eSports: A Short History and Potential Future

Written By:

Mark McGuinness, Director of Marketing & Customer Success, Dam Mad Media Limited

Regulated operators face marketing challenges from the pandemic: what to promote, with certainty, across sports betting events that could be subject to change. eSports as a betting product is becoming more central to the 24-hour sports betting options menu. The question is, shall the addition of eSports betting products to the operator’s platforms convince the digitally connected natives to sign up?

Video gaming has been around since the ’80s

The roots of video gaming can be traced back to Asia and way, way back to the early ‘80s, and blockbuster movies such as Back to the Future. The Taito Corporation and the iconic video game Space Invaders, much beloved by many a student, shall know doubt bring back many memories for people in their early forties. Competitive video gaming tournaments are not a new industry, as many people may think. Video gaming has been around for more than 30 years with Space Invaders. The first large-scale video game competitive competition witnessed some 10,000 players in North America using their gaming skills to secure the top prize.

eSports is the new gladiatorial sport

Many have postulated why eSports is so popular. Many parables could be drawn to Roman gladiators. In that, eSports is about skill, speed, battle arena combat, survival, and is a highly sensory sport both for spectators and participants.

eSports attracts a predominately male audience within the median age range of 18 to 25. That said, the number of female spectators and female eSports teams is growing rapidly as the sport becomes more mainstream. Of course, a large percentage of the overall eSports potential audience is under the legally required age for real-money gambling services in regulated markets. The male bias is no real surprise when you consider that most of the popular eSports games are massively multiplayer online game franchises such as Call of Duty (CoD), League of Legends (LoL), StarCraft and Fortnite. These games involve shooter, battle arena style war games which relate back to the concept of a gladiatorial theme. From a consumer marketing standpoint, this is an extremely sought-after demographic by many brands both within the eSports ecosystem and outside, including gambling companies looking to pursue a piece of the action.

Growth drivers and the continued rise of eSports

Tech Boom

If we look at the rise, and further rise, of eSports, three factors have contributed to the continued growth. The technology is critical and that has allowed for massively online multiplayer (referred to as MMO) gameplay. In the early ‘90s, online video gaming only accommodated a figure which most digital natives don’t get; only up to 16 players. Now, with advances in processing and internet bandwidth, you have the true multi-player capability with tens of thousands of player sessions connected at one singular timepoint. The numbers are colossal; 115 million players play the world’s most popular game, League of Legends, which came on the scene back in 2009, every month.

Video socialisation

The second factor is the continued adoption and usage of social media and video broadcasting. YouTube and the live video streaming platform, Twitch (launched 2011, yes, only nine short years ago), are platforms for video gaming streams. Before Twitch even allowing for the multi-player capabilities, the playing of video games was solitary, passive, and epitomised wrongly as “nerd” behaviour until video broadcasting of yourself to millions of potential like-minded participants became a reality. It is this video socialisation factor, which is so much part of the Facebook, Twitter, Tik-Tok smartphone connected generation who desire on-demand entertainment, that has propelled eSports to its current stellar growth.

Nerd no more, eSports is the new religion

The final and third factor is that, previously, video gamers where akin or labelled computer nerds or teenage hackers playing in their basements/bedrooms in unlicensed video tournaments. Now, through using their highly honed keyboard dexterity and cognitive skills, they can escape the poverty trap and embark on a lifestyle that not only earns these professional eSports players vast amounts of money but untold adulation from millions of fans, both online and offline.

eSports – the betting propensity

Let us deep dive into marketing: the psychographics such as aspirations, interests, attitudes, opinions, lifestyle, behaviour etc. In broad terms, the eSports audience consists of vast tribal communities of shared experiences. Social sharing, social activism, social learning and social giving causes (such as volunteering their time for unpaid work) are central to their belief systems and daily digital routines.

They are also the first truly digitally connected on-demand generation that is driving the decentralised internet and disruptive services. This connected generation wishes instant gratification via the multitude of discovery and recommendation apps and on-demand services that inhabit their desktop, tablet or smartphone. For the eSports connected generation, everything is on-demand and almost immediate. Don’t feel like hailing a taxi in the rain in London’s West End? No problem. Use the Uber app and it’s there in minutes. Need a companion? Open Tinder! Need fast food, use JustEat or Deliveroo. Everything is literally a download, tap, pinch and swipe away.

Authentic hub with community at the heart

We have already witnessed new pure play eSports-centric startups and existing gambling brands offering eSports to various degrees of player immersion. Some merely offer eSports as a betting option accessible from the main gambling website navigation menu. Others, such as Pinnacle Sports and Betway, have introduced their eSports Betting Hub to create a sense of community around the betting product combined with a range of eSports specific betting markets such as First Blood and Map Winner, related to the actual games these potential players are interested in. Other operators have elected to follow or replicate traditional above-the-line marketing methods that are used in traditional football sponsorship to acquire customers and top-of-the-mind brand awareness and recall. Operators continue to sign sponsorship deals with pro eSports organisations such as Fnatic and others.

It is still early days to say which marketing strategy would work best for customer acquisition, but certainly, a “rinse and repeat” of existing marketing programmes does need careful reconsideration for the nascent eSports betting market.

The eSports marketing playbook

Perhaps the major challenge is therefore not so much about the digital channels to advertise on to acquire customers, such as Twitch, influencer endorsement of YouTube shout casters or eSports team sponsorship.

The major marketing challenge for existing or traditional sportsbooks to acquire new customers within eSports is that the current product offering presents the opposite experience. In short, a passive, solitary, non-community-based betting experience for players or fans within eSports who are used to community-based and active participation betting with other forms of digital entertainment services embedded into that experience.

Winners and losers?

As a betting man and gamer myself, it’s fair to say the new dedicated eSports betting franchises are winning the first few “game” rounds. Why? You may ask. Perhaps the eSports nascent customer base appears to be anti-establishment in their behaviour and has the community as a major part of their belief systems. They may just not wish to offer their custom to established betting brands that they have never heard of. Instead, they may elect to give their social patronage to eSports brand franchises that understand their needs and give back to the community – something that traditional sportsbooks have been lambasted for over the years – not giving back to the sport, the organisations or more importantly, the fans. Furthermore, connected gamers have probably never seen a traditional betting interface nor placed a standard sports bet.

The eSports digital betting marketing funnel is therefore in need of education, simplification, social responsibility towards gambling engagement, and product innovation of the betting options around the eSports online or land-based events.