Why competitive gaming is the next big opportunity for brands

When we think of esports, we picture filled arenas with flashing lights and big viewer and player numbers, the next big marketing opportunity to reach millions of Gen Zers and Millennials.

But the pro scene is just the tip of the iceberg to a much larger competitive gaming ecosystem.

Every day, millions of people are logging on to game servers to play multiplayer games with their peers. Just like going outside to kick around the soccer ball with friends, Gen Z now hops on a gaming device to compete and connect with friends playing games like Grand Theft Auto Online, Fortnite and Clash Royale, or watch professional gamers and streamers compete on streaming platforms like Twitch.

 According to a recent WaPo study, a whopping 73% of 14- to 21-year-olds in the US identify as a competitive gamer. Additionally, this same group just isn’t as male-dominated as it used to be: 56% of American 14- to 21-year-old females identify as competitive gamers.

And not every player is doing this with the intention of one day filling a stadium at Worlds, the League of Legends’ international finals. Much like traditional sports, they view it primarily as a social activity. According to the same WaPo study, 80% of Gen Zers play online multiplayer games to “have fun with their friends,” while just 35% play for the chance to win championships or compete for cash rewards.

The explosion of Discord’s userbase is another measure of the meteoric rise of competitive gaming. Discord is a free app that gives players and their friends an uninterrupted voice channel to communicate across any game server they decide to play on. The app’s userbase tripled in just a year: from 45 million in May 2017, to 130 million in May 2018, according to Variety.

Discord speaks not only to how crucial team communication is in many esports titles, from Blizzard’s team-based Overwatch to battle royale titles like Fortnite and PUBG, but also to the desire to connect with one another. Discord in itself is a social network.

As marketers, we need to not only pursue fans of esports and those with pro aspirations, but also factor in the broader competitive audience that’s there for social reasons -- they are playing to have fun and compete with their social circles, not to become the next esports phenom.

That means the actual marketing can simply focus on the fun of playing games and competing with one another. 

When you step back, you start to realize that there are a lot more similarities between esports and traditional team sports. Both are social activities that bring people closer together than any social network has ever done.

Albert Kugel is the strategy director at Giant Spoon and leads the brand and esports content strategy for Omen by HP.

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