GOBACK

22nd June 2022

Esports marketing strategies that changed the game

Esports, also known as electronic sports, is a genre of online gaming. These games are often played competitively by professional gamers. The most popular online games played in esports include League of Legends, Call of Duty, Fortnite, Dota 2 and EA Sports’ FIFA franchise to name but a few. 

Before a large esports competition commences many brands and sponsors will begin to produce a marketing campaign. This is so they can generate as much brand awareness and engagement as possible to increase revenue when the competition eventually starts.  

Although there are still critics who believe that an online game cannot be considered a sport, over 400 million people across the world watched esports events last year, earning huge companies such as Riot Games – the game development company for League of Legends – billions of dollars in revenue. Other brands have now started to recognise the popularity of esports and are eager to get involved, through sponsors and collaborations during these marketing campaigns. 

 

I’m going to be going into more depth about these marketing strategies, explaining how and why they differ from usual marketing campaigns. Esports are a big passion of mine (I’ve clocked up more hours on League of Legends than I dare think about), and working in the digital marketing industry, I am constantly on the lookout for strategies that are unique and creative. 

If you aren’t familiar with the gaming industry you likely won’t know about the campaigns I will be mentioning. For me, this is an exciting opportunity to introduce some new ideas to fellow marketers who don’t have a lot of knowledge about the gaming industry and esports marketing. 

girl playing an esports game

Social media marketing strategy in esports

Due to the rise in popularity of esports, the target demographic has widened to 18-34, with a 70-30 men-women split. 

However, as more women are beginning to play online games this is slowly changing. The figure of women watching esports was 23% in 2018 which has since grown by 27%, and we are still continuing to see this number increase. 

Much like usual marketing strategies esports has to consistently entice the audience to keep coming back. Some tournaments can go on for months, which means that they require a large enough campaign to keep people engaged for the duration. Brands, companies and teams have various ways of doing this, such as: 

 

Creating social media accounts for teams and players

The majority of large esports games and competitions have competitors from around the world, each with their teams and audiences. Through individual team and player accounts, fans can follow their favourites and engage with information about upcoming matches and their favourite teams. It is also the job of the social media manager for these esports teams to organise media activities like press releases, interviews and regular social media posts. 

Audiences stay engaged through consistent content, and by being given these things to learn, view or watch almost every day, these esports teams have been able to gain millions of supporters. 

Selling merchandise

Once an esports team has grown enough in popularity it is common for them to start selling merchandise, their social media platforms are then used to start promoting their merchandise and earn revenue.

It is highly common for esports teams to sell clothing yet they will often sell other accessories and items such as water bottles, keychains, plush toys and apparel. Having a wider range of products appeals to more of the team’s audience and a larger amount of their followers are likely to purchase their merchandise. 

 

 

Whenever new merchandise is released this is also a chance to create engagement on the team’s social media as they can tease new products to fans as well as launch countdowns, creating more awareness of the product.

Merchandise allows fans to engage with their favourite team and physically show their support, it also helps in developing a sense of community around the esports team. Fans are inclined to share photos in their new merchandise which amplifies the reach of the team and grows the community further.

 

Riot Games’ Seraphine Campaign 2020

Running for five months in the run-up to the League of Legends Worlds event, the Seraphine campaign generated thousands of new followers and a buzz of conversation and engagement across all major platforms. 

league of legends champion seraphine

Campaign overview

In 2020, Riot Games were planning on releasing ‘Seraphine’ as a new support champion, which is essentially a champion tailored towards supporting the rest of the team traditionally through a shield, speed and/or health. The Worlds tournament for League of Legends is an enormous event for Riot and their audience. With such a large fan base the company needs to make the most of this and build up as much awareness as they can before the event. 

Support champions are usually launched through image teasers and video previews but here, Riot Games went all out in an attempt to bring the character to life. They did this by creating ‘her’ very own personalised Twitter page, posting selfie-styled photos and captions as if it were a real person. These digitally-rendered photos were so lifelike that they utilised real-life objects, giving them an almost-Gorrilaz-inspired feel to the champion.

‘Her’ biography had no mention of the online game and instead read ‘songwriter + producer’ and ‘she’ also had various posts showing her pet cat called ‘Bao’ – again giving a more personal approach. At this time, it was not clear that this was a promotion for an upcoming esports tournament.

Not only was Seraphine posting ‘her’ own content but Riot did a great job at keeping engagement levels high, through constant engagement with UGC. It wasn’t long before people realised this was going to be Riot’s new campaign and flocked over to watch everything unfold over the upcoming months. She was able to get likes on all her posts ranging from 15k – to 40k in addition to gaining 340.6k followers. All whilst not existing in real life. 

‘She’ gained so much attention from the League of Legends community that people who weren’t even aware of the game also found her profile and began to engage with her content. This is mainly because it was so personal and friendly, that people were able to relate to her content without knowing League of Legends beforehand. This worked perfectly for Riot as more people were then watching tournament matches even though they had never played the game before. However, Riot made sure not to turn her into a huge advertisement for the game and instead just gave a platform to the champion and were able to make it her own. 

Finally, just as the world’s tournament was coming to an end Seraphine was introduced with a brand new single and album with a pre-existing League of Legends pop group K/DA. Many previous fans were extremely excited about this as the returning group (K/DA) had already amassed a fanbase of millions of people. Their previous single managed to gain over 500M views therefore, this was a pleasant surprise and much to Riots’ anticipation the awareness and engagement for the final game of the tournament had been built up immensely just as they had expected.

Riot Games saw a rise of 61.8% in average viewership during the Worlds tournament, a massive increase compared to the previous year. This equated to around 23 million people watching on average per minute. The combined viewership from all platforms and countries topped 49.95M which was an all-time high for the leading online games brand. In total, we know that Riot Games earned around $1.75 billion from this exercise.

The campaign was as effective as it was due to the constant engagement between fans and the upcoming champion, in addition to the free content players were given. Since ‘Seraphine’ posted every day she gained constant popularity and engagement. Fans would be able to view her posts and engage with her socially as well. Riot Games had not done this before so it was able to gain the interest of those inside and outside of the community. I personally enjoyed seeing a new champion being marketed this way I thought it was a clever way of bringing awareness to the new champion and also the world’s tournament.  

Public involvement in real life not just online 

Another great way to bring awareness to a game isn’t just through online marketing, but in person too. Epic Games explored this method of marketing in 2018 when they brought loot llamas to real-life across Europe. 

Fortnite loading screen

Who are Epic Games? 

Epic Games are a video games company based in North Carolina, America. They were founded in 1991 and own the popular online game ‘Fortnite’. It is highly suspected that in 2018 they launched a campaign across Europe, bringing awareness to the new season of the widely popular game which was on the verge of being released. This campaign was clever as people were actively able to get involved through pictures and videos leading to the llamas going viral across Twitter.  

What is a loot llama?

It came to my attention when reviewing this blog that not everyone is aware of what a ‘loot llama’ is. So allow me to explain before diving in, a loot llama is an in-game chest within Fortnite. When this campaign was launched these chests had ‘loot’ inside and were in the shape of a llama. All players had to do was open the llama and the loot would appear around them, allowing the player the choice of which items they wanted to keep or swap.

Those who play Fortnite since this campaign will know that these loot llamas now run around and you have to attack them to gain the loot, this makes it more engaging to players and gives more of a challenge to gain the loot.  

loot llama found in fortnite

What was the aim of this campaign? 

Fortnite is an extremely popular online game which was released in 2017. Soon after its release, it started to gain popularity within the gaming community. By 2018 there were over 125 million active players, this has now reached 300 million.

Fortnite itself is a first-person shooter, players land on a map and then fight until there is only them or their team left. The cartoony graphics tailor the game to a broader audience including children, yet the strategy and skill behind the game also caters for an older demographic. In addition to this, the game can be played with friends cross-platform so it has a social aspect which players enjoy. 

To keep players engaged in Fortnite, Epic Games release ‘Seasons’ within the game. After a few months of a season being out, a new season will be released changing weapons, themes and the in-game map. By doing this players remain interested in the game as it offers something different every few months. This campaign in particular was to bring awareness to the upcoming season about to be released, and also to attract new players to the game. Moreover, the 1st anniversary of the game was approaching, so it is clear Epic Games wanted to launch a larger and more interactive campaign to celebrate this. 

How was this achieved? 

Epic Games were smart with their campaign strategy as they never actually confirmed that they were behind the campaign. Keeping the identity of who was behind the campaign a secret created a larger buzz on social media, sparking a talking point that trended worldwide across social media. Of course, it was highly suspected that Epic Games were behind the campaign due to the quality of the llamas and how fast they appeared across Europe all around the same time, which happened to be near their upcoming 1st anniversary. Yet, the mystery and chance that it could be someone else created more excitement and rumours around the game. 

Millions of people took to social media and this led to a lot of user-generated content being produced. Thousands of selfies and videos with the llamas were posted online, along with captions sharing speculation on the nature of the campaign. Epic Games didn’t comment on social media whilst all this was happening – building suspense for their audience and others all waiting for a confirmation on who was behind this fun and interactive campaign. 

What were the results? 

After the campaign had begun it was estimated that the number of players had increased by over 100 million people. The campaign was not overly costly for Epic Games. Even despite the manufacturing and operational cost involved, it is estimated that by the end of the year Epic Games earned $5.4 billion dollars in revenue. This revenue figure has not been hit since.

Low-cost and highly effective, Epic Games allowed people to take to social media and create a buzz around the game themselves. By allowing their audience to create all the engagement and hype around the campaign themselves, those uninvolved were taking notice of the conversation, as well as sharing their own images if they were close to one of the llamas. Having a simple interactive campaign like this can get everyone involved regardless of whether they play the game or not, building a larger audience, and this is exactly what happened. 

 

Online influencers 

Influencers are often involved when trying to promote well-known products and games. Yet when Apex Legends launched for the first time, rather than doing a traditional marketing campaign to build awareness and hype for the game over a few months, they took the budget of a marketing campaign and spent it over four days. With the help of famous influencers Mr Beast and Ninja, they were able to gain a huge amount of players within the first 24 hours.   

Apex legends loading screen

What is Apex Legends? 

Much like Fortnite, Apex Legends is a battle royal game played through the view of a first-person shooter. The aim of the game is to be the last team standing against all other players. The game was built by Respawn Entertainment and Electronic Arts (EA) and launched through influencer marketing. Apex Legends was officially released on the 4th of February 2019 on every platform, with cross-platform capabilities which allowed for a larger social aspect for the game. 

What was the aim of the campaign? 

Since Apex Legends was arriving on both Steam and Origin for the first time, the campaign was to simply bring awareness to the game as it was only just being released. As the game was brand new, EA relied heavily on generating a high amount of traffic in a short period of time and they believed the best way to do this was through the help of popular online influencers to drive organic traffic. 

Although this goes against all traditional marketing strategies, which work through building hype over months so that a large number of people are prepared to play the game on release, it was arguably even more effective, and they now have millions of players on their game. 

How was this achieved? 

EA began by approaching and paying well-known Twitch streamer ‘Ninja’ to play their game on the date of the release. Ninja was one of the top 5 Twitch streamers and gained around 40,000 – 100,000 views per stream he made. Through fans watching Ninja stream Apex Legends online, the game was able to gain over 1 million players within the first 24 hours of the initial launch which is a huge achievement considering there was no marketing for the game beforehand. 

Respawn Entertainment then paid a large sum of money to a popular YouTube influencer called Mr Beast. They sponsored his video through Apex Legends which was then titled ‘$200,000 Youtuber Battle Royal’. The video was one of the biggest YouTube collaborations ever with 25 other YouTubers playing for the prize. Each YouTuber within the competition also had from 600,000 – 10 million subscribers, with Mr Beast having 15 million subscribers of his own. With so much traffic directed to the video and Apex Legends being the main sponsor, the online game got so much more attention and many more players. 

What were the results? 

Through this technique of marketing and using popular influencers across different platforms, Apex Legends was able to reach over 50 million players within 3 months. There are now over 100 million players and this number is continuing to grow. 

This was a bold marketing strategy and not one seen before within the games industry when a new game is released. Apex Legends appeared out of nowhere yet, since big names such as Ninja and Mr Beast were both playing, the online game gained immediate popularity and amassed millions of fans within 24 hours of its launch. 

This was only able to happen due to the large budget of Electronic Arts, as they were able to pay these influencers millions of dollars to play their game. For smaller companies with a low budget, this definitely wouldn’t have been possible. It was also a large risk to take, as although people may have been influenced to play if it was an overall poorly made game it would have gained more criticism than popularity and could’ve harmed its reputation on the first day of release. 

Cyberpunk, an online game which was thoroughly anticipated throughout 2020, felt the effects almost immediately after being released too early and undeveloped. The development company ‘CD Projekt Red’ built high expectations through famous faces appearing, such as Keanu Reeves (also my favourite actor of all time), and promising an immersive game like no other before. 

Through all this hype over 8 million people pre-ordered the action RPG (roleplay game). Yet, players quickly found the game to be full of bugs, as a result of CD Projekt Red releasing the game too early without being fully developed and tested. The best way I found to describe Cyberpunk was through a Steam review stating: ‘There is a game in the bug’ (haha). Following the backlash and disappointment, many players have stated they would have preferred waiting longer than having a constant disruption of bugs when they play. Thousands of refunds were requested and not many people speak fondly of the game even to this day. 

Cyberpunk 2077 loading screen

Collaborations between esports teams/companies and brands 

During large esports events such as regional or world tournaments, it is very common for esports teams to collaborate with large brands. Brands sponsoring the teams provide the resources needed for the players to compete at every location, they are able to assist the hosting companies for each tournament. 

If you’re still here and reading, let me provide you with some examples of effective sponsorship agreements between esports teams and forward-thinking brands that understand the growing reach of the industry.

League of Legends & Red Bull 

As previously mentioned, League of Legends is an online game developed by Riot Games. There are currently over 150 million registered users in addition to millions of people tuning into tournaments held by Riot Games both online and in person. In order to hold these large tournaments, it is imperative League of Legends has several sponsors to help fund the renting out of stadiums and additional features such as holding live performances at the events. One of their main sponsors is Red Bull

Red Bull and League of Legends Red bull solo q esports campaign

Red Bull is an energy drink company and is well known for sponsoring events within the racing industry, most famously Formula One. Yet, they also sponsor other sports such as windsurfing, cliff diving and rock climbing. They are recognised for sponsoring ‘extreme sports’ as it helps tailor their brand image towards a younger audience who view these sports as ‘cool’, making them more likely to invest in the brand. Red Bull has now ventured into sponsoring esports to further this brand image as 38% of the video game demographic is aged between 18-34, which is their target audience.

Red Bull made League of Legends their official partner in 2019, this was a major event within the esports industry as not many brands outside of the gaming industry have been known to venture into partnerships with games companies. 

The partnership became official through the release of a new marketing campaign which launched new tournaments for players, such as ‘Red Bull Solo Q’. Within this tournament amateur players across the world can partake with the finalists being able to win a grand prize – all courtesy of Red Bull. The popular brand also launched a tournament called Red Bull Player One, another amateur event where players could win a chance to play with professionals. Through these campaigns and tournaments, it brings awareness to both the brand and the game allowing both to profit from their partnership. 

Through effective and strategic marketing within these large events, Red Bull can profit as a direct result of their esports partnerships, as numbers of up to 70 million people tune in to watch the tournaments – giving them huge brand exposure.  League of Legends is also able to benefit from this partnership as prize pools, events and tournaments can all be increased through the aid of Red Bull. 

G2 Esports- Ralph Lauren   

G2 Esports are a professional esports team based in Germany. They have professional players competing in a range of online games such as League of Legends, Valorant, Hearthstone and many more. One of their most popular partnerships was with the brand Ralph Lauren. This was a highly unexpected partnership as the luxury fashion brand had not previously shown an interest in esports, nor partnered with any esports teams or companies before.

G2 esports and Ralph Lauren partnership logo

They have been known to hold partnerships with other professional sporting events such as the US Open, Wimbledon, the Australian Open, and the PGA Championships. By partnering with an esports team they were able to bring more brand awareness to a younger audience. 

For their first campaign together Ralph Lauren made a short video with the former G2 team member and professional League of Legends player ‘Rekkles’. The short video showed Rekkles changing from his usual team uniform into a well-dressed Ralph Lauren outfit. The video received a lot of praise from fans who were looking forward to seeing what came out of the partnership, and eager to get their hands on team merchandise but also luxury clothing. Rekkles has now left G2 esports for French team Karmine Corp

Ralph Lauren is now the official outfitter of G2 Esports. By teaming with a highly popular esports team, Ralph Lauren stands to gain an increase in sales from G2 fans eager to purchase their new merchandise when the clothing collaboration is released. Yet, there is also a groan of impatience beginning to stir as it has now been a year since the announcement of their partnership. If new merchandise isn’t released by the end of the year fans may begin to grow tired of the wait and simply not be interested in the clothing when it is finally released.  

 

TeamSoloMid & FTX 

TeamSoloMid is another professional esports team with players in a range of fields through the likes of League of Legends, Dota 2, Apex Legends, Valorant, etc. The team is based in Los Angeles and was founded in 2009. In June 2021, a cryptocurrency exchange called FTX approached TSM (TeamSoloMid) and made the biggest esports partnership deal in history. 

TSM and FTX esports logo

TSM FTX logo

FTX averages $10 billion in daily trading volume. There are currently over one million users and their CEO Sam Bankman-Fried is currently one of the three richest crypto traders in the world. 

Of course, this partnership was unexpected but a massive opportunity for TSM and esports in general. FTX had previously acquired the naming rights to Miami Heat’s basketball stadium through a $135 million deal in April 2021, by June 2021 the arena was fully renamed ‘FTX arena’. 

Within the same month, FTX approached TSM offering $210,000,000 for a partnership. TSM agreed and were then renamed ‘TSMFTX’. The reasoning for this partnership was to expand into more platforms than PC, mainly mobile, in addition to expanding across the globe, through Europe, Asia and South America. The team was also going to be invested in, developing their talent and performance, so they can perform better in tournaments and potentially gain more attention from other sponsors. 

TSM released the video ‘We Changed Our Name For $210,000,000!’, and fans were highly supportive of the partnership and very interested as to where this will take TSM in the future. 

This is now a historical partnership for esports and can hopefully evolve the future of gaming. However, despite the fact that this partnership brings huge opportunities in the evolution of gaming due to the number of funds which can be invested and the expansion that can be made, there are still some doubts within the gaming community. If FPX focuses mainly on mobile gaming, although highly lucrative, they have partnered with a team mainly based on PC in which a majority of their fan base play. It will be interesting to see how they balance their goals and focuses, hopefully, we will be able to see some evolution in both platforms of gaming. 

 

If you made it to the very end of this blog I would like to say thank you for taking the time to read through all of my research and opinions. I find it very interesting to see how these different brands challenge traditional marketing strategies and the new ideas they bring, in addition to how these campaigns are going to evolve further. Yet, it is also interesting to see where some companies have made mistakes and sabotaged the potential of their games or brands through either poor marketing or brilliant marketing but a poor game or product. However, we can now analyse these mistakes for future marketing strategies, as we can see where mistakes were made and how they can be avoided. 

I hope this blog has given you more of an insight into the marketing campaigns used within the gaming industry and will inspire some new concepts and campaigns.

By Graziela Di Folco-Clement

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