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How marketing to a broader audience will help the esports industry’s international growth

By Robel Efrem, CEO & Co-Founder at Challengermode

Just like with any sport, certain countries have embraced esport more than others. For example China is an obvious global leader, with 1 in 4 internet users watching esports. In Europe the Nordic countries have emerged as leaders, while countries like the UK and the Netherlands have been much slower on the uptake – despite having thriving video game industries of their own.

With global esports revenues set to grow to $1.1 billion by the end of 2020, there is a lot to be gained by countries and organisations establishing thriving esports scenes of their own. However – the question of how to do this in an industry that is still undergoing rapid change is still hotly debated.

For the uninitiated – esports are multiplayer video games played competitively by professional gamers for crowds of spectators. Esports athletes hone their skills to become the best at a specific video game, just like athletes in any other sport. Instead of physical crowds of spectators, the majority of viewership comes from streaming platforms such as Twitch and, more recently, mainstream sports broadcasters.

When it comes to embracing esports, not all countries are created equal. Even with a connected population, a healthy video game industry and increased exposure to esports from platforms like Twitch or traditional broadcast media – engagement with esports varies wildly for both participation and viewership. For example, while the UK is very successful in exporting “esports on-screen talent”, (i.e. creating commentators and hosts) it is by far one of the weakest major nations when it comes to player talent.

So how do we address this imbalance? How does a country expand both its esports audience and its own stable of esports talent? Thankfully the answers to both of these questions are linked. Esports organisations need to become more accessible at the grassroots level, and use that momentum to draw in audiences and talent from non-gaming backgrounds.

To start with there needs to be a place where players can develop their skills – just like with any other sport. A lot of established sports clubs have set up their own esports divisions to nurture talent, and game developers themselves have been working towards fixing this problem for their own games, creating “feeder leagues” to  incubate talent, giving them a pipeline of new players ready to compete at the highest level – but the gap between feeder leagues and the grassroots level remains wide.

This is one of the areas where esports can learn a lot from traditional sports. Traditional sports have youth leagues or even academies that funnel players to small scale amateur leagues, sports clubs, all the way up to the pro level. Each of these levels has a sustainable business model of its own – whether it’s people paying to play, or sponsorships, ticket sales, and media rights – they also  often benefit from government support.

Traditional sports have been able to build this ecosystem because their fan bases are created around organisations, teams or even individual players – not just the sport itself. The lesson here is to foster community and build local support to solve the problem of attracting a broader audience – an audience beyond the core gaming market. We already see this in action with individual influencers amassing fans by streaming their gameplay on platforms like Twitch to huge audiences – the challenge now is to extend it to the grassroots level of the industry.

The main demographic for esports viewership in the West is younger audiences, with 59% aged between 21-35. As for gender demographics, 69% of active western esports enthusiasts are male and 31% are female. This is not represented within the wider industry. While encouraging the growth of esports as local institutions may help grow audiences in older generations, esports can be doing much more to bring in a more diverse audience beyond the white and asian male demographic with which it is most associated.

Esports has the potential to bring those who might feel they don’t fit the mould of a traditional sportsperson to a place where they flourish – case-in-point, history was made this week when FaZe Clan Ewok became the first transgender player on a T1 esports team. Teams, organizations and streaming platforms can foster more diversity in the community by partnering with more diverse organisations and individuals from the get-go – and ensure that it is welcoming by making it clear that they will not tolerate any form of racism, sexism, etc.

Aligning with education bodies is a great way to get the youth engaged in esports, especially if those players don’t have access to the equipment they might need at home. Maximising accessibility at all levels helps create the kind of community esports needs. A community that can exist across decades, across different games and even across different consoles/devices. If we want to expand esports sustainably, we the industry needs to be building as big a tent as possible.

As an industry still in its infancy, we are in the valuable position of being able to build an infrastructure from the ground up. Diversity and openness can be incorporated into the fabric of esports from the outset , in order to create a world-leading environment for esports stars, but this can only work if it is a group effort from organisers, education institutions, players, fans and even government bodies.

Increasing diversity brings a whole host of benefits to any community. By ensuring that the esports industry is diverse from the start, the industry will gain the input of a range of perspectives and greater creativity, which has been proven to lead to increased profits and productivity. Fundamentally, this could boost the reputation of esports on a global scale, widening participation but also making the esports community an enjoyable and welcoming place for all.