The world of sports and entertainment is one which is constantly evolving, and every year seems to give rise to some new dawn or new innovation, which changes how these industries engage with their fans and audiences. The astonishing rise in the popularity of eSports (Electronic Sports) has been phenomenal to behold. Once, the realm of computer games and competitive gaming started as friends gathering in each other’s homes to host LAN parties and playing into the night. Today, it has not only grown up as a discipline, with a generation-spanning audience of millions, it has become a multi-billion dollar industry, complete with large-scale eSports events, online gaming experiences which criss-cross the globe in real time, and incredible potential for brand sponsorship and marketing. 

It’s more than fair to say that eSports has well and truly left behind its niche and countercultural identity, and has been fully embraced by the big league, by the mainstream, and by major distributors on leading channels. The real tipping point perhaps emerged when Sky and ITV linked up with Ginx (a leading sports channel) to launch the groundbreaking Ginx Esports TV – a TV station broadcasting internationally, with eSports being played – often with live commentary and panel discussions included – all day, every day. The BBC has also started dipping their toes into the world of eSports, as have other prime broadcasters such as ESPN and BT Sport.

Naturally, there are still plenty of sceptics and detractors out there, claiming everything from the idea that eSports is a passing fad to that they shouldn’t be considered a professional sport at all. Likewise, there are many claiming that the skill set shown by eSports’ top players matches those of professional athletes, and that its rise in popularity shows a key step forward for the world of entertainment and spectator sports in general. No matter what people say, and no matter whether or not the eSports’ bubble of popularity will eventually burst, nobody could argue against the fact that eSports is here, it has hit the mainstream, and the opportunities it opens up in the worlds of marketing, sponsorship, and events are genuinely game-changing.

We’re going to be taking a closer look at the rise of eSports events and eSports experiences, and considering how online gaming is opening up new horizons for everyone involved.

Who Watches and Plays eSports?

A huge part of the massive new appeal of eSports is that it is essentially open to everyone. Whether you’re a player or a spectator, all you really need to get involved is a device with an internet connection, and with the advent of superfast broadband, and the spread of eSports’ popularity across the globe, it is perhaps one of the first truly international entertainment forms the world has ever seen.

While the average eSports players tend to be men, the relative anonymity of player avatars and profiles mean that the spectrum of those getting involved is considerably broader than you’d find in other sporting events, as is the gender profile of the mass audience.

As far as age range goes, the audience is, as we might expect, primarily made up of younger fans. Computer games have been around for decades now, but as the modern eSports scene is heavily centred on the millennial and generation Z audience, the majority of both players and spectators tend to be in their teens and twenties.

That aforementioned fast broadband speed (a major requirement for top players) has led to the largest audiences being based in South East Asia, with South Korea topping the table for the past few years. While the Asia-Pacific region, as shown in the above NewZoo chart, makes up for 53% of eSports enthusiasts in 2018, North America, India, and Japan are also huge centres for this rising industry. Indeed, internet cafes in even relatively remote parts of Asia being regularly filled with young fans, eager to get their fix of this growing industry.

ESports as a Billion Dollar Industry

Once upon a time, the idea that anybody other than the most committed gaming fans would tune in to watch other people complete missions, fight virtual battles, or hunt for treasure on their screens would have been pretty fanciful. The idea of packing a stadium or filling any sort of large venue to do the same would have seemed downright absurd. However, such is the meteoric rise in popularity of eSports, and such is the remarkably fast evolution of the gaming industry as a whole, that this is exactly what is happening all over the world.

Studies have suggested that as many as 500 million people worldwide regularly tune in to watch eSports events or games; an audience which easily outstrips even relatively high profile ‘real’ sports which lack the same international or youth appeal.

Naturally, with such huge numbers of devoted fans, the events industry was quick to leap upon eSports as an opportunity for live contests, watched by gaming fans in real time in real spaces. Today, all over the world, events are set up to host eSports contests… and they’re pulling in some extremely impressive numbers. Take, for instance, the eSports equivalent of the football World Cup: the Intel Extreme Masters Series. Last year’s finals took place in Katowice, Poland, and 173,000 fans raced to the 11,000 capacity Spodek Arena for two weekends of gaming contests. Those not lucky enough to get tickets for this major industry event, however, didn’t have much to worry about – almost 50 million fans watched the whole contest online, and were able to interact with other viewers or attendees via their messengers and live feeds.

For those present in Katowice, though, this event offered far more than just a typical sporting showdown. It was something between a sporting event and a gaming expo, with live competitions providing a colourful backdrop for a whole host of mini-events, live gaming experiences, marketing drives, and showcases of the latest gaming technology – yet more evidence as to why this event type is rising in popularity year on year.

This year, the Intel Extreme Masters Series showed in no uncertain terms how much money the eSports industry is pulling in, and how far-reaching this new event type can be. Based around two highly popular multiplayer games; Counter-Strike and StarCraft II, the competition had a prize fund of almost £750 million. Other events offer similarly vast sums of money as cash prizes for the victors; the International Dota 2 Championship, which has been running since 2011 and is based around the massively popular multiplayer Dota 2, offers the winning team a prize of $10 million USD.

Counter Strike, Starcraft 2 and Dota2

How has eSports become such an affluent industry? The answer lies primarily in those gargantuan viewing figures, and the possibilities and opportunities that open up to advertisers and sponsors. Think such sponsors would be relatively unheard-of gaming brands, keen to get across their latest shoot ‘em up? Think again. The Overwatch League – a relative newcomer to the eSports calendar – racks up viewing figures of over 10 million individuals and holds an average audience of 280,000 per minute. This event is sponsored by major brands, including Toyota and T-Mobile, keen to get involved in this fast-developing scene. Indeed, the Samsung Galaxy team recently won the coveted grand prize at the League of Legends finals, which saw all the team members become millionaires, on top of their lucrative sponsorship deal with the phone manufacturer.

ESports: Platform of Giant Social Networks and International Audiences

The eSports economy is one which is based primarily around its enormous audience figures, and the fact that its overheads – in relation to other major sporting events – are relatively tiny. Those vast audience numbers naturally attract sponsors of all types and from all industries, keen to tap into the massive youth market who might spend up to sixteen hours or longer following an event, and thus being able to take in a large quantity of advertising material.

Sponsorships of events and players currently dominate the largest share of the revenue space and took up almost 40% of the industry in 2018. A further 33% of the revenue comes directly from advertising, media rights, and content licenses, and the remaining 27% comes from game publishers’ fees, tickets, and merchandise. Interestingly, the revenue predicted to come from those latter sources – especially live event tickets – is predicted to rise considerably in the coming years. The below pie chart from Newzoo lays out the current eSports economy clearly.

Understanding the financial side of eSports, however, requires one to understand the new nature of entertainment and international audiences, things which eSports have as a fundamental aspect of their success. ESports are based around huge social networks of gamers and game fans; networks which encircle the globe, and have little or no connection to the normal location or nation-based allegiances that most mainstream sports events are based upon. There are a handful of local or national gaming teams, but these are definitely in the minority on the scene.

Alongside these huge social networks sits the importance of live streaming as a key part of eSports’ success. Streaming has opened up a significant new influencer market (something which platforms like YouTube has excelled at, with influencers, vloggers, and channels reaching unbelievably high viewing figures and vast international audiences), and streaming influencers have proven to hold a significant sway over the trust, purchasing habits, and word-of-mouth potential of their audiences. If you’re looking for more information on the incredible reach of gaming influencers, a list of the top 20 can be found here. As traditional media begins to weaken its grip on the public, and more organic, trusted channels open up, streaming influencers on YouTube and other platforms are filling the void and reaching audience numbers print and television media could never hope to achieve.

Fan Experiences, Live and Online

Here at MCI Experience, we’re fascinated by the rise of eSports, and the potential this new horizon has brought about when it comes to direct fan experiences, both in a virtual space, and at live events, arena contests, and other expos and meet-ups. All over the world, eSports fan experiences are being established as the next brand sponsorship frontier. The sheer dedication of eSports fans, their knowledge that they are on the cutting edge of an entirely new industry, and the immersive nature of the gaming experiences in general make them a potent and effective marketing opportunity.

Whether as part of an online event, attended by millions of virtual attendees, or as part of one of the huge (and growing) live experiences, eSports events provide ample opportunity for interesting, unusual, direct, or disruptive brand encounters. Connecting a brand with an up-and-coming game or event is a smart move; the international figures and audience numbers involved in eSports mean that even relatively minor or small events can still have an audience of millions. What’s more, brands only need a small handful of influencers to pick up on marketing opportunities to hit a monumental online reach, which will be seen and trusted by audiences all across the globe.

To get an idea of the range, size, and influence of some of the world’s biggest eSports events, take a look at the following three examples:

Call of Duty World League Championship

The Call of Duty series of war-based games has regularly topped the lists of best-selling console games over the past ten years. Recently, the franchise has entered the world of major league live eSports events, and the World League Championship is now one of the biggest dates in the eSports calendar. 2018’s finals were held in Orlando, Florida, and packed out the local stadium while also gaining an online audience in the tens of millions.

DOTA2 The International, Seattle

For most online gamers, The International is the high point of the year, and sees an audience of millions tuning in to follow top DOTA2 players battle it out live in the pursuit of a prize fund which regularly tops $10 million. The 2015 DOTA2 Final (as part of The International Series) was a huge breakthrough for the eSports industry, as it was set up as a major arena-based sporting event, complete with vast video screens, live streaming, and all the vibrancy and atmosphere of a world cup final match.

The hosts of the event, KeyArena Seattle, allocated 10,000 tickets for the final. The tickets sold out in under an hour, a clear testament to the almost feverish popularity of this scene, and it formed the blueprint for several other eSports events that followed.

IEM Katowice 2019

The Intel Extreme Masters is returning to Poland in 2019, following an enormously successful run of events over the past couple of years. Looking at the promotional material for IEM 2019, which features no shortage of pyrotechnics and laser shows, you’d say it appeared to be something between a rock concert and international sporting event… which is probably exactly as its fans would describe it to be. Based around Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, this is a monumental event which will be viewed by millions worldwide, and tickets for the arena are expected to sell out fast. Attendees will get to cheer on their favourite teams, as well as have brand encounters with a wide range of sponsors and affiliated organisations.

The Intel Extreme Masters is returning to Poland in 2019, following an enormously successful run of events over the past couple of years. Looking at the promotional material for IEM 2019, which features no shortage of pyrotechnics and laser shows, you’d say it appeared to be something between a rock concert and international sporting event… which is probably exactly as its fans would describe it to be. Based around Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, this is a monumental event which will be viewed by millions worldwide, and tickets for the arena are expected to sell out fast. Attendees will get to cheer on their favourite teams, as well as have brand encounters with a wide range of sponsors and affiliated organisations.

Esports: A Global Audience for an Energized Events Industry

As we’ve seen, the rise of eSports as a global phenomenon and as a huge live event market doesn’t look like it will waver any time soon. With countless online influencers filling YouTube with videos viewed millions of times, physical events attracting major sponsors, and an international audience which is only set to grow beyond its current high point of around half a billion individuals, this is a market which offers truly incredible opportunities for innovative advertisers, brand engagement and events professionals.

At MCI Experience, we’re always keen to keep our ear to the ground when it comes to new possibilities for the brand experience and events industry, and new ways for advertisers and marketers to reach diverse new audiences. As such, it’s fair to say that the world of eSports has us very excited indeed, and deeply curious about what the future of this wing of the events and entertainment industry has in store. Packed out arenas, massive online meet-ups, and virtual tickets selling out in minutes is just the beginning… audiences want on-live and immersive experiences that are shareable and relevant.

If you’re interested in finding out more about what we do, or are interested in tapping into the latest trends when it comes to innovative marketing and events, we’d love to hear from you. We’ve got the skills and knowledge you need to take your brand engagement to the next level.