AW360: After a Tumultuous Year, What’s Next for Esports in 2021?

By Michael Murphy O'Reilly

The following is an article that originally appeared on AW360.


No one could have imagined back in last December what 2020 would turn out to be in the world of esports and gaming. With live events and travel canceled and people stuck at home looking for new entertainment sources, the pandemic has definitely opened eyes to just how many people around the world have a proclivity for gaming, and the influence it plays in fan’s lives. While I’m sure most people would have preferred this realization didn’t come at the expense of almost every other entertainment source being put on hold, nevertheless, the pandemic has changed how people are talking about gaming as a long-term marketing and branding strategy for their brand.


While 2021 still has a huge sense of uncertainty around it from a business perspective, there are a few areas of innovation I think will come to fruition, no matter what the year ends up looking like.


Twitch will become more mainstream as rights holders and sports teams extend fan engagement strategies

Twitch became a valuable platform for sports teams, athletes and rights holders to connect with their fans in a live setting, using talent and IP in a gaming format to increase fan engagement. Whether athletes replayed matches or streamed alongside other content creators, Twitch was able to fill the gap of connectedness for content creators and fans. Even when life returns to ‘normal’, expect Twitch to continue to grow and be utilized to fill the downtime of off-seasons and international breaks as a means to have athletes and team’s IP extend engagement with fans during quiet times. In addition, it’s a way for sports teams to drive community initiatives in areas where their fan base has huge passion. Many players in professional leagues took to launching their own Twitch Channels over the past year, and teams that can capitalize on players who have built a personality and following on Twitch will see the greatest benefits.


Esports events will keep increasing their production values showing the rest of the world how it’s done

Live esports Tournament Organizers are known to push the needle in terms of creating great experiences for both in-person and on the broadcast for fans. However 2020 showed us that esports doesn’t require the players to be physically present for them to compete, and with an industry that has grown up in a digital broadcasting era, the play was able to continue somewhat seamlessly. In some cases, there was even better viewership and broadcast experiences for fans, which made up for the lack of in-arena experiences.


In 2021 many leagues will still be dealing with the aftermath of the pandemic and will need to balance having fans back in arenas with online play. Those with city-based leagues (Overwatch & Call of Duty) will need to adapt to another year where fans can’t have local home events. Interestingly, fan attendance at big esports events has had its share of positive and negative feedback from players. There is the obvious benefit of the crowd and your fans giving you support, but some professional players have been vocal about crowds giving away key information to their opponents even when in soundproof booths, which ultimately ruins their game. Either way, I expect that many of the major Tournament Organizers will create incredibly unique events for fans to consume both by broadcast and at arenas where possible building on the foundation of 2020.


Brands will start to incorporate gaming/esports as part of their marketing mix more broadly than just a side project

2020 underscored the need for a constant online presence and different ways to reach fans, with lockdowns bringing an even larger audience to gaming with people stuck at home. Twitch saw a growth in viewership of 26.2% and more brands got involved despite the heavily depressed market.


Due to this growth, I believe that many brands will get involved with esports in the same way sports teams have for the last few years, however with a more broad strategy and focus rather than just as a side project that checks the box of  ‘We do something in gaming’. In the past, we would come across many CMOs and marketers that were hesitant to spend in gaming because they just didn’t ‘get’ the appeal or understand how their brand might fit in. However, a few broad culture events occurred in 2020 that should have any CMO giving esports and gaming another look.


For example, Travis Scott hosted a concert to promote his new album inside of the game Fortnite to more than 12 million live viewers. While many focused on the astounding numbers, it also showed that gaming has become much more social with many fans logging in to do something entirely different than playing the game. Even more unexpected, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez debuted on Twitch playing Among Us to ‘439,000’ live viewers. This showed us 1) How good she is at games and 2) the power of using gaming when done right, because she is in fact a massive gamer and even described how playing League of Legends helps her deal with difficult colleagues in Congress. Lastly, Man City star Sergio Aguero became one of the fastest-growing Twitch Streamers on the planet with a well-placed call to Lionel Mess live on stream. This proved to brands that not every activation has to be with the hardcore gaming influencers – in fact, your existing staple of ambassadors and talent likely already engage with gaming!  With these significant events occurring in the gaming world, even the most cynical of marketers who maybe didn’t view Gaming as a viable or even ‘mainstream’ way to promote their brand, would be turning their head.


Who knows what 2021 will bring to the world of esports and gaming. Growth is almost definitely going to continue as the last 12 months have shown that the industry can adapt and innovate, fast. It’s the ability to not just spot but create cultural trends, has been one of the main reasons it has dominated the conversation in 2020. But the last few months have shown us that gaming is here to stay, for a much broader audience than I think few ever imagined existed. And those who continue to adapt and learn will see the biggest wins.


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