Esports and Gaming Flourished in 2018, and Brands Won’t Want to Miss in the New Year

It's a market that deserves more attention from advertisers

2018 saw a huge increase in gaming and esports, and brands would benefit from investing in it in the new year. Getty Images
Headshot of Jeff Chown

Gaming made big headlines in 2018, from the dominance of Twitch and Fortnite to the first season of the Overwatch League to a wave of municipal and private investors backing teams and venues. No marketer should ignore the passion and sheer size of the gaming community, which eclipses the audience for most American professional sports. It’s easy to imagine a quasi-Olympic future for esports, with its own Shaun White-level celebrities.

Brands can nurture this development if they can handle long-term investment in the community. Here’s what to expect in the future.

Brands will get involved

Non-endemic brands will flood the space with sponsorships and partnerships, recognizing it as a primary way to reach cord cutters and Gen Z. Esports, the top echelon of professional competition, needs big money to push it further into the mainstream. Brands will put up prize money, enlarge tournaments and invest in franchises. With expansion will come more TV time, more dedicated streams and bigger audiences. To engage at a more personal level, brands should seek to enhance the live experience for those crowds filling the new arenas.

Meanwhile streamers, given the quantity and regularity with which they entertain their audiences, will keep rewriting our expectations of influencers. The intimacy and interactivity of their medium makes them enticing to marketers, but brands are only welcome if they are generous and helpful.

Because of [its] interpersonal aspect, brands must tread lightly and look for ways to add value.

Conventional TV will try, but struggle, to capture the full esports experience

The myriad streamers on Twitch offer a viewing experience akin to being able to choose your commentator. Imagine tuning into a football game and being able to choose not only your language but also your preferred style of commentary: Humorous and edgy? In-depth expertise? Explanatory for novices? Now consider that TV doesn’t support two-way interaction, and it looks even less viable.

Esports at the college level will keep organizing

It’s unclear whether esports needs college the way other pro sports do. Regardless, club teams have proliferated. A handful of schools have full varsity teams, and scholarships are increasingly common. Tespa and Collegiate Starleague, the two largest organizers, have secured rights to run leagues across the major titles and platforms.

If the NCAA moved to govern and monetize esports, the effects would be drastic. For one, it would prohibit players from earning money from winnings, streaming or betting. But for now, this outcome seems unlikely as game publishers aren’t about to hand the NCAA so much power.

Gamer wellness will come into focus

Gamers engage in a sedentary activity and show high affinity for sugary drinks, fast food and packaged snacks. But professional teams are raising standards. Jerry Jones’ esports team in Dallas has the same training and nutritional and therapeutic resources as the Cowboys. Concern for streamers has surfaced, too, because of the pressure to perform excessive hours, leading to burnout and breakdowns.

Health-oriented brands will leap into the picture with support for better habits. For example, the supplement retailer GNC is sponsoring Limit, the World of Warcraft guild, by providing a nutritional advisor and supplements during their raid on the latest WoW expansion.

Challenging yet necessary attempts at diversity will emerge

The hypermasculine world of esports is probably not established enough to welcome a cultural change, but brands investing in this space will want and expect the sport to rehab its image of being hostile to women and minorities. Twitch and major publishers have initiatives to boot off the most caustic behavior. Brands can help with visibility and representation and emphasize the ways gaming actually is inclusive. Microsoft launched the Xbox Adaptive Controller for people with physical disabilities and built a heartwarming holiday TV spot around it, a reminder of the ways gaming accommodates many people that sports do not.

5G will multiply the rate of growth and innovation

AT&T’s next-generation network rollout has begun. Once devices follow suit, 5G and the removal of latency will blow the lid off mobile streaming and enable innovation in areas such as AR, VR and autonomous cars. Hello, gaming while commuting. Currently with Oculus Go, sports fans can feel like they’re sitting courtside together when they’re on their respective couches. Now imagine that type of immersion in the gamer experience.

Demand for gaming expertise will reshape the job market

Several years ago, anyone who could demystify social media for businesses was in demand. It led to new agencies, new practices and new headcounts. The perception of gaming as niche (in the view of many who don’t take part) speaks to a vast knowledge gap that organizations, sooner or later, will attempt to address. Don’t be surprised when gaming activity appears on resumes.

The enormity of gaming underscores its social nature. It feeds humans’ needs for connection, for being entertained collectively and for celebrating the talent in our midst. Because of this interpersonal aspect, brands must tread lightly and look for ways to add value. Enhance the party. The success factor is long-term conviction because the ROI of aligning with a highly fragmented and distributed community won’t be immediate. It’s a bet, but given the vast popularity of gaming, the power of streamers and the rapid expansion of esports, it’s a good bet.

Jeff Chown is the CEO of entertainment and luxury at The Marketing Arm.