Nearly 16 years ago, between fierce Halo matches that determined who would take home the pile of $20s on the coffee table, my best friend and I had an idea. If we were this passionate about competing in a video game—and if our friends had stopped mingling at a loft party in Tribeca to watch us play—could we turn it into something more?
Months later, Major League Gaming (MLG) was born. We weren’t alone. Other people around the world had the same idea. Over the next ten years, lots of other people.
What’s now known as esports began as an organic, community-driven phenomenon, a decentralized, disorganized youth movement powered by the Internet and notoriously difficult for brands to connect with.
Authentic, engaging and global? Yes, yes and yes.
Structured, accessible and mainstream? No, no and absolutely not.
An untapped market
Esports had hundreds of millions of fans, but for years remained untapped by consumer marketers, who were frustrated by the lack of organization.
“It’s not ready for prime time,” is how television executives put it. Marketers told us again and again that they wanted to be in esports, but “it’s impossible to figure out where. Teams, players, leagues, streaming platforms—it’s all completely unstructured, it isn’t measured and we are desperately afraid of having our first foray into this space read as inauthentic to the community.”
But esports is finally growing up.
There’s a new movement to bring structure and accessibility to the field—to transform a global underground movement into the world’s most popular sport and most thrilling live entertainment.
Launching a franchised league
Last month, we launched the Overwatch League (OWL), the most significant addition to esports in years. Our vision was simple: Take the best elements of esports—authenticity, global community, a digital-first approach—and combine them with the best commercial practices of traditional sports.
OWL looks a lot like a what you expect from a sports league: A city-based franchise system whose basic structure mirrors that of the NFL or MLB. In fact, it has attracted some of those leagues’ top owners to purchase OWL franchises.
And it’s already a success. In its inaugural week, OWL drew more than 10 million viewers. It had an average audience per minute of over 400,000 on opening day.
The OWL borrows from the best of professional sports but replaces anachronistic elements with innovative new approaches. Instead of domestically anchored television distribution, premiere esports leagues broadcast over global digital streaming platforms. Brands don’t have to navigate among broadcasters, leagues, teams, and territorial rights because OWL is a vertically integrated one-stop-shop.
The sponsorship opportunity
Brands including HP, Intel, Toyota, Mondelez and T-Mobile joined the league as launch partners and are gaining new brand loyalists. They’re acquiring invaluable insights into the future of esports and its fan base.
Traditional sports audiences are aging quickly and some leagues have been falling behind in the digital space. Smart brands are investing in a forward-looking platform, one that connects them to a largely millennial, digitally native audience at their passion point. In esports, engagement is measured in hours and days, not seconds and minutes.
And they don’t have to navigate it alone. Marketers are guided into this new world by a team of experts who are committed to the audience, and who know how to deliver brand messages that resonate.
It’s still early. We still have many challenges ahead. But if you think esports isn’t ready for prime time, you might need to think again.