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Why “authenticity” is the most important word in esports partnership development

Esports remains an exciting and growing market for brand engagement, but it is important for anyone getting involved to understand what esports audiences value most.

By: Paul J. Foster, Chief Executive Officer, Global Esports Federation

Photo: Tammy Tang

Esports is, without a doubt, on a compelling growth path. Existing markets are growing, and emerging markets are popping up all over the world. Because of this growth, it’s no surprise that brands are eager to figure out how to get involved and market to esports audiences. This is especially true for non-endemic brands— car companies, apparel companies, lifestyle brands, and beyond—who have only engaged with esports in a limited way to date.

It’s critical for brands to understand, however, that one cannot simply stroll into esports with money to spend expecting a positive brand marketing experience. One of the unique considerations for brand activation in esports is the uncharacteristically high level of scrutiny from esports fan communities.

Unlike traditional sports, which have had extensive brand involvement throughout the modern sports era, esports has largely been a community-driven, bootstrapped scene. As such, fans are deeply committed to their sense of esports integrity—they expect brands to deliver fan value, not just attempt to buy their affections through traditional brand affinity marketing.

The esports industry is already littered with unsuccessful examples of brand engagement that simply didn’t take enough care in their activations in esports. From Bud Light’s All-Star voting promotion to Burger King’s stunt twitch donation system takeover—failures like these can affect more than just the brand or agencies responsible. Because of the relative nascency of esports, whenever a major non-endemic brand has a negative experience, it has the potential to negatively impact the entire esports ecosystem. Word travels.

So, what are brands to do? We offer our thinking, developed through our collaboration with stakeholders from across the world and across the esports ecosystem:

1. Start with Conversation

Everyone is eager to jump right in, but there is essential education that needs to start first. Esports is not one macro-scene, it is a collection of interconnected fanbases. Begin by simply having conversations with experts in esports. One thing we’ve learned is esports insiders love what they do and are happy to share what they know.

2. Find the Right Sherpa

We all need guidance, especially when venturing into uncharted waters. “Authenticity” was the subject of a conversation at one of our latest GEFcon sessions, and esports veteran and co-founder of Subnation, Ed Tomasi, reminded everyone of the value of a “sherpa”, or expert guide, to help brands understand the complexities of the esports market. And just as the ecosystem of esports is wide and diverse, so too must our stable of experts. Make sure you are working with an insider who is most familiar with the games and communities you are considering activating with.

3. Think Focus, Not Just Reach

Part of the challenge with marketing in esports is changing your marketing mindset from an approach that seeks focus, not just maximized reach. This approach is aimed at more targeted messaging. Esports is growing, but as we’ve stated, it is a collection of unique and diverse communities. Brands might be wise to not activate with the FIFA community in the same way as the Valorant community, for example. However, if you understand the needs of the specific community you're working within, and you activate with thoughtfulness and in a way that delivers them value, the opportunity for positive brand association is tremendous.


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