert gamers into real life? Or are they just seeking to avoid football and racing fans defecting to gaming?

Whether across Twitch and MLG.tv or YouTube and Netflix, a generation of millennials is accustomed to consuming their content on TVs, laptops, tablets and mobile phones. As the broadcast model continues to evolve, so too does the opportunity for ‘challenger’ sports such as professional gaming. With prize pools, audiences and awareness increasing, it is only a matter of time before more consumer brands become involved.

Whilst ‘YouTubers’ establish themselves as the next generation of influencers alongside actors, musicians and athletes, so too will brands wanting to tap into the generation of millennials. Indeed, this new generation of influencers are starting to impact ‘real’ sport, with one ‘YouTuber’, John Green, investing some of his personal advertising revenue as a sponsor of AFC Wimbledon.