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How to Play the Game: Esports and the Challenge of Authenticity for Brands


With gamers quick to sniff out insincerity, Andrea Nirsimloo, President, M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment North America shares some advice on how have a positive impact on the community

How to Play the Game: Esports and the Challenge of Authenticity for Brands
As a marketer in 2021, it’s likely you’ve been talking about esports – one of the most exciting entertainment genres right now. If you’re not already involved, it’s probably something you have considered adding to your marketing mix and, perhaps, you have some reservations. 

At M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment, we see the full spectrum of esports brand engagement – from natives to newcomers. On one hand, we’ve long supported a global brand which began creating esports events years ago and remains dedicated to supporting and providing platforms for the gaming community. On the other end of the spectrum, we’ve recently partnered with an iconic performance brand that entered the esports space for the first time last year with the launch of a product range engineered entirely for gamers.  

But, regardless of a brand’s experience with esports, one of the most attractive — and potent — things it offers is community. By supporting an esports league, you can open up a huge, global and markedly diverse audience – the majority of which are digitally native, cord-cutting Gen Z consumers. They are among the hardest to reach yet the most sought after for many brands. When you get it right, you speak directly to a consumer set you’d struggle to reach through more traditional media verticals. 

Undoubtedly, community is at the cornerstone of the esports world. However, these communities are incredibly discerning and very quick to sniff out – and call out – insincerity. 

Do not expect to be welcomed with open arms if you just slap a logo on a Twitch stream or plonk your product crudely within a map in-game. In fact, you’re a lot more likely to be met with skepticism and cynicism in response to superficial approaches. 

That said, the secret sauce isn’t so secret. Esports isn’t that different to traditional sports. Fans of all sports are incredibly passionate and do welcome brands – who genuinely care about the future of that league, game or fan base – into their ecosystem. That’s as true today in soccer as it is in esports (you only have to look at the recent disaster that was the proposed European Soccer League to see that…).

So, yes – you need to be authentic. But it doesn’t mean you have to have decades of gaming sponsorship experience either. Rather, it means that you have to be authentic with your intention and match it with action. Ask yourself: what can we do to genuinely and positively impact this community? How are we elevating the sport? What product are we bringing to market that enhances the engagement of this sport? How are our marketing dollars going to improve fan experience and drive the sport forward? 

The aforementioned brands we’ve supported within esports have been successful because they had simple and robust responses to those questions. Each created products or platforms that benefited or elevated esports athletes and gamers, helped propel the sport forward and added further legitimacy to esports. They put the fan at the center of their strategy. 

When KFC turned brand mascot Colonel Sanders into an esports analyst in China to help fans with accurate game predictions in League of Legends, the brand showed that they genuinely understood the fanbase and their needs. DHL’s partnership with ESL Gaming has been celebrated as a great example of brand sponsorship because of the way the company interacts with fans and provides bespoke entertainment at live events (who could have imagined being at an esports tournament and hearing crowds of Dota 2 fans chanting the name of a logistics brand over and over again?!) And just last month, Tampax made its esports debut with a live Twitch festival aimed at facilitating open conversations and countering some of the stigma female gamers face. A few years ago, the notion of a tampon brand hosting an esports event might have seemed implausible, but because the brand is supporting the fast-growing female gaming community, in 2021 this move seems incredibly authentic. 

If you don’t feel confident that you are supporting the gaming community in a meaningful, tangible way, then maybe it’s not the right time for you.  However, if you are ready to take the next step, then talk to a great esports consultant. Do your research. Learn everything you can about the community you want to engage. Hire an esports expert within your team, even.

A brand might be a relative newcomer to the category but – by making a commitment to positively impact the community – a brand can certainly be welcomed into esports ecosystem with open arms. It doesn’t matter if you’re a native or a newcomer, what matters is how you engage the community. Authenticity doesn’t come with tenure; it comes from purpose and mission. 

Andrea Nirsimloo is President, M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment North America. Keep an eye out for the monthly column from the team as they take us through practicalities and nuances of navigating esport in 2021 and beyond. Read the previous column, which looks at brand engagement here.

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M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment NA, Thu, 13 May 2021 11:00:00 GMT